New Zealand attempts record-setting Covid-19 'vaxathon'

AUCKLAND (NYTIMES)- Since New Zealand closed its borders in March 2020, setting the stage for one of the world’s most successful Covid-19 responses, the wide-body jets that once ferried its citizens to every corner of the globe have mostly been redeployed for shipping freight.

And the vast majority of Kiwis have, throughout the pandemic, been as flightless as their eponymous birds.

But on Saturday (Oct 16), some 300 residents of Auckland, New Zealand’s biggest city, boarded an Air New Zealand Boeing 787 jet once again at the city’s international airport.

This time, it was not to take a trip, but to receive a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in the booth of a business class seat. The doses were kept cool with dry ice on the trolleys that typically offer a choice of chicken or beef.

“It’s one of a kind,” said Mr Johan Rickus, 30, as he proffered his left arm for his second dose.

After receiving the vaccine from a healthcare worker, he was ushered back to economy class by a uniformed member of the cabin crew to wait out his 15 minute post-vaccination period in a slightly less cushy seat.

The event was one of dozens of pop-ups held around the country for “Super Saturday”, a single-day vaccination effort organised by New Zealand’s Ministry of Health.

The goal was to break the country’s record for the most doses delivered in 24 hours – previously 93,000.

About 350,000 vaccinations slots were available, which could reach about 8.3 per cent of New Zealand’s eligible population. By 4.30pm, the country had already given out nearly 120,000 doses, with hours yet to go.

For most of the pandemic, New Zealand has successfully pursued a “zero-Covid-19” strategy, with no community transmission of the coronavirus and few restrictions.

But an outbreak of the Delta variant that began in August has proved difficult to quash, prompting a move to contain, rather than eliminate, the virus.

Auckland has been in lockdown for more than eight weeks, while the rest of the country has faced mask and physical distancing requirements for the first time in months.

Entering Saturday, 83 per cent of the population aged 12 and up had received a first dose of the vaccine, and 62 per cent were fully vaccinated.

Unlike its neighbour Australia, New Zealand has not set official vaccination targets for its reopening. Instead, the country is attempting to get as close to full immunisation as possible.

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“New Zealand has been world-leading on keeping down our case numbers, hospitalisations and deaths, as well as delivering a strong economy and low unemployment,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said at a news conference on Tuesday. “I believe we can be world-leading on vaccines too.”

Tens of thousands of people were drawn to vaccination sites across New Zealand by promises of hot rotisserie chicken, live music and random prizes. On the country’s television channels, a flotilla of local celebrities appeared on live “vaxathon” programming, including film-maker Taika Waititi, who called in from Los Angeles.

“Get the vax – I’d like to come home, mainly selfishly,” Mr Waititi said to his fellow New Zealanders. “If we can get as many people vaccinated, we can ease up on the border scenarios, and maybe we can have a bit more of a flow in and out of the country at some stage.”

In some communities, Super Saturday was an opportunity to connect with people who might be harder to reach. A pro-vaccination event entitled “Protecting You and Your Whanau From Covid-19”, using the Maori word for family, was co-hosted by the University of Auckland and the Mongrel Mob, an organised street gang with close ties to the Maori community.

Though they face additional risks from the coronavirus, those among New Zealand’s indigenous Maori population are about 30 per cent less likely to have been vaccinated than the general population, according to Ministry of Health data.

Since April, Manurewa Marae, a Maori meeting house and community centre in South Auckland, has worked at delivering more than 41,000 doses of a vaccine to some of the country’s most vulnerable people, many of whom are Maori.

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Jabs are administered in the wharenui, or meeting house, against intricately carved walls of red, black and ocher, decorated with pictures of loved ones.

“You get that spiritual side from the marae as well,” said Ms Hilda Peters, the marae’s site manager. “You feel it when you go in there, with all our ancestors up on the wall. It’s a beautiful experience.”

On Super Saturday, the marae leadership hoped to vaccinate 500 people, with incentives like one month of free electricity, a “sausage sizzle” barbecue and packaged boxes of food to take home.

After receiving their jabs, people posed for photos under an archway of balloons and a sign that said “Shot!”, a New Zealand expression of congratulations.

“It’s all about trusted voices and building trusting relationships,” said Ms Takutai Moana Kemp, Manurewa Marae’s chief executive officer, as people nearby posed for photos after receiving their jabs.

“If you come to the marae, you’ll have people who look like you, have the same kinds of values and beliefs, and have an understanding about how our people and our community are,” she added.

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