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New Zealand has led the way in controlling the pandemic. An Auckland local reveals the government’s novel approach and the people’s resilience that peeks out of windows in the form of teddy bears. By Eli Orzessek
Unprecedented. If there’s going to be a word for 2020, it’s got to be this. At the time I write this, New Zealand is into its third week of lockdown, and I’m afraid to say the novelty has well and truly worn off. We’ve heard the same phrases echo around the world: ‘the new normal’, ‘unprecedented times’, etc. But it’s really starting to hit home now, as our case numbers decline but everything else seems to be falling apart around us.
The first week of New Zealand’s lockdown felt like a strange national holiday, days at home broken up by the daily media conferences by Dr. Ashley Bloomfield, the Director-General of Health. The mild-mannered bespectacled doctor emits a sense of calmness, even when delivering bad news. He has become one of the iconic figures of this outbreak, with Twitter fan accounts posting memes comparing him to Superman.
At that point, the lockdown was strangely pleasant. It brought about a level of friendliness and community spirit that I had never seen before, but with a pointed edge of suspicion and paranoia. Daily walks were about all there was to do, and rush hour on the roads was replaced by rush hour on the pavements, as the people of Auckland headed out for morning and afternoon strolls.
Everyone seemed to make a point of smiling and saying ‘hello’, despite internally panicking about staying two metres away from one another. People muttered on social media about lockdown breaches they’d seen, and channels were set up for the public to report anyone breaking the rules.
I am lucky enough to enjoy the luxury of space in my ‘bubble’, the term the government uses to refer to the people with whom we’re in quarantine. It’s just my girlfriend and I, with an assortment of pets. Looking back, it is surreal to revisit the weeks before we went into lockdown—and to remember how quickly it unfolded. In the days leading up to March 15, the first anniversary of the Christchurch mosque terror attack, there were discussions on whether the memorial service planned for the day should be cancelled—and it was.
Auckland’s Pasifika Festival, a celebration of the city’s Pacific Island populations, had been cancelled the previous year due to the terror attack. This year, while it was given the go-ahead to proceed initially, it was eventually called off with only 24 hours’ notice. Many stallholders at the festival found themselves with an excess of food, and in a show of community support, people rallied on social media to buy plates of food directly from those affected.
At the time, New Zealand still had just five cases of COVID-19 and the cancellations seemed excessive to some. But less than a week later, the country was in a very different situation. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that for the first time in history, the border was closed to all but New Zealand citizens and permanent residents returning home.
This was huge—unprecedented, you might say. As a popular holiday destination, New Zealand relies on a steady stream of tourists visiting and spending money, and this was now cut off, with major uncertainty as to when it could resume. Since then, our national carrier Air New Zealand has announced major staff cuts and that it will largely operate as a domestic airline in the near future.
As the number of cases continued to grow, Prime Minister Ardern presented a new four-level alert system, placing the country at level two, which meant the disease was contained but the risk of community transmission was growing. By March 23, New Zealand was moved to level three, with 48 hours to prepare for a shift to level four—full lockdown for four weeks. The public was instructed to stay at home, schools and universities were closed, as were businesses not considered ‘essential services’. I had just finished work for the day and walked out into the streets of Auckland’s CBD, where it seemed like there was a steady stream of people heading home already. There was an air of anxiety and uncertainty, but a bit of excitement as well.
But by the second week, virus fatalities were recorded and the lockdown resulted in job losses, despite a massive government support package. In my own industry, the cost has been immense, as iconic New Zealand magazines with years of history have been promptly wound down by overseas owners. Two hundred job losses have been announced at the media organization I previously worked for as a travel writer, and if I had still been there, my job would have most certainly been among them.
The debate continues over whether the lockdown will be worth it—but looking at the situation in Italy, the UK, and the US, I’m happy with how we are handling it. I feel lucky to be living in a part of the world where a virus like this can potentially be contained and controlled. In this past month, I’ve walked around my neighbourhood more than ever before, discovering streets I had been in close proximity to for years but had never explored. I can stroll through a small section of native bush in a nearby park and spot little fantails flitting across the path. People have been putting teddy bears in their windows for kids to spot when they are out walking. While I thought it was a little cheesy at first, finding the bears has also become a highlight for me, and I’ve put out a couple of my own—and almost instantly heard a dad pointing them out to his kids.
Prime Minister Ardern also reassured the younger members of the population that the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy were both essential workers. And although they might not be able to make it to everyone’s ‘bubble’ this year, she asked the public to put up drawings of Easter eggs in their windows as well as bears. And despite the lockdown, the National Aquarium in Napier continues to announce its ‘naughty and nice penguins of the month’. Life goes on, and the little blue penguins continue to squabble over fish.