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

What life in one neighbourhood says about New Zealand’s bold, and seemingly successful, plan to eliminate COVID-19.

Ethan Donnell - coronavirus New Zealand
Empty motorways are seen during the coronavirus lockdown in Wellington, New Zealand in April, 2020 [Anadolu/Mike Clare]

Thorndon, Wellington, New Zealand – 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 cover the 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.

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Jess Sandoval with her eight-year-old son Jorge outside their home in Thorndon [Ethan Donnell/Al Jazeera]

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.

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A supportive message – ‘kia kaha’ or ‘be strong’ – taped to the window of a home in Thorndon [Ethan Donnell/Al Jazeera]

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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Thorndon New World has operated a ‘one in, one out’ policy during New Zealand’s lockdown [Ethan Donnell/Al Jazeera]

The first days of the lockdown were marked with uncertainty, as the number of cases skyrocketed. At a daily news conference, Ardern issued her statements as if they were reassuring notes. “Shop normally,” she urged. “The supply chain is strong; we won’t run out of food.”

Jack’s presence – and the presence of other supermarket workers like him – was evidence of the truth in these words, signifying that, even as demand surged, supply chains remained intact. His job placed him on the front line and yet he would only be paid slightly more than minimum wage, a temporary 12 US cents increase as long as the country remained at alert level four, taking his pay to US$11.50 per hour.

Jack, like many others on the front line, worried about catching the virus. Then two weeks into the lockdown he came down with a fever and cough. He drove out to Wellington Hospital to be tested. “It came back negative,” he said, speaking on a midweek day in April. “I’ll be back at work on Saturday.”

‘Don’t pop the bubble’

In the 1960s, practically half of Thorndon was bulldozed to accommodate the construction of a new motorway. Almost 60 years later, the Wellington Motorway roughly divides the neighbourhood in two: tall office buildings and government institutions on one side, residential buildings on the other. On a typical weekday, 44,000 cars would pass along the motorway, mostly people commuting to and from the city.

It is a few weeks into lockdown and the motorway below is virtually deserted. Jess walks up the hill from New World towards the Hawkestone Street overpass, carrying groceries, most for herself and her son, except a few items that are for her next-door neighbour, also a single mother, who is immunocompromised.

At the edge of the motorway among the bush, is a makeshift shelter, fortified over the last six months by a man who is homeless. In December, he hung Christmas decorations from branches. Now Jess notices groceries have been left at the entrance to his home: canned goods, chocolate, toilet paper. She leaves behind a bottle of milk and continues walking.

The school holidays were brought forward to coincide with the start of lockdown, giving schools time to make arrangements for remote learning. Meaning that, for the time being, every day has been “like the weekend” for her son, Jorge. The other day, the two of them had created a stained-glass window, creatively using tape and the paints she ordered. Later that day, they would make balloon animals. For Jess, this meant conquering her lifelong globophobia (fear of balloons popping). “It took two hours for me to make one,” she remembers. “He thought it was hilarious.”

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Jess balances her son Jorge in the air, as part of a yoga pose. The garage of their home turned into a miniature yoga studio and sometimes classroom during lockdown [Ethan Donnell/Al Jazeera]

At bedtime, often swaddled beneath a pile of blankets, she and her son have a conversation about “how each other’s heart has done that day”. Two weeks into the lockdown, Jorge had become irritable, not wanting to eat or even change out of his pyjamas. One night before bed, he confided in her his worries. Maybe he would never see his grandparents or cousins again.

“He explained to me that his heart had been feeling quite sad,” she remembers, “and he needed to cry.” The next day Jess was able to schedule Zoom calls with the family who were only a short drive away, but unable to be met in person to protect the bubble.

“Don’t pop the bubble” had already entered the national lexicon alongside other uniquely Kiwi expressions like “sweet as”, meaning “no problem”, and “yeah, nah” – a way to sort of not really agree with someone. Jacinda Ardern’s own bubble, Premier House, which includes her own 18-month-old daughter Neve, was just up the road from Jess.

But parents who were separated, and shared custody of children, were allowed to extend their bubble across two households. Such was the case for Jess and her ex-husband, both of whom have partners but agreed not to see them during the lockdown to ensure their bubble would not pop. The arrangement has proven effective, with Jorge spending time with his mother while his father works.

“The only downfall is the medication I have to take,” Jess says, explaining how she often lowers her dosage while caring for her son to avoid the drowsiness that comes as a side effect of her antibiotics. A few weeks into the lockdown, she was in immense pain, a chronic bout of endometriosis, and ended up collapsing in the toilet. Eventually, her ex-husband was able to come and take her to Wellington Hospital. Though she would be discharged two days later, she feared catching the virus.

“That’s the scary part for me,” she says. “Me coming in here has technically expanded our bubble much wider now.”

On ‘No Dinner’ Road

It is often said that no point in New Zealand is far from either beach or mountain. Thorndon is no exception, perched at the foot of the Te Ahumairangi Hill, only a short walk from Wellington’s waterfront. Heritage is its pitch to tourists. It has the feel of an old Victorian-era town.

Tinakori Road – extending 1.8km through the neighbourhood’s centre – is a colonial relic. The street was built along the base of the ridgeline in the late 1800s. The Māori workmen who shaped the road were not given a meal as part of their pay, even though this was customary at the time. In te reo Māori, tina is a transliteration of “dinner”, while kahore means “none”. Tinakori translates roughly as “no dinner road”.

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Restaurants were forced to close in Thorndon’s famous Tinakori Village, along Tinakori Road during lockdown [Ethan Donnell/Al Jazeera]

The late writer Katherine Mansfield was the street’s most famous resident. One of her childhood homes was demolished to make way for the motorway, but another home – her birthplace – has been restored and exists today as a museum. The Katherine Mansfield House & Garden sometimes gets as many as 500 visitors a month. But it has been closed since shortly before the lockdown began.

Mansfield herself was no stranger to lockdown. In early 1922, she began a series of X-ray treatments for her tuberculosis with a Russian doctor, Dr Manoukhin, in Paris. The treatment was painful and she spent about three months in isolation, in a hotel room, often confined to bed.

Cherie Jacobson, the director of the Katherine Mansfield House & Garden, checks on the house occasionally. “It feels like the floors are a little more creaky than before,” she says. “Like they want to have a conversation with someone.” The creakiness is typical of many Victorian-era villas along the street. Standing inside one of them, Wellington’s famous wind can feel like waves crashing against the shore (Wellington is the windiest city in the world by some estimates).

Cherie is not worried about the museum’s immediate future, as funding is guaranteed for the time being. But, to her dismay, fruit from the medlar tree had already fallen.

“Hopefully, we’ll still be able to make the medlar jelly we sell in the shop each year.”

The antique-seller

John Fyson knows this street better than most.

Standing in his shop, he holds a small silver box up to the light. The silver is thin, with an embossed design, and has been polished so frequently over the last 120 years that the high points have worn right through, exposing tiny holes. John has devised a way to disguise this imperfection, putting a filler on the inside of the box, which he then paints. Now when the lid opens, light no longer shines through the perforations. “It makes the box look quite saleable,” he deadpans, by way of explanation.

John’s shop, Tinakori Antiques, is due to celebrate a quarter of a century of business in September. Even during the lockdown, the general shape of his days remains unchanged. He strolls into the village about 9am – his apartment being just a little further along Tinakori Road – and spends the day in his shop, making repairs and organising stock. Except now there is a notable absence: customers.

“It’s killed sales, of course,” he says. “Stone dead.”

Over the last 40 years, John has owned four antique stores in the Tinakori Village. He is hardly alone in this pursuit. There are three other antique shops within a 100-metre radius of his own.

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John Fyson repairs an item inside his antique shop, Tinakori Antiques [Ethan Donnell/Al Jazeera]

“No dinner road” has taken on a new meaning during the lockdown, as the many restaurants and cafes in the Tinakori Village are forced to shutter. John considers the situation tragically ironic. “There’s actually more foot traffic than ever,” he says referring to otherwise homebound residents passing through Tinakori Village for exercise.

He thinks he has enough cash reserves to see himself through the lockdown. Though he worries how the business might fare even after local restrictions ease. He estimates that 25 percent of his business comes from tourists.

John is a youthful 69. “I’ve always looked younger than my age,” he says. At 25, he walked into a medical centre and was asked by a receptionist, filling out paperwork, what year he was in at high school. He will not blow out 70 candles until next February. If he was 70 today, the government recommendation would be that he isolate himself at home for his own protection.

For many years, John kept up a rigid meditation practice: 20 minutes before breakfast, 20 minutes before dinner. He even taught transcendental meditation for a time during the 1970s. The discipline has steeled him against anxiety during the lockdown. “I don’t put time brackets around it any more,” he says. “Whenever I feel the need, I’ll sit down and bring a mantra in – perhaps just for a few minutes – and I feel better.”

‘I feel bad for the patients’

For the first time since the lockdown began, Mia Bean and her six flatmates would go “bar hopping”. The night began about 8.30pm at The Living Room, a Parisian bar managed by her French flatmates, Elsa and Pierre.

The second bar, Heartbreak Hotel, was only a hop, skip and a jump away – in the bedroom next door. Run by her flatmates Hayley and Zane, the premises were draped in fairy lights. Everyone enjoyed chocolate-dipped figs with raspberries and hazelnut, as well as delicious savoury figs. Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours provided ambience. The merry crew continued a few more paces onto Kwl Bean Cafe where the music dated from the early 2000s, and the bar served potent sangrias. There they played an educational board game – part of which involved a challenge to “say five words in te reo Māori” or else drink – created by Mia herself.

Bleary-eyed by this point, they made one final stop at Gabe’s, set in the outside courtyard, where they drank tequila and feijoa juice, as well as rum and coke. “Everyone was pretty drunk by this point,” Mia says, explaining how most of the flatmates went inside to bed by 2am.

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A familial closeness has developed between Mia and her flatmates during the lockdown [Ethan Donnell/Al Jazeera]

Mia only moved into the flat, found on the border hills between Thorndon and Wadestown, a month before the lockdown started. For a few years beforehand, the 22-year-old lived on her own. She and her new drinking buddies have already developed a familial closeness. “I like to think we’re siblings and our parents have gone away on vacation,” she says.

Though she lives in Thorndon, Mia works as a receptionist at Wakefield Hospital – a private hospital in Newtown, on the other side of town. Usually, she works a 40-hour week, from Monday to Friday. Her hours have been slashed since the lockdown began. “The patient lists have been very small,” she says, “which means we don’t need as much staff during the day.”

At the moment, she works only two days a week. The remaining three days are currently paid out at 80 percent of her normal income through the government’s wage subsidy scheme. It is enough to cover rent and expenses, though she worries about what might happen beyond the 12 weeks the government scheme is projected to last.

For now, the hospital has put screens around the reception, acting as a buffer between staff and patients. Since the lockdown started, visitors have also been banned, unless the patient is disabled or a minor. “I feel really bad for a lot of our patients,” she says. “We’ve taken on some cancer patients from the public hospital – having to turn away someone’s wife or husband, in those circumstances, is just heartbreaking.”

‘We have stopped a wave of devastation’

Shu Lu does not know when she will see her son again. In mid-December, she and her husband, Alex, took a six-week holiday, visiting family in mainland China. They flew back to New Zealand on January 23, the same day Wuhan went into lockdown. On the way home, they passed through Guangzhou airport, a city which at the time had 354 coronavirus cases.

It was a time when New Zealanders could still afford to be ignorant of the virus. Or at least many thought they could. There was no throat or nasal swab taken on arrival. Shu even overheard a customs official ask: “Why are all these people from China wearing masks?”

Their four-year-old son, Rhys, did not come home with them. The idea was that he would spend more time in China with his grandparents, continue to brush up on his Mandarin, then return home to celebrate his fifth birthday and start school soon after.

The couple owns Starfish, the local fish and chip store on Molesworth Street, beside Thorndon New World. It is said that Kiwis chomp their way through about seven million servings of chips a week, or about 120,000 tonnes a year. The local fish and chip store is practically a New Zealand institution, thought to date back some 160 years; almost as old as Thorndon itself. But during alert level four, Starfish was closed, even as Molesworth Street itself remained a comparative hub of activity due to the supermarket.

Starfish was closed in January, too. As a precaution, Shu and Alex closed the store for 10 days while they self-isolated at home. Although neither of them was sick, the lost income was a small cost to pay for peace of mind. Or at least it felt that way at the time.

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Shu Lu works in her fish and chips store, Starfish, on April 27, the first-night lockdown restrictions were eased [Ethan Donnell/Al Jazeera]

By the time their son was supposed to return, New Zealand’s borders had closed to anyone who was not a citizen or permanent resident. Their son is a New Zealand citizen, but is too young to fly home alone. His grandparents are not New Zealand citizens, and so cannot travel with him. Shu has considered flying to China herself, simply to bring him back with her, but flights are now unreliable and too expensive.

She and her husband video chat with their son every day “to make sure he knows we haven’t abandoned him”.

“I miss him,” she says. “I feel guilty about not taking him back with me.”

The five weeks at alert level four left the bottom line of their business in dire straits. Shu estimates the loss in income during that period at somewhere between $6,000 and $9,000. Meanwhile, assistance from the government has been barely enough to cover rent.

On April 27, New Zealand eased its stringent lockdown measures, moving to alert level three. At the time, 1,400 people had become infected with the coronavirus, while 12 people had died, all older people with pre-existing health conditions. New Zealand’s mortality rate was one of the lowest in the world, according to the Oxford University coronavirus government response tracker.

“We have done what very few countries have been able to do,” Ardern said upon making the announcement that New Zealand would move to alert level three. “We have stopped a wave of devastation.”

Perhaps the biggest change was restaurants would be allowed to reopen, for delivery and contactless pickup. The announcement caused “McDonalds” to trend briefly on Twitter in New Zealand. The announcement was also good news for Shu and Alex. They reopened Starfish on April 27, though only for contactless pickup. Over the first week at alert level three, New Zealanders bought five weeks’ worth of takeout.

Rhys celebrated his fifth birthday in March. Shu intends to write to Immigration New Zealand to explore their options.

“My top priority is to get him back,” Shu says. “I just don’t know when we’ll be able to.”

Breaking out of the bubble

“We will be breaking out of our bubbles,” Jacinda Ardern said this week, announcing a phased move to alert level two and out of lockdown, in little more than 48 hours. Much of the economy would reopen on May 14, she said, including restaurants, malls, cinemas, shops, health services and hairdressers. Next Monday, May 18, schools would reopen. Then on May 21, bars would be allowed to reopen.

As the lockdown lifts, 1,497 New Zealanders have become infected with coronavirus, while 21 people have died. There have been no new cases for the last two days; 94 percent of cases have already recovered.

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Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced New Zealand will move to COVID-19 alert level two in three stages starting from May 14 [Getty Images]

But now, the country turns its attention to the economic consequences of a harsh lockdown. Estimates are that New Zealand’s unemployment could reach as high as 13.5 percent in the coming months. The lower end projections are 10 percent, around 275,000 people without jobs.

“New Zealand is about to enter a very tough winter,” Ardern said. “But every winter is followed by spring, and if we make the right choices we can get New Zealanders back to work and our economy moving again quickly.”

Like everyone else, Jess worries about her employment prospects. Her focus first is on getting healthy. Before the lockdown there was talk of a second operation, but all her follow-up appointments had to be cancelled.

Her son was scheduled to be fitted for hearing aids, to help with his auditory processing disorder, but that also was put on the backburner.

“It’s like throwing a stone into water,” she says. “We can’t get to the end of this lockdown and expect things will go back to normal. It’s that whole ripple effect.”

Source: Al Jazeera