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A sign on State Highway 1 in Wellington during lockdown in April 2020 (Photo: Mark Tantrum/Getty Images)
A sign on State Highway 1 in Wellington during lockdown in April 2020 (Photo: Mark Tantrum/Getty Images)

BooksApril 5, 2020

Lockdown letters #10, Fiona Farrell: On Ardern and kindness

A sign on State Highway 1 in Wellington during lockdown in April 2020 (Photo: Mark Tantrum/Getty Images)
A sign on State Highway 1 in Wellington during lockdown in April 2020 (Photo: Mark Tantrum/Getty Images)

In our new series The Lockdown Letters, five of New Zealand’s best writers chronicle the days of Covid-19 alert level four. Today, Fiona Farrell.

There’s a sign sticky-taped to the bakery window. Closed Until Further Notice. Stay Safe NZ and Be Kind. We will get through this!

We all know where the words come from: Jacinda Ardern’s address to the nation on March 21 in which, in six minutes, she outlined the structure, based on the best medical advice, that the government has put in place to handle the crisis, dismissed mischievous rumour, offered reassurance to an anxious population and ended with the call. “We will get through this. We know how to rally, and we know how to look after one another, and what could be more important than that? Be strong, be kind and unite against Covid 19.”

It seems that the country has heard her.

Every afternoon when we finish work, we go for a walk. Up the hill, past the shops, and back along the Town Belt. It’s beautiful right now. Blasts of golden leaf flaring among the darker green of native bush. There are always others out walking. Families with kids wobbling along on bikes, joggers, cyclists, all of us bouncing along in our bubbles. We bob to the right or left, giving one another a wide virus-defeating berth, but everyone says Hi, everyone smiles. We are all trying to be kind.

Autumn leaves bank in the gutters. I scuff through thinking about words. Usually it’s the words I’ve been working on that day. But today it’s the words taped to the bakery window.

Be kind.

They have the same magnificent simplicity as Ardern’s phrase of 2019, “They are us.” They have been taken up and echoed back. You hear and read them quoted everywhere, in an interview this week for example, with an Oamaru police officer commenting on a possible spike in domestic violence during lockdown. “Jacinda’s cry, ‘Be kind.’ We need to make sure that phrase is brought into our homes.” The words are so familiar that Steve Braunias was able to use them as the basis for satire in yesterday’s paper, and satire doesn’t work unless its source has universal recognition.

Be kind.

I don’t think this has ever happened before. I have now lived through 17 New Zealand prime ministers. Through Holland and Nash and Holyoake, Kirk, Muldoon, Shipley, Bolger, Clark, Key, and not a single one of them said a thing anyone would be moved to print in black felt tip and sticky tape to a window. There has been a lot of talk about The Economy, there was Lange’s “uranium on your breath”, but that was a quip, not a call to the heart. There has never been anything in our history to come anywhere close to Churchill’s “I can offer nothing but blood, toil, tears and sweat”. or Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”

We are, of course, a more pragmatic lot. We don’t speak of conquering mighty peaks, but of knocking the bastard off. We don’t trust rhetoric and are quick to take the piss. Ardern’s simple call was perfectly gauged to us, her audience.

Be kind.

The leaves spin and fall and I walk along thinking about words and leaders and the words they choose and the way they deliver them. About Scott Morrison with his fumbling directives for 30-minute haircuts and the two hour press conferences starting at 9pm when everyone is exhausted. Boris Johnson, assuring the UK of its “fantastic testing system” and that little needed to be done, other than that 70 year olds should probably avoid going on cruises. And Trump, the rogue elephant in the room, trumpeting American invincibility.

Be kind. Be strong. Stay home. Save lives. We will get through this.

So simple. So direct.

Jacinda Ardern walks to the house to declare a State of National Emergency (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Ardern also mentioned suffering.

It’s not blood and toil, and we may not be facing Messerschmitts and carpet bombing, but the suffering is here and it’s real. A friend rings. A lot of people are phoning these days, usually around eight, when it’s dark and our bubbles can feel very small. We talk about ourselves and other people and the world and books we’re reading and tv series we’ve discovered on Netflix – grim Nordic crimes in snow bound landscapes, shiny tv series set in a New York that doesn’t feature makeshift morgues in hospital forecourts, travel programmes set in that pre-crisis Italy of exquisite hilltop villages and people laughing round a table. My friend and I have known each other a very long time. We talk about our families, about a relative who is battling the overwhelming difficulties of maintaining a business as links with China, Australia, the US and Europe strain and snap, as markets retreat to their apartments, preoccupied with survival in their own isolation as they watch the convoys of army trucks bearing the bodies to the cemeteries at the edge of the city.

There’s the tiny suffering of a photo of my granddaughter at her friend’s birthday party. Except she is not racing round someone’s backyard, playing Chocolate Sixes. She’s seated in front of a screen along with all the other little girls, each with their little bowl of party treats, some chippies, a slice of cake, watching as the birthday girl blows out her candles and they all from their various isolated bedrooms, join in the song.

We are doing our best, with government subsidies and the battalions of teddy bears in windows up and down the streets. But I so long for this to be over, for bluebirds over white cliffs somewhere and for all the kids to be let out to race about together, squealing and joining in one loud discordant version of Happy Birthday.

Be kind. Be strong. Stay home. Save lives. We will get through this.

The words are clear. They are convincing. I take comfort from them as I take comfort from figures. That today around 100,000 people have so far been confirmed with the infection in Italy and around 10,000 have died. One in ten. In Germany around 50,000 have been confirmed, and around 1000 have died. One in 50. In New Zealand at this moment, more than 900 have been confirmed, and one person has died. One in 900.

I am not suggesting for one minute that these figures are solely a reflection of a country’s leader and their decisions. A whole raft of factors, social, medical, economic, political are at play here. Nor am I crowing, God forbid, with jingoistic self-satisfaction.

No. What I am saying is simply that I find the New Zealand figure reassuring. It persuades me to trust this government’s strategy. It persuades me to place my trust in the prime minister and her ministers and her advisers. I place my trust in her words.

We are a pragmatic nation, not given to fulsome praise. But just for the record, Jacinda Ardern is a magnificent leader. And I think this country is so very fortunate, at this point in global history, that she is here.

Tomorrow: Ashleigh Young

Keep going!