By Praveen Menon
New Zealand’s 5 million residents were subjected to one of the strictest lockdowns in the world in response to the coronavirus pandemic, with Ardern shutting down much of the country from March 26.
Ardern’s government now faces the challenge of restarting the $200 billion trade and tourism dependent economy as it heads into national elections in September.
Treasury has estimated jobless rates will jump to 13 percent even if the lockdown is quickly lifted, and GDP could decline by as much as one-third.
Westpac Bank said on Tuesday that NZ$20 billion ($12 billion) of stimulus being injected by the government to counter the coronavirus effects may not be enough. It forecast annual GDP to fall 6.3 percent in 2020, and to rebound by only 4.3 percent in 2021.
The Reserve Bank of New Zealand (RBNZ) has cut interest rates by 75 basis points and started a quantitative easing program, buying up to NZ$30 billion worth of government bonds.
The RBNZ would likely double that programme at its May monetary policy meeting, Westpac said, and reduce the official cash rate to -0.5 percent in November.
Ardern said the strict shutdown measures had paid off. New Zealand has reported just 1,124 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 19 deaths, one of the lowest tallies in the world. The community transmission rate was 0.4 percent.
“We can say with confidence that we do not have community transmission in New Zealand. The trick now is to maintain that,” Ardern told Radio New Zealand on Tuesday.
New Zealand’s benchmark S&P/NZX 50 index was up 2.4 percent in early trade on Tuesday as the country eased out of lockdown. The New Zealand dollar also found support.
There was growing debate among officials and academics about the terminology that should be used for New Zealand’s status in relation to the coronavirus spread, with some saying “elimination” would not allow for recurrent small numbers of cases.
“When I talk about elimination it does not mean zero cases, it means zero tolerance for cases,” Ardern said. “The idea of COVID being completely gone, that is eradication – so there are important differences there.”
New Zealand is maintaining several social distancing policies despite the step down in the alert level with malls pubs, hairdressers and other public shopping areas to stay shut for at least another two weeks.
Siouxsie Wiles, a microbiologist and associate professor at the University of Auckland, was among those warning the virus could return if lockdown measures were eased too quickly.
“If we turn our backs for a minute, we’ll be on the path to a serious outbreak once again. And we’ve seen this happen overseas,” Wiles wrote in a column on the online news site The Spinoff.
By Praveen Menon