Half-Irish, half-Kiwi, Dallas Synnott emigrated to New Zealand 12 years ago – and can’t think of a better place to ride out a pandemic. Jacinda Ardern’s ‘hard and early’ response allowed the country to reopen domestically after just six weeks. Here, Dallas offers a glimpse into what life could be like if Ireland were to adopt a similarly strict, closed-borders approach
Twelve years ago I came to Dunedin, on the South Island, to spend time with my family – including ‘Big Dallas’ my aunt – and I just fell in love with the place. Dunedin is filled with people who passed through for some reason and never left. It’s a well-kept secret.
My lockdown bubble consisted of myself, my partner Ayumu, and my kids, Mia (15) and Arlo (10). Also Jessie the dog and Tyrone the cat. We also shared our bubble with my kids’ father, Ian, as we co-parent.
I primarily work in the events industry so my work rapidly evaporated as lockdown loomed – I was working on the Dunedin Fringe Festival at the time. We were a week away from opening and I had to make the sad call to abandon ship. We had international artists at varying stages of stranded, cancelled and quarantined, and about 80 shows to let down. I had work lined up for months that went up in smoke.
My partner, Ayumu, is a builder and his site shut down in increments, until everything ground to a total halt for lockdown. All of this meant that we experienced the type of lockdown that involved absolutely no work commitments and fluctuating levels of self-driven projects, ie cocktails, loud music, carpentry and room renovation.
Down Under downtime
I truly enjoyed having the unhurried downtime with my kids. A whole six weeks without forcing anyone to put on shoes or get in or out of a vehicle faster was glorious. Time sort of softened. We rediscovered our vinyl collections, moved furniture around. We played hide and seek and built forts and danced and we even presented a workshop each.
My son taught us all Coding 101 and my daughter taught us TikTok dances, with predictably hilarious results. My children got along and enjoyed one another’s company, in an exciting twist. We cooked a lot of great food. Daily family yoga was less of a success. I was last woman standing, albeit on one foot.
We talked to my mum – a Kiwi, who also lives in NZ – on FaceTime and have a family WhatsApp chat, also. We wrote her a song and performed it together on FaceTime, which produced a few happy tears. My rap in the middle was a highlight for everyone, I am sure.
To help manage the lack of privacy, of being cooped up inside for interminably long periods, my partner Ayumu worked on his carpentry projects most days, as if he was going to work. And when the kids went to their Dad’s, Ayumu and I took ourselves away for guitar playing or book reading or whatever.
I must also mention that my partner disappeared for 48 hours – like, didn’t even show up in bed – and emerged having recorded an EP!? I found him in a homemade recording nook by the front door, made from blankets with a mic thingy, made from wood and my tights. Then my brother Steve added a remix of one of the tracks from lockdown in Dublin. Oh my god I can still hear the vocals OVER and OVER… But Arlo and I sang on one of the songs, which was nice.
Hard and early
The New Zealand government rolled out wage subsidies and bailed out businesses with impressive rapidity and minimal red tape. The fact that we ‘went hard and early’ with our lockdown measures meant that we have [at the time of writing] fully reopened, while other countries continue to struggle.
This has certainly helped many businesses stay afloat, however there have certainly been casualties. The tourism industry, for instance, has been decimated – Dunedin is currently mourning the sad loss of its historic railway, which was heavily reliant on cruise ships and overseas tourists – so there’s a big push to encourage holidays within New Zealand. It’s an offer we can’t really refuse, as there’s a magnificent choice in terms of domestic travel.
Jacinda even ‘jumped online’ and did 30-minute informal live streams on Facebook, after putting her daughter to bed, in her sweatshirt and track pants
How do I rate Jacinda Ardern’s response to the pandemic? Put it this way, you can tell she has a degree in Communication Studies in public relations. Her swift, decisive action was absolutely exemplary, to my mind. We had daily briefings, streamed online, that told us all the numbers and relevant updates. We had very clear information on what each alert level meant, and what was expected of us.
Jacinda stuck to the facts, listened to the science from the get go, and delivered the information calmly and simply. She even ‘jumped online’ and did 30-minute informal live streams on Facebook, after putting her daughter to bed, in her sweatshirt and track pants, to reassure people and answer a few extra questions.
The general feeling is that people are pretty happy for the borders to remain closed until it is much safer. We have our own little conservative enclave, of course, that seem to have learned a few tricks from the US and are trying to stir up controversy around proposed human rights breaches. It is an election year, which explains some of these antics. Somehow they meet in the middle of the Venn diagram with the conspiracy theorists.
Most of us are just appreciative that the economy hasn’t completely fallen over and we can get back to the business of living our best possible lives, or rebuilding what we have lost, at the very least. The kids didn’t go back to school until there was strong evidence that community transmission had been eradicated. It was a slightly trepidatious transition but we got used to it pretty fast. There just wasn’t the general confusion that I am seeing overseas, so it didn’t feel too premature.
Businesses that could trade from their doorways were among the first to open, also those that offered click and collect services. And, of course, supermarkets were open throughout, but that was all.
Our nightlife reopened way back in May. My dear friends opened a beautiful new bar the week before lockdown so our first big night out involved arriving there at opening time and ordering everything on the menu, until we were thrown out at closing. After a quiet first day or two, people soon remembered how to enjoy bars. It’s like riding a bike, it turns out.
Shows must go on
As I work in events, I was quickly back to work promoting part of a ‘Save our Venues’ tour for Ben Hurley, a well known New Zealand comedian. We had to book two versions, to begin with. One was a ‘spaced out’ show with very reduced capacity, and the second was a full capacity show, with no distancing measures. We waited to see if the alert level would be downgraded and proceeded with caution, as we’re all aware that things can change rapidly. As comedy shows aren’t that fun with 25 people seated separately in the audience, we were so pleased to be able to go for the full capacity show.
I told myself I would take life more slowly after our lockdown experience, and I’m loathe to report that I have done no such thing
In terms of travel, we’ve a newish baby in the family to see, so it will be a trip to Wellington first, but I’m dying to get home and see my family and friends in Ireland. I have no idea when that will eventuate, but I am just calling it ‘time to save up’ for the trip. It’s more likely that a bubble with the Pacific Islands will open up first, and I would love to take advantage of that when possible.
I told myself I would take life more slowly after our lockdown experience, and I’m loathe to report that I have done no such thing. My work exploded as soon as things were possible again and I haven’t stopped since. Goddess forgive me, but I have wished a few times for one more lockdown… I can definitely see value in an annual, month-long sort of ‘siesta’ time, where we all get to reset.
I think everyone was relieved to get back to ‘normal’ but there are definitely lingering changes that I can see. More people are working from home, and employers have seen that it’s not that bad and the work still gets done (more of it, in some cases), which is a positive. And Zoom meetings are still fine sometimes, instead of schlepping into town.
Changes in childcare are long overdue, but I won’t hold my breath. I certainly have friends that did things like plant large vegetable gardens and create hen houses while in lockdown, but the other side of the coin were pre-dawn queues the day McDonald's opened. Fairly puzzling, but a reminder that we didn’t all have the same lockdown experience.
From over here in New Zealand, it’s hard to imagine how anyone will eradicate Covid-19 without fully closing the borders and completely locking down. Once community transmission takes hold, it’s very difficult to manage, and when the pubs open again, the proof will be in the pudding. That sounds gloomy, but the acid test is the reintroduction of large gatherings. Fingers crossed the downward trend returns soon.
Read more: WATCH: New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern keeps calm as earthquake strikes during live interview
Read more: WATCH: This powerful short film shows the challenges faced by Irish emigrants during Covid-19
Read more: As the debate around “green lists” persists, we should all be asking ourselves what “essential” travel really means