As Ashley Bloomfield and Jacinda Ardern filed into the Beehive theatrette to deliver Tuesday evening’s hammer blow confirmation of the country’s level 4 response to our first community Covid case in nigh-on half a year, I was at my mother-in-law’s funeral.
Times being what they are, that meant being hunched in front of a screen in the front room peering into a window on proceedings five-and-a-half thousand kilometres away in Mandurah, Western Australia.
It’s not how we expect to farewell our loved ones; it’s not easy being unable to rest a comforting arm around a shoulder or offer a mutter or glance to other mourners.
But we still took part and listened to the eulogy of a woman whose formative years were spent dealing with the depravity and deprivations of life in Nazi-occupied Holland, and who then went on to raise five daughters (including two sets of twins) in rural and outback Australia. A staunch woman, a no-nonsense mother.
By the time the service was done and we were catching up on the news out of Wellington that the 58-year-old man who’d tested positive was from Devonport and had spent a weekend in the Coromandel, news feeds were already filling up with advice from clinical psychologists not to judge our inevitable emotions of anger, resignation and fear. And over in the Coromandel, locals were already setting up a roadblock at the one-way bridge at Manaia to turn away those fleeing to holiday homes and district mayor Sandra Goudie was describing the situation as quite heated.
As much as Covid is a physical illness with a ghastly mortality rate, the pandemic it has ridden around the globe has a very real mental toll, too. More than 18 months in, as countries deal with the Delta variant and what’s now seen as a fifth wave in places such as Japan and the US, the grim, grinding effect of coping with both long-time loss of normal socialising, and the actual loss of friends and family to the disease is taking a terrible toll.
On Tuesday, as New Zealand was rolling up its sleeves and readying itself for more uncertainty and angst, over the Ditch in Victoria, the state government was considering the addition of a “mental health commander” to speak at the daily news conferences.
Professor of youth mental health at the University of Melbourne Patrick McGorry had mooted the idea after witnessing the strain that repeated lockdowns had had on people’s mental health, and Premier Daniel Andrews had backed it.
“I wouldn’t want anyone to come to the conclusion that there aren’t people focusing on mental health as part of the pandemic response,” Andrews told the daily briefing as they revealed another 24 new cases, 10 of whom had been infectious in the community.
“They absolutely are and when this is over, so much other work will start. This is just the beginning.”
First, obviously, New Zealand must battle what’s now confirmed as an outbreak of the Delta variant – as I write this, four new community cases have been confirmed and, if Australia’s numbers and experience are anything to go by, by the time you read this, those figures are sure to grow. No country has stamped out the delta variant, and although we’re one of the last places to see it break through our border defences and can therefore learn from others’ mistakes, it is still a formidable adversary.
But alongside vaccinations and QR codes, contact tracing, masks, hygiene measures and lockdowns, there must be rolled out a concerted response to the effects of restrictions on New Zealanders’ mental health.
In March 2020, when we first tasted level 4, many of those needs were met by existing counselling lines, checking in on neighbours who lived alone and the sort of teddies-in-windows responses that offer a smile in the face of potential disaster.
But in August 2021, after the harsh corrosion of months of financial, familial and social woe, we will need more than that.
Eighty years ago, my mother-in-law was coping with her generation’s most confronting global test of will. And, although it surely moulded the rest of her life, she survived. And so shall we. • James Belfield