Journal of a plague year
Paul Little on documenting life in New Zealand during full lockdown
Not long after New Zealand went to Level 4 lockdown my wife and I lost all our regular work. The magazines and newspaper that had been our bread, butter and quite good jam for several years were either no longer in existence or no longer able to afford our scribblings.
Looming poverty, it turned out, is the mother of inspiration. And for the first time in a career that’s hovering around 20 books, I had one. An actual inspiration.
The progress of the coronavirus was clearly a once in a lifetime event that would require many stories to tell it. It was also an event that would affect every aspect of New Zealand life in some way. Combining those two epiphanies, I conceived the idea of an oral history for which I would interview people from various sectors – politics, science, small business, big business, education, trade unions, tourism, hospitality, funeral directing, mental health, media and others – and record their experiences week by week as they happened.
I ended up with 21 informants and, in a world-beating example of serendipity, the deadline I had been given to deliver the manuscript turned out to be the day we went to Level 1, thus providing a neat and happy ending that I had no reason to expect when the project began.
Their stories were all the things you want stories to be – by turns insightful, startling, funny, sad, harrowing, moving, infuriating – you name it. In the process of hearing and retelling them, I discovered a lot about New Zealand and New Zealanders.
My haphazardly selected team of 21 were as diverse a group as an unscientific selection process could yield, but they turned out to have a lot in common. They were thoughtful in their analyses of what they were going through, stoic in their acceptance of massive disruption to their daily lives, and creative in the ways they dealt with the situation that was thrust upon them in the few days that elapsed between the announcement of the alert levels and the move to Level 4.
Those few days also revealed something significant. This country is extremely well run. Daily life, work life, family life, private life, public life – every aspect of life was transformed by the lockdown. And it turned out our systems were able to withstand it. Who knew there were so many pandemic response plans tucked away in bottom drawers?
Teachers in particular performed small miracles of organisation to make home schooling happen. So did hospitals, prepared for an avalanche of Covid-sufferers who never showed up. So did supermarkets.
There was still enough latent racist energy left to deny Māori the right to a measly degree of self-determination
But there are many other professionals who pulled off similar feats. They may not have gone entirely unsung, but they certainly have not been as sung as they deserved to be. At Treasury, at the IRD, at the MSD and other departments, the bureaucrats who are so often figures of fun and frustration, turned out to be warriors of the common weal, working all hours for days on end to adjust to the constantly changing realities imposed by Covid.
That didn’t mean we “put aside our differences”. There was still enough latent racist energy left to deny Māori the right to a measly degree of self-determination when it came to protecting their people in the North and on the East Coast with their own road. But it was impressive to watch police and authorities work to make that redneck-baiting initiative succeed.
I also learnt that there is truth in some stereotypes, such as that we really, really like coffee. As Level 3 and the prospect of being able to caffeine up at reopened cafes loomed, some of my participants grew more and more excited. But not enough to abandon principles in pursuit of the bean. One person spent a week agonising over whether she would be able to take advantage of takeaway coffee because reusable cups would not be permitted and disposable receptacles violated her green standards. (Want to know how that ended? Sorry, you’ll have to buy the book.)
Some of the most heartening discoveries I made also came as a surprise to those concerned.Many expressed their astonishment that being required to stay under the same roof with their partners was not a prelude to a post-lockdown separation. On the contrary, it transpired that the decision they had made to spend their lives with this person all those years ago had been the right one. Many also reported finding out that they rather liked their children, now they had had the chance to spend some time with them.
Most importantly I learnt that there actually is a “we” that can be invoked when talking about New Zealand. We could and did work together for a common goal and there was reason to be hopeful that longer term problems: mass extinction, global warming and other environmental shitstorms would be the next foes to be faced down by our combined efforts. I wonder how that will turn out.
The Covid Chronicles: Lessons from New Zealand by Paul Little (HarperCollins, $36.99) is available in bookstores nationwide.
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