Coronavirus: New Zealand mentioned as 'global exemplar' in fighting COVID-19 by World Health Organization

New Zealand's success in fighting COVID-19 and suppressing the virus early is being heralded by the world's top health agency.

Aotearoa currently has 21 active cases of the respiratory illness, but all are located in managed isolation or quarantine facilities and it's been about 101 days since the last case of community transmission.

After two months of a hard lockdown earlier this year, Kiwis are currently enjoying freedoms not seen in many other countries. Other than border controls, New Zealand has no domestic restrictions. 

While New Zealanders are being warned not to be complacent and stock up on masks just in case of a new outbreak, the nation's efforts so far continue to be praised internationally.

As the world passes 20 million cases of the virus, the World Health Organization (WHO) said late on Monday night (NZ time) that leaders must step up to take action and citizens need to embrace new measures. 

"Some countries in the Mekong Region, New Zealand, Rwanda, and many island states across the Caribbean and the Pacific were able to suppress the virus early," the WHO's Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.

"New Zealand is seen as a global exemplar and over the weekend Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern celebrated 100 days with no community transmission while stressing the need to remain cautious."

Dr Ghebreyesus said Rwanda - which has recorded 2140 cases but only 7 deaths - was seeing progress due to a similar combination of "strong leadership, universal health coverage, well-supported health works, and clear public health communications". 

"All testing and treatment for COVID-19 is free in Rwanda, so there are no financial barriers to people getting tested," he said.

"And when people test positive for the virus, they’re isolated and health workers then visit every potential contact and test them also."

The Director-General said "getting the basics right" was pivotal. He said countries that have recently had major outbreaks have been able to suppress the virus by "using all the tools at their disposal". 

"Chains of transmission have been broken by [a] combination of rapid case identification, comprehensive contact tracing, adequate clinical care for patients, physical distancing, mask-wearing, regular cleaning of hands and coughing away from others.

"Whether countries or regions have successfully eliminated the virus, suppressed transmission to a low level, or are still in the midst of a major outbreak; now is the time to do it all, invest in the basics of public health and we can save both lives and livelihoods."

Dr Ghebreyesus said nations must take a "risk-based approach" to reopen segments of society. He mentioned schools in what could be a comment aimed at US President Donald Trump, who recently advocated for schools to open again in coronavirus hot spots. 

"We all want to see schools safely reopened but we also need to ensure that students, staff, and faculty are safe. The foundation for this is adequate control of transmission at the community", the Director-General said.

"My message is crystal clear; suppress, suppress, suppress the virus. If we suppress the virus effectively, we can safely open up societies."

Despite New Zealand's success so far, Health Minister Chris Hipkins, Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield, and medical experts have warned Kiwis not to get complacent.

The results of a survey of 800 New Zealanders released last week showed that just under half of those with symptoms didn't get tested for COVID-19, with three quarters saying they didn't think they had the respiratory illness. That concerned some tracking the virus. 

"We only have to look over at Victoria to know things can deteriorate very rapidly. This is a very infectious virus," public health professor Michael Baker said

"We have thousands of people in New Zealand who are returning from overseas in managed isolation and quarantine. Some of them are infected with the virus and some of them may be incubating it. "There is the ever-present risk that we may get an outbreak in New Zealand any day.

"We can't be complacent at all. We have not sealed ourselves off from the rest of the world. 

"The situation in Victoria could be us today or tomorrow," said Prof Baker.