The Covid-19 epidemic is only the second time New Zealand has entered a state of national emergency. Newsroom’s Sam Sachdeva had first-hand experience of the first  – the devastating Christchurch earthquakes – and tries to make sense of how the two compare.

There is so much that is new about New Zealand’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

A country in lockdown, with most Kiwis consigned to their houses unless accessing essential services or getting a brief burst of fresh air, is unlike anything we have ever experienced.

But in one small aspect, there is a recent historical parallel serving as a point of both contrast and comparison.

Announcing a state of national emergency, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern noted such a declaration had been made only once before in New Zealand’s history.

That came on February 23, 2011 – the day after a magnitude 6.3 earthquake in Christchurch killed 185 people, injured thousands and destroyed large swathes of the city.

I, and many others who called the city home during that difficult time, have some small sense of what we are all about to experience.

Police standing guard, a massive economic response from the Government, both businesses and vulnerable people at risk of collapse – all too familiar.

But while an earthquake and a pandemic are both horrors, they fall within distinct sub-genres.

Christchurch felt more visceral: jump-scare after jump-scare as a quake hit out of nowhere, rocking the land and people’s equilibriums.

In contrast, the pandemic has moved more slowly and predictably, a tsunami growing in size as it moved outwards from Wuhan and crashing across the borders of other nations.

But as anyone who has watched It Follows would tell you, knowing that something is coming for you can heighten, rather than eliminate, the sense of terror.

The havoc wrought by the Christchurch earthquake was usually plain to see – the same cannot be said for Covid-19. Photo: Andy Palmer/Manatū Taonga (CC by 2.0)

There’s also something scarier about a threat you can’t see, floating through the air unconstrained by structural reinforcements.

Of course, tectonic plates shifting beneath the earth are also invisible to the naked eye, but their effects in Christchurch were all too apparent: liquefied silt bubbling onto cracked city streets, buildings torn in half, railway lines bent by sheer force.

It was easy to follow the rules laid out by authorities when the hazards were plain to see.

Will the same be true this time, when the scale of the threat has been defined not by appearances but disappearances – of cars off the streets and people out of their workplaces, and of the worst-affected few (in New Zealand at least) into hospital wards?

What may help is the truly nationwide nature of the Covid-19 threat, with no ability to bury your head in the sand.

We may have been in a state of national emergency after the February 22 earthquake, but the sense of loss was not felt evenly.

Politicians, journalists and other do-gooders flooded into Christchurch offering their support – but within months, and with a few notable exceptions (such as John Campbell’s Campbell Live), it felt like most had moved onto more thrilling topics.

We Cantabrians were in our own bubble, not for self-preservation but thanks to the short attention span of others.

Sign-language stars, and soothing words 

That’s not to say there aren’t some striking similarities, of course.

After the Christchurch earthquakes, anxious Kiwis also took solace in the confident, soothing words of a political leader – in that case it was Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker, whose orange and black Antarctic jacket was a ubiquitous sight on the TV news.

As with Parker, Ardern’s exceptional communication skills have eclipsed other political deficiencies and put paid to fears of a first-term ousting (although the mayor’s flaws did eventually catch up to him).

Flowers placed in road cones brightened the days of Christchurch residents who had to navigate uneven footpaths and piles of silt; now, it is teddy bears in windows offering a diversion for those who need to be outside.

Teddy bears in the window of a Wellington apartment. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Sign-language interpreters have also played unlikely starring roles.

In 2011, it was Jeremy Borland – dubbed “Hot Jeremy” by Parker in response to a Facebook fan page set up by admirers.

At Ardern’s press conferences, it is Alan Wendt who has caught the public’s eye for his vigorous interpretation of the “East Coast Wave”, a contact-free greeting fit for the age of physical distancing.

It is that need for distance, though, which will complicate the ability of communities to rally through the worst as they did after the earthquakes.

From ‘a new normal’ to just normal

Where playgrounds and cinemas were taken out of action, local initiatives like Gap Filler and Greening the Rubble filled the void with coin-operated dance floors and cycle-powered movie screenings.

The problem now is not with the physical spaces we use, but the people who populate them.

As for the obvious question – which is worse, Covid or the quakes? – there is also an obvious answer: it is far too soon to say.

Stopping the worst of the earthquakes was almost impossible, but the impact of the coronavirus epidemic could be dramatically reduced – or made much worse – by how New Zealanders respond in the next month, or longer.

One thing I can say with certainty though: things will get better.

It was not a thought I had in the immediate aftermath of the earthquakes, or even years later when I returned from a London OE to find a city still pockmarked with empty parcels of land.

But now, more than nine years on, the Garden City is a place humming with energy, from the throngs queuing for a Dimitri’s souvlaki in the Riverside Market to the children climbing, running and sliding around the Margaret Mahy Playground.

There is still work to be done, nobody doubts that, but there is also a sense that Christchurch has moved from its own “new normal” to something resembling plain old normal.

So will New Zealand, once Covid-19 is stamped out. However long that takes.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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