By the time they locked down Italy, it seemed like it was already too late. Hundreds of people there had died of Covid-19 , with thousands infected. Over the next two weeks, the death toll soared. In New Zealand, we we have oddly been in the opposite position: no one has died from the virus. Seven people are in hospital but they’re not in intensive care or on ventilators. There are more than 280 people confirmed to have the disease.
Yet this country has begun at least four weeks of some of the strictest restrictions anywhere in the world to fight Covid-19, clamping down on most movement, association and – to the chagrin of some – shopping, in the hope that a tragedy like the one unfolding in Italy and elsewhere can be avoided.
There wasn’t time to finesse plans – to ensure everything was perfect – before the rules came into effect, Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister, told us on Wednesday. We were just going to essentially give it a punt. It’s the kind of scenario in which New Zealanders tend to perform best.
In the capital, Wellington, where I live, during the hours before the restrictions came into force, the sky was blue and the breeze gentle. We had dinner as usual (takeaways – because who knows when we’ll next have those?). Children played on a driveway up the street. Only the teeth-clenching sound of an alert blaring from our phones thanks to Civil Defence officials, reminding us of the impending lockdown – and providing a hefty shot of adrenaline to anyone who wasn’t already on edge – reiterated what was about to happen.
It was faintly surreal to prepare to hunker down without having seen the enemy yet. Most New Zealanders don’t have Covid-19.Most New Zealanders don’t know anyone who has Covid-19. They don’t know anyone who knows anyone who has Covid-19
For most of us the spread of the virus so far had been a matter of inconvenience. Life was close to normal. At the weekend, I was briefly stymied to learn I could not take the kids to the museum, so we took them on a bush walk instead. We still went to swimming lessons, a cafe for brunch. We took precautions, but when we ambled into supermarkets for late-night cheese purchases, queues were not long and the essentials (cheese) were still available.
In other nations the dismantling of public life did not come as a surprise when it happened – things felt bad already in many cases. But for New Zealand in peacetime it felt downright bizarre.
On Wednesday night, people out walking – the single approved outdoor pastime, beyond shopping for groceries and seeking medical help – took exaggerated arcs on the footpath to avoid each other, and near-empty buses sped past like limousines ferrying just one or two people each.
At first I wondered if life would change for me after the new measures began. I am an introvert and long walks are already my favourite hobby. I constantly promise to see my friends and then never actually see them. It’s been years since I darkened the doors of a nightclub. And unlike my husband, who could not do his job from home on Monday and sat on the couch eating creme eggs, which he is allergic to, I have worked at our house for four years and am used to the mental pitfalls.
But then I think about dinner out for my birthday next week, getting a coffee at the corner cafe, the playgrounds, the pools, board games with friends, seeing their babies, the library, getting ice creams with the kids. I thought I was a homebody but I’d bargained without all of these little measures that we spool out through our day or week or month to feel and be part of things.
When I was involved in covering the Christchurch terrorist attack last March, I wondered if our relaxed way of life would change as a result of what had happened. And for a tiny while, it seemed tohere was a tension in the streets, armed police everywhere. But eventually life just sort of went back to normal, at least in public. New Zealanders pride themselves on that, that nothing – no matter what – changes the “she’ll be right” way in which they’ve become accustomed to living.
But Covid-19 has changed that, and very suddenly. Still, the hope is that if everyone plays by the rules, it needn’t change things forever.
What we don’t have a sense of yet is what the enduring image of this crisis will be: the line around the block outside an Auckland gun shop – a culture this country has tried to reject after the mass shooting in Christchurch – or the electronic traffic billboards re-purposed with the exhortation to “be kind”. I think we know the country we want to be revealed as, the country we want to be. And when we all emerge blinking into the sunlight after this is over, the best possible scenario would be to find that, in true New Zealand fashion, nothing much has happened at all.