When it finally came, the announcement of a Level 4 nationwide lockdown to fight the Covid-19 virus seemed numbing and just too much to take in.
It should not have been a shock. It had been on the cards. Almost immediately after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern introduced the Code Alert system on Saturday, and placed the country at Level 2, that level had seemed inadequate to the task faced by the rest of the world and, surely, New Zealand.
Leading scientists voiced their concern, repeated on Monday by the Prime Minister, that it was time to get ahead of the pattern so inevitably clear from tragic foreign experience. We won’t regret going too hard, the sentiment seemed to be, but we might in the end regret going too softly.
Within 30 minutes the PM and her finance minister, Grant Robertson, announced a step up towards a national lockdown which will turn life in this country outside-in. Not quite a curfew but a firm direction to return home and stay there. Really stay there. For a month, at least, so the virus is denied the chance to spread through unwitting groups of forming and reforming humans and then overwhelm our health services.
Ardern led today. She addressed the gravity of the situation with clarity and solemnity. Her acceptance of the need for a unique, unpredictable locking down of these islands, and her feeling for the disruption and discombobulation it would cause to so many in the community, were palpable.
Schools to close Tuesday. Gathering places from bars to gyms to playgrounds to be off-limits. All businesses other than essential industries to shut and work from home by Wednesday midnight. Public transport for essential services only. The Cabinet split in half, physically, and Parliament to be put on hold after a few necessary decisions are rubber stamped.
Beyond the restrictions on daily life for 30 long days and nights, the Government announced another economic rescue package. Wage subsidies were greatly extended, financial help in coordination with banks is to be made available to businesses. There’s a freeze on rent increases.
Ardern faced questions about the scientific modelling the Government had been provided to base its estimate that, unchecked, the Covid-19 virus could have killed tens of thousands of Kiwis (to be released when appropriate). She was asked about the prospect of roadblocks around the country to limit people’s movement (unlikely, but people are asked not to travel), about whether some regions might escape Level 4 and be allowed a little more freedom as Level 3 inhabitants if their situations changed (possible, but this is a nationwide effort).
Her words were firm and she did not sugar-coat the prospect of families needing to isolate from eachother in their separate households, of nuclear families likely to endure new stresses cooped up inside (do feel you can go out for a walk, but observe social distancing). The old and isolated would need to be surrounded by communities coming together, making phone trees, nominating one person who might be the regular connection to a sole-person home.
While it still sounds jarring to hear a public health announcement on, say, RNZ’s Morning Report end with the words “Be Kind”, it never sounds wrong coming from Ardern.
She said as we got to the sharp end of this crisis that she wanted her Government and the country to Go Hard and Go Early. It did. Then it waited, weighed public health and economic advice and seemed to be paused rather than poised to act. Finally, the public health advice determined that after two days of tracing and inquiry, two cases of Covid-19 that could not be linked to travel could now be deemed community transmission.
The health advisers, with the public calls of their eminent, outsider, scientific peers ringing in their ears, must have summoned the courage to recommend moving to Level 4. And Ardern and her Cabinet took their lead.
The Opposition is fully supportive. Yes, that took a bit longer than it should have, too. But it is important, as now almost all the parties voters chose three years ago are united on this national quest.
With some good luck and good management, it will be fully autumn, beyond Easter, and almost Anzac Day when New Zealanders come back out of their homes into some kind of social life. The sports fields will have grown lush. The workplaces, stores, gyms, cafes, restaurants and playgrounds will need a dusting off. And the black cloud of Covid-19 enveloping Aotearoa will hopefully have lifted, at least enough for our light to shine again.