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The topic was the level 4 lockdown caused by the covid-19 pandemic. This piece is an expansion of something I wrote for my wot i red on my hols column for may 2020. I've added a lot to it and fixed up the tenses so that it reads as if I'm looking back on what happened (as indeed I am). The original was in the present tense to give more of a sense of immediacy. I much prefer this expanded version.


Life in Level 4 Lockdown

The global covid-19 pandemic put us into level 4 lockdown at the end of March 2020. We stayed there for five weeks. In level 4 we were required to stay at home as much as possible and to maintain a social distance of 2 metres between ourselves and any other people should we happen to encounter them while we were outside. We were only allowed to go out for essential purposes such as exercise, grocery shopping and visits to the doctor or the pharmacy. All retail outlets other than supermarkets and pharmacies were closed. Only essential services continued to operate. The definition of essential was somewhat vague…

About two weeks into the lockdown period my shower got colder and colder. Shivering, shrivelled and blue, I rang a plumber. "Is hot water an essential service?" I asked.

"Indeed it is," said the plumber.

"I haven’t got any," I said, "and I’d like some."

"In the first instance," said the plumber, "you should ring Unison, the lines company. The chances are good that there’s a fault on the hot water circuit. If that is the case, it’s their responsibility to fix it at no charge to you."

He gave me the number for Unison and I rang it. A delightful lady assured me that a technician would be there shortly, and she wasn’t wrong. A man wearing an orange jumpsuit and a face mask arrived almost as soon as I hung up the phone. He pointed a gadget at my fuse box and scowled at the reading it gave him. "There’s a problem somewhere down there," he said waving vaguely at the wild blue yonder and making sure to keep a social distance away from me. The fact that I was holding on grimly to a lunging, barking, slavering dog probably helped a lot with the social distancing thing. "I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole street has no hot water," he said. "You’re just the first to notice it."

He trotted off somewhere and, for want of anything better to do, I took Jake the Dog for a walk. We walked past the Unison man who was upside down in a hole in the road. He was poking dubiously at a cable. Jake gave him an encouraging bark to wish him luck and peed in his hole.

An hour or so later Jake and I returned from our walk. The Unison man was still upside down in his hole but the hole was now considerably larger than once it had been. An hour or so after that, he walked up to our lounge window and gave us a thumbs up through the glass. He must have done something right because it wasn’t long before our water heated up again.

Two days later he was back, digging another hole further down the street. Presumably somebody else was having hot water problems. Perhaps the enforced idleness of level 4 meant that everyone was soaking themselves in luxuriously hot baths, sipping champagne and nibbling caviare, thereby overloading and breaking the circuit to the hot water heaters.

Amusingly, apart from the lack of hot water, I found the practical effects of the level 4 lockdown rules to be not very onerous. 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. I have no life and I greatly enjoy my lack of one. So the lockdown had very little impact at all on my lifestyle. The person who noticed the effect of the level 4 rules the most is Jake the Dog who simply could not understand why he wasn’t allowed to talk to his friends any more when we went for walks. He’s a very sociable and gregarious dog who loves being with people, and no matter how many times I explained the rules of social distancing to him, he just didn’t get it.

I’m also one of the very lucky ones. I have no mortgage to pay off, and I have no job to lose as the economy slowly grinds to a halt and businesses start to shed workers left, right and centre. My pension payment turns up automatically in my bank account and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. I have sufficient savings to top up the pension as and when required so as to allow myself the occasional luxury. Therefore, unlike many people, I have absolutely no financial or employment worries at all. This too made the lockdown much easier for me to bear. A lot of people do not have that degree of financial security. Clearly they are hurting and they will continue to hurt after the lockdown ends. This sits uneasily on the soul of my social conscience.

Supermarket shopping changed quite a lot as a result of the lockdown. Initially there was a lot of bulk buying as people began to hoard the things that 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. The nett effect was a bit like the miracle of the loaves and fishes, only in reverse!

Once it became clear that supermarkets would stay open during the lockdown and that they were re-stocking as rapidly as they could, there seemed to me to be very little point in bulk buying. But the message didn’t get through to many of the shopping zombies shuffling and lurching up and down the aisles. My local supermarket quickly covered itself with big, red notices urging the shoppers (somewhat ungrammatically) to "Shop Normal". Naturally, the zombie shoppers paid no attention whatsoever to that instruction. Presumably the bad grammar offended them so they were buying in bulk in an attempt to ameliorate the brain-dead pain it caused them.

To begin with, the most popular items in the 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 buying habit didn’t last and the shelves were soon fully populated again. I’m really not quite sure why people felt such a 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 the stuff was almost completely 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…

In Australia a budding entrepreneur recruited a team of shoppers to buy toilet paper for him. He ended up with a pile of toilet paper rolls worth about $10,000 which he then tried to sell at a profit on ebay. Unfortunately for him, everybody else in Australia had already equipped themselves with more toilet paper than they knew what to do with. Consequently he failed to sell a single sheet of it to anyone. Finally, in desperation, he took it all back to his local supermarket and tried to return it for cash. The supermarket refused to take the stock back from him so he ended up $10,000 out of pocket. But, to look on the bright side, at least he now had enough toilet paper squirrelled away in his house to last him for the rest of his life. And enough for his next life as well. And the one after that...

My own shopping habits changed drastically as a result of the lockdown. No longer could I just dash off to the supermarket whenever I felt like it to quickly pick up whatever small item it was that I needed for tonight’s dinner. Instead, I now had to plan my menus far in advance and turn up with a list so that I didn’t forget anything. It pays to be thoroughly prepared, because I have to queue to get in to the supermarket and so shopping takes 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.

The supermarket opens at 7.00am every day. Initially queues began to form at 6.00am as people waited desperately for an opportunity to binge buy their favourite flavour of toilet paper. But over time the demand for such things died down and soon the early morning queues became much less populated. The arrival of the colder weather probably helped with that. Nobody enjoys the eerie feeling of snot icicles dangling from their nostrils in the early morning as they wait in a queue to go shopping. Also, the internet quickly filled up with helpful suggestions about practical toilet paper alternatives, which removed a lot of the worry about running out. In an emergency, you can use coffee filter papers as a substitute, though it does make the coffee taste rather strange...

At first I didn’t have to queue for very long when I went to the supermarket. All I had to do was produce my Super Gold Card which proved that I was old and decrepit and 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 that happy state of affairs didn’t last very long. One day I went to the supermarket and produced my gold card as usual, only to be 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.

As a result of this policy change, I started going to the supermarket about 7.45am, immediately after Jake and I got back from our morning walk. Because the initial panic buying spree had faded away, there were no longer any queues at such an early hour so I could go straight in and shop to my heart’s content. It felt just like old times...

In level 4 we were allowed to leave home for the purpose of exercise, though we were only allowed to walk around our immediate neighbourhood. We weren’t allowed to drive any distance. As a result of this rule, Jake and I spent a lot of time wandering up and down and round and about, exploring strange new worlds and boldly going where no man or dog had ever gone before. Every day, we saw a lot of people doing the same as us. Some of them were out with their families and some of them were just walking their dogs. The dogs of New Zealand were all having a wonderful time in level 4 – many of them had never had so many daily walks in their lives before and, one and all, they were absolutely loving it.

Because so many young children were exploring their neighbourhood in level 4, a lot of people put teddy bears in their windows for the children to hunt down. Collecting teddy bear sightings quickly became more popular than collecting pokemon. In many houses, whole families of furries smiled benignly through the glass at the passing children and one particularly ingenious household 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 walked past most days had the largest teddy bear that I’ve ever seen strapped securely to a drainpipe. She rotated gently in whatever breeze happened to waft her way. She wore a pretty orange dress and, because she was outside where people might come close to her, she had 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 were at their wits end trying to keep their young children occupied during the lockdown. I noticed that many pavements were starting to become covered with chalk drawings, and a lot of hopscotch court layouts started to appear, some of them quite elaborate. The old pastimes are still the best ones. Gardens began to fill up with brightly painted stones. In one garden,  a small teddy bear was equipped with a paintbrush and he was busily painting as many stones as he can, though only when nobody was looking of course.

Robin occupied her time by excavating a new garden in the back yard. She dug up vast swathes of lawn and bordered it with brick and concrete. She turned 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 thought this was the most marvellous thing that they had ever seen and they were eager to help her as much as they could. As a result of their help, our carpets soon became 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, shattered trees and dead Belgian soldiers were scattered everywhere. But eventually she got it under control and 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. Some sort of saying about 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 was rather difficult. ANZAC day commemorations typically involve a lot of people 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. 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 that 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 written in chalk on the pavement, in a beautifully clear and quite 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 in a different colour.

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. A proper appreciation of the past is not the least of these.


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