Life after lockdown in New Zealand

The claims that it’s beaten Covid-19 might not be entirely accurate, but New Zealand is one of the first countries to start easing lockdown. Is there dancing – or even just socialising – in the streets? Not quite…

When all this is over I never want to hear the word bubble” again. 

Our bubble is the people we’re legally allowed to breathe on. Everything’s about staying in our bubble, not breaking our bubble, when we can expand our bubble. In Aotearoa New Zealand (the combined Maori and English-language names for our islands) we’ve heard the word bubble” more than anyone outside the bath industry ever needs to. 

Likewise: levels.

We’re at Level 3 now, a waiting room” between the full lockdown we’ve spent a month in (Level 4) and a loose appropriation of normality (Level 2). Level 3’s basically the same as Level 4 but with a few extras: schools up to year 10 have opened, you can swim, or build. Some people can go to work and everyone can order Uber Eats again.

We’re one of a handful of countries about to ease restrictions dramatically, and wade into whatever the new normal” means. While Level 3 is still a fairly restrictive limbo, we’re on the cusp of something closer to freedom. Later this week we’re graduating to Level 2 – all shops, businesses, restaurants, playgrounds and gyms can reopen, with strict hygiene and physical distancing measures. You can hang out with up to nine other humans at once, and they don’t even need to be in your bubble. In a week bars will open and we’ll be able to sink pints on the proviso we follow the three S’s: you have to seated, separated and waited on by a server. No shouldering your way through clammy torsos to the front of the pub queue.

New Zealand’s goal is elimination of Covid-19. This doesn’t mean no new cases – that’s eradication – but that all cases can be traced, tracked and monitored scrupulously. Every day at 1pm there’s a live broadcast where officials update the nation, and in the past week the number of new cases per day has been under 5. On two of those days there were no new cases.

Such low numbers are thanks to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s plan to go hard and go early”. We first entered Level 3 on 23rd March (full lockdown came three days later), when there were 280 recorded cases and no deaths. For comparison, the UK also went into lockdown on 23rd March, when there were 6,650 reported cases and 355 deaths. Now, per million people, the UK has 432.16 total recorded deaths. America has 210.37. Spain has 544.22. France has 375.89. New Zealand has 4.09. Quite the difference.

Ardern’s leadership has been applauded by Instagram kids, Facebook mums and international observers alike. The New York Times called her response to the virus a master class”. The Washington Post ran a piece titled: New Zealand isn’t just flattening the curve. It’s squashing it.” The Atlantic claimed that: New Zealand’s Prime Minister May Be the Most Effective Leader on the Planet.” Billie Eilish’s brother Finneas tweeted: Never have I wanted to be a Kiwi more badly. @jacindaardern you’re the best ever.” My best mate’s phone screensaver is Jacinda’s 2018 Vogue photoshoot. 

A large part of her pull is that our PM behaves like a human with a heart. She gets a personal call to notify her whenever there’s a new Covid-related death. As I wrote this today she posted an Instagram of her jacket stained with nappy cream (she has a one year old daughter, and, worldwide, is only the second elected head of government to give birth while holding office). She promotes local young designers by wearing them in her nationwide updates. She organised a national Easter Egg hunt via posters in windows because the Easter Bunny might not make it to every house this year”. 

Stuff like this feels hollow when it’s a glossy veneer over chaos. (See: Boris naming his kid after the migrant NHS workers that saved him, people he’s worked to get rid of on two counts). But Ardern has matched humanity with action. And we are reaping the rewards.

I walk around the capital, Wellington. Small, staggered queues form outside cafes that have reopened for takeaway. A man throws a fishing line into the harbour that had a baby whale hanging out in it last week; nature is healing, etc. I hope the sparrow I saw stuck in McDonald’s last week has been freed.

I pass Parliament, which we call The Beehive, but it’s more of a giant brown wedding cake, hulking concrete tiers angling up to the New Zealand flag. I watch it dance in Wellington’s notorious wind and feel something close to relief. 

I’ve lived in London for the past five years. That’s two snap elections, two Prime Ministers stepping down, Brexit, ongoing austerity, dismantling of the NHS that’s now being clapped for every Thursday at 8pm. Lack of confidence in the government is an understatement.

I flew home to New Zealand before lockdown because I didn’t want to be 40 hours away from my family if someone died. I’m jobless and sad and shit-scared about the future, and I’ve never felt more privileged. 

I can wave to my grandparents on their balcony. Walk from ocean to native bush in 15 minutes. Trust our Prime Minister.

I weep out of gratitude and I weep for those less lucky and I weep because there’s nothing else to do. I am running out of salt in my body.

Obviously there are still problems. Some are capitalising on eased restrictions to be dumb and throw parties. We’re still walking a tightrope between safety and resurgence as we sink into winter, still courting an economic crisis and spiking unemployment rates.

But today we are relatively safe, and this is the ledge we cling to.


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