Uncertainty, sunny-day serenity of the first lockdown
Iwas walking in my neighbourhood earlier in the week and something about the mellow autumn weather, the bird song and bright blue sky, took me back to the first nationwide Covid-19 lockdown that started three years ago on March 25, 2020, at 11.59pm. Sharp.
The go-home-stay home Alert Level 4 order was a drastic measure, designed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus around the country. Looking abroad at that time, the virus was already swamping health systems in many countries and causing widespread deaths.
It was a hard thing to abruptly lose the accepted trappings of daily life, amid huge concerns for what might happen next. All the anxiety around the potential effects of the illness, the impact on health providers and other essential services, on shut-down businesses, and on parents trying to work from home and supervise kids doing online learning. Everything was thrown up into the air.
The first lockdown was before discontent and disruption kicked in, before border closures and MIQ limitations became a divisive issue, before vaccines and mandates, before new Covid variants pushed out New Zealand’s case rates and death toll, before further lockdowns and their social and economic knock-on became truly polarising.
But this is not written to revisit or relitigate the Government’s pathway through the pandemic. Many others have already done this.
It is to say, on this anniversary, that the first lockdown – now sliding into history – was the strangest, almost surreal mix of deepest uncertainty and sunny-day serenity. It found its own rhythm, accompanied by a spectacular run of fine weather.
Exercise in your own neighbourhood was allowed so I walked the same quiet streets day after day, thankful (in a solo bubble) for the camaraderie that developed, the people who nodded and said hello, all from a carefully navigated (2m) distance.
Among them, a woman who took two powerful husky dogs for regular exercise, and a man who’d moved a comfy old couch onto his front verandah. He was often stretched out with a book and offering a casual wave. And a woman who greeted people as she turned her overgrown front garden into a thing of beauty. One afternoon there was a divine scent of roast dinner drifting out an open kitchen window. I went home and found a piece of meat in the freezer to roast.
I always took a bag with me for foraging purposes, or for generous giveaways from neighbours with excess fruit. Sometimes I picked pink nerines from the garden of a deserted office and window-shopped at the silent stores of my neighbourhood, oddly desperate to buy something, anything.
When lockdown ended, I went to the dress shop where I’d stalked a sage-green top, and bought it even though it was the wrong size. I soon gave up on it. Sadly, the dress shop didn’t survive either, closing a few months later along with a nearby butcher and a homewares store.
I got some supplies from a local superette, even though the Government (and my sons) said that at age 70 I was in the more vulnerable group and should not risk the crowds at the supermarket or similar. I’d turned 70 just four months before lockdown and hadn’t really adjusted to the new decade. This seemed a good enough reason to ignore the extra restriction.
The man at the superette was against me, too. He looked at my white hair and said, ‘‘Madam, you should stay home and let your children do your shopping for you.’’ He was unimpressed when I said they lived in other cities. I was actually fortunate to have my nephew and his wife and family living next door at this time, although the man at the dairy didn’t need to know that.
I wrote a daily lockdown blog: it recorded domestic matters such as fishing for dinner among unlabelled bags in the freezer, making feijoa chutney, sharing Netflix tips and arranging book swaps, the rise and rise of Zoom calls (and wine o’clocks) with family and friends, online bread deliveries, a writing project, thoughtful neighbours, an obsession with cleaning and decluttering, a commitment to supporting local businesses, admiration for frontline workers, the small triumphs of ordering an Easter egg delivery for my grandkids and a DIY eyebrow tinting kit (a guilty import from Australia).
One afternoon I took a thermos of tea to a nearby friend’s house and we sat on her deck at a safe distance. It was such a pleasure, almost like the old days. She had sanitised a chair and she quarantined it after I left. We did that back then. On the way home, I walked down the white centre line of her deserted street. I’d always wanted to walk a white line. It was about 3pm, close to a school that in the past was bristling with kids and cars at this time.
As Anzac Day approached I made Anzac biscuits, wore my poppy brooch and thought about my father who had spent more than two years in prisoner-of-war camps in Europe during World War II, closely confined, with minimum food and none of the home comforts of our lockdown.
On the day itself, I stood (at 2m) in the early morning darkness with my nephew and niece, and some of our neighbours, we lit candles, listened to the Last Post on a radio broadcast, and watched the pink lights of dawn streak the sky. We were nearly done. On April 27, the country moved to Alert Level 3, greater freedoms and greater concerns.
I didn’t do anything grand in lockdown like write a blockbuster, replant the garden, learn a new language or make sourdough bread. Although I did bake Chelsea Winter’s famous lockdown loaf.
Some days I almost revelled in the free-flow of it, other days I missed my family and friends, worried enormously about the bumpy pathway ahead for our country, and was desperate for it to be over.
It was the strangest, almost surreal mix of deepest uncertainty and sunny-day serenity. It found its own rhythm.