Saturday, May 9, 2020

Life in Level 3

On April 28th, NZ moved down to Alert Level 3. Businesses are allowed to open, if they can maintain social distancing of employees and do contact-less delivery to customers. Schools are open only for those children whose parents must return to work and have no one else to care for them. (My son, like most of his classmates, remains at home doing remote learning.) Travel within our local region is allowed, as are "small" expansions of household bubbles to include nearby relatives. (We don't have any relatives nearby, sadly, so our bubble remains the same.)

At least we can take our very small bubble to a very big lake
Everyone's excited we now have the option of eating take-away food ("take-away" is the Kiwi term for take-out). On day 1 of Level 3, the queues in the cities for fast food drive-throughs were apparently epic. Wanaka doesn't have any drive-throughs, but plenty of local restaurants opened for contact-less take-away. We decided to make Fridays a take-away dinner night, to support local businesses and give me a night off cooking (yay!).

Sadly, our first Friday wasn't quite the success I'd hoped. At my son's request, we ordered from his favorite burger place in Wanaka...but turns out that the 20 minute drive back to Hawea is long enough for the burgers to cool down and get less appetizing. Mine was okay--it had balsamic mushrooms and feta, which I'll happily eat at any temperature. But my husband didn't like his, and my son said sadly, "This isn't as good as I remember."

Ah well! Other attempts have gone better. When I went to Wanaka for groceries, my son begged me to stop by Yohei Sushi and pick up some tuna onigiri. Onigiri is one of my son's favorite snacks ever: it's a triangle of pressed, salted rice with a ball of filling inside (tuna, in this case). Seriously, the kiddo says he likes tuna onigiri even better than ice cream. What. I mean, I like them too, but I wouldn't go that far. Anyway, onigiri travels just fine. When I brought home a big bag, the kiddo fell upon those tuna triangles like a starving wolf and declared himself in seventh heaven.

My own "seventh heaven" moment came when I checked with our local Department of Conservation and discovered that mountain trails are open for hiking in Level 3, so long as you can pass other hikers with 2m distance and you keep your hike to 3 hours or less. We promptly raced out to enjoy a family outing on the upper Timaru River track ("track" is what Kiwis call trails). Oh my goodness, it was so nice to go walking somewhere different than our local lakeshore trail. I'm still staying away from my favorite "advanced" hikes, because those trails are steep and tricky enough it'd be near impossible to pass anyone at 2m distance. But it's lovely to have the chance for proper dayhiking again.

Family hike, hooray!

The upper river track is an old 4WD road, so very easy to keep 2m away while passing. (Not that you have to pass often...as you can see, there aren't exactly crowds.) The lower river track, in case you are wondering, goes along the creekbed and involves a lot of wading. The day was pretty chilly for getting wet in a glacial stream, so we kept to the nice dry upper track.
The best news is that daily new cases of COVID-19 have remained in the low single digits, and recently we've even had a few days with zero new cases. NZ's government has used the weeks of Level 4 & 3 lockdown well; they've enormously ramped up testing, contact tracing, and all the apparatus of public health required to stay on top of the virus.

(That last part is what the US seems to be completely neglecting, to my astonishment and deep sorrow. The purpose of a lockdown is not to stay in stasis for ages until a vaccine is ready. It's to give a country the time needed to build up their public health system to the point any viral spread can be swiftly detected and controlled. Maybe some individual US states are doing this--I hope some are!-- but at the federal level, all I see is idiots throwing up their hands and saying, "Welp, this is all just too hard. Time to give up the fight and get back to work. It's sad that over 100,000 Americans will die, but gosh, there's no way to prevent it." While they ignore all the countries like Germany and South Korea and Taiwan and Australia and New Zealand proving that there IS a way, and no, you don't have to completely destroy your economy to manage it.)

Anyway. On Monday, the government decides if NZ will take another step out of lockdown, down to Level 2. For me, Level 2 is the holy grail, because SCHOOLS RE-OPEN, hallelujah! After so many weeks of homeschooling and entertaining and providing all the kiddo's in-person social interaction, I can't even imagine what it'll be like to have weekdays to myself again.

I need that time more than ever, because I recently returned to engineering work. This year, one of my goals was to find some way I could use my engineering/aerospace skills to contribute toward addressing climate change. To my delight, the opportunity came up to do some work on a science grant using radar data to evaluate changes in Greenland glaciers. I've started the work, and I'm really excited about it, but gosh, it sure will be easier to fit into the day if the kiddo is back in school.

Physical education for the day: a bike ride along the lakeshore trail. The kiddo tells me this is not as fun as schoolyard cricket.
Ha, and it will also be easier to fit in writing, though I'm not waiting for Level 2 for that. I'm still plugging along despite the current challenges. My daily goal is 500 words or one hour, whichever comes first. That isn't much, I know. I heave a sigh when I look at other authors tweeting, "I've written 7,000 words today!" But, eyes on my own paper. Even 500 measly words a day adds up to a full book in less than a year. The trick is to keep going. (Just keep swimming, just keep swimming...)

Did anybody else ever watch the 80s PBS educational drawing show called Secret City? As a kid I loved it. The host, Commander Mark, was obviously a big science fiction fan. Each episode, he'd teach you to draw something cool by working on a new bit of this huge mural with aliens and temples and spaceships and fantastical plants and creatures. The best part was that Mark had so much fun when he drew; his love for drawing and comics and art just blazed through the screen. I was looking for something arty to do with the kiddo, since art would've been one of his subjects this term, and discovered that Mark Kistler, a.k.a. Commander Mark, has been making "how to draw" TV shows and books all these decades since, and continues to teach kids to draw today via web lessons. He hasn't lost an ounce of his old enthusiasm and joy, either. During COVID-19, he's offering free webcast lessons every day at noon CST. How cool is that? Also, if you've got Amazon Prime, you can watch his Imagination Station episodes.

Reading Corner: my recent reading has mostly been various scientific papers and other technical non-fiction, as I come up to speed for my consulting project. (At bedtime, the kiddo and I are now reading Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series, which he is hugely enjoying.) When I return to adult fiction, I've got two new-ish releases waiting for me on the Kindle:

The Girl and the Stars, Mark Lawrence. I've been impressed by pretty much everything I've read from Lawrence so far, thanks to his excellent prose and memorable characters. This is the start of a new series set in the same world as his previous Book of the Ancestor trilogy. (You don't have to read the prior series first, though I have.) Reviews have been great, so I'm eager to dive in. Besides, a story set on an ice world seems just the thing to read as NZ heads into winter.






Network Effect, Martha Wells. The first full length Murderbot novel! If you haven't read the preceding novellas, you are so missing out. Especially if you like stories about prickly, wary, sarcastic introverts with good hearts who slowly learn trust and build friendships, even as they outsmart clever enemies. This kind of SF is my comfort food. Perfect reading in the midst of a pandemic.


Sunday, April 19, 2020

Life In Isolation, Report #3

Only a few days left of the original 4-week lockdown! Wednesday is the end date. Tomorrow (Monday) the government will make a decision as to what happens after that. Will we stay at Level 4 for longer, or drop down to Level 3? New case numbers have declined from a high of 89 per day early in the lockdown, to a low of 8 two days ago. (It went back up a little yesterday to 13 new cases, but all 13 were directly linked to prior cases and not community spread, so that's still good news.) The past few days, the Ministry of Health ordered random sample testing at supermarkets around the country, to check if they're missing any silent community spread from asymptomatic carriers. So far all that testing has come back negative, which is the best news of all.

A glimpse of hope
NZ's lockdown is clearly working. We really might be able to eliminate the virus within the country. So do we extend the Level 4 restrictions a bit longer to try and get new cases all the way down to zero? Or loosen up a little to Level 3, in which some businesses can re-open, and trust in comprehensive testing and contact tracing to continue controlling the spread? The PM and her cabinet have waited for the last minute to make an official decision because they want to see and evaluate the very latest data--a precaution I applaud. (I have been so impressed by NZ's handling of the crisis. Let's hear it for competent, compassionate, science-based government!)

For us personally, it won't make too much of a difference to our daily lives if we go to Level 3. Schools won't open to anyone but the children of essential workers unable to arrange other childcare, so the kiddo will still be at home, needing my help with his schooling. His break finished up after Easter, which was a gray rainy day but at least we managed an egg hunt in our backyard.

Easter egg dying station

The result of our labors. After the egg hunt, I made them into deviled eggs, but accidentally put in too much mustard. Google informed me it's possible to solve a mustard problem by adding some brown sugar. This actually worked. So it's not just the kiddo who's learning things in lockdown! 
School at home is going fine, the kiddo is enjoying the lack of uniforms and long bus rides and he's learning plenty. (Thanks to our online Japanese lessons, now both he and I know how to ask politely for English tea or green tea at a Japanese teahouse. Sadly, I do not like any type of tea. I will have to find out if there's some other Japanese drink I might like instead.)

Home schooling does make it awfully hard for me to get much else done during the day. The kiddo won't be going back to school until Level 2, and God knows when that'll be, so I just have to make my peace with the new normal.

Practical maths: using decimal measurements to make gluten-free cinnamon sugar baked donuts. Except I don't have a donut pan. Google claimed we could use a muffin pan and put little balls of crumpled up baking paper in the center of each tin to make the result donut-shaped. This was a lie. They did not come out looking anything like donuts. More like weird little cake things with jagged gaps in the middle.

Still tasty, though, especially with some salted caramel ice cream covering the chasm in the middle.
If we go to Level 3, everyone's still supposed to stay home and in their "bubble" if at all possible, i.e. no socializing in person. ("No playdates?" wails the kiddo, bereft.) Restaurants will remain closed. Drive-throughs are allowed to open, but our little town doesn't have any of those. (The nearest McDonalds is an hour away in Queenstown!) Maybe we'd be able to get take-away fish & chips from the local cafe, which would actually be exciting, since it's been ages since I last ate a meal I didn't have to make.

Businesses will be allowed to open if they can sell products online with contact-less delivery, which means we could maybe order more stain for our house. (We've run out, and we still have lots and lots of staining left to go, ugh.) No motorized or open-water hobbies allowed, meaning no boating or kayaking on the lake, but we'd be allowed to go swimming or fishing from shore, and maybe hiking on a real trail, woo hoooooo! We're heading into winter now, and the weather's getting iffy, but I'll take any mountain exercise opportunities I can get. (Oh goodness I am hoping we get to Level 2 by ski season, though!) 

Woke up this morning to lovely lavender and rose light, with fresh snow on the mountains. 


Anyway, life goes on. I'm still trying for an hour of writing every day, and still saving my sanity with Revolution Yoga. But I still struggle with worries about the world's future, and anger at people who still refuse to take the virus seriously. 

When I read accounts from doctors in COVID-swamped ERs (like this one, and this one), I often wish our news wasn't so sanitized. I know they're not filming much in affected hospitals because of privacy and safety reasons. Yet I feel like all of us who are healthy should witness the truth of the lives lost. We don't see the patients gasping desperately for air, dying of viral-damaged lungs and hearts and kidneys, so it's easy to dismiss the deaths as dry statistics. A comment I saw on twitter really struck me: imagine if we had a zombie outbreak, but we never get to see the zombies, only healthy people talking about them. That's what it's like now. We see the global death toll steadily rising, but we don't see the dying. Only doctors and nurses do, and it's shattering them. Also killing them, even as many are asked to work without proper protective equipment. Calling them heroes does nothing to make up for that.

So yeah, when it's a cloudy freezing miserable day and we're all stuck in the house together getting snappish and mopey, I read r/medicine and r/residency and r/nursing to get a stark reminder of the reasons for the rules. If staying in Level 4 longer ensures NZ's doctors and nurses never have to fight such battles, I am all for it.

Reading report: I finished Weave the Lightning, which lived up to my hopes. The magic system is quite intricate and complex, which I enjoyed but (fair warning!) might put off some readers. I took Russian all through high school and university, so I enjoyed the Russia-inspired feel of the secondary world, and the circus setting gave me fond memories of HBO's Carnivale. As will surprise nobody who's read my own books, I particularly enjoyed the two main characters' gradual transition from suspicion/animosity to tentative respect/friendship and eventually to a deeper relationship. I often feel like YA novels rush the character relationships, but Weave the Lightning does not, hooray. The story does end on a fairly cliffhangery note, but of course I don't mind that either--I look forward to seeing what happens in the next book.

I haven't yet decided what to read next. At bedtime, the kiddo and I are together reading one of my long-time favorites, Patricia McKillip's Cygnet duology. We're on the 2nd book now, The Cygnet and the Firebird, which I love best of the two, and it's so cool that the kiddo is loving it also. Oooh, this part of parenthood is the best. Wish I could go back to my younger stressed-out, sleep-deprived self during the difficult screaming baby days, and assure her that everything will be okay, the kiddo will be fine and the coming joys will more than make up for the exhaustion and tears. Alas for my lack of a time machine. Instead I shall soak up every instant of joy I can, to save against future challenges.     

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Life in Isolation, Report #2

We're now in week 2 of lockdown. In another few days, we should be able to see if the restrictions are making a strong difference in viral transmission. It's already been heartening to see that even with greatly increased testing, numbers of new cases are rising linearly rather than exponentially. 36,209 tests have been run to date; NZ is currently at 1039 cases, with only 1 death so far.

The low death rate is likely because the majority of NZ's cases are linked to overseas travel, and travelers tend to be younger and healthier. If the virus makes it into a more vulnerable demographic, the death rate can go up quite fast. If we're very lucky, the lockdown will have been put into effect early enough to prevent that from happening. But all we can do is wait and see. Every day at 1pm the Ministry of Health holds a live press conference discussing new cases. I don't watch every single day, but if I'm near a computer at 1pm, I do rush to go see. (Holding my breath, hoping for low numbers).

It's not always easy to adjust to life in level 4. This past week, the weather was absolutely gorgeous--warm, sunny, and calm. My son told me about a million times how much he wished we could swim in the lake. (We can't; no swimming or watersports allowed.) I gazed longingly at the local peaks, thinking of how perfect the weather is for hiking them. (Tramping isn't allowed either.) My husband likewise heaved many a sigh, grumbling that it's just not fair for the wind to stop NOW, why couldn't it be like this back when we were allowed to go boating?

Tantalizing autumn weather--look at that, not a cloud in the sky, nor any wind to blow you off the ridges!
He can't go swimming, but at least he can still skip stones
I realize we're still very fortunate, though. We know families with spouses stuck in different countries; and others who were halfway through moving, who're now living in campervans or sheds. We're doing just fine, we're in our own home, we're all healthy, and at least we can still walk and bike for exercise. And since my son's school moved their 2-week fall break forward, he's spared from schoolwork for the time being. (Right when my homeschool routine was working so well! Oh well, I'll put it back into practice soon enough. The school break ends on April 15th, and then it's back to work.)

Such a hard life. I mean, somebody's got to eat all the grapes from our greenhouse grapevine.
Breaking out the tried and true alternatives to screen time.
We did put the excellent weather to some good use. For ages now we've been working on staining our house. A very slow project, since it's hard work and involves a lot of ropes and ladders for the upper sections, and honestly when the weather is good we are all too quick to go hiking or biking or boating instead.

Ha, but not now. With no more excuses left, we've been tackling the sun-facing north wall of our home. (Even after almost 3 years living in the southern hemisphere, it still throws me on occasion that the north face has all the sun exposure, while the south face is shadowed and cold.) The north wall has a hell of a lot of pine weatherboard to stain, and the panels have been, well, weathered pretty badly by the ferocious sun. (There's not much ozone layer above NZ.) As my sore arms can attest, this means it takes huge amounts of stain to cover and seal the wood, urgh. The worst part is that when I finally get a section done and want to celebrate, I realize I'll have to do it alllllll over again for the second coat.

The North Face. May look a lot less impressive than Everest's, but man, if we ever finish getting multiple coats of stain onto all that wood, I will feel almost as much accomplishment as if I'd climbed some Himalayan peak.

This morning's work. 
Our fruit trees have been going to town, which is great but also a little bit sad because we can't share the fruit with neighbors and friends. (No food sharing allowed in lockdown!) I refuse to let the bounty go to waste, though. As I'm still new to everything about gardening, I spent ages slicing and freezing our lovely red peaches before I happened to stumble across a webpage that informed me stonefruit can be frozen whole. My God, why didn't anyone tell me? Soooo much easier to just wash 'em, dry 'em, and dump them in a freezer bag.

This is only the smallest selection of our vast number of peaches. They look grayish because they are "black boy" peaches, which are purple-gray on the exterior, bright red on the interior. I think "red peach" is a better name, so that's what I call 'em. 
Ready for freezing. The intense red is the natural color. The flavor is different than normal peaches, a lot more tart when fresh, but mellows into this rich, complex, super deliciousness when cooked. I don't like cooked peaches ordinarily, but I love these.
All the Kiwis do tons of canning and jam-making and preserving, but my husband can't eat sugary jams/preserves, my son doesn't like them, and it feels like a daunting amount of work, anyway. For now, I'm sticking to freezing and baking.

I made gluten-free red peach muffins! Very tasty. Sadly it turned out the kiddo does not like any type of cooked peach, even in muffins. Oh darn, guess I have to eat them all, to spare my husband from sugar.
If you're wondering how writing is going, well, I'm writing where and when I can. Much like the house staining, progress is slow, but even slow progress adds up in the end, I hope. It is definitely nice to have the mental escape from worrying over the virus and the long-term global consequences thereof. Writing requires so much concentration for me that it leaves no room for anything else. That is a blessing in stressful times, no question. May we all find such relief.

Speaking of absorbing escapes, I finished Sangu Mandanna's A House of Rage and Sorrow, and I'm delighted to say the further adventures and difficulties of her characters kept me just as entertained as A Spark of White Fire. This one is a darker book but no less engaging. I stayed up late after putting the kiddo to bed so I could devour it all in one go. I think the third novel comes out later this year; I've already got it pre-ordered.


In the meantime, I'm excited to dive into Weave the Lightning, by Corry L. Lee. Storm magic and a Russian-inspired world sound like exactly my jam. This is her debut novel, it has just released, and oh gosh, my heart goes out to her and every other author debuting in pandemic times. Getting the word out about your brand new book was hard enough before, but now? Eeeeek. Maybe it's not huge in the scheme of things, but all of the things we miss and lose due to this virus still matter. So hey, if you're looking for entertainment in your isolation, be sure and check out recent releases, especially debuts. They'll need extra help not to sink below the readership radar.   

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Life in Isolation, Report #1

Welp, we're on day 3 of national lockdown. NZ is up to 451 cases. The majority of them are still associated with overseas travel, but a few "clusters" of transmission have happened within NZ. One such cluster was an international cattle conference that took place in Queenstown 2 weeks ago; several infected people from the conference then attended Wanaka's agricultural & pastoral show, one of the biggest local events of the year, which had a crowd of 40,000. (Doh!)

So far only a dozen people are in hospital, but that's certain to change. The government's best modeling indicates we'll reach several thousand cases in the next week or two. After that, if the lockdown is working to stop community transmission, we'll hopefully start seeing a decrease.

Boy do we all hope for that. This has led to some community arguments over what is and isn't allowed in lockdown. What is the definition of "going out for exercise" in a town full of climbers, marathon runners, mountaineers, and other outdoor enthusiasts? The local coast guard has asked people not to kayak and boat on the lake, to spare volunteers from having to mount rescues in case of trouble. But what about mountain biking the multitude of trails accessed from town? Or driving to more remote but still "local" trailheads? Or surfing the Hawea wave? The debate rages in local Facebook groups, with some arguing we should all stick to neighborhood walks, others insisting mental health is important, and so long as distancing is kept, other activities should be fair game.

Our household is playing it safe and keeping to short walks down to the lakeshore. Well, plus a lot of time bouncing on our backyard trampoline, and occasional games in the empty lot next door.

For my own sanity, I worked out a daily school schedule for my son, and we've settled into a reasonable routine.

We get up, have breakfast, I shower and do a 20-30min yoga workout using free youtube videos. (I just finished "30 days of Yoga with Adriene", which I really liked, so now I'm on to another 31-day set of her videos called Revolution. I can't recommend these enough. Adriene is a terrific instructor, very practical/pragmatic with a nice sense of humor, and she's great at explaining different options for beginner/intermediate/expert in each pose. For me it's been a total sanity saver.)

9am: My husband heads into his home office for work. (His company has always worked remotely, so his routine hasn't really changed!) For me and the kiddo, the "school day" starts. From 9-10, my son works on a range of activities assigned by his classroom teacher. His school has done a spectacular job of setting up tons of online learning, for which I am tremendously grateful. While the kiddo works, I write.

10am: Free time, with the caveat of no screens. I play with him if he wants.

11am: The kiddo does another block of schoolwork, and I work on my algorithm project.

12pm: Lunchtime! And chores.

1pm: Music lesson: I'm teaching him piano, since that's the instrument I play best. I wish I had been smart enough to buy some beginner piano books before the lockdown, but oh well. Instead I print off beginner exercises and music I find online.

1:30pm: Japanese lesson! The kiddo and I decided to learn Japanese together, in hopes we can visit Japan someday post-pandemic. Our Kiwi friends tell us the powder and tree skiing there are epic. We're using Rocket Japanese, which I like so far. We have a lot of fun trying to beat each other's scores on the various games & quizzes.

2pm: "Physical education"...aka, get active for an hour. We trampoline, practice cricket bowling, run sprints, dance to music, whatever the kiddo wants to do that is active.

3pm: School day is done, now the kiddo gets screen time. He plays video games and Skypes with his friends or watches favorite shows. I catch up on news, email friends, do more chores (we are still trying to stain the outside of the house!).

530pm: My husband's usually done with work, so we make dinner and then go for a family walk to the lake, or watch a movie together, or something family-oriented.

Evening on the lakeshore


All good so far, but the lockdown is yet young. I keep thinking about how hard it must be for parents of very young children or rebellious teenagers, especially if both parents are also trying to work from home. It's been a touch exhausting trying to keep my energetic 11 year old from climbing the walls, and replacing all his in-person social interaction; yet I know I'm lucky compared to so many others. Hugs to everyone out there struggling to make it through another day.

This will all be worth it if NZ can stop this virus. In my dreams, the lockdown works and thousands of lives are saved. Domestic restrictions get lifted after a month or so, and within NZ we can return to socializing and domestic travel and tramping/climbing/kayaking/etc, even if our borders have to stay closed to stop new cases. This is perhaps too optimistic a dream, but hey. Hope is a nice thing to have.

In the meantime, for anyone looking for distraction, I've got books to recommend. I've been re-reading Sangu Mandanna's A Spark of White Fire, an engaging YA space opera that I've mentioned here before, in preparation for reading the sequel, A House of Rage and Sorrow. The first book definitely holds up the second time through; I'm just as captivated as I was before, and really looking forward to seeing how the story continues. If you want to escape the world for a while, definitely try this SF adventure with sentient space ships and difficult family relationships plus magic and meddling gods.





Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Heading into Lockdown

Over the weekend, COVID-19 case numbers in NZ increased to 102, and the first dreaded signs of community transmission appeared in Auckland and Wairarapa. To my huge relief, the government was swift to act. In an address to the nation yesterday, PM Jacinda Ardern raised the nation's immediate alert level to 3, with the understanding that over the next 48 hours the country will prepare to go into full level 4 lockdown (as of midnight Wednesday, NZ time).

Lockdown means all schools closed, all businesses closed except for health services, pharmacies, supermarkets, supply chain, police & vital govt services. We are all to stay home, no travel outside local area, no contact with anyone outside our households. If we go outside we must maintain 2m distance from anyone else. If needed, this will be enforced by police & military. The government will prohibit rent increases and evictions, work with banks to provide mortgage relief, and ensure basic income for all Kiwis. We will remain in lockdown for at least 4 weeks.

This is absolutely New Zealand's best and only hope of preventing the swamping of the health system and the resultant huge numbers of deaths. Will it work? Oh goodness I hope so, but only time will tell.

It's a little chaotic right now, as people rush to prepare. Despite the calls to "shop normally", supermarkets in bigger cities are apparently madhouses. Tourists who haven't yet left the country may not be able to get out in time, as many flights are cancelled. Kiwis who'd been traveling in different areas of the country are racing to get home, a process complicated by the ferries between North and South Islands having limited space.

But everyone agrees this is necessary. My eyes welled up when I saw the statement of support from NZ's main opposing political party, the more conservative National party. They have suspended all campaigning and expressed full confidence in the PM's actions, despite the severe economic consequences of a full lockdown. “We support any measures that will protect the health and safety of New Zealanders...we will work in a supportive and constructive way with the Government in the interests of bringing New Zealand through this crisis together."

Those of you in America will understand why I nearly wept upon reading that. Just...I can't even imagine seeing a similar headline in the US, and that both terrifies me and breaks my heart. The deep divisions of American society are about to quite literally kill people. Especially the "alternate reality" bubble that so many Americans have complacently built around themselves; the one in which the president is super-competent and the virus over-blown. I want to scream when I think of the months wasted, the insistent denials of the virus's severity, the eagerness to prioritize profit over people's lives, so that even now, too many people don't take self-isolation seriously.

I keep thinking of the line from HBO's Chernobyl miniseries, "Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth; sooner or later, that debt is paid."

In America, the debt is coming due. I fear it will cost far more lives than Chernobyl.

Yet I cling to hope. Regardless of government, each of us has some power to affect the virus's spread. When my husband and son and I went for a walk last night, we and the other families we saw called cheerful greetings from a good long distance and conscientiously steered well clear of each other. I've been messaging the parents of my son's friends to set up virtual playtime options. Local Facebook groups are filled with people offering whatever help is needed for those alone or requiring shopping assistance. All this is in no way unique to New Zealand, I am sure. Our actions are our own best hope, regardless of country.

So to everyone out there, wherever you live, I pray you stay healthy and safe. And please, so long as the virus is not contained, stay isolated.

It's okay to go outside if there's nobody else around

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Alert Level 2

In the 2 days since my last post, NZ is up to 52 cases of COVID-19. Two of them aren't related to overseas travel: we now have the dreaded first sign of community spread. NZ's PM addressed the nation today to unveil a 4-level alert system; we're currently at level 2. This means schools stay open, but every adult who can work remotely should start doing so. We're asked to stop all non-essential domestic travel, and those people in high risk groups (elderly, immunocompromised, underlying conditions), should limit contacts by staying at home.

As I watched the PM's announcement, my son was downstairs playing with a friend. Another little friend is supposed to come over tomorrow, and I already agonize: should I cancel that? It's probably safest to do so. Yet so long as my son's school remains open, he's exposed to some risk anyway, and this may be one of his last chances to enjoy ordinary playtime. I don't think we have long before the alert level rises and we all go into true isolation, for who knows how long. 

Looking at social media posts from friends all around the world, I can't help but recall the parts in Stephen King's masterwork of viral apocalypse The Stand where characters mourn the world that was. All the simple conveniences of life, but most of all the shared rituals of community, from baseball games and summer fireworks to crowded movie theaters. We're not anywhere near as bad off as survivors in The Stand, of course. Our favorite acts of community aren't forever gone for us, just gone for a while. We still have the internet to keep us together and build new rituals of connection despite physical isolation. But it's still a time to mourn, because when we come out of this crucible, the whole world will be different in ways we're not yet sure of. 

PM Jacinda Ardern finished her speech to the nation by calling on people to "be strong; be kind." Oh, how I hope we can live up to that. (For my part, I'm registering with the local volunteer network which will organize help for local community members.) 

In the meantime, if you're stuck at home and looking for a read that celebrates kindness and friendship in difficult times, I've got a rec for you:


Emma Bull's Finder is old-school elfpunk urban fantasy, a murder mystery set in a town straddling the magical border between human and elven lands. The protagonist, Orient, is a human runaway with a psychic knack for finding things. His best friend is an elven woman named Tick Tick who's a talented mechanic. When Orient is forced into helping the local police solve a string of murders, Tick Tick and his other friends aren't going to let him face trouble alone. Bull's typical excellence with character work makes the story really shine. Fair warning, it does involve a deadly plague and contains a heartbreaking death scene, so if you don't want that reminder of reality in your reads right now, keep it for another time. Me, I plan to curl up with it tonight. 

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Calm before the storm

I just read over the last post I made here, way back at the beginning of the year, and wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry. So much for my attempted optimism about 2020, eh? A few days after Jan 1, I remember reading a BBC article about a new virus hospitalizing people in China. It was easy to dismiss beneath the deluge of terrible news about the bushfires in Australia, and the threat of war between the U.S. and Iran. I remember thinking, Oh gosh, what now--as if we need a plague on top of everything else! But even at worst, I assumed a "plague" meant something like SARS or H1N1. Sad for everyone affected, but society as a whole would plow on as normal.

Ha. Well. Here we are, in the kind of epidemic straight out of a disaster movie. New Zealand is not so badly affected yet. (Yet.) Our first confirmed case wasn't until Feb 28, and on Mar 14, when we still had only 6 cases, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern ordered that everyone, residents and visitors alike, arriving into New Zealand has to self-isolate for 14 days. It's getting a lot harder to reach NZ at all, with Air NZ cutting way back on flights, and Qantas cancelling overseas operations entirely.

Today, March 19th, NZ is up to 28 cases, all of them still associated with overseas travel. No evidence yet of community spread...although I worry that is because NZ is only now rolling out more widespread testing. Until a few days ago, to get tested you needed to have both symptoms and a history of overseas travel (or close contact with someone who'd traveled from overseas). Given COVID-19's long incubation, slow progression of symptoms even in critical cases, and penchant for silent spreading in a community, I feared NZ's Ministry of Health was too complacent in their assumptions.

I guess we'll soon see. Aside from my qualms about their testing policy, I think Ardern and her government are doing a pretty damn spectacular job of handling the situation. They've been clear and honest from the start about the level of threat, the precautions people should take, and the expected impacts to the country. More importantly, they haven't been afraid to take action, even when the economic cost is stark. NZ's economy, particularly on the South Island, is heavily dependent on tourism. The 14-day self-isolation rule for incoming travelers essentially killed that entire sector. But as Ardern said, "I make no apologies"; she's putting the health and lives of New Zealanders as her highest priority.

Immediately after the order, the government rolled out a massive economic response package worth 4% of the GDP, providing wage subsidies, tax relief, and other measures to protect Kiwi jobs and help those who are unemployed or retired. I've also been hugely relieved to see the government has been working hard all this time to secure ventilators and prepare hospitals for the expected rise in cases. Thank God for competent government. It makes me mad and sad and horrified all at the same time that the US government, given just as much warning, has done almost nothing to prepare.

But I know for NZ the true test is yet to come. It's been surreal watching posts from friends in the US and Europe and Australia: the rising dismay, the empty store shelves, the lost jobs, the lockdown orders. Right now, in Wanaka life continues more or less as normal, except with a lot fewer tourists. Schools and businesses and restaurants are all open. When I passed our neighborhood cafe this morning, all the tables were full. There was a brief run on toilet paper and paper towels a few days ago, when one COVID-19 case was diagnosed in nearby Queenstown. But when I went shopping today, the Wanaka supermarket was once again well stocked:


Look at all that precious white gold! Complete with discreet little signs saying customers are limited to buying 3 packs.
Plenty of meat to go around. Only thing you can't find is hand sanitizer.

I know this happy state of affairs won't last. When my son came home from school today, he told me they spent much of the day preparing for remote learning in the event of a shutdown. The rumor mill claims the PM is poised to initiate a full lockdown at the first sign of community spread, or maybe even before. I'm guessing that's when the panic shoppers will truly panic.

On a personal level, we're about as ready as we can be. NZ is earthquake country, so we'd long since started building up a stash of nonperishable food and supplies. We bought a chest freezer, and ever since the first reports of total lockdown came out of China back in January, I've been buying a little bit extra every time I go to the store. My husband already works remotely, as do I, so no change there. My son is old enough he'll be pretty easy to homeschool and entertain; my heart goes out to parents stuck in their homes indefinitely with toddlers. Talk about the seventh circle of hell.

Preparations don't help anxiety, though. I've got plenty of family and friends in high risk groups. I worry about who will survive, and what our future will look like, as countries struggle to manage the long-term impacts. I hope desperately for a treatment or vaccine that will halt the pandemic and spare the world from the worst effects. I'm trying to continue progress on my writing and other projects, and not spend half my day refreshing news sites. (Boy is that hard, when the news comes in fast and furious).

Right now in Wanaka it feels like that last eerie calm before the storm. Best wishes to all of you overseas who are already feeling the impact; may we all come out the other side.

My son enjoying some calm on his school camp last week in the Catlins (part of the rugged, remote southern coast of NZ)