How are things in New Zealand during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Every time I start writing this update I hesitate because… it feels like gloating, and I don’t want to do that at a time when so many people are suffering. We are so so privileged on a normal day, even more so to be in New Zealand, and even more so to be here at a time of a global pandemic. And people keep asking, so I wanted to write up a few details to share.

On 22 March New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that within two days, the entire country would be going into lockdown for 4 weeks… which is where we are now. Everyone self-isolating, staying home, keeping at least 2 meters away from anyone if we do go out (for a walk or to get groceries); and interacting only with people in our household “bubbles;” all non-essential retail businesses and schools shut down; working from home only; no more indoor or outdoor events; no more air travel except for medical reasons or essential services like moving essential freight; most new arrivals into the country are being quarantined. She ended her speech with an appeal for people to be kind to one another.

To put things into perspective, there were a total of 102 known cases of COVID-19 here at the time of this announcement, which was prompted by the first known cases of community transmission… as opposed to transmission due to overseas travel or known contact with someone who already had it. To date there are still fewer than 800, most of which are related to overseas travel or contact with a known case (51% and 31% respectively), 1% due to community transmission, and 17% with causes still under investigation [source].

To get a feel for how clearly and compassionately the Prime Minster announced the new alert level and associated guidelines, I highly suggest watching her deliver this speech (or read the transcript if video isn’t your thing):

Then take a look at this Facebook livestream she did from her couch a bit later:

I’m not saying things are perfect; the situation in New Zealand, like everywhere else, is going to disproportionately affect people who have fewer resources and support systems in place. It already seems pretty clear that they’re looking out for businesses more than people with a lot of the relief programs, but we’ll see what (if anything) changes as more and more people find themselves in positions where they can’t pay the rent.

Meanwhile, New Zealand already has an awful track record with regard to mental health, and I can’t imagine this period of self-isolation is going to improve that situation. My heart goes out to people who are enduring lockdown with people they’d rather not be in constant contact with, and especially women and children in violent households.

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A few other comments and observations from our privileged perch:

Life feels oddly normal so far

We’re weeks behind the rest of the world as far as this pandemic goes, and everything feels relatively normal compared to the news we’re reading from elsewhere. Which makes it feel even more remarkable to me that the government is acting so decisively, so early. But maybe still not early enough to prevent community transmission from asymptomatic cases? To prevent essential workers from taking the hit for the rest of us? Who knows; we’ll find out soon enough.

Working (or not) and playing

Scott’s job is non-essential retail so he isn’t working, but the government’s COVID-19 wage subsidy program means that he’s still getting paid. My office had pretty much moved everyone to working from home before the lockdown, though neither of us has gone in to work since the 11th thanks to a road trip we took that weekend to go to WOMAD… the entire time we knew it was going to be our Last Hurrah before things got weird, and in hindsight, I’m amazed an international music festival even happened! We’ve been self-isolating since we got back to Auckland on the 16th.

It’s much more peaceful in the neighborhood without all the car and flight traffic. A few busses are still running, including the double-decker ones on a route near us, but all the ones we’ve seen are empty. The sidewalks, however, are quite full! It’s remarkable how many more pedestrians, cyclists, and scooter-ers we see out and about. The park near our house (the equivalent of Golden Gate Park, just add sheep, cows, and the second tallest volcano in town) is even more mobbed than usual. We’ve only attempted walking there twice before conceding that panting joggers were not going to stay a safe distance away from us. We regularly go walking at night now, and I try to obey my Fitbit every time it buzzes to alert me that I’ve been sitting on my ass for an hour.

Staying connected

Even under normal conditions, the internet quality in my company’s New Zealand offices is far better compared to the connections in offices in some other parts of the world (esp Melbourne, San Francisco, and London). I’m feeling pretty darn fortunate that we can stream video (Scott) or video meetings and calls (me) all day long from our house with no issues. It’s been really nice to connect with so many long-lost friends who are reaching out!

Our neighborhood (we live on a street that’s only one block long) has mobilized! One neighbor put a flier in everyone’s mailboxes asking for contact details, and another went door-to-door to collect the same from people who hadn’t responded… keeping a respectable distance, of course. I helped format their Google Sheet, complete with columns where people could offer and ask for help, and sent it out to everyone. We’ve lived here over year now and I still only knew one neighbor’s name, so I’m tickled to have been involved, and feel much more a part of the community now! Tūrangawaewae (a Māori concept I’ve written about before) = the place where one belongs ❤

Takeout, retail delivery, and mail in general

All restaurants are completely shut down here, including all options for “takeaway” (that’s what they call takeout restaurants here). Which means that everyone is cooking for themselves… whether they know how to do so or not!

And you can’t just order stuff on Amazon, because A) we don’t have Amazon here and B) New Zealand Post and couriers are only allowed to deliver to essential services: food, prescriptions, computers and tech that would allow you to work from home.

Grocery shopping

This is the longest section because this is all we’re doing outside of the home other than going to long walks in the dark…

It’s possible that what we consider “normal grocery shopping” — buy a bunch of stuff when it’s on sale, 10kg of bulk goods at a time, because we can, because we don’t live paycheck-to-paycheck — is actually hoarding? A few weeks ago we calculated we still have 3 months’ worth of pinto, kidney, and black beans left from the bags we bought 10 months ago. (An aside: New Zealand banned all single-use plastic bags last July so pretty much everyone brings their own bags or boxes to supermarkets now, it’s pretty awesome to behold!)

I can’t find the article now but apparently New Zealand is not expected to run out of anything because we grow or manufacture most of our groceries domestically, a fact which my former local-sustainable-food-systems-self would already have known… Meanwhile, the government is monitoring people’s reports of price gouging and apparently the #1 complaint is that cauliflower is too expensive, in some places costing up to $13 NZD (~$7.50 USD)!

Dispatch from Countdown (big Australian-owned chain): Big lines to ensure social distancing inside the store. Shelves empty of baking essentials, pasta, milk, yogurt, soap, feminine items… piles and piles of toilet paper though! The introduced very civilized limits on how many similar items any one customer can purchase shortly after people began panic-buying, and I appreciate that they have a priority assistance system in place to make it more likely that people who need it (folks over 70, people with compromised immune systems, people with disabilities, etc) can access to their online delivery service.

Dispatch from Tai Ping (our equivalent of 99 Ranch; a massive Asian grocery): When I arrived there was a long line to get in (again, because they’re attempting to keep things social-distance-friendly inside) and of course no line by the time I was done… and a security guard took my temperature with one of those touch-free thermometers before he’d let me in. Was very disappointed to discover that there was NO CANNED EEL left on the shelves and the tofu selection was a pale reflection of its usual self, but happy that their bulk section meant I didn’t also have to go to the bulk food store for oats. Only the white people (and I) were not wearing masks; I need to make some. They were in the process of installing plexiglass sheets to separate shoppers from the check-out staff while I was in there.

Dispatch from Farro (our much-more-limited equivalent of Whole Foods, and the closest store to our house): You have to check in using an online contact-tracking system before you can enter the store, but no lines at all! Hand sanitizer and wipes for your cart. Nobody seems to care much about the 2-meter-separation rule in there but they’re clearly taking care of their still-upbeat employees with gloves, masks, and full-on protective plastic shield enclosure-thingies at the checkout counters. Most items on my list in stock other than yogurt. We’ve pretty much decided it’s worth paying a bunch more to avoid the crowds and stay super local.

Anything else?

There’s probably other stuff that would be interesting to know? Let me know if you have any questions and I’ll report what I can.