On Monday, New Zealand registered zero new cases of COVID-19. It was the first day the country had reported no new confirmed cases since it went into lockdown in March. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern declared that there was no undetected community transmission in the country and that health officials knew where all new cases (including one reported on Tuesday) were coming from—meaning the virus has, for now, been contained.
The small country has been praised by the international community for its response to the pandemic. New Zealand started a strict lockdown early, ramped up production of coronavirus tests, and closed its borders to anyone except for out-of-country citizens returning home.
It’s also been praised for the efficacy and clarity of its communication with the public. The country has divided its measures into four alert levels, each defining a certain phase of the pandemic. The system allows the country to be nimble: Different areas can have different alert levels, and leaders can adjust to stricter or looser levels as outbreaks occur. But the country’s communication also depended on a concept it’s termed the “bubble.”
The basic idea behind the bubble is to conceive of your socializing not as a matter of the individual but as that of a self-contained household: If you visit the home of a friend, for example, you aren’t the only one put at risk. Your roommates or family members you’re living with, by extension, have been exposed to the risk. Your bubble is this group of people: those you live with and those you closely or regularly interact with.
During the strictest phase of lockdown, most New Zealanders’ bubbles were synonymous with their households. But those living alone could also visit and socialize with another person or couple isolating in the same neighborhood or retirement community as long as neither party interacted with anyone else. This was considered a particularly valuable measure for older people, who are at risk of loneliness that affects mental and physical health. What makes the bubble idea an effective communication tool is not just its simplicity but also its ability to morph along with changing regulations. As New Zealand now moves into a lighter stage of restrictions, the concept of the bubble is adjusting with it.
Under the more relaxed alert Level 3, New Zealand authorities are allowing bubbles to slowly open. In April, Ardern warned that citizens needed to “keep it exclusive, though, and keep it small.” Under the current restrictions, people can add one or two more people to their bubble. Those additions must be local, but for many who haven’t seen their parents, grandparents, siblings, or romantic partners in more than four weeks, the new standards allowed for a long-awaited reunion. Others can use the new rules to look after isolated neighbors, get fuller assistance from a caretaker, arrange to have a relative take care of their child as they return to work, or just reach out to a lonely friend.
This isn’t the only version of the “bubble” concept being floated. According to a study from sociologists at the University of Oxford and University of Zurich, the bubble (or as the paper described it, a “ ‘repeated contact’ strategy”), in theory, is a great option for countries moving forward as we come out of this pandemic. Tested against other methods of pruning social networks (such as only staying within your neighborhood or only interacting with family and close friends), the intentional, closed-circuit grouping of people seemed to be the most effective at limiting the virus’s spread.
Per Block, one of the study’s authors, said it’s important to take a common-sense approach that factors in the reality of human behavior. A 10-person bubble could work just as well as New Zealand’s conservative version, he said, but only if those people live otherwise fully isolated lives. Adding nine people to your network, rather than one or two, increases the chances of someone being contaminated at the store or of someone breaking the agreement and damaging the bubble’s integrity. “The success and failure of all this bubble concept depends not only on my actions but also everybody else,” he said. “It’s really a question of solidarity.”
Then there are structural issues, beyond individual choice. “Is it realistic that we can create these small, very cohesive groups that really have no contact to the outside world?” Block said. “That’s a question that, I think, depends on local policy implementations.” A full reopening of the economy and a complete return to work—something that some Americans are agitating for—would make the bubble a fairly pointless measure.
In the U.S., roughly half of all states are starting to reopen “in some meaningful way,” according to the New York Times, even as public health experts warn these reopenings could cause more spikes in cases, and even as some areas continue to see a growth in cases. There is little in the way of coherent national guidelines: We have mostly missed our opportunity to roll out a secure, methodical bubble approach. But that doesn’t mean some version of it, and the underlying principles, won’t still be useful. People can stay in their neighborhoods to try to slow the virus’s geographic spread; schools can keep the same students together in classes, whenever possible; individuals can try to socialize among a circle of friends and family, without branching out too much. As for the bubble approach as a larger strategy, Block said places still in the throes of the pandemic are likely not ready for it: “I think we can say New Zealand is probably safe to do it. New York is probably not safe to do it.” The right moment would need to be decided by authorities and epidemiologists.
New Zealand appears to have prepared its citizens for the best possible version of the bubble system, but it’s not fully clear how the rules around the bubble concept will change as the country continues to reopen. According to the New Zealand health ministry, people should still “try to maintain a small, exclusive bubble” under Level 2 and keep a record of their interactions with other people in order to do contact tracing. This may allow the country to ease the public out of quarantine. By laying the groundwork now, New Zealand may have found a way to test the advisability of “reopening” society with a mechanism for monitoring and adjusting the process as it goes.
In the meantime, New Zealand is considering extending the bubble concept to the international level by creating something called a “travel bubble” with Australia. The idea is that, to boost the sputtering but economically crucial tourism industry, Australia and New Zealand will allow free travel between their two countries, which have a close relationship and which have both done a decent job of limiting the pandemic’s spread. Australia has been less strict in its measures than its neighbor, but its number of new cases has continued to drop over the past month—with 26 new cases on Monday and only 15 the day before. As of now, both countries’ borders are closed to noncitizens. But if both countries see continued success with the pandemic and believe in their ability to contact-trace, they might, essentially, combine their bubbles.
But New Zealand citizens aren’t perfect examples of compliance, either. In a recent press conference, Ardern warned that the public was “jeopardizing” its success by growing complacent under the new rules. New Zealand police said that they had reprimanded more than 500 people for breaching the rules in the first week of the Level 3. “Any gains you’ve seen at the moment are actually from the lockdown period,” she said. She warned that she would not make a decision about a further easing of restrictions until she saw the effects of the more relaxed rules. “We need to not get ahead of ourselves,” she said. “Stick to our bubble and finish what we started.”