WELLINGTON • Two years after the pandemic began, New Zealanders are finally facing its reality.
After keeping the virus at bay for so long, Covid-19 is now tearing through the nation's population courtesy of the highly infectious Omicron variant. In the space of two weeks, new case numbers exploded from less than 1,000 a day to more than 22,000.
"Psychologically it's quite a big shock because to date the pandemic has been largely something that's happened to other people," said Professor Michael Baker of Public Health at the University of Otago. "Until recently, the only people I knew who got infected with the virus lived overseas."
New Zealand is one of the pandemic success stories. When Covid-19 first arrived, the government slammed the border shut, imposed one of the toughest lockdowns in the world and eradicated the virus from the community, allowing a quick return to normal. So far, the death toll is just 65.
But the emergence of more infectious strains in the second half of last year - first Delta, then Omicron - proved too much for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's elimination strategy.
Tight border controls, dubbed "Fortress New Zealand", then became a mechanism to slow the spread of the virus, rather than to keep it out, while the government rushed to get people vaccinated.
Today, Omicron is infiltrating daily life in a way New Zealanders have never experienced. Universities across the country are awash with the virus as the new semester starts, and high schools are asking students to study at home as infections rise.
In capital city Wellington, usually bustling streets are almost empty as people either work from home or isolate as they or household members fall ill.
New Zealand currently has one of the highest per capita daily infection rates in the world, according to Johns Hopkins University data. There are officially almost 200,000 active cases - 4 per cent of the population - though the Health Ministry is concerned people may not be reporting positive rapid antigen tests.
The country reported 17,522 new community cases on Sunday, pushing the total to 239,535.
Omicron's spread has rendered border fortifications obsolete and the government is rapidly dismantling them. First to go were the managed isolation facilities - hotels used to hold returning New Zealanders for two weeks to be sure they were not infected before entering the community.
That was to be replaced by a requirement to self-isolate on arrival, but the government quickly scrapped that too, conceding the measure was pointless with the virus running rife.
Now the floodgates are opening. Kiwis in Australia could travel home freely from the end of February, and those in other countries were permitted to enter from last Friday.
Ms Ardern has signalled tourists will be allowed to return much sooner than previously indicated, perhaps shortly after the Omicron outbreak has peaked, which is expected to happen later this month.
More than 95 per cent of people aged 12 and over are fully vaccinated and more than 70 per cent of adults have had a booster shot.
Prof Baker said the fact New Zealand managed to avoid widespread transmission of the virus for so long has been "hugely beneficial to the country".
"It's meant that we've avoided most of the grim consequences," he said.
"By delaying its entry, we've been able to get very high vaccine coverage. I think this is probably about the optimal timing that we could manage."