In February, I start to resettle back into a weekly routine. Circus classes in rope and contortion on Monday’s and Wednesday’s, either a swim or a rock climbing session with friends on Tuesdays, and a sprinkling of happy hours and dinner dates to fill in any gaps of undedicated time. I find out that I can swim a mile and organise group dates to local comedy and circus shows with a smattering of different friends groups during the Fringe festival.
Somewhere in there, news stories pop up about a whistle-blower in Wuhan China and a Diamond Princess cruise ship is quarantined with hundreds of new cases off the coast of Japan. Then a rest home in Washington. My news hungry flatmate shows me a video of state imposed lockdown measures in Wuhan, China. Police are welding doors shut so people cannot leave their houses and dragging suspected cases kicking and screaming into paddywagons off to quarantine lockups. It’s distant but people are dying.
By early March I get excited for the democratic primaries and then quickly disillusioned again. The Newtown street festival (Mar 8) is Wellington’s most packed event of the year and I’ve been looking forward to waddling through the crowds to treat myself to a full day of street vendors and musical acts.
Then northern Italy shuts down in panic. It’s a desperate measure to shore up the medical system. New York and San Francisco see their case numbers start to spring up as community transmission starts to percolate. The World Health Organisation declares Covid-19 a global pandemic (Mar 11). Trump balks at the panic ensuing over what he thinks is simple flu and reaffirms that everyone can keep going to work. Steve Menuchin pushes a story-line that its all a hoax by the Democrats to mire Trumps election efforts. At the same time, Santa Clara bans all mass gatherings and all the big companies send their people home.
Stories trickle out about the inaccessibility of tests. A woman who fell sick with all the right symptoms after her visit to the Washington rest home was refused a test. Panic buying becomes the new hype. At first N95 masks, then toilet paper, then hand sanitisers vanish from store shelves. The infrastructural weaknesses of the American system will exponentially exacerbate the vulnerability of the country to this fast approaching Pandemic. Sick leave isn’t an option for most and it costs $1,300 to go to the hospital to get tested? To combat all the uncertainty the Fed approves a 1.5 trillion to stimulus package to stimulate short term banking. Short term banking? Stop. Close the news feed. I don’t even want to know anymore.
In New Zealand, we are talking about business continuity plans at work and preparing for a work at home scenario. The news media is pushing us to wash our hands and follow the instructions of the WHO. There are at least 5 mass gatherings this weekend. Our flat and a number of friends have tickets to WOMAD a 3 day World of Music and Dance festival (Mar 13–15). Should I be worried? All the email notifications from work and businesses are directing us to the Ministry of Health website.
There have been no new cases in the last 4 days. All current cases are known sources and all possible contacts have been traced and communicated with. Okay, I think. I go into the weekend feeling confident that the situation is under control here. Whatever new cases arise out of this weekend’s events will be a really important indicator of the state of community transmission in NZ. Lets go enjoy what may be the last big event for a while to come.
We coalesce into group of 20 or so friends and camp together almost single file on the race course. There’s birthday cake, cheese plates, communal breakfasts and all the little perks and efficiencies that our little burner community brings together. The festival grounds are packed with 17,000 people ticketed and 4 main stages trading acts from noon until midnight. The weather is good and the atmosphere is really positive and family friendly.
I try to disconnect from the media stream except for a few headlines on day 1. The United States declares a State of Emergency (Mar 13) but each state can choose what they want to do with that. I scroll past a post from a friend stating that all schools are cancelled for the next month. The limitations on group gatherings in the San Francisco Bay Area went from 1000, to 250, to 100 to 50 to 10 in one week. Meanwhile, my focus is to balance the schedule to see as many bands as possible and scope out how many orders of dutch pancakes I can tempt people into buying.
On day two the messages from friends abroad start trickling in. ‘Are you ok? Things are starting to get crazy here.’ California is on the verge of shutting down. My adopted parents are fine but they affirm, ‘things are getting scary’. People are going into self defense mode. The grocery stores have been ransacked and toilet paper and sanitisers aren’t even available via Amazon anymore. In the afternoon Jacinda, closes the boarders. Tourism, NZ’s main industry, is effectively cut-off with a mandatory 14 day quarantine for all individuals entering from abroad and if I leave, my work visa won’t be enough to get me back in.
Its personal now. I can’t get to mom if something goes wrong. Like a shark that catches the scent of blood, a mental trigger is switched on and a feverish anxiety threatens to suck my attention into an exploding news feed. The dichotomy of whats happening in my phone to this festival is harder to ignore. But all the bathrooms here are stocked with boatloads of toilet paper and no one is stealing the soap bottles.
A lovely band from Greece levels with the audience and acknowledges what we are all coming to terms with. This will be the last festival for a long time to come, so lets enjoy each others company, amplify the positive vibes and hold on to this moment. And I think everyone did put their best energy forward because the camaraderie felt palpable.
My last event of the festival was to attend a comedy hour by a local comedian. To be honest, I don’t find Kiwi humor to be very funny. Te Radar was more quirky than funny but he told an interesting life story and reminded us of all the things that make Kiwi’s an endearing set of folk. The one year anniversary vigil for the Christchurch terror attack was cancelled this weekend due to Covid concerns. But he closes his act by shedding a tear and sharing a message from Jacinda that she gave in her commemoration speech a year ago. These words should ring true now more than ever he says.
“With memory comes a responsibility. A responsibility to be the place that we wish to be. A place that is diverse, that is welcoming, that is kind and compassionate. Those values represent the very best of us. We each hold the power, in our words and in our actions, in our daily acts of kindness to be the nation we believe ourselves to be.”
There is a moment of pause before the applause breaks out. I am filled with both tension and hope that the audience feels the same calm but unflinching resolve to fulfill those words. Based on my experience so far, New Zealand has risen to its challenges and surpassed my expectations of average humanity. We were just a handful of people but if the whole country marches with that perspective, this could become the best place in the world to weather this next storm.