Exhaustion and uncertainty cloud New Zealand’s Covid-free summer

Island nation’s pandemic management has been the envy of the world, but academics are still paying a price

November 16, 2020
Social distancing sign at Auckland Zoo
Source: Getty

As European caseloads spike ahead of winter, New Zealand is eyeing a coronavirus-free summer. With just a few dozen people infected – most in quarantine and none in hospital – the pandemic appears done and dusted.

University of Canterbury political scientist Lindsey MacDonald said overseas professionals had coined a new term for his country. “They’re calling us ‘unicorn land’,” he said. “[I’m] trying to get across to the students just how incredibly lucky we are.”

Kiwi academics confess to “survivor guilt” when they consider the plight of their overseas peers. But working in a nation pursuing a successful elimination strategy has brought its own challenges.

“New Zealand, and universities even more so, have adopted the philosophy that it’s impossible to overreact,” said Canterbury environmental geographer Ann Brower. “Anything which is planned has to be double-planned. Most of us really enjoy teaching but we hate planning and organising. Double organising is double hell.”

In August, New Zealand reintroduced countrywide restrictions after several Aucklanders recorded unexplained infections. In Christchurch, 1,000km away, Dr Brower reworked her classes and all but cancelled a field trip. “A collaborator in Wisconsin couldn’t believe that I had to redesign my entire course because there were four cases in Auckland.”

Colleague Alex James said the constant threat of renewed restrictions left academics permanently wondering about tomorrow. “[Authorities] could turn around and say: ‘We’ve just discovered community transfer in your region; you’re going into alert level three.’

“You’re always thinking: ‘Do I Covid-proof my teaching? Do I [put] all my lectures online [and run] small groups so that if alert three happens tomorrow, we won’t have to change very much? Or have as much contact as we can while we can, and then if it happens tomorrow, change everything?’

“That takes a lot of preparation. It’s fine if you’re teaching the nice, sweet third- or fourth-year course with half-a-dozen students, but the first-year engineering course with 700 students – that’s a logistical nightmare.”

Dr James said UK lockdowns were like a “slow-motion train crash. You can just see it coming and probably have a few weeks’ notice. We know that it could happen with 12 hours’ notice, because we’ve chosen elimination as our policy.”

New Zealand’s health situation is far less serious than elsewhere and “that obviously helps”, said University of Auckland political scientist Jennifer Lees-Marshment. “At least we’re not fearing for our lives.

“It’s just this sense of uncertainty…We are all mentally and physically exhausted because we’ve been working long hours of overtime for a sustained period. While you can get energy to respond to a short-term crisis, this is now a long-term crisis.”

Dr Lees-Marshment said many Kiwi academics also bore fears for the future of their cash-strapped and isolated sector. “We’re an island nation, a small country on the other side of the world. We normally rely on being able to travel overseas and connect. To succeed we have to compete on an international stage. We could struggle long-term to compete in a global environment, even though the rest of the global environment is challenged as well.”

To Dr Brower, the pandemic evoked memories of Canterbury’s 2011 earthquake and its aftershocks. “Every time an earthquake hits, you don’t know if it’s going to keep going.

“It’s the same with Covid because it’s going to get through the border every couple of weeks. Will it take hold and do damage, or will it just fade away?”


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Reader's comments (1)

As a graduate student I'm on the receiving end of staff stress. Also, I teach part-time so I know how Kiwi students are suffering. These are the 'not-so-hidden' cost factors of our NZ Pandemic success situation. Suddenly, so many hopefuls want to join in our piece of Pacific Paradise. Those who can afford it, and there's now a waiting list, are helping push up prices; rental, accomodation, housing. Not so easy living in P.P. but as i look around at other countries and the suffering I realise that if the All Black loss to Argentina is our major concern, well, life Down Under ain't too bad after all. Michael