Stuck with the Kiwis The COVID-19 Chronicles: Pandemic prompts improvisation

New Zealand | Adobe Stock photo

UNDER THE SHELTERING SKY |

Luck is a very thin wire between survival and disaster, and not many people can keep their balance on it.                    

— Hunter S. Thompson

By Paul Karrer

Nearly a year ago I made plans to visit friends in New Zealand this March. Got my ticket and then the Corona calamity began to unfold in Wuhan. Should I go? I thought. No, I should not. 

First lesson: Follow initial instincts, particularly if they are basic survival-related.

But when I tried to contact the ticketing site to reschedule a flight — six hours of three calls never even connected me to the site — I thought Ehhh. I’ll go. 

Second lesson:  In the future, buy airline tickets directly from the airline, not brokerage sites.

The flight from San Francisco to Auckland was half full, something I’d never seen before in all the years I’ve flown to Kiwi-land. A 12-hour flight I might add. Wuhan’s coronavirus numbers were picking up pace, but to those in plague-denial, including a wishful me, cursory glances at fellow passengers and Handi Wipes were supposed to be enough to keep the virus at bay. I counted three passengers wearing face masks. I thought, Good. No coughing occurred and the woman across the aisle offered me sanitizer as she cleaned her tray and armrests. I had my own sanitizer and did the same.

Noticeably, flight attendants did not wear gloves. But when the time came to give us drinks, attendants had 20 or so plastic cups, one inside the other, wedged in their armpits. They offered them to the passengers with lean-forward body language indicating the passenger should take the cup.  It was supposed to offer a modicum of virus protection.

Hundreds of people disembarked when the plane landed and co-mingled with hundreds of other arrivals. Proximity should have been an issue; it wasn’t. I have an e-passport and New Zealand’s immigration process makes entering the country a joy.  It took less than a minute. All done via electronic booths. But we now know the novel coronavirus lingers on metal and plastic surfaces for hours.

Lesson three: What we don’t know can kill us.

I stayed with friends in two places: Upper Hutt, North Island, and Nelson, South Island. Domestic flights were packed and packed tightly. Possibly because huge numbers of people were shunning overseas travel? I spent a lot of time watching the world’s novel coronavirus situation unravel. It is gut wrenching to do it from afar with family members an ocean away.

Wellington, the capital city, still had thousands of people carrying on as if nothing was happening. Much of the world was still in a state of viral naivete. Plus, many clueless talking heads babbled that the whole thing was overblown, reinforcing that it’s not our problem, or even real. The hope was it would only happen in China.

Lesson 4: Wrong.

Also, as far as isolation goes, New Zealand is in the geographic boonies. And the Kiwis have a mindset of isolation. But planes have changed that. The world watched novel coronavirus numbers climb. I did the same on my computer each night as others slept. Then it began to go crazy in Italy.

When that occurred, more folks began to take notice and busy restaurants began to have a lower capacity, perhaps down by two-thirds. But people still bought petrol, went to the bank, and bought fish and chips in groups.

Lesson 5: If you say “gas,” Kiwis think it’s a digestion-related problem.

At that point I just wanted to go home. Better to be in the headwinds of a storm with my family than away from them. My return date was March 15. The Ides of March for Cesar Augustus and New Zealand’s own 9/11. It is the date of their mass murder in the Christchurch mosque. An event which shook the roots of New Zealand’s belief that they are a very safe place in a very crazy word.

My Nelson friends had me attend a memorial service put on by the Islamic Community Council of New Zealand several days prior to the anniversary. In essence, the service was a thank you to the New Zealanders for the nation’s support for them after the horrible March 15 massacre. Maori leaders gave a prayer in Maori. The mayor articulately said her bit. Top Islamic officialdom arrived from England and gave their talks and brokered a question-and-answer session about Islam. Lots of handshaking took place.

Lesson 6: No matter what the event, face-to-face meetings need to be canceled in time of virus peril.

But I had a small question answered. Not about Islam but about my domestic flight earlier that day to South Island. On the packed flight south, a seated and well-dressed man was approached by an airline attendant and asked if he could please sit in the cockpit with the pilots. I thought, Who is THAT schmuck? Turns out the schmuck was Nick Smith, a member of Parliament with the Nationalist Party. I saw him later, giving a speech at the Islamic Community Council. Surprising thing was that I recognized him. We even spoke a bit.

Scary thing was all the social interaction. No six feet between people. Lots of handshaking. One speaker even praised that so many had shown up and shook hands in spite of the warnings beginning to come out that suggested not doing so. What bravery.

Lesson 7: Stupidity need not be praised.

I counted the days to return to my home in Monterey. The weather in New Zealand was superb, but I wanted H.O.M.E. Air New Zealand began cutting flights and laid off 10 percent of its workforce. The escape routes to the U.S. seemed to be diminishing. I left on March 15. The flight was two-thirds full, mostly with people trying to get home before things got worse.

Upon my arrival in the USA, I learned that New Zealand declared all foreigners entering New Zealand would henceforth be self-quarantined. Australia imposed the same restriction. If I’d visited two weeks later I’d have been stuck.

Currently the world is an upside-down place. In Monterey, we are on a stay-at-home lock down. My wife, a teacher at Defense Language Institute, now teaches via computer at home. We can leave for meds, food, gas, banking and dog care. I walk my dog early in the nearby Del Monte Forest. Long walks – we see no one.

This is not an abstraction for me. My 58-year-old brother in New York City is confirmed with COVID-19. He managed a three-day fever and is on home-seclusion lock down. He’s beating it and feels better.

Soon we will be just like the years 428 B.C or 543 A.D., the years after the Athenian Plague and the Justinian Plague died out. Things were not the same.

For us, I can’t imagine people in the same numbers will ever go on cruises, or flights near or far. I think many parents will home school. Theaters may never open again. People now understand that it matters when people do not have enough money to get by. I suspect compulsive spending on frivolities will diminish; consumer society as we knew probably won’t be the same. Globalism will be heartily questioned and our health care system will probably change, much to insurance companies’ disliking.

We are in a place we have never been before.

Wash your hands, people. Wash your hands.

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Paul Karrer

About Paul Karrer

A retired elementary school teacher, Paul Karrer’s writing has appeared in San Francisco Chronicle Sunday Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, and The Monterey Herald.