When historic Covid-19 ‘Level Four’ containment measures were lifted in New Zealand and we entered Level Three with more freedom of movement, and takeaways – the apex of modern culture, there were queues for McDonalds, KFC and takeaway coffee. A vegetarian friend of mine bought bacon. I couldn’t wait to swim. Our priorities were basic, somewhat inexplicable, and surprising parts of our identities were exposed.
Elsewhere Covid-19 exposed other identities – the conspiracy theorists and science deniers on the one hand, and the community builders, the latent walkers and cyclists, the emergent food sharing networks and friendships as neighbourhoods became filled with people who usually just sleep in the area before leaving for another suburb for work, school and sports.
The home baking and gardening renaissance took us back generations. Places in the South Island that had been heaving with visitors B.C -Before Coronavirus, such as Punakaiki and Tekapo, were as quiet as they were in the 1990s, before we sold New Zealand to the world. Riding my bike in times of Coronavirus took me back to the 1990s too – these are the same quiet country roads I pedaled as a kid. Then, as now, what few drivers there, were fast and loose.
As we get closer to emerging from lockdown, people are getting restless. My neighbours have been partying like it’s 1999 too. In the day they build new vege beds, and by night they wash down the dust. Come morning they collect all their empties and load them into their recycling bin, and it echoes down the valley like church bells calling a reckoning. I’m noticing Sunday drivers escaping local confines and heading out here to the west – including the lip-sticked ladies who called to cows, as they toured along, leaving scented perfume in their wake. Day by day, the sound of the State Highway a few k’s away, increases its hum.
Covid-19 has already given us a new life as usual. Most obviously, our grocery shopping habits have already changed – though the first time I went to the supermarket since lockdown, last week, I was slightly disturbed, and slightly touched by what a simple act of solidarity it was, an unspoken commitment to public health, to stand in a queue to enter.
I work from home anyway. My husband is out of work, but we know he’s not alone. 30,000 new people registered unemployed here in the last few weeks, though that’s dwarfed by the 20+million registered in the States since April – at 14.7%, it’s the worst level since the Great Depression. There are suggestions that the United Kingdom will have its worst drop in GDP since the 17th Century.
The life’s work for many people is in the balance as they wonder if their businesses will ever be viable again. I wonder how shops with high rents will outlast lockdown. Jobs held for years have been lost, with minimal or no redundancy. Sometimes people have lost their jobs, and their accommodation. Contracts have been cancelled, work hours reduced, plans aborted. But while the sun still shines it feels like we got off lightly here, with the magic mixture of good management and luck. Our deaths from Covid-19 were less than the yearly flu. But I also feel for those now overdue cancer treatments and surgeries, when DHBs say it may take a year to catch up. That’s a year that some people don’t have. The Covid-19 response is destroying the chance of life saving treatments – such as Keytruda for lung cancer patients which, in absence of the drug, is killing prematurely 30 patients a week. The Counties-Manukau DHB already has a deficit from the Whakaari/White Island tragedy, it has leaky and rotten buildings, where apparently effluent runs down the walls. Other DHBs are so underfunded that new mums must use outside portable showers; and cancer treatment is a postcode lottery. Heather Simpson’s inquiry into the health and disability sector found that the structure and funding of our health system needs an overhaul. But that overhaul has been put on hold because of Covid-19. Other important projects and plans have also been put on hold as the response to the pandemic becomes all consuming.
There will be challenges aplenty as the Government seeks to ‘respond, rebuild, and recover’. It’s a big week ahead, as we hear whether we will go to Level Two – a bit less social isolation, a bit more ‘business as usual’. But a new world of social distancing. And then later in the week, we head to the Budget. There are indications that fast tracking ‘shovel ready’ infrastructure projects to stimulate the economy, will reduce some rights to public participation, with enabling legislation and speedy consenting processes through a reformed Resource Management Act. New Zealand First are making it clear they want extractive regional economies to have a smoother ride and higher priority for investment – more mining in conservation stewardship areas to make up for the loss of tourism. Tourism Minister and Deputy Labour Leader (not that you’d know it), Kelvin Davis, seems dangerously out of touch when he’s reported of having the view that we didn’t have too many tourists before Covid-19 and that climate change isn’t a tourism concern.
Personally, I’m looking forward to revisiting the South Island and being welcomed, instead of being treated like I’m a resented source of income, unwelcome but necessary, with my tourism money and my freedom camping- a way of life for me and part of my identity as a New Zealander. Now those communities want me back. I’ll be glad to have space in my own country again.
Political progress usually occurs incrementally. And in New Zealand, from the rule of Helen Clark to today, we’ve been characterised by glacial incrementalism. We’ve been too slow in undoing the changes of the 1980s and 1990s even when we wanted to, and ineffective at addressing the pathologies that resulted from deregulated neo-liberalism – growing homelessness, poverty, the wealth gap, suicide, high imprisonment rates and personal debt. Until the market and labour intervention of Covid-19, we’ve sat almost as far to the right of the political spectrum as ever here. But periods of stasis can be interrupted and provide opportunities for radical change. These are times of punctuated equilibrium – when usually stable, incremental policy and budget processes are instead characterised by dramatic change.
April 2019 seems a long time ago, when Leader of the House, Labour Minister Chris Hipkins argued for radical incrementalism – small steps, to a transformative goal. The path the Labour Government has taken to deliver on its pre-election promises, has been winding, halting, and has in many ways, failed to deliver. But it has also been interrupted by major crises in which the Prime Minister has excelled. As Barrister Cat McLennan wrote this week, it’s been ‘a tale of two leaders’– ‘Courageous Jacinda’, when catastrophe has allowed compassionate leadership and Jacinda has taken the country with her. And ‘Cautious Jacinda’, when it’s come to delivering on Labour’s initial policy promises and hopes and goals.
At this time of punctuated equilibrium with all eyes on the national ‘rebuild’, and ‘recovery’, the lockdown exit, and the Budget, offer a chance for substance as well as the stardust that is Jacinda’s mètier. As well as accolades for our PM’s leadership on the spot, in the immediate aftermath to the Covid crisis, (and her other achievements), dare we dream that Courageous Jacinda will make the radical, systematic reforms necessary to address modern capitalism’s structural faults, and will take the country with her – and be a model for the world?
Too often Governments are cautious followers, not leaders of the public mood, and organic societal change happens at grass roots and gives the mandate for institutional change. This week, and at the election in September, many of us will look to Jacinda for the radical leadership befitting of her popularity and of our times and age. Because out here in the community, life has already changed, and we hope it will be never the same again.