My Turn: Stranded abroad by COVID-19

For the Monitor
Published: 3/31/2020 12:00:16 PM

As my friends and colleagues know, my wife Deb and I have a daughter who moved to New Zealand almost 15 years ago. She married a Kiwi, and is happily raising a family in Wellington, the capital. This has resulted in our organizing our finances so we can make an annual trip south of the equator the past few years to spend a couple months with them.

Retirement from full-time employment allows this somewhat unusual “snow bird” migration. Operating a farm would probably make it impossible if it were not for the fact that we grow Christmas trees. After the holiday season we have a three to four month break from farm work until planting, fertilizing, pest control, mowing and shearing time arrives.

So this year we decided to come to New Zealand (where I’m writing this piece) for about three months. The plan was to stay until early April, and return home at the end of mud season, in time to get to work on spring chores on the farm.

Then came COVID-19. We kept abreast of the developments in China, and then other places as the epidemic spread. Like many others, we thought it might affect our travel plans, but didn’t make immediate alterations.

On March 13, everything changed. After a brief trip out of New Zealand to see Tasmania, we learned that anyone entering the country from two days after our return would be required to go into 14 days of self-isolation. Then, a week later the New Zealand government announced all travel into the country was prohibited except for returning citizens and residents. Visitors were urged to depart immediately or be prepared for an indefinite stay.

Because our flights were still two weeks away, the airlines did not want to talk to us. So we waited. Then, on March 23, the government announced that on midnight March 25 (coincidentally also my birthday) the country would be in a state of emergency and all non-essential travel would be prohibited. Our return home in April was not going to happen.

These measures were adopted surprisingly quickly by the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern and her cabinet. They had consulted with the WHO, international experts and their own health agencies, and determined that swift and decisive action to prevent community transmission of COVID-19 was essential. Today, in the first day of ‘lock down’ the country is quiet, the streets are devoid of all but occasional pedestrians, and with only exceptional cases, everyone other than essential workers seem to “get it,” and is staying home.

Food stores, pharmacies and other essential businesses are open. Delivery services are doing a booming business. The people seem to have a confidence that their leaders are doing the right thing based on good scientific advice, and in a caring and compassionate way.

While following the news from the U.S., I can tell that’s not the case back home. While I am in no way qualified to judge the merits of the actions taken by state and federal agencies to address the pandemic, it’s clear that leadership at the top is woefully inadequate to the challenge. I’ve said many times before that a leader who will not seek out advice from those who are smarter, more experienced and trained than he or she on a regular basis should not be making decisions that require a grounding in solid science. President Donald Trump, the classic narcissist, surrounds himself with sycophants, and demotes or fires anyone who doesn’t praise his every move. Such people are not and cannot be qualified to manage or handle any crisis that requires the respect of minds that are smarter or more qualified. I am astonished that so many Americans actually believe that the president is handling the situation well. They must be either ill-informed or easily fooled.

The number of COVID-19 cases in New Zealand continue to increase daily. Tracking of contacts is robust and has confirmed to date that only a few are what is now called ‘community transmission.’ The state of emergency will last at least a month. During that time the government of this country that is a hybrid of “socialist” and capitalist policies provides free health care to all that need it. The parliament, before adjourning, passed a massive stimulus bill to ensure all citizens would have an income even if they cannot work. It will help keep thousands of small businesses from failing. They can do it without long-term economic damage, in part because they have a federal budget surplus and no structural national debt.

I love New Hampshire and look forward to eventually returning home. Our farm will not fare as well in our absence, but we do have friends who have volunteered to take care of the basics until our return. But I’m not unhappy to be “stranded” in New Zealand.

(Paul Doscher lives in Weare.)

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