My Turn: New Zealand to the United States – a tale of two worlds

  • New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern embraces a pupil during the opening ceremony for Redcliffs School in Christchurch, New Zealand, on Thursday. The school was rebuilt following an earthquakes nine years ago. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 6/28/2020 7:00:12 AM

Our daughter and her family live in New Zealand, and we try to go visit once a year for a couple of months. This year we left home in late January, anticipating a return home at the beginning of April. Then COVID-19 started to spread around the world.

I’ve written about our extended stay in previous pieces for the Monitor.

We went through four weeks of Level 4 lockdown in our daughter’s home, then two weeks of slightly less restrictive Level 3, when take-out food and some businesses reopened. Local travel was all that was permitted, and domestic air travel was virtually non-existent.

When Level 2 occurred we finally were able to get plane bookings for our trip home and things began to take on a semblance of normal life. Now, almost a month after our departure from New Zealand, there have been no new COVID cases there (other than in New Zealand citizens returning from abroad) in more than two weeks. Our daughter writes, “I wish what we had here was everywhere. It’s so wonderful to have things normal for the moment, but I can’t help feeling guilty because everyone else doesn’t have it.”

My thought was that she and the rest of New Zealand shouldn’t feel any guilt at all. They should be proud and thankful that they had leadership and community commitment that brought them through the nightmare so quickly and effectively.

Would the actions taken there, had they occurred here, have “crushed” the virus, as Prime Minister Jacinda Adern described their victory? Probably not. The United States is not a small island nation, to which the only feasible transportation is an airline flight.

When New Zealand closed the borders to international travelers in mid-March and imposed a mandatory 14-day quarantine on any Kiwi returning from abroad, it was able to prevent new cases from arriving and spreading throughout the country. But the other actions they took, including strong stay-at-home and social-distancing orders, closure of all non-essential businesses, limits on travel, rapid increases in testing and availability of personal protective equipment, and finally a smartphone-based contact tracing system, were together the tools that ultimately eliminated the disease. This hard work paid off, giving them their lives back and putting their economy on the road to recovery.

Before we returned home we pledged to ourselves that we would do our best once we got here to support the local small businesses that were likely hardest hit by the pandemic. We prepared ourselves for 14 days of self-quarantine with the help of friends and neighbors who bought us supplies and groceries. We vowed to wear our masks as recommended, and carry hand sanitizer always.

Our decision to wear masks was further supported when I read in the Monitor that a National Academy of Sciences study last week on mask-wearing in New York, Italy, and Wuhan, China, where the pandemic began, found mandated face coverings “significantly reduce the number of infections” and that other measures such as social distancing “are insufficient by themselves in protecting the public.”

We have been grateful for the many ways the major grocery stores have worked to accommodate the safety of their customers, old and young, and that the majority of customers are wearing masks while shopping. Beyond that, however, we have been continually disappointed, especially with the restaurants and cafes that we have previously frequented and had hoped to support. While indoor seating is not yet on our list of comfortable activities, we had hoped to do regular take-out business. Our criteria for being customers was simple: Staff must be wearing masks. It seems to us entirely logical. A mask protects them as well as us.

Over and over we have been disappointed. While some customers in our favorite places may be wearing masks, too often the staff are not. We suspect we are not alone in deciding that if restaurant owners are choosing not to be safer by requiring masks then they will lose our business. They will not hear us complain, but when we see staff without masks, we will not return.

Sadly, a less than consistent public commitment to our community safety will likely guarantee that we will have to live with this plague for many more months, if not longer. Reopening some elements of the economy too soon, or without sufficient required precautions, only makes it certain that our economic woes will continue much longer.

Meanwhile, life in New Zealand returns to normal, with one exception that Americans cannot travel there for now. Some days I wonder if we made the right decision coming home. But most days we are glad to be here, tending our garden, seeing friends (with masks), and learning to live with shopping only in establishments where the people take the pandemic as seriously as we do.

(Paul Doscher is a retired environmental scientist who lives in Weare.)

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