Day 158 and according to a study in Forbes magazine, New Zealand has been ranked the second safest country, just below Germany, in the time of coronavirus. There were 250 countries in the study, each ranked on efficiency of quarantine systems, health readiness, management and detection of the virus, regional resilience, emergency preparedness and how efficiently governments manage risks. You can’t argue with a study such as this although the nit-picking political rhetoric swirling as we count down to our election in October would suggest a very different picture. But the fact is that Angela Merkel and Jacinda Ardern, the women at the helm of these two top-ranked countries, are doing a very good job of limiting the danger, while other countries are faring badly, the UK ranked at 31, Sweden at 49 and the United States at 55.
This is good news at this point for in the past two days there have been two deaths from Covid -19. They were both men, one in his fifties, the other the former prime minister of the Cook Islands, doctor and health advocate Joe Williams. Their families will be grieving.
The last person to die before this latest outbreak was Eileen Hunter, aged 96, on 28 May which meant there was just over three months without a cloud of sadness, caused by Covid-19 deaths in Aotearoa, hanging over us. I have to admit to feeling shocked when I read of these latest deaths. I’d been lulled into a false sense of security thinking that although Covid-19 had returned to New Zealand, principally to Auckland, and although alert level 3 was an unnerving experience, people were not dying. And now they are and as well the statistics remind us, we are not free of the virus and not out of danger. There are currently 112 active cases in the country, of which 110 are in Auckland - 38 are imported and in quarantine facilities - and 74 arose in the community. I feel less secure tonight.
To counterbalance the anxiety however I have been sensing something encouraging. Throughout lockdown and through all the levels the prime minister has repeated the mantra, ‘stay safe, be kind.’ Then during level 3, there were even illuminated signs on the motorway with the words ‘safe’ and ‘kind’, white lights against a charcoal background, superimposed against a blue sky. I looked up and felt saved.
This approach to leading a country through a pandemic is in stark contrast to the techniques of the monster who leads the most troubled nation in the world, the United States. I think I would be sinking into total despair if I was a citizen of that country whereas here it seems that the repetition of these good human virtues is beginning to take root in our collective psyche. I am surprised constantly by the friendliness of complete strangers, on the street, in the pharmacy, at the supermarket, over the phone. These days people are much more likely to swing into serious conversation than before. Recently I was arranging a change of address for my household insurance for the sixth time in fifteen months and the young woman on the phone said, ‘I was homeless for two weeks and I didn’t cope. I don’t know how you have managed for so long.’ I was touched at that. Then she said, ‘Do you know our company offers free counselling over the phone. You can call anytime.’
I remember way back on day 2 of lockdown when I was walking in the locked volcanic crater and I encountered a man and his small daughter, one foot on the wide platform of her pink scooter and taking a wide berth around me, eyeing me solemnly as though I was a demon breathing the virus from my nostrils, when actually I was a shocked woman, worrying for my children and grandchildren, the little one in the womb, for my friends and family, for New Zealand, for the world, and the father said, ‘Are you doing okay?’ I was stunned. ‘Yes,’ I said breathlessly. ‘And you?’ I asked. 'We’re okay,' he said. It was unexpected. People didn’t ask such questions while walking in a park in the time before coronavirus. I remember Brian too, a week later, and the surprise and pleasure of finding a stranger on the path, with whom I could have a discussion about New Zealand literature. Just the mention of authors’ names settled me.
The most recent gesture of kindness arrived in the form of a package at my door yesterday evening. It was from my friend who lives at Otaki, up the coast from Waikanae, and it was a freshly-made jar of Seville Orange marmalade. Accompanying the preserve was a card with an image of a painting ‘Portrait of a Lady in a Landscape’ - she's wearing a beautiful flushed peach, long skirt and is standing tall against a rocky outcrop. The painting, by Tasmanian artist Derwent Lees, (1885-1921) is from the collection of the Sarjeant Gallery in Whanganui. I'd phoned my friend when she was in the midst of stirring the slightly tart, sweet, dark oranges in her jam pot and she'd said, I will send you a jar. And she did and those two items in the package have given me great pleasure, the combination of melted butter and marmalade in a heated croissant from the French bakery, Chateaubriand, in Devonport, just delicious and life affirming.