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Across the COVID Divide in New Zealand

When word of COVID first started filtering through, I had a holiday planned in Australia with my lovely sister. We paused momentarily, and thought about the fast spreading virus in China that was just beginning to have an impact in Italy. It was awful, it was scary, and it wasn’t here. It was an “over there” issue that we didn’t need to be concerned about. So early in 2020, we packed our bags, got up horribly early, checked ourselves through security at the airport, and boarded a plane to Australia. All so very normal and mundane; it never occurred to me that air travel was soon to be decimated by a pandemic, and life as we knew it would change forever.

When COVID first landed in New Zealand a few months later, I felt the fear, and ended up hiding out at home a few weeks before the country went into lockdown. I have chronic lung disease, and a respiratory pandemic is the thing of nightmares for me. As history will show, the team of 5 million in New Zealand got in behind lockdown restrictions and we managed to stamp out the alpha variant, and went on to live relatively normal lives, behind closed borders.

Stamping out alpha gave us the gift of time for vaccines to be developed, and a vaccine rollout plan to be established. I think we became a little immune to the impact of the pandemic in other countries; we weren’t feeling its bite in our families and friends, nor were we seeing exhausted doctors and nurses fighting a seemingly losing battle to keep people alive.

When delta arrived, as much as we all tried to sing from the same hymn book, we were becoming more discordant. The murmurings of dissent grew louder, as it became apparent there were people who would choose not to be vaccinated. Their body, their choice. With the spread of delta as a strong incentive, vaccination rates climbed steadily, and that 90 percent target was looking more and more possible. The murmurings grew louder still as talk of mandates came in, and people who chose not to be vaccinated had another choice with “no jab, no job.”

And now, here we are: sitting on the precipice where vaccine passports are about to take effect, giving the vaccinated an echo back of our “normal” lives, provided we leave our unvaccinated friends and family at home. Those who choose not to be vaccinated are being pushed into a smaller box, with their “new normal” more restricted and isolated, where freedom of choice is becoming a punishment. I feel for them, the soon to be segregated 10 percent who choose not to be vaccinated.

I am still afraid of the virus and worry how my lungs would cope: I’m ready for it though, no more lockdowns, let it spread. I am putting a lot of faith behind our very-nearly 90 percent vaccination levels. I’m more afraid of the impact that segregating a minority of people exercising their right of freedom of choice will have on our nation. Its impact is being felt already in families, between friends and in neighborhoods, where once solid bonds are beginning to feel shaky and unsure. It feels as though the impact of freedom of choice could change us in a more granular and permanent way than the COVID virus ever could. This brave new world we are living in is going to rely on a lot of grace and hope and respect, to enable us to cross the COVID divide. Am I up for it? Can I think about that?

Getty image by Zemira Bosnjakovic / EyeEm

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