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This is history

What we choose to do over the next few weeks could define our lives.

There is an inconvenient truth about Covid-19. Although it is blindingly obvious, bringing it up makes us uncomfortable. And that is why we need to talk about it a lot more.

This is history.

It’s that simple. Before you nod and click on to the next article, just take a quick moment. Take a few seconds to let it sink in. What you decide to do in the next few days, weeks and months is something that will become family history. It is something that academics will study. And this isn’t just in general terms. I am talking about what you choose to do tomorrow, or next week.

What some of you decide to do tomorrow could be something that a great-grandchild asks about. It could be what schoolchildren learn about in a hundred years. Our voices and thoughts, our hopes and expectations and our petty arguments will be on a wall in Te Papa, along with those dank memes we’re all posting.

Yes, as that meme you’ve seen goes, our generation is not being asked to go to war, we’re being asked to ‘stay at home and watch movies. To wash our hands and sing Happy Birthday.’

But we all know we’re being asked to do a lot more than that. And we need to decide how this will be remembered. We need to decide right now.

Because this is only the start.

With some of the tragedies over the last few years, many Kiwis are all too familiar with the feeling of living through history. But this is different. This is going to unfold slowly, over months. Not the after-effects or the long trek to recovery. The event itself.

And this time we have some control.

It is not just a matter of doing what we are told is best and not rocking the boat. Hell, we need innovation and drive and passion now more than any other time. But we need to agree on the fundamentals, and to work collectively.

We know what our divisions might be, and right now we can’t afford for these to fracture. Pandemics have always been difficult to comprehend. The problem has been that there is no precedent – 1918 seems too distant to apply to us. SARS, MERS or Ebola too localised.

In 2011 the CDC in America ran a famous (or infamous) campaign about emergency and pandemic preparedness based on a zombie apocalypse. The idea was to get people interested in the quite dull topics of preparedness packs and infection control. Does that seem like bad taste, now that we are actually living a pandemic scenario – not the worst-case scenario but definitely at that end of the scale? Of course it is in bad taste. But it shows just how difficult it has been to communicate and to come to terms with the full scope of a pandemic.

Until now.

Members of Canterbury University volunteer army clean up liquefaction on February 24, 2011. (Photo by Martin Hunter/Getty Images)

What do we learn when we look back at historical events? How does it help us prepare for the future? We see how history presents us with situations – as Kahn and Weiner said, “that most observers would find implausible not only prospectively but sometimes, even, in retrospect.”

We see common threads. Of trouble arising from miscommunication, from tunnel vision, from political and ideological spats, from people looking after themselves at the expense of others, or the opposite and just as troubling situation of people taking on way too much, burning the candle at both ends.

We see other common threads. Of people helping strangers, whether it is keeping tabs and helping the vulnerable people in our community, by volunteering, by offering their skills and resources and creativity. Of how much power and control we have when we join forces.

And when we look back, we see the truth about how people actually react, instead of how we imagine, and hope, we would.

Historians grapple with the topic of narratives, of cherry-picking events and deciding how to arrange them into a tale of cause and effect, of antecedents and consequence. A constant challenge is to view the decisions that people made in the past, not in the context of the whole event but from their particular worldview, their inner motivations, and what they knew at the time.

There is a well-known quote by the 16th-century historian Francesco Patrizi, which sums up what many historians still battle with – that “it is utterly and totally impossible for human actions to be known as they were actually done.” The past is a foreign country.

But this could also be what we can offer. We – our generation, gen-Z, millennials, boomers and X-ers in between. Our pampered, privileged, entitled, lucky generations. Generations that have more self-awareness, self-conceit and self-absorption than any in history.

Ours is a culture that is self-reflective, and also one with the technology and motivation to watch, talk about and record this, both as participants and through the lens of history.

This isn’t a call to action. We already know what we all can do, as individuals, no matter our opinion about what else is happening in the country and around the world. And each of us needs to focus on the day to day, even if we know we are now writing a new chapter of history.

Right now, all of us are focused on what all of this will mean for our own families and employment, our health, our future plans. That is our own priority. And over the weeks and months, our individual influence will extend even more than they already are to our neighbours, our local community, and wider.

We already know what we have the capacity to offer, given our own abilities, skills, resources, priorities. After all, in 20, 50, 100 years, when New Zealanders ask and read and watch documentaries about what we did – what you did – in and after March 2020, they are still going to learn from us, one way or another.

They are going to learn from what we decided to do, whether this part of our country’s history will be defined by arguments, indecision, division and disorder, or if we choose to set an example.

It’s our choice.


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