The streets of New Zealand’s largest metropolis were quiet. Toilet paper, wine, chocolate, and flour shelves in an Auckland supermarket had been discreetly refilled from any panic-buying flurry, indicating New Zealanders hunkering down for a marathon of self-soothing and banana bread.
A barista at an upscale cafe claimed things had quieted down after the announcement. “It might just be a Tuesday,” she shrugged. People were calmly browsing at Unity Books, a bookstore in the center of the city. “There’s always an element of eerie calm before the storm,” remarked Briary Lawry, a bookseller.
One of the most surprising aspects of the week for a country on high alert due to the arrival of Omicron was its air of normalcy. It came after one of the pandemic’s most pivotal moments: a Sunday morning revelation that the new, extremely contagious Omicron variety had penetrated the country’s borders, and the country had likely reached the end of its ability to keep Covid-19 situation in New Zealand under tight control.
Omicron cases had appeared in three cities by Wednesday, and officials were openly detailing strategies for when case counts reached 1,000 per day, which they predict to do soon. Some people around the country took stock of their cabinets and mask supplies.
“As ever, New Zealand copes with worry by mass shopping,” said 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,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said last week, “but we can try and slow it down.” However, the virus’s spread in New Zealand will represent a significant change in the country’s pandemic history, as well as a bizarre new period of re-aligning with other nations’ experiences after years of traveling a distinctly divergent road.
New Zealanders have watched as other nations struggled with the spread of Covid for over two years, witnessing recurrent waves of infection, sickness, and growing death tolls. Covid was mostly encountered in the abstract, at arm’s length, in New Zealand due to intermittent lockdowns and rigorous border restrictions.
“A big culture shock is coming”—New Zealander
Long lockdowns and family separations have been significant obstacles and sacrifices for the country. Most people, however, encountered the sickness through a filter of news stories and government announcements, rather than witnessing friends, family, and coworkers become ill or die.
On Monday, political editor Jo Moir wrote, “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.”
“A big culture shock is coming New Zealand’s way.”
New Zealanders must now readjust themselves to a world where infections are a daily reality, after spending so much time and effort preserving Covid-zero when the country was vaccinated.
That prospect fills many people with dread. “Frankly, I am very worried,” said Andy Black, 65, a Hawkes Bay gardener and landscaping worker.
“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 Waikato veterinarian.
“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, a 58-year-old priest and Greymouth local body councillor.
“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.”
A drastic psychological shift for New Zealanders
According to clinical psychologist and catastrophe psychology specialist Dr Sarb Johal, the change in circumstance necessitates a drastic psychological transformation for New Zealanders.
“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 explained.
“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, such as Deborah McCabe in Auckland, yearned for the clearer laws and stricter controls of New Zealand’s recent past. “I’d like to see things stricter here,” she stated, possibly referring to last year’s level-3 lockdowns.
“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.”
New normal is not here to stay
According to Johal, the concern that comes with increased case numbers may be exaggerated in comparison to the risk that New Zealanders face.
“Our reactions might actually be not so much a reaction to the case numbers but [the shattering of] the norm,” he noted, considering that with over 95 percent of individuals fully vaccinated, many New Zealanders now had a little risk of being critically ill.
“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 explained.
Extremely low daily case numbers in New Zealand have become an anchor for many: a simple indication that the government’s strategy was working and that life remained mostly under control. New Zealanders may expect to be cast loose from that in the coming weeks – daily cases will no longer be regarded an indicator of success.
There will be “really big anxiety responses as you start seeing the numbers go up,” Johal predicted, “because you’re perceiving it as a very abnormal threat that has suddenly popped up in your environment.”
He predicted that New Zealanders will eventually discover new anchors. It would be a lot easier.
“What we need to continue to prepare ourselves for is continued change and continued surprises,” Johal added.
“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.”
Others simply shrugged when they heard Omicron. Some of the double-vaccinated people believed they had done everything they could and that it was time to go on. “This has a feeling of inevitability about it,” Fiona, from Wellington, remarked. “In some ways it feels like a relief to have the waiting over with.”
Others, particularly those working abroad, may see a silver lining in Omicron’s expansion to New Zealand. Around 1 million New Zealanders live abroad, making it the OECD’s second-largest diaspora in terms of population.
For most of them and their families, the pandemic has caused years of real losses – persistent precarity, missed funerals and births, split families – as well as more amorphous grief: the sensation of being kept out of home by an often indifferent-seeming populace. If Omicron expands as predicted, the country’s border controls will become obsolete.
“As a New Zealander 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 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.”