When Jacinda Ardern urged New Zealanders to stand firm behind her government’s decision to keep the country’s borders tightly closed against Covid-19, the prime minister described a reality that many around the world could only imagine with envy. “We get to enjoy weekend sport, go to restaurants and bars, our workplaces are open, and we can gather in whatever numbers we like,” she said.
New Zealanders returned in June to normal life with strict border controls the only remnant of a pandemic that months ago had threatened to sweep the country as it had in most others before a strict lockdown quashed its spread.
But now its inhabitants now face a burgeoning anxiety that some find more difficult to cope with than the fear of the pandemic, analysts say: an open-ended uncertainty about their own futures and New Zealand’s place in the world if the virus continues to rage elsewhere.
“It’s not so much the presence of Covid-19 that presents us with our greatest challenge, but the absence of it,” says Sarb Johal, a clinical psychologist based in Wellington, New Zealand. “We’re living with this reduced visibility of what’s coming in the future, and it feels sort of ominous and foreboding at the same time.”
In late March, Ardern’s government announced a strict national lockdown when the country had registered fewer than 300 cases of Covid-19, a move widely credited with flattening the virus’ curve in New Zealand. Confirmed cases of the virus have not reached 1,200, a total of 22 people have died and the only remaining cases have been diagnosed in New Zealanders returning to the country, all in quarantine.
‘We were basically cocooned in our bubble of safety’
On 8 June, when Ardern announced the abandoning of all domestic restrictions beyond border controls, a celebratory mood erupted; the prime minister even said she had done “a little dance”. But now, anxiety about the pandemic has worsened for some, says Jacqui Maguire, a clinical psychologist in Wellington.
“In lockdown, we had a very structured plan,” she says. “Our numbers were going in the right direction, so our efforts were being rewarded, and we were basically cocooned in our bubble of safety.”
As long as people followed the rules, Maguire says, they were safe – especially as the lockdown appeared to have quelled the pandemic’s spread. Most New Zealanders never personally knew anyone who had contracted Covid-19.
“The brain doesn’t like ambiguity, it sees it as a threat and it interprets it in the same way it would a target coming after you,” Maguire says, adding that New Zealanders – rather than focusing on their own situation – were watching news reports of other countries’ struggles with apprehension. “Ambiguity turns on your fight or flight system from a survival perspective.”
Now, with no rules domestically, New Zealanders have turned their attention to the country’s borders, where highly publicised failures to properly isolate and test travellers returning to the country in June have led to tightened procedures. Only New Zealanders and their families are permitted to enter the country – they must remain in government-run isolation for two weeks where they are tested twice for Covid-19.
Ardern, responding to her political opponents who called for a plan to reopen the country, branded such a move “dangerous” on Tuesday in remarks that appeared to replicate the mood of the country. Facebook live broadcasts of her address generated comments urging the prime minister to keep the country’s borders closed to foreigners “for a good long while yet”.
“We don’t need the risk,” said one commenter. “Don’t you dare open our borders!!!!” said another. “Lock that gate,” said a third. As the only remaining cases of Covid-19 in the country – 22 in all – have been diagnosed in returning travellers, all of whom are in quarantine, some have even urged Ardern to prevent New Zealanders from entering the country, a move she said would be illegal.
“It’s a fear of going backwards,” Maguire says. “We know what we’ve got now and we don’t want to lose it.”
The world feels very far away
At the same time, the country’s biggest export earner, tourism, is in tatters and the country faces a deep recession, which has created “a double layer of uncertainty”, Maguire says. She adds that the government will need to bolster the country’s mental health and addiction services to cope with the extra strain.
Younger New Zealanders are often bemused when writers from the northern hemisphere describe the country as a remote and isolated island nation; they were raised on a mix of popular culture from across the western world, Australia is just a few hours away by plane and the “overseas experience” – months traveling around Europe or Asia, or a couple of years pulling pints in a British pub – is considered something of a rite of passage. But suddenly, the rest of the world feels very far away.
“It’s hard to get here right now and it’s also hard to leave,” Johal says. “That contributes to this sense of not just being an outlier on the world stage, but a sense of isolation and of collective loneliness as well.”
Early in the pandemic, Australia and New Zealand were often discussed in parallel, both pursuing strategies of eliminating the virus, and both deemed successful in their efforts despite the contrasting leadership styles of centre-right Scott Morrison, a sterner figure, and centre-left Ardern, who exhorted New Zealanders to kindness and teamwork.
But in recent days, as cases numbers have started to trend upwards again in the Australian state of Victoria, Ardern and New Zealand’s top health official, Ashley Bloomfield, have sought to make a distinction between this country and Australia, painting it as a cautionary tale for what could happen if rules are relaxed.
“The events in Melbourne over the past couple of weeks are both a reminder and do change the likelihood of being able to set up this arrangement in the near future,” said Bloomfield, referring to a travel “bubble” between New Zealand and Australia, which had been much anticipated in both nations when the latter country was also seeing a downward trend in its cases.
Now some New Zealanders are not so sure. And if the country’s winning streak against the virus continues, it might increasingly struggle to relate to the rest of the world’s experiences, says Johal.
“It’s an interesting kind of irony that actually, although we’ve eliminated Covid-19, trying to eliminate that anxiety is not going to be the right route,” he says. “It’s something that we’re going to have to learn to live with for quite a while.”