A Portal Into a Universe Without Covid
A Portal Into a Universe Without Covid
The people in these videos always seem reckless, thoughtless, far too close together. Then I remember that their lives have remained largely the same.
The instinctive reflex, in both the U.S. and Britain, has been to explain away New Zealand’s success at containing the pandemic as a function of its uniqueness: its remote island geography, its smaller landmass, its smaller population. (Of course, its landmass is similar to that of Great Britain, which is also an island nation.) Something similar has been true of East Asian countries, whose success is often attributed to some supposed cultural difference: a different approach toward collective action, or a willingness to sacrifice personal liberty, and so on, until we reach theories about Confucianism that can veer into full-on racialism. (Many tend to ignore that South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam have entirely different cultures and used entirely different methods to contain the virus.) But surely it has been, on some level, the decisions made by their respective governments that mean New Zealanders can safely eat at crowded food courts while many in the U.S. and Britain order delivery or dine on chilly sidewalks. It is funny how, almost a year later, Britain has turned slowly toward something not unlike the New Zealand model, introducing a tiered lockdown system and hotel quarantines for most incoming travelers.
Kiwis, for their part, look out and see the world we’re in, beyond New Zealand’s waters, as apocalyptic and rife with contamination. The 6 o’clock news there has shown dire scenes of New York and London: skyrocketing case numbers, overflowing hospitals, empty streets. The isolation of New Zealand’s experience has helped to infect its success with a note of terror; there are calls from pundits and internet commenters to fully close the borders against the world outside. Even though returning citizens must spend two weeks isolated in hotel rooms run by the defense force, they are stigmatized by many, and expat Facebook groups have turned into support centers for life after quarantine. We, hunkered in our lockdowns, stare longingly at Kiwis enjoying crowds and summer and music, seemingly oblivious to the distance between their experience and ours; they look out and see our circumstances as not only harrowing but also threatening.
For me, the people in these videos always seem, for one brief moment, reckless, thoughtless, far too close together; the things they’re doing feel alien, exotic. Then I remember that their lives have remained largely the same. It is we — the ones outside the bubble of New Zealand — who have changed, in ways that may not fade easily. With the steady rollout of vaccines, we are clearly eager to wake from our socially distanced slumber: Britain has announced a timeline for reopening, indoor dining is returning to New York and social media is abuzz with people’s hopes to gather in crowds and hug one another again. But the full abandon of those videos still feels like a distant prospect. The interactions we’ve dreamed of may be packed with uncomfortable pauses, gingerly approached embraces, hesitations before crossing a bar’s threshold.
I plan to return to New Zealand in a few months. I will be able to once again join my friends in crowded restaurants and go dancing with strangers under the cover of darkness. But I’m also aware that I will need to break many of the habits I’ve learned over the past year: of double-checking that I have a mask before going out, of balking when I see a bare face in the supermarket, of taking long detours around people on footpaths when out running. I know that what we on the outside have now accepted as normal will sound to people like tales from some far-off dystopia. I will tell people about quests to find flour and pasta, about puzzling out the times we might have contracted the virus and about how we walked around in freezing temperatures, bellowing to one another from several feet away, for the purpose of social connection. They might look at me the same way we watch videos of them: with awe and disbelief.