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What does the coronavirus pandemic mean for New Zealanders?

Details on the pandemic classification and the current coronavirus situation in New Zealand.

On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared a pandemic for the coronavirus known as COVID-19.

So, what does “pandemic” mean? The WHO has previously defined a pandemic as “the worldwide spread of a new disease”, in relation to the previous swine flu (H1N1) pandemic in 2009-10.

The COVID-19 outbreak is the first pandemic caused by a coronavirus. But the WHO director-general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, also said that this classification “does not change WHO’s assessment of the threat posed by this virus”.

“It doesn’t change what WHO is doing, and it doesn’t change what countries should do,” he said in a media briefing on 11 March 2020. The WHO, along with governments around the world, have already put plans in place to help protect people. Businesses are also releasing updated policies and approaches to the outbreak.

What is the situation in New Zealand?

Prior to COVID-19 being classed as a pandemic by the WHO, and before there were any known cases in New Zealand, the Ministry of Health outlined a NZ Pandemic Strategy on 25 February. A contributing factor to this was that COVID-19 had been known as a worldwide threat since January 2020.

On 15 March, the government introduced a strict new travel policy that anyone coming into New Zealand (apart from the Pacific Islands) would have to self isolate for 14 days. To help minimise the spread of COVID-19, public events and gatherings of over 500 people were also cancelled.

As more cases were confirmed in New Zealand, further restrictions were put in place. On 19 March the Government announced that all indoor gatherings of 100 people or more were to be cancelled. Those that don’t comply would face a $4,000 fine or a jail sentence. The same day, the New Zealand border was closed to non-residents to stop the spread of COVID-19.

New Zealand citizens and residents have been advised not to travel overseas until further notice.


  • On 21 March, in a public address to the nation, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced the COVID-19 four-level alert system. This system indicates a series of measures at each level that New Zealanders need to take to reduce the spread of coronavirus.
  • On 23 March, New Zealanders were informed that the country would be moving from Alert Level 2 to Alert Level 3 immediately, with a shift to Alert Level 4 by midnight 25 March 2020 for a minimum of four weeks.
  • On 20 April, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that Alert Level 4 was to be extended until 11:59 pm on 27 April.
  • As of 11:59 pm on 27 April, the country moved into Alert Level 3 for at least two weeks, which meant that some people could return to work if physical distancing was exercised. A decision on whether the time at Alert Level 3 was to be extended or if New Zealand will move down to Alert Level 2 was to be made on 11 May 2020.
  • On 14 May, New Zealand moved to level 2, albeit a staggered move. Retail spaces, food establishments and other public spaces reopened, with physical distancing and strict hygiene measures in place. The public was allowed to move around New Zealand but was advised to space themselves out especially on public transport. Plus, health services restarted. On 18 May, all children and young people could return to school and early learning. Then on 21 May, bars reopened.
  • Then from 11:59 on Monday 8 June, it was announced that New Zealand would move to Covid-19 Alert Level 1, as we had no active cases, and it was 40 days since the last case of community transmission, (at that time).

While previously anyone returning to New Zealand was asked to self-isolate, all people arriving into the country must now go into quarantine in a managed facility.

How is a pandemic different from an epidemic?

A pandemic refers to the worldwide spread of a disease, while an epidemic is an infectious disease outbreak that is typically within one country or geographic area. In basic terms, an epidemic is more isolated, while a pandemic occurs on a global scale.

In either case, the impact can be serious for those affected. However, as the NZ Ministry of Health has noted in regards to the coronavirus:

With continued vigilance, the chance of widespread community outbreak is expected to remain low.

How to stay safe during the coronavirus outbreak

The WHO has outlined a number of recommendations to help protect yourself and others, including:

  • Wash your hands often. Washing your hands thoroughly with soap and water helps kill the virus. If you don’t have access to soap and water, use an alcohol-based hand rub or hand sanitiser.
  • Avoid touching your face. Our hands touch many different surfaces, which means they could pick up the virus from an exposed surface. If that happens, touching your eyes, nose or mouth could increase the risk of the virus entering your body.
  • Practice social distancing. Where possible, keep at least a 2-metre distance between you and anyone who is not in your bubble.
  • Cough and sneeze into your elbow or a tissue. This practice helps stop small droplets from spraying on people or surfaces. If you use a tissue, remember to put it in a bin and wash your hands as soon as possible.
  • Wear a face-covering while in public. While at Alert Level 3, The New Zealand Government strongly advises the public to wear a face-covering. At Alert Level 2, if you can’t maintain social distancing, for example, on public transport, you are also advised to wear a face-covering.
  • Seek medical care if you have a fever, cough or difficulty breathing. Stay home and call the dedicated COVID-19 Healthline (for free) on 0800 358 5453 (or +64 9 358 5453 for international SIMs) or your doctor immediately.
  • Stay informed. Check the New Zealand Ministry of Health website or other official sources, rather than relying on news or social media. Your workplace, schools, gyms and other public places you frequent may also have specific guidelines in regards to COVID-19.

For further details, visit the World Health Organisation website.

How is the pandemic affecting other areas of life?

Beyond health concerns, some of the biggest impacts related to the coronavirus include:

  • Travel and travel insurance

    With New Zealanders now advised against overseas travel, the cancellation of flights, border restrictions around the world and the country essentially in lockdown, many Kiwis need to cancel upcoming travel plans. You may be able to make changes to your dates, get a refund or receive a credit for a future booking, as many travel companies have updated their policies in light of the coronavirus outbreak. It’s also worth checking out whether you’re covered by travel insurance, as most insurers won’t cover you for a known event.

  • Cancelled events

    Already, a number of major events have been cancelled, and even the Olympic Games have been postponed until 2021. You can read about the list of sports events that have been cancelled, relocated or postponed. Check the Ministry of Health website for the latest alerts and advice.

  • Economic impact

    With international trade restrictions and global concern around the coronavirus pandemic, the economy has taken a huge hit – both in New Zealand and overseas. To help manage this, the government introduced a $12.1 billion stimulus package to help businesses and individuals impacted by COVID-19. After the announcement on 23 March 2020 that New Zealand would move to Alert Level 4, an updated scheme was outlined that extends eligibility for wage subsidies to all businesses, the self-employed and contractors. Further support measures for businesses were announced on 15 April 2020.

    Financial help is also available for those affected through banks, Work and Income and IRD.

  • Investments and superannuation

    While there are many contributing factors, it is worth noting that the coronavirus outbreak has been a major influence on the latest stock market crash. If you have investments, this is something to consider carefully before deciding what to do. It is also worth looking at the potential effect it could have on your superannuation – although there shouldn’t be too much of an impact in the long term for a well-diversified portfolio.

  • Panic buying

    Fear and uncertainty have driven many people to stockpile toilet paper and other everyday items. This type of panic buying can put certain groups of people at a disadvantage and lead to stock problems or higher prices. Supermarkets have now put limits on how many items you can purchase at one time, advising people to only buy what they need. The Prime Minister and major supermarkets are reminding customers that there is not a supply problem in New Zealand. If you see empty shelves in your local supermarket, it’s only because the staff have been unable to restock just yet. Remember: if you need toilet paper and can’t find any in a shop, you could also try looking online.

As this situation is being updated frequently, many other changes could occur. While there are lots of unknowns, the WHO has said the situation could improve if countries act now.

“We cannot say this loudly enough, or clearly enough, or often enough: all countries can still change the course of this pandemic,” Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in his media briefing on 11 March 2020.

“If countries detect, test, treat, isolate, trace, and mobilize their people in the response, those with a handful of cases can prevent those cases becoming clusters, and those clusters becoming community transmission. Even those countries with community transmission or large clusters can turn the tide on this virus.”

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