Auckland, November 2020
I zoom along the empty streets on my bike. It feels like I’ve travelled back in time to the 1970s when suburban kids on choppers were more ubiquitous than cars. If I’m not careful I’ll be miles from home in no time, risking the wrath of the lockdown police. ‘Stay home. Wash your hands. Exercise only within your local area.’ I know the level 4 rules.
The sun warms my neck as I pedal along. Not for much longer I think, noticing a pewter-coloured mass of clouds roiling overhead. A raindrop plops onto my arm, followed by another. Spotlit beads of water are floating down.
I glance at my husband cycling beside me. “It’s raining,” I say, mesmerized. The magic of a sun shower never fails to impress.
He grins. “Dumb rain.”
It always makes me chuckle when he says that. In the country where he was born, the expression for a sun shower literally means ‘dumb rain’. If it rains while the sun is shining, the rain is apparently unintelligent. But is it? Achieving two opposing things at the same time seems impressive to me. Personally I’d name it ‘clever rain’.
It gets me pondering, as I ride along, about paradoxes and false dichotomies, about black and white thinking, and what goes with what.
Take my Scottish friend. Her ancestors were from China so she looks Chinese, but having grown up in Scotland, she sounds deeply Scottish. Every time she speaks to someone in New Zealand for the first time, their jaw visibly drops. Even in this globalised, cosmopolitan era, it seems we are unprepared for a Scots of Chinese ethnicity. Much like a sun shower, we’re initially taken aback. We have to learn to rationalise new and surprising combinations.
A forsaken CBD is a surprising combination. At times our locked-down city is in near silence. I’d only ever heard such quiet once before, unsurprisingly on a cruise on Doubtful Sound. The captain turned off the engines and for ten awe-inspiring minutes we bathed in the glorious symphony of nature’s voices layered one upon the other. Surely a once in a lifetime experience I’d thought, never imagining such tranquillity could find its way to Auckland.
As I cycle along, the quiet drizzle persists in spite of the sun. My clothes are clammy though I’m too preoccupied to care. When I ride, I often contemplate the challenges of the world: climate change, inequality, the list goes on. But with the advent of Covid-19, there is a new issue to consider: is it possible to simultaneously save lives and the economy? Some claim one must be done at the expense of the other. They imagine an ethical dilemma that pits ruining livelihoods against sacrificing the lives of thousands. At what price life some muse.
Here in New Zealand, we watch from our perch in the bottom corner of the globe as many nations privilege their economies over keeping their older and immune-compromised citizens alive. Not us. We’ve taken drastic steps to not just flatten the curve, but to eliminate Covid-19. Our government wholeheartedly believes in looking after the vulnerable. But, and this is where it gets most interesting, our leaders and scientific advisors also believe the best way to save the economy is to prevent as many deaths as possible. We aim to save lives and livelihoods. It’s the epidemiological equivalent of a sun shower.
New Zealand isn’t alone in its thinking. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Health Organisation (WHO) agree. “At face value there is a trade-off to make: either save lives or save livelihoods. This is a false dilemma – getting the virus under control is, if anything, a prerequisite to saving livelihoods,” IMF managing director Kristalina Georgieva and WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus say in a joint op-ed.
So who is right: Sweden, the United States or New Zealand?
For 75 days of lockdown I ride every day, zigzagging carelessly along vacant roads, my mind pumping along with my legs. But now the vehicles return. New Zealand is wondrously coronavirus-free. The Prime Minister does ‘a little dance’. We all do a little dance, of sorts.
Biking on busy roads holds less appeal, fumes, horns and the metallic whine of engines filling the air. It’s hard not to miss aspects of lockdown. Many Kiwis haven’t lost jobs or loved ones and admit, in hushed tones, we rather enjoyed life in our bubbles. We hear it said over and over, yet feel sheepish finding anything positive about a pandemic.
I’m back to ruminating about climate change. Life has returned to relative normality, scarcely a mask in sight. Social media is filled with Kiwis darting off to ‘explore our own backyard’ and stimulate the local economy. Of course our economy was never going to be entirely immune to the consequences of lockdown, nor the flow-on effects of an international downturn. But with elimination achieved, New Zealand returns to high levels of functioning relatively quickly. Our economic indicators aren’t as bad as predicted, not yet anyway.
Many other nations, on the other hand, face ongoing restrictions and recurring lengthy lockdowns to re-flatten their curves, an approach that dampens spirits and hammers economies. We look on in dismay and disbelief at accelerating death rates and stuttering economies abroad. Our housebound overseas friends have gone months without a hairdresser, and that’s probably the least of their woes.
Having achieved our dual goal of saving lives and minimising economic impact, New Zealand is lauded the world over. The so-called team of five million smile on the inside, our trademark humility ever-present. Commentators claim Jacinda Ardern has delivered a master class in crisis management. If the first few months with Covid-19 prove anything, it’s that saving lives and livelihoods were never mutually exclusive.
If a bike ride is an opportunity to contemplate matters mundane and grand, how much more so a pandemic. It’s a time for a global pause of sorts. A time for a rethink about the threats the planet faces. A time to ponder solutions anew. A time to solve seemingly impossible challenges. A time to be as clever as the rain. When we craft a brand new, more-enlightened era, we may cry tears of joy. And no one will think for a moment they’re ‘dumb tears’.
Angela Walker is a writer and Olympian. Her articles have appeared in Newsroom and Stuff. Her first book, a Second World War story published by Pen and Sword Books in 2017, is titled From Battle of Britain Airman to POW Escapee. Angela also writes children’s picture books, and was a runner-up in the Joy Cowley Awards in 2018. She has worked in marketing and communications in Sydney, Auckland and London.