The daily grind never felt sweeter: New Zealanders should enjoy their Covid-free liberties

Steve Braunias
·4-min read

A chap working in the prime minister’s department mentions in passing that he’s on holiday in Golden Bay, that amazing republic of long, empty beaches lapped by the Tasman ocean, at the top of the South Island. “Too much sand,” he texts. “Too much sun.” He’s plainly in heaven. In normal circumstances I’d hate someone for enjoying a holiday while I’m back at work but things are different this year.

Most working New Zealanders are back to the grind after the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. Schools start next week. Parliament resumes on 7 February. Business as usual, but there’s something light-hearted about it in 2021. The tedium and drab necessity of returning to work is tempered by the knowledge that it’s not that bad, that it could be a lot worse. The mere fact we can move around the towns and cities, squeeze into elevators, and mooch around with each other in offices and cafes and doctor’s waiting rooms and any confined space you care to name, is a joy. Freedom isn’t just the open road; freedom is also a day measured in paperclips and paper jams. It’s a freedom denied other countries in lockdown.

Related: May I have a word about… how lockdown ruined the language | Jonathan Bouquet

Covid, always Covid, its threat and its oppressions shaping the way we live and work – or not live, and not to go work. Currently we’re at liberty to wander hither and yon. I walked past one of the bars at Auckland’s Viaduct marina the other night and the sound system was blasting out the B52s: “Roam where you want to!” Roaming to the office is good enough.

Anything is better than being cooped up. The daily grind never felt sweeter. There was likewise a different, lighter tone to the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. Our summer break is always a chance to appreciate the unspoiled, unpeopled beauty of New Zealand but in 2021 it was with the knowledge that we were especially lucky to be allowed out of the house and travel in packs.

All the motels were booked out, the campgrounds too. They were filled with Kiwis who didn’t really have the option of taking an overseas holiday: to leave New Zealand was to return to a long quarantine, and a $3,000 bill. It was a New Zealand summer pretty much set aside for New Zealanders, with very few tourists from around the world.

That felt strange. You get used to turning up at places and hearing German accents, American accents, and the various dialects of Britain. This time it was just the broad, relaxed twang of the honking New Zealand voice. We were talking to ourselves and it felt good.

But freedom and liberty hang by a thread in the Covid age. Sunday’s news that a woman in Auckland has tested positive for the virus – the first case since 18 November – puts the country on tenterhooks. Another wave of the pandemic is a distinct possibility.

The complacency of summer was nice while it lasted. News report, January, NZ Herald: “Data has revealed the number of daily scans on the Covid tracer app has plummeted from its peak of 2.5 million in September to around 500,000 in recent weeks.” Gee – as many half a million?

The threat of a new Covid variant is real. It’s only sensible to use the tracer scan. But the point of a New Zealand summer – sand on the pavements, the smell of barbecue charcoal wafting through the suburbs – is to take it easy.

A cafe owner made the news last week when he put up a sign advising customers it was “optional” whether they wanted to scan the QR code. Good on him, I thought. Most people don’t bother anyway. But Twitter exists to jump and down, and jumping duly ensued.

“Avoid this cafe,” someone commanded. It inspired a small pile-on. This: “What a shocker” And this: “Off my list.” And this: “I simply would not even touch the door handle.”

The cafe was in Golden Bay. I hope it didn’t spoil the holiday of the fellow who works for Jacinda Ardern.