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  • Tracy Sherlock

New Zealand's way forward could be a model for B.C.

Updated: May 15, 2020


New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is earning positive praise for her country's COVID-19 experience. (Photo from Wikicommons.)

Are you looking forward to the day you get to meet your grandmother for tea? Play a game of pickup softball? Send your little ones to school again or reopen your business? If so, B.C.’s top doctor has said that now is the time to start thinking about how those things can be done safely, with social distancing in mind, to prevent transmission of COVID-19. As Dr. Bonnie Henry says every day in her briefings, B.C. is not yet ready to relax restrictions, but expects to be ready in a few weeks. In the meantime, planning how to get back to school, the sports field or the marketplace in a safe way should be a top priority. Anyone wondering what it might look like to reopen British Columbia could look at New Zealand as a possible example. New Zealand is taking tentative steps to reopening, including planning to open schools on Monday (April 27) and starting to allow a little bit of socializing. New Zealand has a similar population (4.9 million) to B.C. (5.01 million) and has had a similar number of people test positive for the virus (1,445 in New Zealand compared to 1,724 in B.C.) New Zealand has had far fewer deaths than B.C., with just 13 compared to our 87 deaths. Of course, New Zealand is an island nation, so they do have a geographic advantage in isolating themselves. They’ve also got an advantage in their leader Jacinda Ardern, 39, who has been called possibly “the most effective leader on the planet” by The Atlantic and is well-known for her empathy and down-to-Earth leadership style. In B.C. we have our own empathetic, capable leader in Dr. Henry, who is trusted and popular. What will the relaxed restrictions look like in New Zealand? The first thing to note is that the restrictions in place now in New Zealand and in B.C. are not exactly the same. But here’s how things are going to change next week. In B.C., we’ve been told to only socialize with members of our household. In New Zealand, the (most excellent) term they use for the grouping of people is a “bubble.” As of next week, the bubbles will be able to expand to include close family members, to bring in caregivers or to support isolated people. But there are caveats. “It’s important to protect your bubble once it’s been extended. Keep your bubble exclusive and only include people where it will keep you and them safe and well,” the planning website says. “If anyone within your bubble feels unwell, they self-isolate from everyone else within your bubble.” This example is useful. It shows that even if social-distancing requirements are relaxed, they won’t be eliminated. People won’t be able to get together with an unlimited number of friends, each on a different day, for example. But they will be able to share a meal with their parents. The bubble still has to be small, it still has to be exclusive, but it doesn’t have to be just your household members. Remember, we’re not there yet, but when we do get there, we’re likely to begin with something similar in B.C. Next week, schools and childcare centres will reopen up to age 10 in New Zealand. Students older than 10 or those in university will continue to learn from home. Henry has already suggested that something like this might happen in B.C., when we’re ready and that different methods may be trialed over the coming weeks, likely in two-week increments. “Education institution closures have profound and enduring impacts on health, educational, economic and social inequities. These need to be monitored and, where possible, mitigated,” a New Zealand schools planning document says. Staggering class times, closing common spaces, splitting up classes, physical distancing, handwashing and frequent cleaning are some of the implementation measures it contemplates. Masks are not required at school, but anyone at high risk or who is ill should stay home, the document says. New Zealand has an Indigenous population, similar to B.C., and they are undergoing a process of reconciliation, which is a priority in the planning documents. It’s a priority I would expect to see in B.C.’s planning process as well. Prolonged school closures disadvantage students who are already disadvantaged the most. They’re also the most likely to not have access to reliable internet or wifi connections. Secondary schools and universities pose more of a challenge because students move around and classes are mixed. Also, online learning is more appropriate for those ages. Where possible, children should remain at home connected to distance learning, the document says. So the reopening may be somewhat of a hybrid model, something British Columbia already has. The children of healthcare workers and first responders are already attending school in B.C., where necessary. Universities will be able to reopen for very specific activities of up to 10 people who do not change classes for things like lab work or trades training, the document says. All of the changes will be monitored for the first two weeks and then evaluated, including with the use of testing by sampling. New Zealand’s relaxation does not include team sports – those are still not allowed. However, activities that are local, that do not involve interacting with other people or touching equipment used by other people are allowed. “If you are an experienced surfer, you can go to your local break. If you’re not experienced, don’t surf,” the guidelines say. Businesses will be able to operate as long as customers can pick up, similar to how things are operating already in B.C. People must continue to work from home if they can. Businesses like hairdressers, house cleaning or gyms will still remain closed in New Zealand, until the country is ready to relax measures even further. Up to 10 people can gather for weddings and funerals, the guidelines say. Schools, workplaces, supermarkets and public transport are not considered gatherings in New Zealand. When B.C. is ready to relax restrictions, we likely won’t follow the same path as New Zealand, but there will surely be similarities. Tracy.sherlock@gmail.com

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