Lockdown for an extreme challenge

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo: Getty Images
Jacinda Ardern. Photo: ODT files
They are desperate measures for desperate times, imposed on one of the most sobering days in New Zealand’s collective living memory.

From 11.59pm tomorrow, New Zealand will be an island fortress in lockdown. Tomorrow, we will be confined to our homes and will experience the first of many more uncomfortable tomorrows.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was both reassuring and firm when she told us the national Covid-19 response level would move to level three today, and level four tomorrow.

She needed to be both. Some of us needed to be sufficiently shaken to see how close we are to a sweeping national tragedy. All of us needed to understand we can do something about it.

Until yesterday, the community response had been tarnished by a paucity of understanding. We know this because so many people continued their lives, unchanged.

The national response was set at level two on Saturday. At that level, social distancing was encouraged and we were urged not to undertake unnecessary travel.

The response varied. Many of us stayed home. Many of us limited our contact with others. Many of us, though, went to the pub, went out for lunch or jostled in the throngs at the supermarket.

Our inability to follow simple instructions for the sake of the people and communities we hold dear helped make yesterday’s announcement inevitable. Too many of us showed we needed a firmer hand.

This was far from the only reason, of course. The simple fact there are at least two confirmed Covid-19 cases likely not linked to overseas travel says community transmission is far from theoretical.

The Government and its advisers came under sustained pressure to move swiftly to the level four response almost from the point Ms Ardern announced the first wave of restrictions on Saturday. The Prime Minister's former chief science adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman, warned of mounting evidence that the best thing to do was to ‘‘make the hard decision to go to extreme shutdown’’, immediately.

Southern epidemiologist Sir David Skegg, a former chairman of the Public Health Commission, warned the virus was on the same trajectory as the United Kingdom and we were being complacent.

Medical staff were among several thousand to petition the Government to move directly to lockdown. A letter signed by a significant chunk of our medical fraternity urged strict conditions. Meanwhile, teachers and parents who wanted schools closed became significantly more vocal. Parents, still unsure how they would care for or educate their children, wanted them home.

Every parent knows schools are a petri dish for almost every illness imaginable, but some among us struggled to understand the same can be said of just about everywhere adults congregate. Now, we will have no choice but to understand.

As time goes on, we will begin to understand the impact four weeks or more living in a national civil defence emergency will have on life in New Zealand. Police may be deployed to supermarkets and they will enforce isolation and travel restrictions. They will be supported by thousands of military personnel in the biggest peacetime enforcement response in our history.

Essential services will continue to deliver the goods and services we need to maintain our communities. Those who do this are part of our communities — they deserve our support and protection.

The Government’s latest tranche of business support measures will give some breathing room for many businesses over the next while, and more people will have access to wage subsidies. It is inevitable, though, that this and the developing banks’ response will not be enough to ensure this crisis ends without victims.

We have plenty to come to terms with over the coming days. But we can be certain we have all been forced to understand the gravity of the challenge.


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