Lockdown via Getty
Lockdown via Getty

Peter Williams: One year since lockdown - could you do it again?

Peter Williams 25/03/2021

OPINION: Today is one year since we first went into lockdown to stop the spread of Coronavirus. Yes, it was at 11.59 pm on March 25, 2020, that the country shut the doors and stayed at home. All these new phrases entered the lexicon. Remember them? 

We were told to “be kind” and to “social distance”. Mass gatherings were banned. We used to call them concerts and sports matches. Businesses had to pivot to survive. We heard about this thing called a Zoom call. We gave new meaning to the hackneyed old phrase, I’m working from home. We queued up at supermarkets, we were allowed to exercise but only in our neighbourhoods, we had to stay in our bubble. 

You have to say that in terms of getting the virus under control, the lockdown worked. Well, in conjunction with the effective closing of the borders, it worked well. We don’t have the virus in the community in this country, although I reckon that’s mainly because we are islands a long way from anywhere. A lot of islands don’t have a major Covid problem, including the biggest island of all, Australia.

The issue I have now is that 12 months on, there doesn’t appear to be any other tactic available to combat an outbreak. We saw that well enough with what happened in Auckland in August and again last month. So if there is, god forbid, another group of people who get this virus outside of the isolation facilities, then the government and the Ministry of Health appear to have only one way to deal with this: shut the place down. Which is immensely frustrating for the vast, vast majority of people who are well and are highly unlikely to get the virus. 

So a year on, how are you reflecting on a year since lockdown? Was it a time that you never want to see repeated in this country? The eerie silence and quietness on the streets, the ghost towns that our CBDs and shopping malls became, apart from the supermarkets? It was all really weird, wasn’t it?

But in the last year, has your life changed because of Covid? What about your finances?

It’s been a bit weird, the whole money thing hasn’t it. As soon as most businesses were forced to shut their doors, out came the wage subsidies and the other government assistance programmes. A whole lot of companies made their people take pay cuts. MediaWorks, the one that owns Magic Talk, was among them. For us, it only lasted 3 months, and then in a great gesture, they paid us back the difference early this year. I think a few other companies did the same. 

If you own a house, then you’re no doubt feeling pretty sweet knowing that your house has increased in value by at least 15 percent, if not more, since this time a year ago. But does that really matter if you’re not planning on selling any time soon?

ASB Bank has worked out that on average, New Zealanders are 8 percent better off than we were a year ago, and that’s mainly because of decreased spending. So do you feel 8 percent better off? Have you actually reduced your spending? ASB says less than half their customers have under a thousand dollars in their accounts, more than a third are living paycheck to paycheck and that 15 percent always spend more than 80 percent of their income. I don’t know if that’s changed much compared to the year before, but how does that stack up with your circumstances? 

The key issue is this: would you be happy to do what we did starting on this day last year all over again? If the government said there was another significant community outbreak like we keep on hearing about in various countries in Europe, would you be happy to once again go into hibernation, to stay home from work, to have the shops closed, to turn the country into a place where nobody goes anywhere? God forbid that it does happen. 

But, you know, I don’t think the Ministry of Health and government have any other ideas. 

Surely if we do get another break, we do it the other way round to last time. We isolate the sick and the vulnerable, put them out of harm's way, and let the rest of us get on with life. So could you cope with another level 4 lockdown - or even, as Auckland had to go through for a few days last month, another time in level 3? 

I had the feeling then that our tolerance for restrictions is starting to wear a bit thin. I get that same feeling around the world where their restrictions have been much harsher than ours. There have been various protest marches about the lockdowns in Britain and the US, and as the weather improves in the northern hemisphere, the pressure will be on politicians to make life for their people much freer. 

Angela Merkel seems to have discovered this pretty quickly. There was going to be a big lockdown in Germany over Easter, starting next Thursday, April 1. There was to have been a ban on people getting together, most of the shops were going to be closed and all religious gatherings over Easter were going to be called off. But it looks like people power has won. The opposition said it would have been unenforceable, and now Angela Merkel has said the idea was a mistake. 

Gee, who would have thought, a politician admitting she made a mistake. So would there be a similar backlash in New Zealand if another lockdown was introduced?