Weekly column by Kāpiti mayor K Gurunathan.
It's a sunny Ōtaki Monday morning. I sit on my deck as the tuis make their melodious racket feeding on the red berries of the puriri tree. Easy to think that all is well with the world. Friday last week, the Minister of Local Government, Nanaia Mahuta, announced a major reform of the local government sector. Given the spate of major reforms initiated by the Labour Government, with significant impacts on the traditional work of councils, the announcement was no surprise, it was expected. I had intended to cover the announcement in this column, but on Sunday, after hearing the Anzac Day address at the Waikanae Memorial Hall, I decided to share an observation much more important than local government reforms. Lieutenant Colonel (retired) Christopher Pugsley, a Waikanae Beach resident, delivered an address that skilfully linked the human face and facts of the Anzac history to the current front line battle against Covid.
To a packed audience at the Waikanae Memorial Hall, the military historian reeled off the numbers. The 3000 Kiwi lads who landed at Gallipoli. The battle at Chunuk Bair. And by war's end in 1918, of the 100,000 who were sent off to war 20,000 had died. Akin, over four years, to a weekly rate, of 100 dead and 270 wounded! "War destroys and everyone who went to war bore scars." Scars they carried all their lives. Pressing on this psychologically wounding data Pugsley painted the lives of two young men. Seventeen-year-old Basil Mercer, who worked at the railway workshops in Petone, went to war with his elder brother, Cyril. He landed on Gallipoli on July 28, 1915, and was killed just 11 days later on Chunuk Bair. The other, Martin Persson, also 17, worked as a labourer at Riwaka and was one of 17 children in his family. Pugsley quoted from a letter Martin wrote home just before he was killed: "Just a line to let you know I am still alive and kicking and in the best of spirits. We have had a lovely trip so far and have very much enjoyed it."
"Often on Anzac Day you hear it said the soldiers who died fought for our freedom. I was never sure if I knew what that meant. Today, I think I do," he said adding that New Zealand was in the middle of a global war with a number of countries facing waves of battles. With New Zealand facing its key battle at its border and, as in the two world wars, not knowing when it will end. He said that, while we talk of the Team NZ of 5 million, the actual fighters were a small number of 4500 frontline workers and 20,000 associated workers. "They did not choose to be in the frontline. They do not enjoy the freedoms we do ... There is no margin of error and many of their jobs in cleaning, kitchen, driving and security are only minimum pay ... All this pressure suddenly placed on the least-rewarded workers in our community. The rest of us don't have to worry about our flatmates wanting to leave because we are working in a MIQ facility, or, if a mother working as a cleaner, worrying about the risk to her family if she catches the virus or how her children are being ignored by friends because of where her mother works."
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"Soldiers coming back from past wars spoke of the New Zealand public at home not really understanding what they had been through. The frontline staff today, fighting for our lives, may feel the same about us because how many of us wear masks on public transport or sign in ... Today, we are all part of a national team but the true battle is being fought by a tiny per cent of frontline workers. They are fighting a deadly battle that might go on for years. They need our support. We are asked to do very little but are we doing it? A question for each one of us to answer. Lest We Forget."
And I ponder. What will the good colonel say about the copy of a four-page open letter to the Prime Minister dropped in my letterbox on Saturday? Written by Sue Grey, the lawyer and member of the NZ Outdoors Party, it wants the Government to immediately suspend the Covid vaccine rollout and threatens court action otherwise. It's the freedom that the soldiers fought for that allows the likes of the Sue Greys the right to throw a spanner in the works of our frontline workers.
Meanwhile, in the midst of this psychological warfare, India is witness to thousands of agonising deaths every day while their heroic health workers are facing a collapsing health system with a chronic lack of capacity to roll out their vaccine wall of defence against a mutant virus.