Lockdown life in New Zealand, the bubble that ‘beat’ coronavirus

Jess Sandoval thought life in recovery would look different. On good days, she might leave the house for a walk around the block. Though, just as likely, she might not. You regain strength a little at a time, she reasoned to herself.

But powerful antibiotics – prescribed after her hysterectomy last June following years of excruciating endometriosis – sometimes left her feeling woozy, unsteady on her feet. Her stilted recovery was prolonged by infection after infection. In her weak moments, her eight-year-old son, Jorge, would help her onto the couch, rest her head on his lap and stroke her hair.

Now, after seven months of false starts, she knew her expectations for herself had been too high. But even as she went on to sickness benefits, Jess considered herself lucky. The money would stretch just far enough to the cover rent for their townhouse in Thorndon.

It was February then. New Zealand had not yet recorded its first coronavirus case, and would not for a few weeks.

Jorge – who Jess says has “a bit of anxiety” at the best of times – was recently diagnosed with an auditory processing disorder, meaning he does not always process speech, especially when that speech is complex, or the environment around him noisy. But before long the pandemic would become inescapable, like a sea of white noise, the virus intruding on every conversation and almost every thought. Jess would need to choose her words carefully, more so even than other parents when telling their children about the deadly pandemic.

In those days, it seemed like the whole world was locking down, one country at a time, like buildings turning to black after a grid failure. To prepare, Jess dipped into her savings and ordered a box of paints and balloons to help pass the time in the event of a lockdown. “Just as a precaution,” she thought. In retrospect, it seems like a premonition. The package was delivered on March 22, the day before one of the strictest lockdowns in the world took effect.

‘Be strong and be kind’

On March 23, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern – whom some have called “the most effective leader on the planet” – signalled that within days normal life would temporarily end.

Just two days before, she announced a four-stage coronavirus crisis response alert system, as part of an audacious strategy to eliminate rather than contain the virus. Her government had already banned travellers from China in early February, before New Zealand had even registered a single case of the virus. On March 19, she announced the closure of the nation’s borders to foreigners, a move once considered unthinkable for a country at the bottom of the South Pacific that relies heavily on tourism.

In little more than 48 hours, New Zealand would move to alert level four, a nationwide lockdown lasting at least four weeks. Ardern labelled the aggressive approach “going hard and going early” – a kind of Kiwi-ism for a short, sharp lockdown. The entire country was told to stay home, unless they worked in an essential job like healthcare, and when they did go outside, to “stay local” – only exercising near home, or visiting a nearby supermarket.

Some might have been tempted to complain that such restrictions were draconian. But Ardern relayed the order with clarity and empathy. On that day she also introduced “the bubble”, a concept to help New Zealanders visualise who they might have close contact with during lockdown – typically just their own household. The concept made social distancing into something tangible, like a two-metre shell protecting anyone who ventured outside.

“Be strong, and be kind,” the prime minister said that day, a five-word slogan that would come to symbolise the country’s unity during the lockdown, as messages like “be kind” or “kia kaha” (te reo Māori for “be strong”) were etched in chalk on pavements by children, while teddy bears were left in windows as part of a nationwide game of I-spy.

But, on March 23, not even Prime Minister Ardern knew what would happen next. “The situation here is moving at pace,” she explained, referring to the country’s number of coronavirus cases, then 102. “And so must we.”

In response, the island nation of almost five million people moved swiftly, and en masse – to the supermarket.

Jack Gilchrist is a checkout operator at Thorndon New World, 10 minutes by foot from The Beehive, New Zealand’s Parliament building, from where the announcement was made.

Thorndon is the oldest neighbourhood in New Zealand, founded by European settlers in 1840. The suburb today forms a rough triangle at the end of a narrow coastal plain in the heart of Wellington, the capital city. Slightly more than 4,000 people live there; the stereotype goes that most residents are either government workers or retirees.

Jack says within an hour of the lockdown announcement checkout queues extended down the aisles, reaching the other side of the store. Overwhelmed by demand, the store would be forced to close its underground car park to new customers that afternoon.

Only days later, the store was transformed. Operating now under a “one in, one out” policy, the queue of shoppers at the entrance extends into the car park, each shopper spaced two metres apart, the spacing indicated by tape on the ground. A man ushering shopping trolleys herds queueing shoppers, using wide, gestural motions like an air traffic controller.

Jack is stationed at the front of the queue, near the entrance. Holding up a gloved hand, he directs a shopper first to the hand sanitiser and then to a row of recently sterilised trolleys.

“Thank you for your service!” the shopper salutes, wheeling away.

“A lot of people have been very kind,” Jack said later, remembering this encounter and others. “Gives us a warm feeling.”

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