I turned forty-one last year in the middle of lockdown, alert level 4, and it was one of the best birthdays I’d ever had. As a self-confessed introvert who hates parties and fuss, being forced to stay at home with close family, eating cake and watching my favourite movies, was pretty much a perfect day for me. My presents were mostly handmade or garden-grown, and I’m not big on “stuff” anyway. Sure, the pandemic brought a lot of anxiety, and there was no way of knowing how things might go, but strangely, my mental health felt pretty steady. I’d adapted, adjusted and remained optimistic. Twenty-three days later we’d dropped down to level 3. By mid-May we were in level 2.
This year, Aotearoa was in alert level 1 when I celebrated the day of my birth. And yes, despite being able to go into the city for ice-cream, unmasked and without social distancing, I felt so much more unsettled. Less cheerful and relaxed. And it’s taken me almost a week to process that and figure out the reasons why.
Anyone reading this from anywhere else in the world will no doubt have some opinions about the following, and I want to acknowledge that I understand that I am deeply privileged to live in a country that has managed the risks so well. I am forever grateful to those in charge who made decisions that have allowed us such freedoms. Our strategy went hard and went early, and is now focused on elimination and exclusion. It is designed to prevent Covid 19 entering the wider community, and containing cases in managed isolation. It relies on the population of Aotearoa, the “team of five million” as it’s called, to maintain diligent track and trace records, to ensure good hygiene practices and to stay at home if they’re sick. Everyone plays a role in protecting the community. And it’s a system that, barring a few minor blips, works exceedingly well.
So why am I still anxious?
An exclusion strategy is still mentally exhausting. Knowing that outside our borders is basically “Here Be Dragons!” is not a comfortable thought. I have residency here, which offers me some security, but I’ve not seen my family and friends in the U.K. since I moved here in July 2017. I honestly don’t know when that might change. If that will change. There are likely to be people living overseas I will never see again. I know how it feels when people in countries with an obscene number of cases and deaths, talk about their lost connections, being unable to be with family or say goodbye to loved ones who have passed.
You can argue that I can hug and connect with the friends I’ve made over here, but it’s not the same, and if I have to explain how it’s not, you won’t understand anyway. I’ve written before about the (predominantly white) immigrant experience of becoming a triangle, and the deep displacement felt when removed from your birth lands, even if that was by choice. And it was my choice, of course, to come here. I always knew the risks. I suppose I just never considered how easily they could happen for real.
I’ve seen so much hatred directed at those living in Aotearoa, especially online via social media. Strangers literally waiting for us to fail, to celebrate when things finally go wrong. I’ve seen people here exhibit what I can only liken to some sort of survivors guilt, except most survivors don’t get to still talk to those who weren’t so lucky. I know how it feels, that strange need to apologise. For not failing. For not dying. For being able to enjoy a normal life. To that I can only say misery is not a competition; just because someone is suffering worse, does not make your suffering invalid.
When the first case was detected here on the 28th February, it still didn’t seem quite real. Our government put us into alert level 2 nine days before the first death. When lockdown began on the 21st March, it was met with much scepticism and disbelief. But when alert level 4 became the reality, when the streets and motorways fell almost silent and the city was a mere ghost of itself, the reality of what this unseen danger meant, hit many people hard.
In the beginning it felt akin to war. We were many of us genuinely scared of what the future might bring. Parents worried about keeping their children safe, if they would even have the kind of childhood they’d had. We cried often and at almost every piece of news. The words “emergency briefing” would strike us down in absolute terror, and indeed often still does! We formed bubbles, no more than our immediate families, and distanced ourselves while outside. We were forced into treating every stranger we met as a potential threat. That distrust stayed with many of us well after lockdown lifted, it felt wrong to be allowed to be so close to others again.
The world has gone through collective trauma, and yet humans, the resilient buggers that they are, have managed to somehow muddle their way through it. At the time of writing Google tells me that 2.9 million people have died worldwide, and that number is almost definitely lower than the truth. If I try to imagine that many faces, I fail almost straight away. I don’t believe anyone can. There are times when I don’t want to believe it myself. To accept the loss of so many.
As vaccination numbers continue to rise, there is good hope that case levels will fall. But with new strains developing in numerous countries, and ongoing resentment over restrictions and poor leadership, I cannot help but look at the rest of the world from behind closed fingers, wondering if it will ever be “safe”.
Every level change, every new development, every update from the Ministry of Health app Āwhina — which is truly marvellous, I must say — I feel an unwelcome, familiar jolt. A rumbling yawn in the pit of my stomach that makes my pulse run just a little bit quicker, and my brain start to question, “What now?”
I know damn well why my birthday felt strange, why I couldn’t completely relax. That deep trauma, still lurking, unresolved, making me feel guilty about eating ice-cream under a gorgeous blue sky. Knowing that family and friends worldwide are still stuck in limbo or can’t risk going out. That their lives are so much different to mine. And if I could, I would whisk them over here in a heartbeat. Ice-cream adventures for all!
With full credit to those who deserve it — Ashley Bloomfield and Siouxsie Wiles to name but two — we have been bloody lucky in Aotearoa; sometimes I wonder if some of the team of five million appreciate just how lucky. But good luck can’t hold forever, which is perhaps my biggest fear.
I remember quite clearly sitting on the beach at Castlepoint on the 27th of February 2020, looking out across the Pacific Ocean, and feeling quite suddenly, quite surely, that this was the Last Normal Day. I found a hagstone that day, by the cliffs, it’s been in my car ever since. I keep it as a good luck charm of sorts, a reminder of a Time Before.
And despite my anxieties and my tendency to overthink, I do honestly believe that those times will return for us all. That we will one day be able to see again those friends and family who we so dearly miss.