To an observer – a space station crew or author brewing a dystopian novel, for example – it must have been an astonishing sight.
Like meerkats blinking out of sight, we responded to a great new 21st century plague by diving into our burrows back in March and staying there for an unspecified length of time while the Earth went quiet, then changed profoundly.
By the time lockdown had been in place a fortnight, the skies and roads had emptied. On Waiheke, it was so quiet we could hear Anzac Day’s Reveille bugle from Blackpool. The waters of the bay were ice-clear six feet down, sometimes emerald green from the fringing pohutukawa and regenerating seagrass; once the deepest sapphire blue under an undistinguished but vast sky.
For weeks, fish roiled under clouds of circling seabirds and the Earth seemed young and benevolent.
Meanwhile, locked down with an odd assortment of foodstuffs, we saw some of the world’s most dramatic and unthinkable news stories, ideas and opportunities played out on every screen we could muster – a digital ringside seat that gave us ample time to assess for ourselves the performance of those who stride the world stage and arbitrate our own fortunes.
The bad behaved worse. The best brought kindness, inclusivity and gratitude into the public domain. Thoughtful historians wove new narratives. Science was let out of its box and new dots joined up for planet and people.
Even the tsars of capitalism, as the Guardian noted, saw the opportunity to ‘‘do the right thing”, to the point where hedge-fund billionaire Ray Dalio could describe inequality as a national emergency. “If you don’t have a situation where people have opportunity, you’re not only failing to tap all the potential that exists, which is uneconomic, you’re threatening the existence of the system,” he said.
Rising to meet the challenge, governments, notably those under younger and often women leaders, sliced through the prevailing fallacies of market ideology and austerity. Here, we became addicted to afternoon briefings from our own prime minister and her colleagues, even as offshore business owners showed their colours, not always to good effect.
On the whole, the bigger they were, the faster they fell from any semblance of grace. Australian banks with billion-dollar profits and capital reserves still wanted their pound of flesh from their captive New Zealand borrowers, media titans shed irreplaceable staff and walked away, construction companies folded, Google and Amazon ramped up lobbying for lucrative military and AI agendas.
Faced with this free-form digital reality, local businesses and schools scrambled to fill the gaps and the often bitterly disappointing churn we had shouldered as we fought for survival in a competitive world slipped off our shoulders, at least for a time.
Two world wars in the 20th century handed our parents and grandparents minute-by-minute choices on whether to further their own interests or to turn their hands to the wheel of collective wellbeing. Quisling informer or resistance hero; war profiteer or fighter pilot; speak out or stay silent? And, after all that sacrifice and adventure, whether to return to class servitude or rebuild a fairer state?
In our turn, we have a potentially existential pandemic to bring out our capacity to reconnect with lonely neighbours, kids without school lunches and queues for food parcels. With the realisation that poor towns and poor suburbs were now yet poorer sat alongside concern for life in Africa and Asia, where the effects of great plagues in the face of dire poverty and few resources can be writ very raw.
All were a call to solidarity with the human race. A sense that we are all one, and that damage to one is a damage to all. That re-structuring economies and rebuilding a planetary society should not be a return to the atrocities against nature and its poorest people that have been the “normal” of recent decades.
After such an almost world-wide pause for reflection, America’s long litany of horrific deaths of people of colour erupted in the extraordinary spectacle this week of cities in flames, their citizens appalled and an inflammatory president hunkered down in a bunker below the White House before emerging to declare war on his own citizens.
Of course black lives matter. Every life matters. In times such as these, every decision or non-decision matters. We leave anyone or anything behind at our peril. Luckily, even on the embattled streets of the US, a word of kindness can transform history. • Liz Waters