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New Zealand needs to close its borders. Now!

The sharp decline in Covid-19 cases in China after it came down hard with its lockdown strategy proves beyond doubt that the best defence against the disease as of now is containment by isolation and distancing.

Every case detected in New Zealand so far has been traced to individuals who have travelled abroad. Yet, with cases detected steadily rising, the country is nowhere near announcing a complete ban on non-citizens and non-residents being let in. This is ill advised.

Several arriving passengers who have walked out of the country’s largest international airport in Auckland have told media that they saw either no controls in place or that the controls were lax. This needs to change. Now.

The measures in place right now are not nearly enough. Because it takes just one poorly handled case to spread Covid-19 in the community. The only way to ensure it does not happen is to put a stop to all international arriving flights for a period of time just as several countries have done.

According to the rules in place just now, an international arriving passenger has to merely “prove” or “convince” the official questioning them of their self-isolation plan. They are advised to adhere to it steadfastly and told that there could be spot checks on them to check compliance over the period of self-isolation.

This is simply not good enough.

Consider this scenario. An individual arrives and produces paperwork of their stay for the self-isolation period of 14 days. The official examines the paperwork and approves for the individual to leave the airport after checking they display no symptoms at arrival.

Once this individual is let into the country, several things can go wrong. First, it is possible that their address of intended stay could refuse them entry due to Covid-19 fears. We are not sure if the individual so refused has to report this to the health authorities at the border and advise of them of an alternative address or plan.

Second, it is well known that symptoms take time to manifest. This could happen on any day after arrival up to 14 days, according to information presently available. The onus is on the individual to report themselves to the authority if this indeed happens. What if they are at an unknown address, cannot therefore be policed and they refuse to notify from wherever they may be?

The unknowns, the variables and the plausible scenarios are too many for the government authorities to plan for and have an action plan. And even if they do, resources will be stretched in policing instead of mitigation. A few similar cases falling through the cracks – and we would have a perfectly preventable situation on our hands with far greater consequences than what we would encounter should we close the borders completely for a short period of time.

Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters has made a plea to all Kiwis – 80,000 of them worldwide – to rush back home as soon as they can. This ought to be followed up with an announcement of closing of borders to international passenger traffic immediately (excepting of course returning citizens and residents, who can be monitored far more easily than tourists).

With several people, both Kiwis and tourists, who have travelled internationally before the self-isolation regime began already in the community, containment measures need to be applied strictly and uniformly.

It makes no sense that exceptions are made to the ban on gatherings of people. There is no reason why schools should not be closed while jury trials have been deferred and places of worship have put a stop to people congregating.

As the number of cases being detected slowly climb, albeit with more testing stations coming up everywhere, containment by isolation and social distancing is the only workable measure at least as of now and in the near future.

While there is widespread realisation that this is indeed the case, it beggars belief that the international borders are still open and people are being let in at a huge risk to New Zealanders.

First appeared in the 20 March 2020 edition of The Indian Weekender.