A year on: Don’t let COVID-19 bring out the petty in us

On the anniversary of New Zealand’s alert level 4 lockdown, Adjunct Professor Nicholas Agar argues COVID-19 in this country needs a branding refresh – and a return to the generosity of level 4.

New Zealand went into alert level 4 lockdown on 25 March 2020 at 11.59 pm. As we approach our first anniversary, it’s worth reflecting on what the pandemic really means for us. This annoying virus is making us all a bit grumpy. I think it’s time for a Kiwi COVID-19 rebranding that could restore the big heartedness of level 4.

The lockdown of a year ago presents as a very singular experience. Auckland’s recent reintroductions of level 3 brought similar restrictions of liberty. But level 4 really stands out in our national awareness.

I’m betting it will join Gallipoli on the list of Aotearoa’s nationally celebrated experiences. Psychologists warn that the human memory is not a perfect recording device. Doubtless there’ll be much that future generations misremember about our month at home without takeaways. But we hope distortions don’t stand in the way of important truths.

The petty emotions of COVID fatigue

Kiwis’ memories of COVID-19 are likely to differ significantly from the memories of people with less decisive, worse informed leaders. These people are likely to remember 2020 and 2021 as a blur of going in and out of lockdown against a backdrop of a climbing coronavirus death toll.

But we are now beginning to hear talk of COVID fatigue. We’re all about done with COVID tracer apps, periodic social distancing and the absence of overseas holidays.

Petty and punitive emotions are signs of COVID fatigue. These bring out the oppressive side of the team of five million myth. There was a sense that Kiwis all did level 4 together—there was a big spirited ethos about how sacrifices by the more robust would protect the more fragile among us. But now that we are feeling tired of it, we allow ourselves to feel irritated by Ashley Bloomfield’s accepting tickets to the cricket—the team among those lobbying for access to the vaccine. We didn’t get to read the name or see a photo of Case M, the 21-year-old South Aucklander who went from his COVID-19 test to the gym, sending the entire city back into level 3. But when the punitive emotions take over, we license ourselves to draw on lazy cultural stereotypes to express annoyance.

The almost 20 years of war in Afghanistan have prompted a significant amount of war fatigue among Americans. This fatigue has nothing to do with the boredom referenced in the adage “war is long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror” offered to describe the experience of being in the trenches in World War I. Residents of Milwaukee feel no sheer terror from direct encounters with Taliban fighters. They’re just sick of going on CNN.com and seeing that, after all these years, the War in Afghanistan is still a thing. Time for some new news already!

What’s the problem if Kiwis are bored by this irritating virus? It’s that COVID fatigue impairs our collective response to a virus with a global daily death toll still close to 10,000. The rollercoaster pattern of COVID deaths tells us that premature relaxation allows the virus to bounce back.

Kiwi COVID needs a branding refresh to combat this fatigue. Perhaps this can steer us away from the petty and punitive and back to the bigger and more generous emotions characteristic of level 4.

Finding something new for Jacinda and Neve to dance about

One of the inspired features of New Zealand’s response to COVID-19 was the determination to eliminate the virus. We avoided the fake lure of merely managing it and praying that herd immunity would arrive. Jacinda Ardern marked the achievement of elimination by doing her “little dance” with Neve to celebrate the announcement on 8 June that there were then “no active cases” of COVID-19 in Aotearoa.

The emergence of new strains means we can no longer achieve elimination. So long as there is travel into New Zealand, we will have COVID-19. Many of us are eagerly anticipating our vaccinations. But these won’t eliminate COVID-19. Auckland’s recent experiences with the nastier UK variant suggest a future in which new variants will periodically arise. Some of these strains will evade our vaccines.

This sounds like we’re just going back to the old idea of managing the virus and hoping, with the assistance of vaccines, to arrive at herd immunity. This might seem like surrender, but it doesn’t need to be.

Kiwi COVID as a watershed

Crises don’t patiently stand in line waiting for us to be finished with the last one. COVID-19 came to a world beset by a climate crisis. It came to an Aotearoa working hard to deepen and strengthen the relationship between Māori and Pākehā.

Future generations could view COVID-19 as a watershed for progress on these and other challenges. It presents an opportunity for a collective intake of breath. We probably won’t return to the ignorant bliss of life pre-COVID. We won’t tolerate work colleagues with a she’ll-be-right attitude to their runny noses. One thing that I’m mourning is the demise of the touristic aspect of my academic job. Tuscany by Zoom’s not nearly so good.

Prior to COVID, not even the greenest politician would dare call a halt to tourism, New Zealand’s biggest export industry. But the temporary halt imposed by the coronavirus could be an opportunity to bring tourism back in a way that addresses environmental and equity concerns. The cruise ships that used to be familiar sights—human-made behemoths challenging the natural vastness of Milford Sound—will return. But we have an opportunity to ask how Aotearoa distributes its tourism bounty and how it might restore its tarnished “clean green” image. I personally would like to express an appreciation of the role of Māori ideas in Kiwi COVID successes. Why did New Zealand do much better than the UK, the nation that supplied so much of our population? Perhaps it has something to do with the more expansive moral thinking of Māori.

A rethinking of the meaning of COVID-19 for New Zealand could bring back the big heartedness of level 4. Perhaps that would be something new for Jacinda and Neve to dance about.

Nicholas Agar is an Adjunct Professor of Ethics in the Philosophy programme at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.