It’s the end of 2020 in New Zealand

It’s the end of 2020 at last. But here in New Zealand I’m not in quite as much of a hurry for 2021 as most of my friends and family overseas. All things considered, we have without doubt “got off lightly”.

I’ve been texting with my brother a lot lately. We’re trying to understand each other in a way that’s new to us. While we lead very different lives, he’s always been an entirely empathetic and brilliant sounding-board.  But right now, it feels like the first time in my life when I’ve said something about how I feel and he hasn’t said “yep, that makes sense”.

And he’s not the only one. I’m very aware that I lack a shared experience now with pretty much all my friends and family overseas. I don’t know and can’t imagine what a year of semi-permanent lockdown feels like, with little apparrent effect on the virus’ long-term presence.

We had a lockdown here, yes, but it was very different. It was complete, relatively short-lived (just over a month) and almost totally eradicated any community cases of Covid… to the extent that life went “back to normal” strangely quickly. That’s normal as in life before Covid, not any of the new normals that my friends and family are describing to me as their now realities. Of course, when I talk with them, and read the news, I am very aware that our normal, the old normal, is nothing like the new normal that almost everywhere else is living.

So we’re not normal, we’re the anomaly. And the frustration I sense, from my brother and other friends, I think comes from my calling this normal. My belief that this is a normal that we can continue to live. My obliviousness, or lack of appreciation, that Covid is now here to stay, it’s a part of this world, there is no chance of continuing or returning to Life Before Covid (LBC). We’re truly living in a bubble, a country-sized bubble, protected and maintained by very expensive and extreme border controls. Aren’t there movies written about stuff like this? Am I living in the Truman Show?!

Here in Aotearoa New Zealand, we currently have a life that’s, on the surface, very close to LBC. There are many exceptions of course, such as voluntary QR codes everywhere for track and trace purposes, a complete lack of international tourists, and a lack of supplies from overseas that would normally flow readily. But, despite those, daily life is often (for me) almost indistinguishable from pre-Covid times. (It’s not, of course, for the government, the health ministry, the military, the researchers, the healthcare system, the people suffering from job losses and a recession and crazy soaring house prices. And we still have a daily news update about new cases and total number of cases, mostly in quarantine facilities at the border.) But, compared to other countries, Covid less of a daily reality, and always has been (even during our lockdown).

I went on a train last week – no-one was wearing a mask. (They’re only mandatory on public transport in Auckland and domestic flights.) For the brief period when they were introduced, I found masks almost frightening: a constant reminder of invisible danger around us. Everywhere else in the world it seems like the sight of them has become quite normalised. Is that true? I genuinely don’t know how that feels.

Georgia was in a dance show recently. Backstage was full of bustling children sharing make-up (even lipstick!) and food and pens. The following weekend we went on a crowded “North Pole Express” steam train adventure. Complete strangers dressed up as elves and pixies blowing spitty kisses to children at close range before the kids jumped on Santa’s knee for a photo op.

We have new concepts and language, of course. This is not entirely LBC. The Virus. The bubble. Lockdown. Wage subsidy. Levels 4,3,2 and 1. And new familiar faces in daily briefings: Ashley Bloomfield, Jacinda Ardern, the Chief of Police and representatives from the military in charge of quarantine at the border. And a new awareness of the powers of government to grant and take away our freedoms. Maybe also a new appreciation for where we live, and a strong sense of national pride in this little country that does things differently: first country for women to have the vote, nuclear-free, COVID-free.

From the outside, it must look untenable, unsustainable. This apparent virus-free paradise is wholly dependant on a militarised border: 14 days quarantine in a government facility for the uninfected, swabs every few days, outdoor excursions limited to escorted walks around a hotel car park. More extreme isolation if you show any symptoms or anyone who’s been near you does.

On the assumption that the virus is now “out there”, endemic, part of the human population globally, how long can we keep it out, and is that the long game? Who will be brave enough to open the borders and let the virus in? Will everyone who comes and goes need to be vaccinated? And what about the ones who won’t? Can they not leave or return without quarantine? Or will it just become, with time, like measles. Their risk.

These are the long term questions on my mind. But short term, I can’t currently even conceive of travelling anywhere. And don’t have much desire to either.

Why not?, my brother asked (genuinely surprised). Is it vaccine hesitancy? Not really. I’m usually first in line for a jab, especially if it means it opens up my travel options.

Would I take it if I was in London, or Paris, Stockholm, or New York? Absolutely. Because it would give me an immunity that would enable me to walk among people again without fear (is fear what you have? I don’t know the right word). With less caution.

But right now, in NZ, I currently have that ability – to walk without caution among strangers.

What the vaccine gives me is the ability to travel. And the ability for others to be able to travel here. And it will hopefully give the government the ability to ease the border restrictions. That means a lot – and I truly look forward to that day  – but on a personal, daily, level it is not the game-changer that it is elsewhere.

In other countries, it will give you the ability to travel freely again: locally, regionally and between countries. To travel freely between places that all have Covid. I don’t think New Zealand’s in a hurry right now (at least not publicly) to join that party.