Siouxsie Wiles, the scientist who became a public face of the Covid-19 pandemic in this country, has been named 2021 Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year. Mark Jennings reports on an awards night tinged with sadness, as well as joy.

Before Covid-19, Siouxsie Wiles spent most of her time in a laboratory, trying to find new antibiotics to treat infectious diseases that are now resistant to the current crop of drugs.

As the pandemic swept the world, her part-time interest in science communication became a full time job. The lab coat was hung on a hook.

“People stop me in the street now and say ‘you’re the Covid lady’. I guess I am the public face of Covid in New Zealand,” Wiles told the 700 guests attending the awards at Auckland’s Cordis Hotel.

Her ability to explain the science of the pandemic in a clear and understandable way has seen Wiles featuring in the news media almost every day: Radio, TV, print, online and an acclaimed collaboration with Spinoff cartoonist, Toby Morris. She has willingly been a key player in unifying the country’s response.

“We did it together and that’s what we need to do with every challenge we face,” said Wiles after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced her as the winner. It was a joyous moment and the crowd gave her a standing ovation. It also felt like a release from the emotional tide that ebbed and flowed throughout the evening.

The toughness of life for many Kiwis had been reflected in stories of other award winners.

Young New Zealander of the year Jazz Thornton turned her life around after being abused, depressed and hospitalised with mental illness. Now a mental health activist, Thornton has produced award winning films aimed at stopping youth suicide.

Ranjna Patel won Innovator of the Year for developing residential care and counselling for violent men. A Massey University study has found that 60 percent of the men that go through the programme don’t reoffend. Patel was also a finalist in the New Zealander of the Year.

Ranjna Patel

Community of the year went to the Christchurch Mosque Victims group.

New Zealander of the Year finalist, Farid Ahmed, lost his wife, Hunsa, in the shooting. He told the story of breaking the news to his 15 year old daughter and then asking her a question. Should they sucumb to utter despair or show resilience? They chose resilence and love instead of hate.

In an interview before she knew she had won, Wiles told me she had reflected on the reasons why she, Ahmed and Patel had made it into the final three.

“Talking to my husband ….All three of us are up there for things that are not great, things that we would rather not have happened. I also have mixed feelings because I have been hyper-visible as part of our Covid response but I think of the thousands of people who have been doing a lot more than me but are invisible.”

Farid Ahmed too, said he had felt troubled at times by his nomination.

Farid Ahmed

“I have mixed feelings, feelings of being humbled and honoured. It brings me both sadness and joy. Anything like this reminds me of my wife and the people we lost. I loved them.

“New Zealand has taught me a lot. It is still surprising me. I am doing my duty of spreading peace, I don’t want anything in return but New Zealand is showing me how much peace and love is appreciated by New Zealanders.

“Judges have chosen me to be a finalist but I am very self critical, I should have done more….especially when so many Kiwis are working day and night doing thankless jobs.”

Wiles said she expected her social media critics would continue to label her “a publicity seeker.”

“It is really clear that crises bring out the best and worst in people. The negative stuff on social media is mostly anonymous but what has surprised me is that some people put there names on Facebook posts and emails they send me.

“People think I am desperate for attention, that this is me being attention seeking. My family know who I am and that is not me, but it really hurts and makes them angry.

“I am not worried for myself but I think it should be called out. It is mainly stoked by people pushing an agenda that would result in the deaths of many people.

“I can’t believe that there are people who still think we did the wrong thing [border closures and lockdowns]. How could we have done the wrong thing? We can go to work, we can go to festivals and we can hug our loved ones,” she said.

“The reason I accepted the nomination is because it matters to others. Other scientists who are thinking about how they communicate the science, and younger people who thought ‘that’s not what I thought a scientist would look like’. Maybe I want to be one too.”

I asked Wiles if, given her high profile, she is likely to enter politics. The question provoked almost uncontrollable laughter from her. When it stopped, Wiles said (loudly) “absolutely not.”

“I love research and my priority is to help my lab find new antibiotics.

“It (antibiotic resistance) is actually worse now because so many antibiotics have been used in hospitals to stop secondary infections in Covid patients. On the other hand, Covid has shown that we can make progress when we have to, when there is unlimited resources applied to the problem.”

Suddenly, Wiles breaks out in uncontrolled laughter again, her mind, it seems, has not moved on from the politics question. “No one would ever vote for me.”

A large portion of the crowd at the Cordis would probably disagree.

Other award winners (and a line from their acceptance speeches):

University of Canterbury Young New Zealander of the year

Jazz Thornton ( Mental Health Activist)

“Hope is real – change is possible”

Ryman Healthcare Senior New Zealander of the year

Dr Doug Wilson (Leading expert on ageing. 84 and refusing to retire)

“The world is becoming swamped with a large number of older people. We must use them.”

TradeMe Innovator of the Year

Ranjna Patel (developed world-leading programme for preventing male violence)

“Men should have access to emergency accommodation and counselling.”

Mitre 10 Community of the Year

Christchurch Mosque Victims Group

“The support we got from you gave us the power to move on.”

Kiwibank Local Hero of the Year

Shannon Te Huia (Punui River Care)

“I’m pretty excited about the future of Aotearoa. When New Zealanders put their minds to something we do it really well”

Mark Jennings is co-editor of Newsroom.

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