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)

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