Renée, 90, wishes to self-isolate

An essay by Wellington writer Renée on the joys of self-isolating: "Everyone gives old people soap or chutney."

I’m 90 and everything I read is screaming at me that I’m part of the most vulnerable to Covid-19. Some days old people are wise and good to have in the community, other days we’re expendable.

It's Tuesday, second day into my self–isolation. I’m not scared of getting sick and dying but being thought stupid for ignoring the advice is not something I’d tolerate well. 

Last Friday I spoke to the participants in my crime-novel writing workshop, and said I’d been thinking about what I should do. They’re lovely, of course they are. Only lovely people come to my courses. They pointed out they were in contact with school children, out in the community, had jobs so mixed with others at work, and were more likely to infect me than the other way around. They said I should make the decision and they’d fit in.

So from this Friday we’re doing the rest of the workshop sessions by email. They’ve been doing the 10 pages a week and getting it to me by Wednesday anyway so that won’t change.

My sons are approving, two of them get asthma so are aware they need to be careful. They say just sing out if there’s anything. My oldest granddaughter, who has a nearly year old baby and a five–year–old, says anything you want Puti, just let me know.

On Radio New Zealand someone says its going to be another 30s Depression. I think yeah right. I lived my childhood during those times. Started work at the woollen mills around Pandora Point in Ahuriri when I was 12. Lots of kids started work when they were 12, some boys started when they were 10. They were sent away to work for a farmer. They got board and meals which meant they got a cold unlined wooden room in what were called worker’s quarters, with a wire stretcher in it and if they hadn’t brought their own blankets, well tough shit. The amount and quality of the food depended on the cook and the cook’s income. The family came first, the worker got what was left. Quite a few boys ran away and became swaggers because they preferred to take their chances on the road, do a day’s work for a hot meal at night. Often they carried their harmonica and at night they’d sit somewhere and play for themselves and anyone else listening. They were shy inarticulate boys and they grew into shy inarticulate men except when they were playing harmonica. Then the war came along so they joined up. Why not? You got a weekly wage with living expenses thrown in and, as a bonus they were going to see the world.


I listen to Kim Hill  talk about keeping hands clean, that soap and water is streets ahead when put up against hand sanitisers. I have plenty of soap. Everyone gives old people soap or chutney. Flash soap. Flash chutney. I’ve got enough soap to see out the rest of 2020 and possibly the first half of 2021 as well. And, being a child of the Depression I hoard toilet paper. If you’ve ever used cut up pieces of newspaper in the toilet, you’d hoard toilet paper too. I didn’t need to panic in the supermarket and have fights over toilet paper because I hoard it anyway. 

The big point in my favour is not only that I’m used to being on my own, its that I like being on my own. I’m not one of the old people you read about, the ones younger people talk about knowledgeably as those in need of something they call social interaction. Its not that I don’t enjoy having people around but I don’t feel bad when they’re not there either.

If the coming recession is going to be as hard as the 30s though, let’s not replicate some of the thinking at that time. Māori were not offered "relief" because they could live on fish they caught and wild animals they shot, right? And everyone knew Māori were dying out anyway so why waste money? And if some of them had enough for a pint and they were women, then they had to get a Pakeha to buy the drink. I mean, for fuck’s sake, which parliamentarian had that brilliant idea? And what were the rest of them thinking when they voted to pass it into law? Even allowing for the fact that they were all Pakeha, it still seems an odd thing to do. It was only repealed in 1949.

Tuberculosis was rife, measles, chicken pox, whooping cough, were yearly events, poliomyelitis shut schools and children were sent away to Rotorua for treatment that didn’t work. Not until the vaccine came along in 1961 was there any relief.  And guess which kids got the vaccine first?

The big game changer this time will be technology. The problem is a lot of my contemporaries don’t or won’t use social media so a large proportion of us still listen to radio, or rely on what the neighbours say. Most of us use online banking but there’s still a cohort who simply won’t. I have a friend who will not use online banking, she won’t use texts or email, she still drives (Jesus wept) so she goes miles away to a bank when she wants to do a transaction.

Naturally most of the banks have all departed and taken their ATMs away from smaller places and those that remain give you change in $50 notes. If, like me, you can’t see the ATM properly, but still want some cash, you have to make other arrangements. I put an amount in a friend’s cheque account and she gets the cash for me. She delivered some on Sunday, handed it over the gate. We usually hug, or at least I do, I’m a hugger, but this time we maintained a distance although we exchanged a joke or two. I mentioned the group who were drinking cow piss to ward off the virus and she told me about Brian who thinks the virus is caused by homosexuals but you can fight it off by praying. In America there’s been a rush on guns so I assume they’re going to shoot it.

Just had a call from a friend, who’s also gone into self–isolation. "Think I’ll do the renovations," she said, "I’ve got all the gear and it’s a good opportunity."

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