He’s been an important, indefatigable presence through the Covid crisis. His voice is as unmistakable as his thick-rimmed spectacles. And now he’s a character in a theatrical reconstruction of those unforgettable months. Epidemiologist Michael Baker, and the man who performs his part, Tim Spite, talk to Michelle Langstone.
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By the third week of March 2020, epidemiologist Michael Baker had stopped sleeping. Overwrought, and concerned about the steps the government was taking in the Covid-19 response, as the magnitude of the virus revealed itself, Baker increasingly found himself a lone voice calling for a total lockdown of the country. Globally the transmission rate of the virus was horrifying, but according to Baker the writing had been on the wall for exactly what the world was dealing with since January, and the inaction was disturbing. That week, in another of the many interviews he was giving daily, he sat down with journalist Mei Heron, to make the case yet again for lockdown, and found himself in tears, unable to continue. For a man who describes himself, albeit jokingly, as “determined, inscrutable, and emotionally distant”, it must have come as a surprise to him. “I fell off the cliff,” he tells me simply, in the cafeteria of Wellington’s Otago Medical School campus.
Behind his heavy black-framed glasses, Baker’s eyes are trained on me with the intensity you’d expect from an expert in infectious diseases. He studies me with acute interest, his gaze unwavering. When he speaks it’s with that familiar, unique vocal pattern I’ve come to know from the interviews that have been everywhere in the past 15 months – an economy of jaw movement, words that come quick and light, seeming to favour one side of his mouth. Everything about him exudes precision – from the sharpness of his pressed shirt, to the stillness of his body in space; it’s only his hands that move, in deft gestures to illustrate his points. He’s sleeping more now, he tells me with a small smile. “I’m actually even managing to get out a bit!” Despite this, it’s easy for him to recall the time just over a year ago where he was overwhelmed. “I actually still feel quite affected when I put myself back in that period. I start to think about the cues that I had that were making me feel very anxious. It was that unique combination of events that I’d never experienced before, or after. Nothing matches March last year. Nothing will ever be as intense.”
Those few weeks leading up to March 25, when the government moved New Zealand into complete lockdown, are now the subject of a verbatim piece of theatre called Transmission, playing at Bats Theatre in Wellington. Michael Baker, Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson were interviewed by creatives Stuart McKenzie and Miranda Harcourt for dozens of hours from March 2020 through to this year, and the 90-minute show is presented in entirely their own words – the decisions made, the difficulties, the personal struggles are all laid bare – and the result is theatre with an immediacy and poignancy that is remarkable. The key players, as well as Mei Heron, and Moira Sa’imoa, who lost her mother during the early days of the pandemic, are played by actors who speak their words in perfect emulation as per verbatim tradition – every “um”, “ah” and broken train of thought, every single swallow, every clearing of the throat meticulously copied. The result lends an uncanny realness as the narrative unfolds. Well-known Wellington actor Tim Spite plays the epidemiologist, and it’s difficult to separate the Michael Baker in front of me from the character of Michael Baker I’d witnessed in the theatre last night – it becomes evident how accurate Spite’s portrayal is, and how sensitively the production has brought alive both Baker’s efforts to communicate about Covid-19, and where those efforts took a toll on his own wellbeing. It’s not what I expected to encounter in the play, but Baker’s story becomes a solemn and moving key piece of the narrative, allowing the public to glimpse the pressure our leaders and advisers were under.
Baker attended the opening night of Transmission with his wife Katie and two of their three children. I ask him what it was like to see himself on stage. “It’s hard for me to even assess it, really. It’s quite surreal. I mean that’s an overused word, but I think a lot of the last 15 months have been surreal for many people. When I saw it, a lot of the shock I would have probably felt had long since dissipated, because I’d seen the script a couple of times, mainly just to correct the odd factual error or tweak.” Baker chuckles when he tells me how surprised he was that Stuart McKenzie, the play’s author and co-director, contacted Mei Heron after Baker revealed what happened in their interview. “I think it’s a real tribute to his tenacity that he then goes and tracks her down. He could barely contain his delight when he told me. I didn’t know any of that – that Mei Heron and the cameraperson actually were quite affected. I just thought, from my POV, I just need a moment.” In one of the play’s most affecting scenes, Heron, played by Michelle Ang, recalls how stunned she felt seeing Baker in tears, and how she and her cameraperson absorbed the seriousness of New Zealand’s situation through his inability to continue. When they returned to work, they were profoundly changed.
All plays require dramatic tension, and Baker is at pains to defend that interview. In the last year he’s done over 2,000 of them, but that was the only one he cried in. “That moment, I was feeling absolutely at my low point. But the way it’s put together in the whole script – some periods maybe take on more significance than they actually had in reality. I was doing multiple interviews a day – I think I averaged about five a day for over a year. That’s the first and last time that’s happened, that I couldn’t finish an interview.” Perhaps a small moment to Baker, but the impact on Heron is tangible; the gravity of seeing such a composed man brought to tears a rare glimpse behind the facade of Baker’s self-contained and emotionally detached efficiency. Still he protests, telling me with a patient smile, “If I was going to apply epidemiology and take a sample, well – one out of 2,000 interviews is not representative, is it?” And then as an afterthought, not entirely joking: “It’s being known as the ‘weeping epidemiologist’ that still bothers me.”
Baker was awarded the Prime Minister’s Science Communication Prize several weeks ago, in recognition of those 2,000 interviews he has given since the beginning of the pandemic. It’s surprising then that for someone with so much airtime, he remains something of an enigma. Transmission reveals some of his upbringing, in vignettes about his early life — several years spent on a farm in the Waikato, attending Horatiu Primary with his siblings – an identical twin (now also a doctor) and a younger brother. “That was a rough freezing works town, and it was quite a shock coming from a very Pākehā Kohimarama in Auckland, to firstly living on the farm, which we loved, but then this school, with all these Māori kids, who loved playing rugby with us so they could basically jump on us, and absolutely thrash us.”
Even then, the young Michael, who he concedes was a very serious and focused little boy, perceived the problems facing that community. “A lot of those kids came to school with no shoes and with school sores. My younger brother got rheumatic fever and had to have regular injections of penicillin. It was quite an eye opener, we were only 8, 9, 10 years of age then. We were quite young.” It’s quite satisfying to observe that Baker’s career now reflects research and change into the conditions he noticed when he was a child: he was one of the founders of the Housing Health Research Programme, now called He Kāinga Ora, which has researched the role of insulated houses as a preventative for illness. Just this year he is leading the Symbiotic Programme, a five-year research study finding ways to reduce the burden of infectious diseases, long-term conditions and poverty in New Zealand. One of his major areas of study is rheumatic fever, faced by his own brother so many decades ago.
Baker and his twin were devoted to the wilderness as children. “I think we were very focused, and the two of us would be even more focused when we were together, and we actually just loved the natural world, and just getting out in the bush. I guess we’d got a sort of encyclopaedic interest in everything in the forest and on the beach, and biology.” As a doctor, he’s always been fascinated by identical twins. “I think, like a lot of identical twins, you don’t really need other people, and to some extent – though it’s cliche to say – you’re an extension of the same person, and you just kind of agree on everything, and you’re just this little duality.” Baker went so far as to organise a convention for twins in Wellington, attended by over 200 twins as well as scientists who spoke about the uniqueness of “twinning”. It only happens, he tells me, leaning forward in eagerness, in human beings and armadillos. He would like to study the epidemiology of twins more at some point. “Identical twinning is very unusual in the animal world. Evolution normally increases diversity rather than reduces it, so why does it exist?”
Baker studied medicine at Auckland University. “I thought the science base was fascinating in human health sciences. I thought that gave you a great vantage point for looking at the world.” And, he says, it’s been in his nature to always wonder why things occur. “I think I’ve always been very analytic, trying to figure out why things are happening the way they are.” He initially wanted to be an emergency physician, or a psychiatrist, posting to both Carrington Hospital and Kingseat as a junior doctor. “Kingseat was a little town in South Auckland that was kind of cut off from the whole world, and somebody went in there as a schizophrenic and never left, and they still were there 60 years later. If the walls could talk, you know? The grief, and everything there. It was just remarkable to go into that place.” He also studied for his diploma in obstetrics, helping to deliver about 100 babies. He’s animated as he tells me. “The miracle of childbirth! It never loses its sense of amazement, and of course seeing my children born – it just reminds you of how remarkable it is.”
It’s been a varied career, with Baker arriving in epidemiology almost by accident when he took a year’s sabbatical and went to work under Michael Bassett, the then health minister in David Lange’s 1987 Labour government. It was during that time that the HIV/Aids epidemic was sweeping the globe. “I found there were opportunities to pick up certain projects and so I picked up the area of how to keep HIV out of the injecting drug user population. I became convinced we needed to make needles and syringes available across the country, and so I set up the needle exchange programme. We were the first country in the world.” It’s possible that success gave Baker a false idea of the ease with which changes could move through parliament. “It was easy, it got through and it was bipartisan support, and I thought, I’m going to stay on in public health medicine.” Bassett lost his role as health minister, and Baker moved on to communicable diseases, to which he has devoted much of his time and energy ever since. “I did a lot of work on the meningococcal epidemics that were breaking out in the 90s, and were partly driven by the neoliberal changes and the rise in inequalities.” That neoliberalism was a driver for the formation of the district health boards, and Baker welcomes their abolition. “That was an absurd system. We’re still putting up with the consequences.”
Baker has known his share of stoushes, notably with the poultry industry, where he pushed hard to bring tougher measures into an industry that was making thousands unwell each year through campylobacter. He says that experience is possibly what primed him to be able to hold the centre in the debate about a nationwide lockdown last year, where he repeatedly called for measures that were considered extreme. “I think if I’d been younger and I hadn’t been through a few skirmishes, there’s no way I would have done that,” he tells me, with a bit of a laugh. It’s not easy to be the lone voice, as Transmission reveals. Baker is careful to find the balance as we discuss it, ever diplomatic. “I think it was more complex [than the poultry issue], because I think we had a government that wanted to do the right thing in New Zealand. That was a very courageous call the government made. They are the ones who had to make the very tough call, and they had so many influences. I was just the one voice saying one thing. I think the play maybe makes it more confronting than it was.”
At this point, Tim Spite strolls into the cafeteria, looking so changed from the previous night’s performance that at first I don’t recognise him. Lanky, enveloped in a hoody, his hair a shambles, he’s a far cry from the tidy persona he embodied the night before. As he throws himself in a chair, I feel the scrutiny of Baker’s gaze finally leave me, to settle on Spite with fascination, and something resembling affection. “I’m curious to know what it’s like acting this – is it hard work, or are you relaxing into it now?” he asks Spite, who shrugs, leaning back in his seat with an air of casual disregard. “Nah, it’s easy. I’ve got all the words. I think the pressure is on Michael because they’re his words. I really don’t feel that pressure, though people do talk about it.” I ask Spite how he prepares to play Baker and his response makes me slightly suspicious. “If you ask me how I get into character it’s simple; I learn the lines and I say them.” According to Spite, he did no research whatsoever. “I didn’t even listen to Stuart’s [McKenzie] recordings. They’re too long!” Both Baker and I start to laugh, and Spite lights up, playing into the idea of haplessness, shrugging innocently when I ask about how he replicates Baker’s mannerisms. “I haven’t really thought about those much. I think the whole method acting thing is bullshit, if you want my opinion. I think it’s rubbish! I didn’t go to the medical school and follow Michael around for four days and walk behind him doing his gestures.”
It turns out Spite’s ease in the portrayal is because it’s the second time he’s played Baker on stage. The first was “in a play called The Remedy Syndrome – a play about vaccination – in 2005. I knew Michael through my girlfriend at the time, who was friends with Katie [Baker’s wife], and so I went to talk to him about vaccination. We took it from there. Everything that Michael said was so interesting that we decided to have some pieces of verbatim in the play to help enhance the whole issue.” It appears Baker has been living dormant in Spite’s system like some kind of virus for years, and all Spite had to do was “draw down his voice” and the role came back to him.
At this point Baker interrupts, and tells me Spite has stolen one of his shirts, and it’s the one he wears on stage in Transmission. There’s laughter and jostling between them as Spite denies it, before Baker lasers me with his eyes again. “It’s true. He did take one of my unwashed shirts and said, ‘I’m going to wear that just so I can fully inhabit you.’” Spite cracks up at this, nodding his head, not remotely abashed. “The one I wear on stage is his shirt. We bought a shirt [for the play] and we liked it because it was floral, and it looked like little bits of the disease, but then Michael said, ‘Oh no – I don’t wear floral.’ So I said, ‘Well, I’ve got this one from Michael, and this one.’ We tried on the red one, and that was it. I can smell Michael on me.”
Baker looks delighted by this, and gives a surprisingly hearty giggle. Later I put Spite’s comments to co-director Miranda Harcourt, who hoots with laughter, telling me Spite refuses to wash the shirt, and would not let her so much as iron it on opening night. There’s some kind of method in there, after all. Spite didn’t end up wearing replicas of Baker’s glasses, wanting to ease the transitions into the other characters he plays in the show, and to avoid caricature. At one point he toyed with miming a pair of glasses, and he shows us, cleaning his imaginary pair on his shirt, affecting the character of Michael in an instant, his face appearing to shift, his voice immediately settling into a pattern of speech that is more staccato, as he speaks lines of dialogue from the show. It’s an uncanny sleight of hand, and one Baker appears both amused and fascinated by, because he’s examining Spite like he’s a specimen under a microscope. I remark on how accurate it is, and Spite cracks up. “Katie [Baker’s wife] said I was like a slightly effeminate version of his twin brother!”
Spite wasn’t sure he wanted to reprise the role – with three kids and a mortgage, he spends more time as a builder now than an actor, and hasn’t tread the boards in eight years. But when he read the script, Baker’s story within the maelstrom of the Covid-19 response changed him. The impression you get when you watch the show is that Baker was something of a thorn in the side of the government, persisting in his belief in lockdown, refusing to go away, an outlier backing up his view with scientific evidence in the more than 50 blogs he published over that period. “That is the whole reason why I came to the project,” says Spite. “It was too interesting to put down.” Baker, still examining Spite, blanches slightly, before composing himself. I ask him how he has managed to persist in the face of so often being ignored – is it sheer doggedness? Baker gives me a tired little smile. “It probably is.”
That determination solidified after he hit the wall during the Mei Heron interview last March, and from then on he found it easier to hold his line, and back himself. I ask him if he feels vindication that the lockdown plan he fought for produced such excellent results in New Zealand. “There’s a lot of answers to that. There were two things going on – one was lockdown, the other was the a zero Covid goal. We are still one of the only places on earth that has a specific elimination strategy. Not having that goal has been disastrous, I think, certainly for the prosperous countries, who could have achieved it if they’d had it as their goal.”
Along the way, Baker has found support for his stance – he is especially stopped at airports by people who want to thank him for his work. I ask him how that makes him feel, and a big smile breaks across his face, “Oh – I’m pleased! At different times it was like all you were seeing was the pushback … and then in meetings and other situations it felt like a bit of a battle, and you sometimes felt like you were fighting against the forces. So it’s nice when you meet people who have a different take, and who actually appreciate you’ve done something useful.” Baker has spent more time talking into his computer’s camera than to actual human beings in the last 15 months, amassing hours of interview fodder. He describes it as “disembodying” and somewhat lonely, before saying, “I’m not sick of it. At times I’d like it to be less intense, but now I feel it is somewhat of a routine. The main thing is always being ahead of the science, and that takes time. I’d stop if I didn’t
have anything new to say.”
Baker has to go, but on his way out he tells Spite he’s coming back to watch the show again, with 20 of his faculty in tow. He can’t have found it so bad, I say, if he’s prepared to return and bring more people. Eyes alight, he deadpans, “It was initially quite horrific, but I’ve lived through it,” before affording us a grin, and exiting the room as composed as he came into it.
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