On the day New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, closed the country’s borders to everyone but citizens and permanent residents, I attended an evening choir practice. At the time, there were just 28 covid-19 cases in a country of about 5 million people, but on that night in March, there was a sense that the tide was about to turn for the worse. Hand sanitizer was offered; chairs were pushed farther apart. As our voices joined together in “Homeward Bound,” I was unable to stop the tears from sliding down my cheeks.
As temporary visa holders, my family and I were effectively trapped. The self-isolation from our families and friends that we’d intentionally inflicted when we chose to move 7,000 miles away was more palpable than ever. We could have rushed back to the United States, but part of our reason for moving here at the end of 2018 was to escape the political chaos that now seemed likely to get worse. And we’d spent more than a year putting down roots. Leaving simply wasn’t an option.
In the days that followed, New Zealand’s new case numbers began to grow rapidly, as they’d been doing in the United States and elsewhere for weeks. Every day, my husband and I had a new version of the same conversation: Should we lock ourselves down voluntarily? If no one else in New Zealand was doing it, what difference would proactively isolating our family really make?
A few days later, that discussion became moot. On March 23, Ardern announced a strict nationwide lockdown that would last at least four weeks. The rules were clear-cut: No going to work or school. No driving or taking public transport, except to go to the grocery store or pharmacy. No restaurants, not even takeaway. Where you slept when lockdown started was where you slept for the duration — no nipping away to your vacation home. Walking or biking for exercise was allowed, but only in or near your neighborhood. And absolutely no contact with anyone outside your household “bubble.”
As I listened to Ardern asking us all to pull together and acknowledging the extraordinary sacrifice ahead of us while my 4-year-old son sat on my lap, I was struck by a single thought: “She has to manage a little kid in lockdown, too, but she has to do it while being prime minister.” The task ahead of our family seemed comparatively easy.
Faced with more stringent restrictions than our friends and families were encountering back in the United States while living in a country with a much smaller per capita caseload, it would have been easy to surrender to jealousy: Why can’t we order pizza or get a takeaway coffee once in a while? Why can’t we drive to some out-of-the way trail for a socially distanced hike or isolate ourselves in a campervan for a week while we see a bit more of the country?
But instead of feeling jealous, I felt grateful. Grateful to be in a country that recognized its unique advantage, heeded the advice of health experts and decided to, as Ardern famously put it, “go hard, and go early.” Grateful for a government that stood in such solidarity with its citizens that its ministers voluntarily took a 20 percent pay cut and swiftly rolled out more than $15 billion in relief measures to address the economic pain of widespread job losses. Grateful to be among people who responded to the lockdown with a sense of duty and messages of “Kia kaha” (“Stay strong” in the native Maori language). Grateful for bike rides on nearly car-free streets, for friendly waves and regular chats with neighbors — and for a kid who embraced lockdown so wholeheartedly that it remains a challenge to persuade him to do anything other than stay home and bake.
This week, as New Zealand celebrates being covid-19 free after 1,504 cases and just 22 deaths and almost-normal life resumes inside the country, I am still grateful — to be able to hike again, to travel around the country again, even to take the train to work again. But, as at the beginning of this journey, that feeling is tinged with sadness. As we talk to our loved ones and read the daily headlines from the United States — with at least 111,000 deaths — we’re reminded that the pain and struggle back home are far from over.
It turns out that the tenuous certainty of having erased covid-19 only brings an end to some questions: Can I take my kid to the beach? Will there be flour at the grocery store today? (Yes and yes.) The more difficult questions, meanwhile, have multiplied. Will my job be immune to layoffs long enough to allow us to stay through the duration of our visa next year? What will the United States look like when it’s time for us to return? And the thorniest question of all: If we can live in a place where life can look this normal again, why would we ever leave?
Clare Alexander is a writer and editor based in Auckland, New Zealand.