Coronavirus: Life in NZ could be 'back to normal' by Christmas - expert

Aside from international tourism, life in New Zealand could be largely back to normal by Christmas according to one of the country's top infectious disease experts. 

But that's only because we moved to shut the borders "in the nick of time", University of Otago epidemiologist Michael Baker told Newshub Nation on Saturday.

This allowed us to pursue a strategy of elimination, rather than suppression, and may lead to an opening of the border to other countries which have stamped out COVID-19 - such as Australia.

"Basically, once the virus is eliminated in New Zealand and Australia and other countries in Asia, we can look at linking up with those countries," he told host Simon Shepherd.

"I mean, obviously, it's very cautious. You've got to have agreement on what elimination looks like. You've got to have very good systems in place. Think of all those layers of precautions. But I think we're getting there and I think there's a lot of agreement between Australia and New Zealand about this."

The prospect of a trans-Tasman bubble is one officials on both sides of the Tasman are looking at, with Australia and New Zealand rare among 'Western' nations for having stopped widespread community transmission.

Asian countries with experience of the SARS virus in the early 2000s and a culture of hygiene and public mask-wearing have generally done much better than Western nations, with the biggest death tolls in the US, UK, Italy, France and Spain, despite the virus originating in China.

"The whole response to COVID-19 has displayed a great deal of Western arrogance because the Asian countries are the most successful in containing this pandemic," said Prof Baker.

"And the West has really failed I think, very badly, with a few exceptions. And fortunately, New Zealand and Australia took a different path. And I think they have they're on track for elimination. So I think we did the right thing."

While COVID-19 will continue to plague other nations for year or two, Prof Baker says, New Zealand might be back to normal by the end of 2020 - relatively speaking.

"We could be having reasonable volumes of travel to Australia and other countries that have almost the virus and also to the Pacific.

"The problems are, of course, that international tourism will still be in the doldrums for a long time. And actually, New Zealand has no control over that."

There isn't expected to be a vaccine until next year, if at all, despite a massive global effort to find one. 

Despite the successes to date - with the number of new cases reported each day able to be counted on one hand - Prof Baker believes the virus is still out there, waiting to infect new victims, so we can't let up our guard.

Some have suggested the strict lockdown New Zealand enacted was unnecessary, with Australia achieving similar results without going quite so far. Prof Baker says Australia's ability to get it under control is more down to their level of resourcing.

"Australia started with a lot more resources. New Zealand really had to do a huge catch-up because we've really underinvested in our public health infrastructure for decades. And this is really, I think, just shown the problem if you don't have those systems in place.

"I mean, when we relook at this - and I think we need to put that off until we're through this acute phase - we need to have prevention and preparedness right at the centre of our system. And this is just another example. 

"We've had other other warnings that our system was not really ready for this event. So I think that's a huge message from this."

Even then, he says Australia also acted just in time - unlike places such as Taiwan, which is right next to mainland China and ahs only suffered 440 confirmed cases and six deaths. 

"I think this is a real tribute to our Ministry of Health and the public health services around New Zealand that have gone from a very low base to having a system that could be world-class with just a few more tweaks. But I think we're basically there."

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