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Love in the Time of the Covid

This piece was written for some friends in the UK. I wanted them to understand what life in New Zealand has been like during the Covid pandemic. It combines some old material about the original lockdown and what happened when I got my vaccination together with new material that brings the situation up to date as at 2022.

Because the intended audience is in the UK, I’ve described some aspects of life in New Zealand in rather more detail that I would have done if I was writing for a Kiwi audience. I hope my Kiwi readers will forgive me for that small sin...

In March 2020, Robin and I were preparing to celebrate our wedding anniversary. We’d booked a table at our favourite restaurant and we were looking forward to a pleasant evening out. The newspapers were reporting that covid was rampaging through the world and there were frightening stories about ever increasing infection and death rates over the whole of Europe. But it all seemed very far away from us, down here at the bottom of the world. However, the first cases of covid had just been reported in New Zealand, and we were all starting to wonder what would happen next now that it had arrived.

We didn’t have to wait long to find out. The Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, and the Director General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield, held a televised briefing. The cold facts and figures of covid were presented to us – there was no cure, there were no vaccinations and unless drastic public health measures were taken it was clear that we would soon be overwhelmed with exponentially rising infections and deaths. Our hospitals would be completely unable to cope with the number of cases that would soon be flooding in. Jacinda and Ashley explained the importance of social distancing and hand washing and they announced a four level tiered lockdown system that would take effect from 11.59pm that very evening, starting at level four, the highest and harshest level. Once we had gained some measure of control over the outbreak, they promised, we would start to drop down through the levels and the restrictions would gradually ease.

The press were sceptical. "Are such harsh measures really necessary?" they asked. "We’ve only got a handful of cases."

"So did Italy once," said Jacinda, grim faced. "And they didn’t do anything about it. Look what happened to them as a result. They had thousands of completely unnecessary and preventable deaths. I don’t want that to happen here. We are a team of five million. Together we can control this, and we will."

The press seemed rather shocked to hear such grim prognostications. "Are you frightened about the future?" asked one of the reporters.

"No," said Jacinda firmly. "Because we’ve got a plan."

We would hear Jacinda’s phrase "team of five million" a lot over the next few months. It was an inspired choice of words and it seemed to work well. There was a definite feeling that we were all involved in this and by working together we’d come through it. "Be kind to each other," advised Jacinda. And we were.

No sooner had the televised briefing ended that our phone rang. "Hello?" I said.

"This is your favourite restaurant," said a voice at the other end. "I’m afraid we’ve got to cancel your reservation. We’ve had a notification from the government that we have to close for the duration of the lockdown, so that’s what we’re doing. Sorry..."

It would be quite a long time before Robin and I would finally be able to celebrate our wedding anniversary. Meanwhile we had to live through a level four lockdown. This is what it was like...

* * * *

In level 4 we are required to stay at home as much as possible and to maintain a social distance between ourselves and other people should we encounter them when we are outside. We are only allowed to go out for essential purposes such as exercise, grocery shopping and visits to the doctor or the pharmacy.

Amusingly, the practical effects of the level 4 lockdown rules have been minimal as far as I am concerned. It has always been my habit to spend most of my time shut away inside my house. I seldom go out or interact very much with any other people because I’m one of nature’s natural hermits. So I really haven’t found that the lockdown has had much of an impact on my lifestyle at all. The person who has noticed the effect of the level 4 rules the most is my dog Jake who simply cannot understand why he isn’t allowed to talk to his friends any more when we go for walks. He’s a very sociable and gregarious dog who loves being with people, and no matter how many times I explain the rules of social distancing to him, he just doesn’t get it.

I’m also one of the very lucky ones. I have no mortgage to pay and I have no job to lose. My pension payment turns up automatically in my bank account and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. So, unlike a lot of people, I have no financial or employment worries. This too makes the lockdown much easier to bear.

Supermarket shopping has changed quite a lot. Initially there was a lot of bulk buying as people began to hoard what they considered to be the necessities of life. On the first day of the lockdown the supermarkets sold enough food to feed ten million people – that’s more than twice the population of the entire country. It was a bit like the miracle of the loaves and fishes, only in reverse!

To begin with, the most popular items in people’s shopping trolleys were toilet paper and hand sanitiser so of course it wasn’t very long before you simply couldn’t find either of those items on the supermarket shelves. Fortunately that didn’t last for very long and nowadays those shelves are fully populated again. I’m really not quite sure why people felt the need to stockpile those things. Perhaps they were  intending to spend the lockdown eating deep fried toilet paper garnished with sanitiser sauce. Stranger things have happened…

At the height of the toilet paper binge, when it was almost unobtainable, a local jeweller began to offer toilet paper for sale at $5,000 a roll. Everyone who bought a roll was given a free gold ring...

Shopping habits have changed drastically. No longer can you just dash off to the supermarket whenever you feel like it to quickly pick up whatever small item it is that you need for tonight’s dinner. Instead, you now have to plan your menus far in advance and turn up with a list so that you don’t forget anything. It pays to be thoroughly prepared because you will have to queue to get in and everything will take a lot longer than once it did.

Our local supermarket has helpfully painted a set of red lines on the approach to the entrance. The lines are two metres apart so that all the people in the queue can maintain their social distance while they wait to be let in. People are only allowed in to the store on a "one out, one in" basis. When one person leaves the shop, the person at the head of the queue is allowed to enter. The rule is designed to stop the store from getting too crowded so that people can maintain a social distance even within the supermarket aisles. It seems to work well.

At first I didn’t have to queue for very long when I went shopping. All I had to do was produce my Super Gold Card which proved that I was old and decrepit and therefore a member of an at risk group for covid-19 infection. Immediately I would be ushered straight to the front of the queue. Shopping had never been so quick and easy for me! Long live level 4!

Sadly all that soon stopped. I went to the supermarket one day, produced my gold card as usual, and was told, "Sorry, mate. We aren’t allowed to give you priority any more. We’ve had a memo from head office". I was sent to the back of the queue and treated just like everybody else. Clearly head office is now keen to eliminate all its older customers by forcing them to stand outside for hours in all weathers in the hope that they will catch something nasty, get very sick and then die. After all, old people don’t have nearly as much money to spend on toilet paper and hand sanitiser as the younger customers do, so the sooner they drop down dead, the better for all concerned. Their absence will leave more room for the younger, richer customers to come shopping. Supermarket managers are notoriously hard hearted when it comes to maximising their turnover.

In level 4 we are allowed to leave home for the purpose of exercise, though we are only allowed to walk around our immediate neighbourhood. We aren’t allowed to drive any distance. As a result of this rule, Jake and I have spent a lot of time wandering up and down and round and about. Every day, we see a lot of people. Some of them are out with their families and some of them are walking their dogs. The dogs of New Zealand are all having a wonderful time in level 4 – many of them have never had so many daily walks in their lives before and, one and all, they are absolutely loving it.

Because so many families with young children are now exploring their neighbourhood, a lot of people have been putting teddy bears in their windows for the children to hunt down. Collecting teddy bear sightings has quickly become more popular than collecting pokemon. In many houses, whole families of furries smile benignly through the glass at the passing children and one particularly ingenious household has arranged a teddy bears picnic in their front garden with different attendees every day and different food on the picnic table. Another house that Jake and I walk past most days has the largest teddy bear that I’ve ever seen hanging from a drainpipe. She rotates gently in whatever breeze happens to waft her way. She is wearing a pretty orange dress and, because she is outside where people might come close to her, she has a surgical mask over her nose and mouth so as to prevent her from infecting anyone should she chance to sneeze on passers by.

I imagine that most parents are at their wits end trying to keep their young children occupied during the lockdown. I’ve noticed that many pavements are now covered with chalk drawings, and a lot of hopscotch court layouts have started to appear, some of them quite elaborate. The old pastimes are still the best ones. Gardens are beginning to fill up with brightly painted stones. In one garden,  a small teddy bear has been equipped with a paintbrush and he is busily painting as many stones as he can, though only when nobody is looking of course.

Robin has been occupying her time by excavating a new garden in the back yard. She has dug up vast swathes of lawn and bordered it with brick and concrete. She is turning the earth over and over seeking out stones and carefully saving them. She intends to build a rockery with them at some point. Jake the Dog and Gilbert the Cat think this is the most marvellous thing that they have ever seen and they are eager to help her as much as they can. As a result of their help, our carpets are covered with muddy paw prints, so we’ve been doing a lot of vacuuming as well.

When Robin first started her project, the back yard quickly took on the appearance of a World War I battlefield. Shell craters, rubble, uprooted plants and shattered trees were everywhere. Now, the place looks more like a graveyard with heaped piles of freshly tilled earth arranged in regular rows. I haven’t seen any of our neighbours for several days, but I keep telling myself that’s just a coincidence.

There have been two public holidays during the lockdown period. Easter passed largely unremarked and unremarkable, though for the first time ever the holiday road toll was zero because nobody was allowed to drive anywhere. Clouds and silver linings spring to mind...

Gaily coloured Easter eggs were chalked on driveways and garage doors. Many of them looked to be so professionally drawn and were so intricately detailed that they must have taken many, many hours of effort to produce. I can only assume that the teddy bears were giving their people a helping hand.

ANZAC day, at the end of April, was rather different and rather difficult. ANZAC day commemorates the landings at Gallipoli in the first world war. Australian and New Zealand troops – the ANZACs – bore the brunt of the fighting and ANZAC day is our equivalent of Remembrance Day in the UK. Typically the day involves a lot of people wearing poppies and getting together at dawn to hold a service in remembrance of the dead from far too many wars. But such large gatherings are strictly forbidden under the level 4 lockdown rules. So instead, people were encouraged to stand at the end of their driveways as the sun rose, and to listen to a service that was broadcast on the radio. I’m sure that a lot of people did exactly that, though I was not one of them.

A host of white crosses decorated with poppies appeared overnight in the grounds of a local school. Every cross was inscribed in black ink with the name of a soldier who had died in the fighting at Gallipoli.

One house that Jake and I walked past on that ANZAC day morning had obviously put in a lot of effort for ANZAC day. The trees in the garden and on the verge of the pavement were festooned with carefully crafted home made poppies, all coloured a deep fiery red. Photographs of four soldiers were pinned to the fence together with a brief outline of their service record and the dates of their deaths in battle. Written in chalk on the pavement, in a beautifully clear and impeccable calligraphy, were Laurence Binyon’s unforgettable words:

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Every line of the verse was written with a different colour chalk.

Normally I don’t pay very much attention to the ANZAC day celebrations, but I found this display to be tremendously moving and as Jake and I walked past it, being careful not to step on any of the words, I had a definite lump in my throat.

Some good things have come out of the level 4 lockdown.

* * * *

Jacinda Ardern and Ashley Bloomfield held daily televised press conferences to keep us up to date with what was happening in the country. The Jacinda And Ashley Show soon became the most popular reality TV programme that has ever been broadcast. Everybody tuned in every day. Sometimes Jacinda and Ashley were joined by Chris Hipkins, the Minister with special responsibility for implementing covid policies. One day, Chris made a bit of a faux pas. When talking about the spread of the infection he accidentally uttered the phrase "...spread your legs..." Goodness knows what he had been thinking of.

The press had a field day of course, and he was ridiculed up and down the country. But he got his own back. In the next episode of the Jacinda And Ashley Show, Chris was observed smirking and taking sly sips from a mug which had his photograph on it together with the legend, "Spread Your Legs. Don’t Spread Covid."

It was a masterly touch, and his popularity soared. The manufacturer of the mugs couldn’t keep up with the demand. Millions of them were sold and fortunes were made. The triumvirate of Jacinda, Ashley and Chris could do no wrong.

Because of our initial strict lockdown, we soon got the outbreak under control and we began to drop down through the levels. We also closed our borders. Only NZ citizens were allowed to return home and once they arrived they had to enter a strict quarantine regime until they were proved to be free of covid. Contact tracing, social distancing and the isolation of infectious cases worked wonders. Covid was completely eliminated from the community and life went back to normal for the next eighteen months or so. In total, we’d had only a few hundred cases in the community and only ten or so deaths. It seemed that we were doing something right.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world appeared to be going to hell in a handbasket.

And then, vaccines began to be available and the message from the government changed. Vaccination was now seen as our most important weapon in the fight against the disease. This is what happened when I went for my vaccination…

* * * *

"Ready to go for your covid jab?" asked Robin.

"Indeed I am," I said.

Robin drove me to the vaccination station, just in case I had an adverse reaction to the injection. We didn’t think that was likely – when Robin had her jab all she got was a slightly sore arm and a bit of a spacey feeling for a couple of days. But you never know how these things will turn out and so we decided to err on the side of caution.

They’ve been doing covid jabs for quite some time now and the system is well rehearsed, very streamlined and very efficient. As soon as we walked through the door the receptionist asked, "First jab or second one?"

"First," I said.

"Fill in this form," he said, handing me one. "And read this leaflet," he handed me one of those as well.

"Do you want me to do both of those things simultaneously?" I asked, anxious not to break the system.

"Yes," he said, and grinned.

The form was very simple. It just wanted my name, address and phone number. I filled it in and checked what I’d written with my right eye while, at the same time, I read the leaflet with my left eye. The leaflet explained why the vaccination was necessary in English, Maori, several Pasifika languages, Cantonese and Sign. It contained no new information in any of its languages.

"Take your form over to the desk," said the receptionist, pointing to the desk in case I’d never seen one before, "and give it to one of the people there. They’ll check you into the database and assign you a queue number. When your number is called, go into the main hall for your injection."

I thanked him and took my form over to the desk. One of the people there took it from me and tapped away on a keyboard for a minute or so."Thank you," he said. "Your queue number is 180." He scribbled the number in the top left hand corner of my form and handed it back to me. "Take a seat over there," he gestured at several rows of chairs where a small crowd of people were waiting patiently. "When your number is called, go into the main hall over there."

"Thank you," I said and I went at sat by Robin who had already gone over to the chairs and claimed a couple of them.

As I sat down, the lady standing by the entrance to the main hall called out, "159!" in a voice that completely filled the waiting room. She was clearly ideally suited to her job. A man, presumably the person whose number was 159, stood up and walked over to the number caller who looked at his form and then let him through into the hall.

"What’s your number?" asked Robin.

"180," I said, showing her my form. Since we were only up to 159, there would clearly be a reasonable wait before my number would be called.

Robin frowned as she examined my form. "Are you sure it’s 180?" she asked. "It looks more like 186 to me."

I looked at the form. She was right. The zero at the end of my number curled round and twisted in on itself leaving a tail at the top which made it look very much like a six. Or possibly it was meant to be a mutated omega-variant covid virus with only one super-sharp and super-deadly spike. I took the form back to the person who had issued the number to me. "Is that 180," I asked, "or is it 186?"

He checked the form against the information on his screen. "Definitely 180," he said. "Sorry about that. I’m not very good with zeros. They’re far too circular for comfort. I’m always frightened that they will roll away and fall off the edge of the paper." He scribbled over the imitation 6 until it more closely resembled a zero. "There you are," he said and I went back to my seat.

"161!" called the numbers lady. "162 and 163!"

"That’s strange," I said to Robin, "I don’t recall hearing her call out 160. Did you hear it?"

"I wasn’t listening," said Robin. "I was reading my book."

"Perhaps she called it while I was re-checking my own number," I said. "That would explain why I missed it."

For the next few minutes she called out numbers at random intervals and people scuttled past her into the main hall, looking anxious. I listened closely, and finally she called out, "171!". My suspicions were confirmed. She definitely hadn’t called for 170. I began to worry that I might not get jabbed at all if she continued the trend and missed out 180. Perhaps I’d have to sit there for ever, endlessly waiting for my number to be called until I slowly disintegrated into dust and got vacuumed up and thrown away by the cleaners. I listened nervously for a few minutes as the numbers slowly mounted up and then I heard, "181!".

I took my form over to the number caller. "I’m number 180," I said, showing her my form. "You just called 181 but you didn’t call for 180. What should I do?"

She looked at me, bewildered. Clearly multiples of ten were not part of her numerical vocabulary. "I don’t know," she said. She shrugged helplessly. "You’d better just go in," she said. "Jennifer will look after you."

I went in to the main hall and a nurse with a name tag that had Jennifer printed on it collected me. "Just come with me," she said. She took me into a small booth and sat me down on a chair. "Now I just have to ask you a few questions to confirm that it’s OK to go ahead," she said. "First of all, are you willing to have the covid-19 vaccination?"

"Yes, of course I am," I said, slightly puzzled. "That’s why I’ve come here after all. Are you seriously telling me that people actually show up, then have second thoughts, and refuse the jab?"

"It happens," she said. "Not very often, but it does happen. So that’s why we have to check." She made a note. "Now," she asked, "do you have any allergies?"

"I’m allergic to nuts," I said, "and I’m quite intolerant to eggs."

She made another note. "That’s fine," she said. "Neither of those will have any effect on this injection. Are you taking any blood-thinner drugs?"

"No," I said. I looked around the little cubicle. There was a large sheet of paper pinned to the wall and the questions she was asking me were all listed on it. Presumably it was there to act as an aide mémoire. She went through the questions on the list one by one and when I had answered them to her satisfaction she asked me to roll up my sleeve. "You missed one of the questions out," I said, pointing to the list. "You didn’t ask me if I was pregnant."

She smiled. "No," she said. "In my experience, men are seldom, if ever, pregnant"

"How do you know I’m a man?" I asked

"I can tell by the size of your enormous..." she paused for a heartbeat, "Adam’s Apple." We both had a little chuckle. "Learning about the differences between men and women is one of the very first things we study at nursing school," she said. "I’ve had lots of practice at it over the years, and I’ve really got quite good at identifying men. I hardly ever get it wrong. Also your beard is a dead give away."

"That’s amazing," I said. "I had no idea such skills existed. You learn something new every day."

"Yes, you do," she said. "Then you die and forget everything you’ve ever learned. Bit of a bummer really, eh?"

I nodded agreement and rolled up my sleeve for her. "There," she said. "All done."

"Are you sure?" I asked. "I didn’t feel a thing."

"Quite sure," she said. She filled in the vaccination details on a little card and gave it to me. "Hand this in to the lady at the desk," she said, "and then go and sit in the waiting area for twenty minutes or so just to make sure that you don’t have an allergic reaction to the injection. The lady will come and collect you when your time is up and then you can go home."

I did as I was told and went to sit with Robin who had already gone to the waiting area. "How was it?" she asked me.

"Excellent," I said. "The 5G reception is just brilliant. I’ve already had a welcome text from Bill Gates himself. Actually, I’ve had 83 welcome texts from Bill Gates. I think the chip they injected into me might have a bug in it."

"No it hasn’t," said Robin. "It’s just a typical Microsoft product. They never quite perform exactly to the specification."

After about twenty minutes I heard my name being called. "That’s me," I said.

The lady I’d given my card to handed it back to me. "Are you feeling OK?" she asked.

"Never better," I reassured her.

"That’s good," she said. "We’ll see you back here in a few weeks for your second jab. Don’t forget to bring this vaccination card with you."

I put the card away in my wallet. Robin and I walked out to the car and she drove me home. By the time we arrived, the body magnetism was starting to kick in and I noticed that the kitchen knives were quivering in the knife block when I walked past them. "I hope the magnetism doesn’t get any stronger," I said. "Those knives are sharp! If they fly out of the block under the influence of my amplified magnetic personality I could get seriously injured."

"Don’t worry," said Robin. "It doesn’t get strong enough to do that. The worst you’ll have to put up with is paper clips. You simply can’t get rid of them. They fly in from absolutely everywhere and you wouldn’t believe the orifices they work their way into. I’ve never itched so much in my life."

"I’ll look forward to that," I said. "Perhaps I can pretend that I’m wearing chain mail."

Over the next few days I developed a slightly sore arm. And as Robin had predicted, I soon managed to build up an enormous paper clip collection, which was very satisfying. As an added bonus, I also developed an uncanny ability to use my body magnetism to distort the pictures on television screens and computer monitors. My dog and cat both became autistic, of course, but that was only to be expected. On balance, I’m very satisfied with how everything has turned out.

* * * *

And then the highly infectious delta variant arrived in the country and we went back into level four lockdown as soon as the first case was identified in the community. Back in the UK, Nigel Farage was particularly scathing about what we had done. "Only one case and they go into lockdown," he sneered. "What are they afraid of?"

We were afraid of the infection rate of course, and events quickly proved us right. Within a very few days, that one single case had ballooned into more than 5000. Goodness knows how many there would have been if we hadn’t been in lockdown. Some models suggested that we could have had more than 100,000 cases every day. We would never have been able to cope with that. We struggled to cope with the 5000 that we actually got. But somehow we managed.

Vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate was the message. By now the efficacy of mask wearing had been proved and it wasn’t long before both vaccination and mask mandates were implemented. People employed in important, public facing roles such as health care had to be fully vaccinated and masks had to be worn wherever people gathered together. People who worked in vaccine mandated jobs who did not get vaccinated were redeployed into roles where they did not interact with the public. If they could not be redeployed they were dismissed from their jobs. My dentist refused to be vaccinated. She was one of the most skilled dental surgeons in the country – she consulted at several regional hospitals as well as running her own practice. But the rules were clear, and she was gone,

Mind you, dentists are notoriously eccentric. When I lived in Wellington, my first class dentist who I greatly admired and with whom I felt very comfortable, was rabidly anti-fluoridation. So I wasn’t very surprised to find that my current dentist was an anti-vaxer…

Contact tracing, quarantine, isolation and mask wearing were rigidly enforced while the delta variant ran amok. The vaccination programme went into high gear. One lunatic managed to get himself ten vaccination doses by pretending to be several different people. Goodness me…

After a few months, the number of new cases began to drop from thousands, to hundreds and then to double figures. And we only had 25 reported deaths.

New Zealand is one of the very few countries that managed to successfully contain the delta variant of covid. I think we should do a lot of self-back-patting over that one. Hardly anybody else managed it.

But just as we were starting to relax again, the omicron variant arrived and suddenly all bets were off.

We entered the omicron phase with about 95% of the country double vaccinated. And of those people eligible for a booster, about 70% had availed themselves of it. Those are very high vaccination levels and I think they have proved their worth. At the peak of the omicron phase, we were getting (in round figures) about 30,000 new cases a day. But we never had more than about 500 in hospital at any one time and only about 50 cases in intensive care. Our health system could cope with that (just). Without such high vaccination levels, I suspect we’d have quickly been overwhelmed. But as it is, we are coping, though it continues to be a struggle.

Unfortunately one price that we have had to pay is that we’ve now had about 1000 covid deaths. That is far too many.

We’ve had so many covid cases in the community now that just about everybody knows someone who has been infected. I myself have had two narrow escapes – one of my dog walking friends came down with it. I haven’t seen her now for almost a month and I confess that I’m worried that she might have become one of the serious cases. She’s in her eighties, which makes her very vulnerable.

One Tuesday morning I went to see my accountant to discuss this and that. We both wore masks during the discussion. The following Saturday she developed symptoms and she tested positive for covid the next day. Accepted wisdom says that she was probably infectious from about Wednesday onwards so I think I dodged a bullet there. It’s been nearly two weeks now since our appointment and I haven’t come down with anything yet. Phew!

As I write these words, omicron infections have dropped to about 8000 new cases a day so it looks like we are starting to come out of it. The figures are still worryingly high though, and it looks like there may be new, more infectious variants on their way. The crisis is by no means over.

But what about the anti-vaxers I hear you ask. Ah! Thereby hangs a tale…

* * * *

At the start of 2022 rumblings of discontent came to a head and several disparate groups of protesters congregated in the grounds outside parliament. They chose their time with exquisite care – parliament was in recess and not a single MP or Minister was present at parliament to listen to them. This was only first of many very stupid decisions made by these very stupid people…

The protesters consisted of a lot of different groups, most of whom hated each other. Quite how they managed to get themselves together in the first place somewhat beggars belief. There were the usual Qanon lunatics and the traditional anti-vaxers of course, but there were lots of pro-vaxers as well, people who who were strongly in favour of vaccinations, but who simply disagreed with the mandates that enforced them.

A whole pile of Trumpistas turned up wearing red MAGA hats and carrying "Stop the Steal" banners. Quite what they were hoping to achieve is anybody’s guess, though one of them tried to claim that MAGA stood for "Make Ardern Go Away". Nobody believed that for a minute.

There were several groups protesting against recent government decisions about the treatment and supply of drinking water to the country. There were even a crowd of protesters gathered together around a Tino Rangatiratanga flag – Tino Rangatiratanga is a Maori sovereignty movement. Interestingly, the official Tino Rangatiratanga organisation issued a statement disassociating itself from the protesters. They said that the protesters were bringing the movement and the flag into disrepute by their behaviour. Tino Rangatiratanga gained themselves a lot of mana (respect) when they took that stance.

Rather more worryingly, there was also a contingent of "Sheriffs" – these are an offshoot of the American Sovereign Citizen movement. They claim that the New Zealand government has no legitimacy and therefore the Prime Minister is leading an illegal, criminal organisation. Consequently the Sheriffs have passed death sentences on the Prime Minister and senior government Ministers in the name of the people and they seem quite keen to carry those sentences out. I imagine our security services are keeping a rather close eye on them even as we speak…

The police surrounded the protesters with witches-hat road cones and stood in a thin blue line behind the cones to try and keep the protesters isolated. It had little effect – there are so many ways in and out of the parliament grounds that the protesters seemed to be able to come and go as they pleased. A lot of people asked why the police didn’t simply disperse the protesters but the response was always that the people were simply exercising their legal right to protest and removing them would involve an unacceptable level of violence that the public would simply not stand for.

Eventually the witches-hats were replaced with a more solid barrier of concrete blocks which contained the protesters rather better. Everybody settled down to see what would happen next.

Days went by and a rather nasty faecal stench began to float around the areas where the protesters were camping out. Somebody arranged for some portaloos, but there weren’t nearly enough of them (and the few that were there weren’t emptied very often). The whole place got quite unpleasant. People passing by the protest site on their way to work reported lots of threats and intimidation from the protesters. People wearing masks were particularly often picked on. Sometimes the threats boiled over into scuffles and several arrests were made.

The government was asked why they weren’t negotiating with the protesters. "We’d love to negotiate," said a government spokesman, "but the protesters have so many different points of view that they haven’t been able to decide who to appoint as a negotiator. We really want to talk to them, but they can’t find anyone who is able to talk to us." It all sounded more than a little Alice in Wonderland-ish. Lewis Carroll would have absolutely loved the paradox.

The concrete block barrier was not completely impermeable and every so often reporters slipped through and interviewed someone. One item that I saw involved the reporter talking to a person who was wearing a rather crumpled but carefully constructed tinfoil hat.

"How are things going?" asked the reporter.

"Great," said the man. "Morale is high and we’re in here for the long haul. A lot of people are starting to get runny noses and sore throats and they are running a bit of a fever. But she’ll be right."

"Do you think they might be coming down with covid?" asked the reporter.

"Naah mate," said the protester. "There’s no such thing as covid. Covid is just a government hoax. It’s those concrete blocks they’ve surrounded us with that are causing it."

"The concrete blocks?" asked the reporter, sounding puzzled.

"That’s right," said the man, adjusting his tinfoil hat to a more rakish angle for the camera. "The government have embedded 5G transmitters into them and they’ve been beaming radiation at us for days. But I’m OK – my hat keeps me safe."

If I hadn’t seen that with my own eyes and heard it with my own ears I’d have refused to believe that such ignorance and stupidity could co-exist in a person. Morons just gotta moron, I suppose.

Entrepreneurs started to get rich by buying up rolls of tinfoil from the local supermarkets and selling them to the protesters at highly inflated prices.

Eventually everybody got fed up with the stench, the violence, the noise and the stupidity. After 23 days the police moved in and dispersed the protesters. There was some small violence, though nowhere near as much as there would have been at the start of the protest when everybody was fresh and angry. The police did a marvellous job of judging the mood of both the country and of the protesters. Their strategy was perfectly judged and their tactics were exemplary. That’s a sentence I never thought I’d ever be able to write about the police.

* * * *

So why has New Zealand coped so well with covid? What’s the secret of our success? Partly it’s our geographic isolation, of course. We are thousands of miles away from anywhere else so it’s easy to close and police our borders. But much more important is the fact that our government has paid attention to the scientific and public health experts who were advising it. The government always implemented the advice it received even when that advice was in direct conflict with the government’s own political and economic goals. Some things are more important than party politics. Some things transcend political dogma, and our government was wise enough to recognise that and to act upon it.

And so every day, in each new episode of the Jacinda And Ashley Show, they told us what they were going to do, why they were going to do it, and exactly how they would implement it. And they told us those things in plain, straightforward English sentences. No spin, no doubletalk, no circumlocutory prolixity, no politicising. Just plain English.

They never lied to us, and they never took advantage of their own privileged position. One minister thought the rules didn’t apply to him (because he was a Minister and Ministers are special). He did something stupid. A grim faced Jacinda castigated him very publicly in the very next episode of the Jacinda And Ashley Show. She said that under normal circumstances she’d have sacked him. But the circumstances were not normal and she needed his expertise. So, reluctantly, she decided to let him keep his job. But a few days later he did another stupid thing and that was the final straw. Expertise or no expertise, he was a proven liability, and he was gone by the end of the episode.

So we succeeded because we had a competent government and a competent civil service to implement that government’s decisions. Those decisions were based on solid scientific advice. And the government applied the same rules to itself as they applied to the country at large. That’s all it took – competence, honesty and integrity. But very few governments in the world managed to exhibit all three of those characteristics at one and the same time (some couldn’t manage any of them). If those governments had demonstrated more ability in any or all of those three principles, perhaps they’d have been as successful as we have been.

Our response to covid has been one of the most successful in the world and we deserve to be very proud of ourselves for that. New Zealanders sometimes jokingly refer to their country as Godzone. I think we might be right...

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