Break out the bubbles

In the middle of March the COVID-19 outbreak had started in Aotearoa New Zealand, and the country was closing down. I was travelling home after a trip to a school reunion and family celebration – both had been cancelled. On the way to the airport we turned on the radio and heard the Prime Minister announcing our Level 4 lockdown.

We were fighting a war against an unseen enemy. The film footage of the announcement shown on television that night showed a sombre stage with three national flags. It was also a bit like preparing for a rugby game – were going to “Go early, go hard,” but unlike what I imagine is included in the pep talk for a rugby game, the final message was “Be kind”. We were encouraged to check on each other, especially the elderly, and this set the positive tone which became central to the lockdown messaging.

The next day the background to the Prime Minister’s conference included the cheery yellow “Unite against COVID-19” branding on the banners framing the flags. This has continued throughout the pandemic.

The night before lockdown we received an emergency text message, ending with “Kia kaha” (be strong), the phrase that had been used after the 2011 Christchurch earthquakes, and again after the 2019 mosque attacks. It reinforced the emergency, with the use of te reo Māori to emphasise national unity among the “team of five million.”

And then we were told to build our “bubble”. This idea of a “fragile but beautiful” bubble became central to the lockdown approach, and was so obviously right that we did not even realise it was a Kiwi concept, dreamt up by Otago University academic Dr Tristram Ingham, originally intended to be “pro-active, empowering and reassuring” for at-risk groups.

A bubbly person is cheerful and likeable, although bubbly is a “pink” word usually used only for girls and women (and evidently can also be a euphemism for “fat and annoying”). Until COVID, my most common usage for bubbly and/or bubbles was in referring to champagne. Our COVID-19 bubbles transformed the scary experience into a positive way “to stay home and save lives”.

We built our bubbles, and largely stayed in them. Schools, offices, hairdressers/barbers, bookshops, and takeaways all closed. Signs appeared reminding us to stay in our bubbles, and be kind.

People got into the spirit of it. We had a national Teddy Bear hunt for children on their daily exercise, a national Easter Egg hunt, and then an at-home ANZAC Remembrance Day. One of our neighbours decided to incorporate a Christmas theme as well.

Another family put up an encouraging new message in their window every one of the 34 days of the Level 4 lockdown.

Yet another counted off the days in te reo Māori.

Of course, not everyone was happy about constraints on their activities. At least one dog owner resented keeping their dog on a leash.

But it worked. We have now had 100 days with no community transmission of the virus. We know the threat is not over yet, but it is time celebrate – I will choose the old-fashioned way, with a bottle of bubbles.

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