New Zealand now has its first case of coronavirus. What does it mean for the country?

What is coronavirus?

2019-nCoV is a worrying new addition to a large and diverse family of viruses, ranging from the common cold to the notorious acute respiratory syndrome – better known as Sars.

Its symptoms - fever, coughing and difficulty breathing - are similar to a range of other illnesses such as influenza, but in severe cases, it can cause pneumonia affecting both lungs, kidney failure and death.

Coronaviruses are zoonotic, meaning they are transmitted between animals and people, and scientists suspect it came from bats – if not immediately, then in the recent past.

Advertisement

Chinese officials have confirmed the virus first jumped from animals to humans inside the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in the heart of Wuhan, where the first case was reported on December 1.

There have been cases of 2019-nCoV reported in some other Chinese provinces and countries – and some of these cases have no history of travel to Wuhan.

There's now evidence that 2019-nCoV can spread from person to person in the community.

Scientists report current fatality rates at an estimated 2 per cent of cases, which was more than in 2009's swine flu pandemic, but less than Sars (10 per cent) and Mers (40 per cent).

How far has it spread?

As of today, there were at least 83,386 cases were confirmed in 42 countries and territories - including 4,562 cases outside of mainland China.

At least 2,858 people have died – the vast bulk of them in China, along with 26 deaths in Iran and 17 deaths in Italy, where it's been spreading through the north of the country.

Besides China, countries with the most confirmed cases include South Korea (2,022), Italy (655), Japan (214), Iran (270), Singapore (93) and Hong Kong (93).

How has this affected travel and immigration?

Today, the Government has announced a raft of new measures to combat the spread of the Coronavirus, including new travel restrictions from Iran.

Advertisement

This decision will not allow any exemptions for overseas students from China to enter New Zealand, say Health Minister David Clark.

The Government will also bolster the health presence at international airports.

"The Government's priority continues to be the health and safety of New Zealanders."

He said the Government's pandemic plan is in place to keep the deadly virus outside of New Zealand.

"These enhanced travel restrictions and an increased border presence add to our existing actions to limit the risk of it entering the country," Clark said in a statement this afternoon.

"The situation in Iran is obviously concerning. There is ongoing spread of the disease there and a large degree of uncertainty about the scale of the outbreak and the ability to contain it."

Clark said based on the medical and scientific advice the Government has received, Ministers have put in place further temporary travel restrictions covering incoming travellers from Iran.

"This means people will not be able to travel from Iran to New Zealand and anyone who has been in Iran in the last 14 days will need to self-isolate.

"This is a sensible precaution. Many airlines have already cancelled flights from Iran."

New Zealand citizens and permanent residents will still be allowed to return home, he said, but they will be told to self-isolate for 14 days.

These restrictions will come into force immediately and will initially apply until midnight, March 3.

After that, they will be reassessed every 48 hours – the same process the Government has used with the China travel ban.

Immigration to New Zealand has meanwhile taken a major hit: one consultant, Katy Armstrong, reported a backlog in Beijing of around 13,400 that were going to have to be redistributed.

Air New Zealand has warned its earnings could be hit by up to $75m, and the airline has also temporarily suspended its services to Seoul until June.

Last week Auckland International Airport said coronavirus could hit its full-year profit by as much as $10m, amid a dramatic drop in visitor numbers.

In February last year, around 50,000 Chinese visitors arrived in New Zealand – traffic that had now virtually vanished.

The outbreak has driven turmoil across the world, locking down entire cities, ports and airports across Asia, and slowing global trade.

Smaller businesses will be hard hit by the coronavirus crisis. Photo / Getty Images
Smaller businesses will be hard hit by the coronavirus crisis. Photo / Getty Images

There was speculation that organisers of June's 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo may be forced to cancel the event.

Will it become a pandemic?

"That's what it's looking like at the moment," University of Auckland vaccinologist Dr Helen Petousis-Harris said.

She said those outbreaks in Italy and Iran were still being considered epidemics and the crisis would become a pandemic – meaning "all of the people" – as it affected more countries with sustained transmission.

The last sizeable event here was the 2009 swine flu pandemic, in which 19 people were killed and 3,175 cases were confirmed.

New Zealand has had an Influenza Pandemic action plan since 2006, and this was updated in 2017 to reflect new legislation and population calculations.

The Ministry of Health formally described pandemics as the spread of a novel type of virus, which may cause "unusually high morbidity and mortality for an extended period".

Even in developed countries like New Zealand, pandemics posed big threats as most people were immunologically naive to the novel virus, and therefore susceptible to infection.

Across the globe, the pandemic threat has spooked global markets and hit business confidence.

Amid a stockmarket downturn in Wall Street this week, the Dow Jones and S&P 500 posted their sharpest daily declines since 2018.

Kiwi investors lost an estimated $1.5b, as they joined others around the world in aggressively selling off shares, amid fear the virus was becoming a pandemic.

By one estimate, a pandemic could ultimately cost the global economy more than $1 trillion.

What will it mean for New Zealand business?

Retailers were facing lengthy waits for stock as parcels and shipments piled up in China amid air freight bans, posing the risk of operations coming to a standstill.

Exporters and importers largely dependent on the Chinese market were copping the worst impacts, and hundreds of millions of dollars in earnings would be lost from the value of the New Zealand economy this quarter, economists have reported.

Forecasts released by the NZ Institute of Economic Research suggested New Zealand would see no GDP growth this quarter, with the outbreak combining with the drought to create a "perfect storm".

Auckland International Airport staff advise visitors arriving into the country about preventive health measures. Photo / Supplied
Auckland International Airport staff advise visitors arriving into the country about preventive health measures. Photo / Supplied

The NZIER was now expecting average annual GDP growth of just 1.9 per for 2020 - that compared with 2.6 per cent growth it had pencilled in for the year to March 2020 in its last quarterly prediction.

"Exporters are expected to bear the brunt of the effects, and we expect activity will be flat in the March quarter," NZIER principal economist Christina Leung said.

Normally, supply concerns about the effects of the drought on milk production would have pushed up global dairy prices, buffering farmgate reports, but that would be offset by reduced demand as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.

Although there would be a pickup in GDP growth through the rest of the year the effects would linger, even if the disruption was largely contained in the first half of the year.

Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, households had been feeling more optimistic as the housing market picked up and business confidence was recovering.

What will it mean for the election?

The crisis is being widely seen as an election year test for the coalition Government, which is front-footing its spread to New Zealand with a package to protect the economy.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson said an economic advisory group, chaired by the Treasury, was looking at the potential impacts of coronavirus on the New Zealand economy.

Three scenarios being considered included an expected shock to global demand that would see a drop in New Zealand exports in the first half of 2020, returning to normal in the second half of the year; a longer-lasting shock to the domestic economy; and a global recession.

Robertson stressed that the last two scenarios were not predicted, but as a precaution he had directed Treasury to work on how to deal with them - including the possibility of a one-off injection into the economy.

He said the Government has been proactive in trying to offset the dip in the economy, including an $11m package to boost the tourism sector.

Cabinet has also asked officials to look at moving struggling forestry workers into jobs with the Department of Conservation, which could include track clearance or eradicating wilding pines.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern this week announced New Zealand would be extending its ban of direct flights from mainland China. Photo / NZ Herald
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern this week announced New Zealand would be extending its ban of direct flights from mainland China. Photo / NZ Herald

That came alongside a $3 million dollar fund has been established to combat Covid-19 on the clinical frontline, after public health experts compelled the Government to ramp up preparations.

National leader Simon Bridges has attacked the Government, arguing its efforts have come too little, too late.

Over recent weeks, he's made criticisms over a lack of guidance for schools and tertiary institutions, saying National MPs had been inundated with questions from the public about the coronavirus and what would happen if it reached New Zealand.

So what will happen?

Public health units, primary care and hospitals have been getting prepared, and testing for the new coronavirus has already been established in several diagnostic laboratories.

But despite assurances from authorities that New Zealand was well placed to deal with an outbreak here, it posed a significant impact to the health system – especially if it hit during the normally busy flu season.

The transmissibility of Covid-19 is similar to influenza, but much less than measles – and Auckland University microbiologist Professor Siouxsie Wiles said our much smaller population density had to be considered when comparing spread rates with China.

"The way it may play out in New Zealand is some groups may be more vulnerable than others."

According to the World Health Organisation, older persons and persons with pre-existing medical conditions like high blood pressure and heart disease appeared to develop serious illness more often than others.

"There are now several countries where it is clearly transmitting in the community and they don't have a very good handle on it yet," Wiles said.

"The thinking we need to move into is, if it came here, how would you behave, or prepare for it?", adding that families could consider some practical steps, but that there was no need "to start panic-buying".

Petousis-Harris said it had already been demonstrated the spread of 2019-nCoV could be limited if basic isolation measures were put in place.

"It's about being prepared and taking the appropriate actions – and that even includes good hygiene practices."

The Ministry of Health's director of public health, Dr Caroline McElnay, urged people to phone ahead to their GP practice if they were concerned they might have the virus.

"If you have recently returned from a country or region internationally with a recent increase in cases and have a fever, difficulty breathing or a cough it's important you ring Healthline's dedicated Covid-19 number first or ring your General Practice before making a visit and potentially putting others at risk."