The snap lockdown is the right means to go back to normality, say Wellingtonians.
A couple of youngsters are skating in Pukeahu Park. The National War Memorial stands over the trees, vigilant. The sound of skates on paved cement echoes throughout the small empty square. Mount Victoria rests peaceful, greener than ever. Passers-by walk their dogs, breathing their daily amount of allocated air.
The streets are deserted. Life has been put on hold. The building sites were paused and machinery left behind. Today, everything is an ornament to a paralyzed city. The return to normality is postponed until further notice.
Construction, accommodation and food services will be the industries more affected by Alert Level 4 lockdown. According to the weekly update released by The Treasury on Friday 21 August, these industries might face an activity decrease of up to 75%.
The abnormal normality New Zealanders have been used to, an almost Covid-free society, has come to an end. The snap lockdown declared on Tuesday 17 August was a strong quick reaction to the increase in cases, but it is in line with the elimination strategy adopted by the Labour Government. Stamping out the virus has been the country’s mantra for the past year.
The elimination strategy (“Go hard, go early”) adopted by the New Zealand Government has many negative effects: on the wellbeing of the people and the national economy, mainly. Nonetheless, in the long run, it will achieve what the people like: normality.
New Zealand stood as an exception
In these uncertain times, New Zealand stood as an exception. For the past 16 months, while the rest of the world saw Covid-19 cases soaring, life was ‘business as usual’ in the isolated Aotearoa – except for a few sporadic restrictions. Normality wasn’t curtailed and people were enjoying their everyday life. The splendid isolation policy seemed to work.
“Like many Pacific countries that have relied on strong border controls, Australia and New Zealand still have low vaccine coverage”, wrote journalist Owen Dyer for the British Medical Journal. Amongst the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) nations, New Zealand has experienced an unusually low vaccine rollout and prolonged periods of time without Covid-19 cases within the community.
In New Zealand, 20% of the total population is fully vaccinated and 34% have had at least one jab. In Uruguay, a country with a similar population density, 71% of the population is fully vaccinated and 76% have had at least one dose. In Italy, a country with a similar GDP per capita, 58% of the population is fully vaccinated and 68% have received at least one dose.
A few dozen people are waiting to get swabbed by the Covid-19 centre on Taranaki Street in Wellington. The line of cars stretches to Vivian Street. I ask a young man, who prefers to remain anonymous, what the lockdown represents for him: “Just trying to get back to normality as soon as possible”.
He was in a location of interest and was asked to get tested. “As soon as I found out, I rang the Healthline”. He thinks that the government is taking all the precautions needed to stop the spread of Covid-19.
Further back in the queue, I find Nick, Amy, Cass and Mana, who drove to the Taranaki Street testing centre in a noisy black sedan. Nick had checked online and found that he was a close contact. Their whole flat decided to get tested, just to be cautious.
When we speak, they had already been waiting for an hour in their car. “It could be worse”, Nick tells me, “In Auckland people are waiting for four hours”.
He thinks the government is on a good track to fight the pandemic. “She [Ardern] definitely made the right call,” referring to the cabinet’s choice to put the whole country into lockdown.
They all endorse the use of the Bluetooth tracking app. For them, the lockdown represents national unity.
You sacrifice your own free time to protect others,” Cass tells me.
“We want to get rid of the pandemic as quick as possible and to move back to normal life”. Bryn is a 16-year-old essential worker who works at Pak’nSave Kilbirnie. He has come to the testing station because his employer required him to get a test. The immediate lockdown, for him, was a great response to the emergency.
The majority of the people waiting to get tested support the snap lockdown declared earlier on Tuesday. The quicker New Zealand gets back to normality, the better. Matt and Laura are local young workers.
They are wearing colourful masks and their voices are muffled. They are both essential workers; Matt is a mechanic and Laura works in the animal care sector. But because they were in a location of interest they were requested to come and get a test.
“New Zealand is onto it”, Matt tells me, combing his short blonde hair with his hand. “Get rid of Covid and get back to normal life”. Lockdown represents a free holiday, playing some video games and a bit of fun.
Normality has a different meaning for different people. For some, it means regaining a sense of control over their daily routines. For others, it signifies the chance to find a home – a roof over their head.
On Courtenay Place, a handful of homeless people are still sitting on the kerb despite the lockdown. Jim has been living on the street for a week now. He is waiting for a house to become available. The pandemic worsened an already terrible housing crisis – another abnormal situation that New Zealand society is fighting to solve.
Chewing a fruity candy, he tries to smile back at me. His beard is shaggy and his grey hair falls to one side of his restless head. Jim looks weary and in despair, hugging his red blanket in front of a dairy shop. The hope of finding a house is hidden far away in his heart. He feels safe on the street.
They are doing way better than they used to.”
The food banks are working and he can get some nourishment even during the lockdown.
While some people might have to rely on handouts and food banks, some others have the privilege to have a ‘normal life’.
More than 50 people are in line to do their grocery shopping. The queue for New World goes around the block, alongside Chaffers Street to Oriental Parade. People are sticking to the plan, complying with the new norms, mostly – given a few rogues.
“It’s surprising that nothing has happened before. We are lucky, New Zealand is very lucky,” Debbie tells me smiling. She works in a pharmacy that has been turned into a Covid-19 centre: they are giving injections.
Being an essential worker, she has got the full dose of the vaccine already. For her, people need to wear masks. Debbie thinks people in New Zealand are supportive and kind. “You see the percentage of people wearing masks is very high. Everyone is looking after each other”.
We are just trying to be safe and live.”
Inside the New World Wellington City, some signs deploy wartime warnings. Limits are set for loads of bread and packs of toilet paper. “Due to an increase in demand, the valued customers are required to be polite and not to exaggerate”.
An army of teenagers is refurbishing the shelves, hurriedly unpacking boxes of canned food and stacking chocolate biscuits. Kindness is demanded and limits are willingly accepted by New Zealanders: they are welcoming these harsh limitations to go back, as fast as possible, to their abnormal normality.
Facing uncertainty, we prepare for normality to come back. The next week might be a turning point. People are jogging in their apartments on Taranaki Street. Their past life, now, is a comfort, a fantastic solace, an idea to entertain with passion. Something worth giving up a few instances of liberty for.
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The writer Federico Magrin can be contacted by email: [email protected]