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Coronavirus

New Zealand kicks off post-pandemic era with weekend of rugby

Successful virus strategy allows for crowd-filled stadiums, then a reality check

New Zealand rugby star Dan Carter trains ahead of the 2020 Super Rugby Aotearoa season, which begins this weekend after the country eradicated COVID-19.   © Getty Images

WELLINGTON -- Thunderous cheers from tens of thousands of New Zealand rugby fans this weekend will herald not only the return of the national obsession but also the defeat of the coronavirus.

"I'm really excited that we'll be able to watch rugby again, I can't wait," said Wellington rugby fan Brendan Wilkes. "It's been a very long three months without any games, so it will be extra special."

Games are scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, with no restrictions on spectators. Stadium visitors will be encouraged to scan QR codes for contact tracing, but it remains to be seen how many actually do so.

The return of sports is just one sign of life reverting to normal in the South Pacific nation of 5 million after the announcement on Monday that all pandemic restrictions would be lifted, upon confirming there were no longer any recorded active COVID-19 cases.

In late March and through most of April, stadiums, streets, shops and offices were empty as New Zealanders obeyed Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's instructions to "stay home and save lives."

New Zealand is one of few countries in the world to eliminate the virus, following 1,154 confirmed infections and 22 deaths. As an island nation distant from the worst affected Northern Hemisphere countries, there was an opportunity during March to devise a plan as the earliest New Zealand cases were being detected.

The strategy of Ardern's coalition government to "go early and go hard" resulted in a four-level alert system being introduced on March 21. Within days, the strictest level 4 alert took effect, forcing almost all New Zealanders to stay home except to exercise or visit supermarkets and pharmacies.

The level 4 alert, imposing among the strongest restrictions in the world, remained in place for a month before progressive relaxations began in late April. Under level 1, introduced Tuesday, life within New Zealand is essentially back to normal. The borders, however, remain closed to all but a few essential workers and returning residents.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Health Minister David Clark announce a hospital investment on June 11.   © Getty Images

Relief was the overwhelming emotion this week among New Zealanders. Ardern gave credit to the "team of 5 million" but many said her communication skills and empathy were crucial in ensuring New Zealanders united behind the lockdown.

She tempered the celebratory mood by warning the coronavirus remains rampant globally. "We will almost certainly see cases here again," Ardern said.

Malcolm Campbell, a health geographer at the University of Canterbury, said there is still a slight possibility of undetected cases remaining in New Zealand as well as new cases entering from overseas.

"This risk will rise again in New Zealand as we gradually increase the numbers of incoming travelers," he said. "It will also rise during the coming (Southern Hemisphere) winter when coronaviruses are more transmissible."

Independent economist Cameron Bagrie said New Zealand has turned a corner and that elimination by mid-June was the most optimistic scenario that could have been considered three months ago.

"The government's crisis management has been exemplary but we need to change direction now," he said. "This is no longer about crisis but about sowing the seeds of recovery."

Rugby players train in Auckland on June 11. Community sport -- including activities with physical contact -- and many aspects of life are returning to normal.   © Getty Images

Finance Minister Grant Robertson announced in May's budget that the government would spend NZ$50 billion ($33 billion) over the next four years to implement a coronavirus recovery package. The central bank plans to buy up to NZ$60 billion of government bonds over 12 months to keep interest rates low and finance the government deficit.

Following the shorter than expected lockdown and emerging signs of a pickup in the domestic economy, economists have been scaling back estimates of likely damage from the pandemic.

BNZ bank economists said as a result of restrictions being lifted they expect economic activity to return to pre-virus levels by the second quarter of 2022 rather than their earlier estimate of the fourth quarter of 2023.

On the downside, thousands of workers have been laid off and unemployment is expected to rise further as the government's wage subsidies end over the next two months. The relief at the initial victory over the pandemic will be followed by a reality check, Bagrie said.

"In some parts of the economy, he said, it's very much business as usual. In others, like tourism, we're going to see carnage."

Tourism is New Zealand's top export industry, accounting for about 10% of GDP. It had been expected to earn NZ$18 billion this year. Tourism revenue fell an estimated 90% in April alone, according to the peak tourism industry organization, Tourism Industry Aotearoa.

The hope is that two-way travel resumes relatively quickly with Australia, where coronavirus infections have also fallen rapidly. This could later be expanded to include Pacific islands and Asian markets such as Taiwan and South Korea, if the virus has been eliminated there.

Bagrie says a strong strategic focus is needed to guide a recovery but so far a broad-based economic plan and detailed stimulus package are lacking.

"Life has changed," he said. "We have to embrace a different future, so let's get on with it."

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