Coronavirus Eliminated in New Zealand Following Government Response
By Julia Conley
Five weeks after launching an aggressive nationwide lockdown to combat the coronavirus pandemic—coupled with one of the most robust economic relief packages of any country—New Zealand's government on Monday announced that the new coronavirus is currently "eliminated" in the nation.
The country's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Monday that while cases are not at zero, new cases have been in the single digits for the past several days—an "incredible" statistic, said Ardern, as other countries face thousands of new cases per day.
"We have done what very few countries have been able to do," Ardern said last week as the country was preparing to move from a Level 4 restrictions to Level 3, allowing some businesses to reopen. "We have stopped a wave of devastation."
One new case was reported Monday, as well as four "probable cases" and one new death.
"We've achieved our goal of elimination... That never meant zero but it does mean we know where our cases are coming from," Director General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said.
As the country reduces restrictions to Level 3, businesses that reopen will be required to maintain physical distancing rules. Schools will reopen with limited capacity, and workers will still be encouraged to work from home if they are able to. Events such as weddings and funerals will only be able to take place with up to 10 people in attendance, and public buildings such as museums, libraries, and gyms will remain shuttered for the time being.
New Zealand has confirmed a total of 1,469 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, since the first case there was detected on February 28.
In New Zealand, home to 4.8 million, the disease has infected about 30 in every 100,000 people and has killed 19 people—fewer than one in every 100,000 people.
The numbers in the island nation contrast sharply with those in the U.S., where nearly one million people have been sickened—nearly 300 in every 100,000—and more than 50,000 people have died.
Ardern has been credited with enforcing a strict lockdown even before the disease had claimed any lives in New Zealand. Two weeks after the first case was reported, the prime minister ordered anyone entering the country to self-quarantine for 14 days. Most businesses shut down on March 23, when there were 102 cases and no deaths, and the country began enforcing Level 4 restrictons—forbidding people to leave home except for outdoor exercise nearby—on March 25.
Ardern's extreme measures were in line with the recommendations of top public health officials, including U.S. National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins, who said last month that the measures most effective at slowing the outbreak would likely be seen as "too drastic" by many.
New Zealand has also been testing the public at one of the highest rates in the world, Ardern said Monday, administering nearly 124,000 tests in recent weeks with the capacity to complete 8,000 tests per day. The U.S. has increased its testing capacity in the past month, but public health experts say the severe lag in confronting the pandemic in the U.S. after the first case was reported there in January has made the disease difficult to contain.
On social media, observers noted the stark contrast between the two countries' approaches, with government watchdog Public Citizen saying the United States' response has been marked by the "unending incompetence" of the Trump administration.
First coronavirus case in New Zealand: February 28 First coronavirus case in the US: January 20 New Zealand respon… https://t.co/pRdWi8p2yt— Public Citizen (@Public Citizen)1587995668.0
Coronavirus eliminated in New Zealand due to quick and decisive action by the Jacinda Ardern government. #COVID19 https://t.co/nKKsAdWQmY— Sara Nelson (@Sara Nelson)1588001351.0
Meanwhile, we have almost more deaths here than American casualties from the Vietnam war. https://t.co/E6ZwR7eDOb— Molly Jong-Fast🏡 (@Molly Jong-Fast🏡)1587988167.0
New Zealand paired its orders for the country to stay at home for five weeks with a major relief package amounting to about 4% of the country's GDP—a far more significant spending plan than other wealthy countries.
The government covered wages for all New Zealanders who had to self-isolate but couldn't work from home or were caring for sick family members. Businesses were also offered subsidies to continue paying employees, and the government doubled its healthcare spending.
Public health agencies were given resources for contact-tracing to determine who ill people could have potentially spread the disease to, while hospitals received support to increase intensive care units.
"This package is one of the largest in the world on a per capita basis," Grant Robertson, New Zealand's finance minister, said in March as the package was announced.
Meanwhile in the U.S., President Donald Trump has largely left it up to states to determine how to approach lockdowns, and several states have begun reopening their economies—even though the testing rate in the U.S. is lower than New Zealand's and thousands of new cases are being reported per day.
"The earlier and more decisively governments acted, the sooner they can responsibly ease their lockdowns," columnist George Monbiot tweeted. "Unlike New Zealand's and South Korea's, our government dithered and delayed. As a result, we're now in a terrible mess."
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
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Kevin T. Smiley
When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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