Derek Fox: Saving lives with soap and water

Thursday April 16, 2020 Published in Editorials
 The small Hawke’s Bay town of Wairoa has been struck by Covid-19 cases. 20041514 The small Hawke’s Bay town of Wairoa has been struck by Covid-19 cases. 20041514

OPINION: Life has changed in New Zealand. I know life always changes; in my lifetime I have seen many many changes. But those have been mostly incremental, baby steps.

But what was ‘normal’ four weeks ago is no more, and much of what was ‘normal’ back then,  we will not see again. And that’s not just in New Zealand, but around the world.

Most people may not recognise it yet, humanity is being forced to make a ‘reset’, by something we can’t even see – except with the most sophisticated of equipment – but which is killing us by the tens of thousands, and infecting us by the million.

This contagion – the coronavirus named Covid-19 – has spread to every continent on earth except Antarctica; all but a handful of countries – the Cook Islands being one of them – have people infected with the virus.

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New Zealand is one of the least affected countries, but here too about 1300 people have tested positive for Covid-19 and so far there have been five deaths.

All have been elderly; sadly some have been in rest homes places which as, has been shown around the world, are happy hunting grounds for diseases like Covid-19.

But my ‘bubble’, the place I’m locked down, is out in the country, isolated – which has good and bad points.

I’m here with one of my daughters and an 11-year-old mokopuna. We are an hour’s drive away from our nearest city – Gisborne – which is to the north of us.

Forty minutes down the road south is Wairoa our nearest major shopping centre where, among other things, there is a supermarket and pharmacy, and a small hospital – where I was born, almost 73 years ago.

We sit up on a hill overlooking the sea; our nearest neighbours are a couple of hundred metres away.

There is a tiny village down the hill, with a marae and a meeting house named after Ruawharo/Ruavaro, the navigator-priest who guided the seven waka/vaka from Avana to Aotearoa about a thousand years ago. (Captain Moko was there to see them off!)

There are 28 of us locked down in our little settlement. We are lucky really, we have a little shop with card operated petrol and diesel pumps.

It has the essentials, bread, butter, milk, eggs. We can swap gas bottles for our heater there too.

The shop is very well and safely run – as much as it can be these days. Only one person is allowed in at a time, the assistants go and get the items you want, they serve you from behind a perspex screen, and they wipe down the counter and eftpos machine with disinfectant between customers. They’re also a pretty good source of local information/goss.

* * * * *

Were I locked down on my own I would probably happily live off the basics I have stashed away in my larder and freezer, with essential top ups from the shop.

But I’m not. And my mokopuna – who’s an absolute delight – and his mother need more than that; and that’s when things get tricky.

A month ago a trip to the supermarket would barely rate a mention; but that was a month ago, today it can be a scary affair.

There are queues with lines on the ground encouraging physical seperation. There is an almost hilarious range of self-protection methods being applied from nothing to commercial and home made face masks, scarves and bandanas (like bank robbers in the movies used to use) through to what look like gas masks used by orchardists when spraying their trees.

Daughter Roimata and I have made a trip each to the supermarket, neither of us felt very safe and concluded our shopping as soon as possible before heading home; we didn’t have any protective gear, which is very hard to come by out in the country.

I’ve been to the pharmacy once, and therein lies another change. You don’t just rock up to your doctor’s surgery any more.

I probably wouldn’t anyway because mine is in Gisborne, a two-hour round trip away, never mind the inevitable wait.

But these days you phone up and either self-diagnose or get disagnosed over the phone; then if you need medication the prescription is faxed to the chemist – in my case 40-45 minutes away.

Getting there I ran the gauntlet of passing through the locally set up and manned “checkpoint”. These informal and well meaning groups have set up, up and down the East Coast and in other rural areas like Northland.

But they have no legal standing and may end up catching the virus from the people they’re stopping on the road and passing it on to the vulnerable/elderly people they’re purportedly trying to protect.

Initially the targets of these road blocks were tourists in campervans, but they’ve all gone now, and anyone travelling contrary to the lockdown, more often than not are people up to no good, often locals and potentially dangerous.

In my case the checkpoint was supposedly on the lookout for people breaking the lockdown by travelling to their holiday homes over Easter weekend. I clearly didn’t fit that category but got a growling on the way out anyway, for not wearing or even having a mask.

I got a second growling on the way back from the chemist, for being out and about at my age.

Another informal, really thoughtful and caring – but also potentially dangerous – development, has been the people and iwi-led initiatives to provide food parcels and firewood to families in their rohe.

Everyone from outside your bubble is a potential source of infection; but I was very moved when we received a parcel from my local Rongomaiwahine iwi about 10 days ago.

It was completely unexpected; I was aware that some iwi were dropping off kai to the “elderly and needy” but I didn’t really see us in that cohort.

The parcel was mostly snack food but included fresh fish, which was delicious and hugely appreciated.

We have since had another drop, no fish this time, but it did contain a small packet of flour, which has been largely unobtainable up and down the coast recently.

I may get to bake some beer bread after all.

* * * * *

Daily, I’m on a video conference call which includes people from right round the top of the Coast and into the Eastern Bay of Plenty, and all the way south to Wairarapa.

It’s a great network;  and each of those people has their own network, and between us we have a great snapshot of how Maori are faring in that large slice of the country.

There are great stories of people helping each other, in these extraordinary times.

But there are stories too of stupidity, or naivety. Of bubble-breaking, parties and general ignoring of the lockdown rules.

Not surprising is that being cooped up at home – without income, maybe short of food, with adults maybe coming off a drug induced high – has caused friction.

A chap I know speaking of family gatherings used to say: ‘Families like fish go off after three days.’

So three weeks has been a severe test for many. Reports of family violence are up.

Some schools, which in normal times have provided school lunches, are concerned about how their pupils are doing without them, and have started delivering to their homes.

There are concerns too that while over the past three weeks there has been a drop-off in reports of harm to children – because  the harm is often reported by schools, and schools are out right now – who knows what might be happening with that issue under cover of lockdown?

* * * * *

We are about to enter week four, which was how long it was initially meant to last. The number of positive tests for COVID-19 have been dropping, building an expectation in the community for it to be lifted or partially so next week.

Rumblings from business people in particular are growing for the restrictions to be lifted to allow people to get back to work. There are suggestions that many small to medium businesses will not reopen. They’ve gone broke.

Over Easter there were signs that the lockdown – which was very widely supported when it was instigated – has started fraying a bit around the edges.

On the East Coast where at least a proportion of the population has largely been ignored - or at most merely paid lip service to the rules – fear and anxiety levels have risen, with news that two people have tested positive in the last couple of days. Suddenly it’s getting close to home. The cases are not connected and may only be the tip of the iceberg. All the people who’ve been manning road blocks and delivering food parcels have been ordered to stand down and go and be tested.

The contagion has started to hit home in another part of Maori life too –  one that will become all the more intrusive if the virus breaks out into our vulnerable communities. Tangihanga. Whanau and hapu are finding out that when their loved ones die in these troubled times, there will be no tangi. Should the death occur at home the people in that bubble will be able to say farewell but once the deceased has been uplifted by the undertaker that will largely be it. The body will either go straight from the mortuary or funeral home to be buried, or cremated, or into cold storage for later burial.

Anecdotal evidence and comment suggest that, while in the past Maori have not been great users of cremation services, under the present conditions they are starting to take that option. Should that continue, that could represent a major change to our cultural practice.        

Not since World War II, have we had to face a similar situation. Back then, with so many soldiers being killed, there were tangi without bodies, and the culture adapted to that. While during this pandemic some might elect to simply bury their whanaunga and leave it at that, many may decide that when the virus is finally overcome or has spent itself, they will take the time to publically mourn; only time will tell.

* * * * *

In the meantime, we will come out of Level 4 lockdown – the pressure to do so will become too great. But I also believe that we will be at our most vulnerable when that happens.

We don’t fully know the level of infection already in the community. I think on the East Coast we have been living in a fool’s paradise.

The number of Maori and Pasifika people who’ve tested positive is low, but so too is the number tested. My daily conference call has reports of Maori with Covid-like symptoms turning up to be tested, but then turned away because they haven’t been overseas lately.

On the other hand, we have reports too of people being referred to be tested but not going because they’ve heard the test is "uncomfortable". Stupid.

Until a vaccine turns up, ‘hopi raua ko wai’, soap and water and distancing, are our best protection from Covid-19.

Is that such a big ask, if the life of your favourite aunt or nanny or papa depends on it?

Avoiding catching Covid-19 is our best chance of survival; in some cases it can be mild, but in others (as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson discovered) once you’ve got it, things can very quickly deteriorate to the extent that despite the very best medical attention his country can offer, he came close to death.

More than 100,000 people around the world were not so lucky, and that figure is growing by the minute.

1 comment

  • Comment Link Tapere Hewett Friday, 17 April 2020 10:26 posted by Tapere Hewett

    Great read Derek!

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