In New Zealand’s biggest city, the streets were calm. At an Auckland supermarket, shelves of toilet paper, wine, chocolate and flour – metrics of a population hunkering down for a marathon of self-soothing and banana bread – had been quietly restocked from any panic-buying flurries.
In an uptown cafe, a barista said things had been a little quieter since the announcement. Then again, she shrugged: “It might just be a Tuesday.” At Unity Books, a bookstore at the heart of the city, people were quietly browsing. “There’s always an element of eerie calm before the storm,” said bookseller Briary Lawry.
For a country on red alert thanks to the arrival of Omicron, one of the most startling elements of the week was its sense of normality. It followed one of the most significant turning points of New Zealand’s pandemic: a Sunday morning announcement that the new, highly contagious Omicron variant had breached the borders, and the country had likely reached the end of its time keeping Covid-19 on a very tight leash. By Wednesday, Omicron cases had cropped up in three cities and officials were publicly outlining plans for when case numbers passed 1,000 a day – a rate they expect will arrive shortly. Across the country, some did stocktakes of their cupboards and mask supplies. “As ever, New Zealand copes with worry by mass shopping,” remarked Jo Wilding, an Auckland teacher. “I’m pretty sure there is a thriving black market in brown sugar and noodles.”
“We won’t stop Omicron, but we can try and slow it down,” prime minister Jacinda Ardern said last week. But the virus’s spread at home will mark a fundamental shift in New Zealand’s pandemic experience, and a strange new era of falling back into step with the experience of other countries, after years of treading a markedly different path. For almost two years, New Zealanders have looked on as other countries reeled from the spread of Covid, watching successive waves of infection, illness and rising death tolls. Intermittent lockdowns and strict border controls mean New Zealanders experienced Covid primarily in the abstract, at arm’s length.
The country’s challenges and sacrifices have been real: long lockdowns, families separated by borders. But for most, the disease itself was experienced through a filter of news headlines and government updates, rather than watching as friends, family and colleagues got sick or died. “A large chunk of the population still doesn’t know anybody who has ever had Covid, and views it as something happening to other countries through the distance of a television screen,” political editor Jo Moir wrote on Monday. “A big culture shock is coming New Zealand’s way.”
Having invested a huge amount of effort in maintaining Covid-zero while the country got vaccinated, New Zealanders must now reorient towards a world where cases are a daily reality.
For many, that prospect is heavy with anxiety. “Frankly, I am very worried,” said Andy Black, 65, a gardener and landscape worker in the Hawkes Bay. “Although we have been living with this probability for nearly two years, we somehow hoped that it would pass us by.”
“I’m scared,” said Trudi Mcalees, a veterinarian in the Waikato. “As a country we have forgotten how terrifying it was to see the pandemic unfold in Europe and America – the refrigerated containers being lined up to take the dead in New York less than two years ago. We have forgotten just how bloody lucky we have been.”
“This is new territory for Kiwis,” said Tim Mora, 58, a priest and local body councillor in Greymouth. “Up until now we have managed to keep Covid in check with some initial rigorous measures – and right now despite a few inconveniences around managing it, life feels pretty normal. However, with the emergence of a few Omicron cases it feels like we are on the brink of experiencing what the rest of the world has dealt with for a while.”
For New Zealanders, the change in circumstance requires a precipitous psychological shift, says clinical psychiatrist and disaster psychology specialist Dr Sarb Johal. “We’re making a leap from being safe in a relatively fixed and un-fluid environment, where we were relatively certain about what was going on,” he said. “That changed a few days ago, and now we are trying to remain safe in an uncertain environment. For a lot of people, it’s going to feel a little bit like being shot back into the early days of the pandemic, when we were watching it go around the world, and we’re expecting it to hit our shores.”
Some, like Deborah McCabe in Auckland, thought a little longingly of the clearer rules and more stringent measures of New Zealand’s recent past. “I’d like to see things stricter here,” she said – perhaps something more akin to the level-3 lockdowns of last year. “I’m hoping things go well for Aotearoa, but I’m not sure at this point if we’re doing the right thing. Time will tell.”
The anxiety that accompanies rising case numbers might be disproportionate to the risk New Zealanders face, Johal said. With close to 95% of adults fully vaccinated, many New Zealanders now had a small chance of getting seriously ill. “Our reactions might actually be not so much a reaction to the case numbers but [the shattering of] the norm,” he added.
“In our day-to-day life, we ‘anchor’ ourselves to what a norm might be – often that’s kind of like a cognitive shortcut, and we expect everything in the world to behave in accordance with that norm,” he said. In New Zealand, extremely low daily case numbers have become an anchor for many: a simple signal that the government’s approach worked, and life remained essentially under control. In the coming weeks, New Zealanders can expect to be cut loose from that – daily cases will no longer be considered a metric of success. Johal was expecting to see “really big anxiety responses as you start seeing the numbers go up – because you’re perceiving it as a very abnormal threat that has suddenly popped up in your environment”. Eventually, New Zealanders would find new anchors, he said. Things would be easier.
“What we need to continue to prepare ourselves for is continued change and continued surprises,” Johal said. “At lots of different points during this we label things, we want them to be static. So we say things like ‘the new normal’ – or we just want certainty. The temptation here is to say: this is how it’s going to be. But nobody knows.”
For others, Omicron was met with more of a shrug. Some of those double-vaccinated felt they had done all they could, and it was time to march on. “This has a feeling of inevitability about it,” said Fiona, of Wellington. “In some ways it feels like a relief to have the waiting over with.”
For others – particularly those based overseas – Omicron’s spread to New Zealand may have silver linings. About 1 million New Zealanders live overseas – as a portion of population, it has the second-highest diaspora of the OECD. For many of them and their families, the pandemic has meant years of concrete losses – constant precarity, funerals and births missed, families separated – as well as more amorphous grief: the sense of being locked out of home by a sometimes indifferent-seeming population. If Omicron spreads as expected, the country’s border restrictions will start to become redundant.
“As a NZer who’s effectively been locked out of my country since 2020, thanks to closed borders and a lottery system for managed isolation facilities, the spread of Omicron brings mixed feelings,” said Joanna, a New Zealander based with a marketing firm in London. “To be clear, I don’t want anyone to get ill. But I do want the NZ government to wake up to the hardship and despair they’ve caused thousands and thousands of New Zealanders at being locked out – and locked in – without any ability to make choices for themselves about being with family members.”
“I know Omicron will create distress and even tragedy for some of us,” said Joshua, a Whakatane student, “but, honestly, I was relieved when I heard it finally slipped through the border. The alternative was New Zealand being one of the last places on Earth to be stuck with Delta. Watching the less severe Omicron displace Delta around the world, it was hard not to feel trapped.”