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Zero-covid strategies are being ditched, but they were the best option

Several countries are now abandoning their goal of reducing the coronavirus’s spread as much as possible, but the evidence shows this was the best route to have taken, says Michael Marshall

Health | Comment 30 March 2022

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Michelle D’urbano

IT HAS been two years since the World Health Organization declared covid-19 a pandemic, and governments are still changing tack. One of the biggest shifts has been the abandonment of the “zero covid” strategy by countries like New Zealand and Vietnam, which are opening up and allowing the virus to spread.

As a result, it is tempting to think the approach was a mistake and that the strategy of nations like the UK has won out. But that is nonsense. Countries that followed the zero-covid playbook have done better on every measure, from death rates to economic growth. If more nations had implemented this approach, humanity would be in a better place. When the next pandemic emerges, governments should consider trying to eliminate it using zero-covid methods.

There is no single definition of a zero-covid strategy, but it generally means reducing the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus as much as possible. This typically entails a rapid lockdown once the virus is detected in the community, followed by reopening once cases have fallen, combined with a robust system for testing, tracing chains of infection and supporting those who need to self-isolate.

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The most obvious benefit is that far fewer people die. As of 18 March, New Zealand had seen 151 confirmed deaths from covid-19, or 0.003 per cent of its population – even though the virus repeatedly snuck into the country. In contrast, more than 164,000 people are confirmed to have died in the UK, which is 0.24 per cent of the population.

Zero-covid policies also cause less economic harm. When the virus is barely present, people feel confident going out, so the economy can reopen more fully. There is an economic cost to the initial lockdown, but many nations that allowed the virus to spread have also had lockdowns to save their health systems and so paid the same costs – and their lockdowns were often longer. A 2021 study found there was greater economic growth in zero-covid countries than in those that let the virus spread. The one big downside is that maintaining border controls hurt trade and tourism. But overall, zero-covid nations did better economically.

Although zero covid was a successful strategy for countries like New Zealand, they are now abandoning it. A key factor has been the evolution of the virus. The delta variant was far more transmissible than the original virus, and the newer omicron variant is more transmissible still. These new variants can only be halted by truly draconian measures, so governments that previously banked on elimination have been forced to let the virus in.

If the target of zero covid is now being ditched, does that mean it was a failure? A crude answer would be: only if you think saving lives and preserving economic growth constitutes a misstep.

Let’s go further. Consider what would have happened if, in early 2020, every country able to had adopted a zero-covid policy. It is incontestable that the global death count would be far lower, fewer people would have long covid and the economic damage would have been reduced. The virus would still be spreading, but slowly, and rising rates of vaccination would control it further. Crucially, omicron probably wouldn’t have had the chance to evolve.

At the start of the pandemic, governments like the UK’s asserted that eliminating the virus was utterly impractical and so it was necessary to let it pass through the population in a “controlled” manner. Two years on, we know that was wrong.

When the next pandemic emerges – as it will – governments should remember zero covid, and work together to eliminate the new threat if they feasibly can. Coordinated international action is hard, but we must learn to do it.

Michael Marshall is a science writer in Devon, UK, and author of The Genesis Quest

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