Opinion: During Aotearoa’s first lockdown, which started in March 2020, I wrote a piece for Newsroom calling for a special day to celebrate the ‘team of 5 million’ that powered us through our first major engagement with Covid-19. I envisioned Lockdown Day as something akin to Anzac Day, expressing collective gratitude for the selfless acts that protected New Zealanders in ways not experienced in other parts of the rich world, such as the United States and the United Kingdom. 

New Zealanders made a wide range of painful and irritating sacrifices to protect the vulnerable. We denied our social natures by going into lockdown. We worse masks. We kept our distance from others when indoors. Young people prepared to accept vaccines to protect the infirm even when they were confident their vigorous immune systems would easily beat the virus.

We didn’t do these things cheerfully, but we did them because we believed they were important. There were front-line medical workers who directly faced the viral enemy. Perhaps they are the closest analogy for the young men battling the Turkish defenders on the Gallipoli Peninsula. But it felt as if we were all members of the team and we all found ways to pitch in. The picture of Aotearoa responding to the coronavirus was one of diversity, New Zealanders from all walks of life and different ethnicities.

Welcome to living with Covid
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* Beating the next pandemic without a lockdown

My piece doesn’t seem to have aged well. It’s jarring now to look back on the celebratory mindset that accompanied our first lockdown. Politicians, public servants, and academics seem to have suffered the consequences of too close association with Aotearoa’s Covid-19 response.

This is certainly not because New Zealand’s response was exposed as a failure. The WHO attributes 2,716 deaths in New Zealand to the pandemic. This compares with a UK death toll of 221,943 and a US figure of 1,120,529. Experts should debate the efficacy of specific measures in Aotearoa’s response. But one thing that shouldn’t be doubted is the efficacy of the public health response considered as a whole.

These are the things we’d remember on Lockdown Day. There are many thousands of New Zealanders here today who would not have been, had we done as Mother England or Uncle Sam did. 

The people who didn’t die and the dog that didn’t bark

Why don’t we feel better about our collective response to the pandemic? The annoyances and sacrifices of vaccine mandates and social distancing were actual. They were prolonged and we have keen and mostly unpleasant memories of them. The deaths that we prevented didn’t happen – they are counterfactual. They are too easily forgotten. 

The thousands of New Zealand deaths had we not called on the team of 5 million are like the dog that didn’t bark in the night in the Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of Silver Blaze”. It takes Holmes’ unusual powers of observation and deduction to notice that something that should have happened but didn’t – a dog barking – could be a clue to the disappearance of a racehorse.

A national Lockdown Day could be a lasting legacy standing as a testament to what selfless collective action can achieve. It may be a more useful national myth than Anzac Day as Aotearoa seeks to properly engage with climate change

Who are those fortunate thousands who would be dead but for New Zealand’s collective response? Perhaps the counterfactual dead include me. I’m a type 1 diabetic in my mid-50s. I never got to experience an unvaccinated encounter with Sars-Cov-2. I like to think I would have come through fine. This optimism means that I don’t feel especially fortunate or grateful. 

Counterfactual deaths – deaths that would have occurred had things been different or had we made different decisions – simply aren’t especially memorable. We are all counterfactually dead many times over. There are planes that crashed that we might have been on and bridges that collapsed that we might have been walking across. It would be depressing to brood on all these ways that we could have died but didn’t.

But it’s important that we think about counterfactual deaths from the pandemic and feel grateful to the Team.

What Lockdown Day would be for

Counterfactual deaths are as easily overlooked as dogs that don’t bark in the night. But the lesson for politicians about the pandemic seems to be the lingering anger over the vaccine mandates and lockdowns. Boris Johnson’s personal style may have triggered his downfall, but Britons appeared forgiving about the deaths caused by his confused pandemic response. After all, Johnson got Covid too and was in intensive care. Thinking back on how many Britons died because of his mistakes means thinking back on the coronavirus, which many would rather forget. 

Perhaps we must wait for a couple of election cycles before any politician is brave enough to call for a national Lockdown Day. Without an annual reminder, we risk asking future politicians to make political calculations we should not want them to make.

They may think, “This Covid-29 virus looks like it could be bad. But I remember how those too closely associated with the 2020 response were burned politically. If I instead follow Boris Johnson’s lead, how many excess deaths can I get away with before voters start to blame me? Could I politically survive 100,000 dead, if I make a few charismatic proclamations and get sick too?”

This is not a way we should want any future leader to think. 

The function of Anzac Day is not to serve as a history lesson about a century-distant conflict. It is to remind us of the hideous human toll of war. The purpose of a national Lockdown Day goes beyond reminiscing about our collective response to the pandemic. It would serve as a stark reminder of the human cost when swift action is not taken during a public health emergency.

By paying tribute to the sacrifices and acknowledging the lives saved, we would ensure the lessons learned from Covid-19 remain etched in our collective memory. A Lockdown Day would act as a symbol of unity and resilience, reminding us of the power of coming together as a team in the face of adversity.

We mustn’t allow the passage of time to dilute the significance of our collective actions. A national Lockdown Day could be a lasting legacy standing as a testament to what selfless collective action can achieve. It may be a more useful national myth than Anzac Day as Aotearoa seeks to properly engage with climate change. 

Nicholas Agar is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Australia and Adjunct Professor of philosophy at Victoria University of Wellington.

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