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What would my grandfather think?

This Saturday, March 25, it will be three years since New Zealand entered its first covid lockdown.

It’s fair to say things haven’t been the same since.

I’m sure many of us remember where we were when we heard Level 4 was imminent. Me, I was floating in Cook Strait. My mum, stepdad and I were on the Bluebridge, on our way to North Canterbury for my grandfather’s funeral. We were barely out of Wellington Harbour when the Prime Minister made her announcement: Quarantine would commence in a little over 48 hours. Then, a text from Rangiora – the funeral was cancelled.

For the next two days, unable to get an earlier sailing home, my parents and I were holed up in a hotel room in Picton. In the end, our family was able to hold an impromptu online service for Granddad: Which we joined via FaceTime, with Mum’s iPhone propped up against the chilly bin. Apparently, virtual funerals soon became the norm.

I digress. Lockdown came and went – since then, we’ve had more covid variants, more stays inside “the bubble”, the Traffic Light system, vaccine mandates, and government enquiries. We adjusted to working from home, had some fractious social media discussions, and witnessed public displays of violence.

Three years on …what have we learned from this experience?

On the whole, Aotearoa has been fortunate. As epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker wrote for RNZ, the New Zealand government’s strategy of elimination helped minimise infection and death in the first two years of the pandemic. The scientific community agrees that high vaccination rates helped prevent more serious illness.

We have, however, learned that both responses had some bugs.

During the first lockdown, New Zealand’s disabled community was isolated by a lack of accessible information and patchy access to care. The government was criticised for creating a “two tier” welfare system — with higher payments for those made redundant than for existing beneficiaries. The vaccine rollout has faced censure for its inaccessibility to Māori, Pasifika, and rural communities.

The pandemic also highlighted our many systemic inequities: the housing crisis, food insecurity, and gaping holes in our health workforce, which the government is still scrambling to fill.

These are difficult conversations — but, if we’re going to face another pandemic, some introspection on how we treat our most vulnerable would be helpful.

Speaking of – We’ve learned a virus can be policitised, and that public health measures can morph into “government control”. We’ve learned how easily conspiracy theories can proliferate. Which isn’t new — both the 1918 flu pandemic and the Aids crisis brought a few out of the woodwork. The internet just accelerates them.

A question: Is it possible to police online misinformation, without further alienating those already feeling disenfranchised?

Unfortunately, covid has revealed an undercurrent of cruelty and violence within our supposedly progressive society. This was obvious not only during the Parliament occupation, but in the rise of internet abuse towards women, people of colour, and religious minorities. Probably not a good time to shelve the hate speech legislation. Others will disagree, no doubt.

Taking stock, I feel a little jaded. Covid has absolutely brought out the worst in some people. Not sure what my dear Granddad would make of it all.

That said, New Zealanders are still coming through for others. Checking in on lonely neighbours, delivering hand sanitiser and masks to struggling whanau, and putting together care packages for exhausted health workers … there’s still plenty of good in our communities. Always worth celebrating.

It’s been a tough few years, Wairarapa. I hope the next few are gentler on us all.

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall is the editor of the Wairarapa Midweek. She has been a journalist for the past 10 years, and has a keen interest in arts, culture, social issues, and community justice.

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