28 December 2020 Day 278 in the time of coronavirus and we have marked the first Christmas since the pandemic emerged in a seafood and poultry market in Wuhan, China in December 2019. Initially it was recorded as a cluster of ‘pneumonia-like cases’. By January it had spread, via global travel to Japan, South Korea and Thailand. On February 14 the first death, an eighty-year old Chinese man, was reported in Paris. It spread rapidly after that causing utter devastation and suffering in its wake and destroying, in the process, any belief, we might once have held during the relatively fortunate years following world war II that we were immune to plague, and able with modern medicine to control our destiny. I do think the significant lesson we might take from the worldwide crisis is that learning to live with and tolerate uncertainty in life is our individual and collective challenge.
The recent discovery of new strains of the virus that are many times more transmissible and the outbreak of the virus closer to home in Sydney, only days after an announcement of a possible Trans-Tasman bubble, has dashed our hopes of reconnection with loved ones in Australia anytime soon and reminded us of our powerlessness once again. And while, remarkably and outstandingly the scientific community have raced to produce an effective vaccine and indeed created several in record time and the first tier of people have already received an initial dose and this is surely a sign of hope, yet the scale of what needs to happen now to administer the emergency vaccines is colossal — to vaccinate the whole world, each and every one of us, and not once but twice, with the right spacing in between, to achieve this effectively and eradicate coronavirus from the planet seems an incredible goal for we don’t yet have definitive proof of the various vaccines’ efficacy and safety. There hasn’t been sufficient time, usually ten — fifteen years, to trial them and so this is the trial, and we the world’s population are its human guinea pigs. These challenges along with the upsurge of cases in the UK, Europe, Japan and the US that have lead to stringent lockdowns in those countries over the Christmas holiday period have dampened the mood this festive season.
In the lead up here, as I mixed with people in the village I noted a general weariness, a sense of fatigue felt by all. The events of this past year have left people exhausted by the stress of having to weather so many unprecedented changes to our daily lives. We want 2021 to be a better year but we dare not pin too much hope on it, for through this hard year everybody has been impacted by the fallout of the pandemic whether it has been through the repeated lockdowns and the consequent loss of personal freedoms, or through separation from family overseas, babies born and still not held and loved by their grandparents, or harder still by a parent, or through job losses, business closures, livelihoods suddenly gone and shrinking options for re-employment. The fallout continues with a housing market overheated to the point that home ownership is achievable for the privileged only and then there is the mental anguish for those already struggling with personal challenges that have been stretched thin by the additional strain of the lockdowns. For others there has been the pain of a losing loved person in dreadful circumstances, robbed of the opportunity to be present at the end to ease that person towards death. This, to me, seems to have been the worst aspect of the pandemic. I cannot erase from my memory the photojournalism essay by Jonny Weeks of everyday life in an intensive care unit in a University hospital in Coventry: those images of people suffering, faces hidden behind respirators, hooked to machines and administered to by medical staff, themselves dehumanised by their own protective suits, and worst of all people dying alone without human touch from a familiar at the end.
Which is why this year, Christmas day has shone like a bright star in amongst the grey of the ongoing worry and grind and the considerable guilt of knowing that while here in Aotearoa we gather freely in groups, bathed in sunlight and enjoying warm temperatures, much of the rest of the world is in a state of stringent lockdown, doing it hard in family bubbles, or on their own. Peace and solitude is good for stability of mind, but too much I fear is dangerous for mental health. I don’t know what to do about this. Acknowledging our good fortune and the good governance of Jacinda and her cabinet, who listened to the public health professionals and went into lockdown early and hard is important but not enough. It just is dreadfully unfair.
Every year at the end of November I take a deep breath before plunging into preparation for Christmas. Repeatedly I question the materialism of gift giving but this year I revelled in all there is to love about the festive season with its increase in social contact, the goodwill exchanged over meals and cups of tea and the music, listening to the glorious music — three splendid concerts by Harbour Voices, the Camerata Choir and Cantorum and on Christmas Eve Handel's Messiah on the Concert programme. Then on the day itself there is pleasure to be had from watching children enjoy the day — a niece lying, her long legs outstretched along the sofa, face hidden behind the cover of a book engrossed in the story — a grandson reading his card to me, (featured here) the content changing as his eye alights on things in my apartment — "I love you Mormor, I like your lovely apartment, I like the little house on the shelf, I like the beautiful cloak (a turquoise silk scarf he wears tied under his chin), I like the crystals... This year, for Christmas, my friend gave me a book of piano music for young people, collected by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Immediately my fingers felt restless to play the old favourites and to sing: ‘I’ve been working on the railroad’ ‘Down by the Riverside’ ‘Green Grow the Rushes-O’ ‘Greensleeves’... Simple pleasures in the time of Coronavirus. They make a difference.