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Dispatch From New Zealand: Lockdown Eases, Minus the Protests

It’s usually quite easy to feel like the only person on earth in New Zealand.

We are a country of sweeping fjords, rolling farmland, and clustered native bush. We are a country roughly the same size as the United Kingdom, yet with about 61 million fewer people. You can drive for miles down country roads and the only person you see is you in the wing mirror. On the 2-acre plot where I live, other humans are pretty distant concepts.

In recent decades, things have begun to change. Similar 2-acre plots just down the road now house twenty-odd subdivisions. But New Zealand is, by and large, a pretty unpacked island.

On 26 March, though, it became even easier to feel like the singular human.

We were given time to prepare two days earlier. My family crowded around my dad’s computer to tune into a speech from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s office, the first of its kind. The pageantry of the White House is a foreign concept indeed in New Zealand politics; Prime Ministers don’t usually “address the nation.” But here we were, on, in the P.M.’s own words, a “war” footing.

New Zealand is an empty country, though more so now / Matteo Di Maio

The announcement detailed a “COVID-19 alert system,” consisting of four levels. Level one meant “disease is contained.” Level two meant increased risk, and so on. Level four meant sustained community transmission. Each level had a set of measures attached — mass gatherings banned on the earlier levels, total lockdown at level four. My mum, who used to work in P.R., marveled at the alert system. “Whoever came up with that was a genius,” she remarked.

There was, for my family, and most New Zealanders, a moment of tension. “New Zealand is at level… two.” Elderly and vulnerable people would have to stay inside. Gatherings over 100 were banned. But that was it.

Two days later, we tuned into the P.M. again. This time, me and my dad were driving to the capital, Wellington, to help my family move house. From the vantage point of something soon to disappear — a packed highway — we listened to Ardern announce that, in 48 hours, we would move to level four. Community transmission was happening, she said.

It certainly added urgency to the moving process. We had to be back in Cambridge, where I live, in 48 hours, or we’d be locked down in Wellington.

On the morning of March 26, safely back at home, I and the rest of N.Z. woke to a stringent lockdown.

We set out biking that afternoon. There’s a bridge that hovers over “State Highway 1,” about 2km from where I live, and we biked over it. It was devoid of cars, trucks, and noise. Everyone in N.Z. felt like the only people on earth now.

For four weeks, that was our reality. And New Zealanders largely kept the rules. A website set up by police for people to report lockdown breaches got plenty of engagement, but the large scale protests seen in the U.S. were a foreign concept for us.

By the time the four week period expired, lockdown appeared to be a success. We’d stay in level four for one more week, to confirm that we’d “broken the chain of community transmission,” and then we’d move to level three. The Prime Minister confirmed that out of all the random community testing in various regions: the Waikato, Auckland, Queenstown, not a single positive case had come back.

On the day we moved down the levels, just five new cases were reported.

Moving, lockdown style / Matteo Di Maio

A week ago, New Zealand started to open up. We’ve done it slowly, and with less raucous, furious energy than we watch coming from America on the news.

The first sign of change when I woke up that morning was the sound.

When Captain James Cook, one of the first Europeans to discover New Zealand arrived here in 1769, his botanist, Joseph Banks, kept a journal. Anchored here in a country virtually untouched by foreigners, he wrote: “This morn I was awakd by the singing of the birds ashore… The numbers of them were certainly very great who seemd to strain their throats. Their voices were certainly the most melodious wild musick I have ever heard…the most tuneable silver sound imaginable.”

New Zealand’s birds are unique — 80% of all our birds are endemic. As our population has grown, and become increasingly urbanised, bird song of the kind Banks recorded has become less common, with roads and humans drowning native Tuis, or native Kokako out. But throughout the lockdown, our birds began to return to our cities. For those four weeks here in Cambridge, their cries were the only thing you heard.

On 29 April, I woke to the sound of cars again, and the birds were back in the background. Human life had returned; other life had receded.

Unlike, perhaps, in other countries, the lockdown has been a unifying experience for New Zealand. We’ve experienced solidarity: In our faith in our P.M., in our support for local businesses, in our teddy bear hunts. “I think there is universal acceptance that she has handled herself superbly,” my editor at our local paper wrote in an email to me last week, referring to Ardern. The Facebook page “Jacinda Ardern Supporters” has nearly 20,000 followers. Almost 90% of Kiwis “trust the government to make the right decisions on Covid-19,” according to a recent Colmar Brunton poll.

Kiwis are feeling patriotic again — I certainly am. As a liberal teenager, I’m not prone to expressing intense patriotism for my country. But seeing a chart of new cases around the world, in which New Zealand promptly drops off the bottom of the graph, I can’t help feeling a burst of national spirit. We are experiencing a newfound admiration for our leaders; someone wrote on Twitter recently, after the bleach remark: “Thank god for Kiwi politicians.”

Three images have stuck in our minds, as emblematic snapshots of N.Z.’s COVID-19 experience.

A bridge over State Highway 1 in Cambridge / Matteo Di Maio
/ Matteo Di Maio

First are the public personalities we’ve rallied around. Ardern, our empathetic P.M., leading, in her words, “a team of five million.” Then there’s our Director-General of Health, Dr. Ashley Bloomfield. His calm, plain-speaking announcements of our new cases every day has won him a devoted following. The press here often refers to him as “N.Z.’s sex symbol.” Lastly, there’s microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles, N.Z.’s premier science communicator. Never seen without a lab coat, she’s become the authority-radiating receiver of our COVID-19 questions.

The second image is the press briefings we all tune into, at 1 pm every day. In my household, we all get an itching when it’s about to start. Dad pulls out the computer, and we settle in to watch Ardern and Bloomfield offer calm words and reassurance.

We’re proud of our briefings, too. At one this week, a female reporter tried to ask a question of the finance minister. When she got talked over by another reporter, the finance minister waited for the interrupter to finish, before following up: “Claire?” Imagine that in the U.S.

The last image has been the packed lines at KFC and McDonald’s. Level three allows drive-thrus to reopen, and with a meme-able devotion, Kiwis turned up at fast-food joints across the country on the first morning of “culinary freedom.”

Coming out of lockdown, coronavirus has scarred New Zealand — at least health-wise — very little. Among the opposition, a sentiment is brewing that it was all an overreaction. Health experts have fought back, and it’s gained little traction. Wiles told Newshub recently that what seems to happen when a catastrophe is successfully averted is that “people start to think you made it all up.”

The other week, the opposition leader Simon Bridge’s ill-timed remarks left him facing a stream of rebuttal replies for days after.

Dr. Ashley Bloomfield addressing the nation / Matteo Di Maio

“The public has done a great job of self-isolating and social distancing. The entire country has made huge sacrifices to ensure the four-week lockdown was effective,” Bridges wrote. “Unfortunately the Government hasn’t done enough and isn’t ready by its own standards and rhetoric.”

About 24,000 Kiwis responded in the comments, overwhelmingly negative in tone. “I did not Vote Labour but what I am proud of is the way Jacinda [Ardern] has lead us through this unprecedented time. Thank goodness Simon your not leading us through this because I’d put my hand on my heart and believe we would be in a worse situation,” one commenter wrote.

There is some worry here. Our tourism industry, which makes up a big part of our economy, has been knocked off its feet completely. We’ve avoided mass unemployment through a Government wage subsidy scheme that requires companies that take it up to keep their workers employed for 12 weeks. But a lot of companies have taken it up, and when that 12 week period expires — we all wonder — who will stop people being fired then?

/ Matteo Di Maio

But solidarity shines through — a Facebook page set up to raise awareness of Kiwi local businesses gained 46,000 new followers in a day, up to 165,000 people. Everyone is talking about the possibility of domestic tourism, and many Kiwis seem keen to travel in their own backyards this year if lockdown eases further.

Right now, we just have our fingers crossed that level 3 will turn into level 2, and that we’ll be back at school or work again, and back with our friends. Perhaps once we’re there, we’ll exchange Dr. Ashley Bloomfield memes, and tell each other just how lucky we are to be in N.Z.

Featured image via Matteo Di Maio

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