The Covid Chronicles is a real-time account of how 21 different Kiwis coped from the level 4 lockdown to level 1. Northland author Paul Little talks to reporter Jenny Ling about his latest book.
Timing was everything for Paul Little's latest book The Covid Chronicles.
First up was the Northland author's inspiration to write about one of the most extraordinary times in Aotearoa's history, when the Government shut the borders and put residents into strict lockdown for many weeks.
It was around the same time Little was on "that" Bauer zoom meeting which saw the closure of magazines The Listener, New Zealand Woman's Weekly, Woman's Day, North & South, Metro, Fashion Quarterly and Next.
Redundancies were instant.
Little's regular freelance income, and that of his wife, fellow journalist Wendyl Nissen, vanished overnight.
"It struck me that there definitely needed to be a book about the experience of Covid-19," he said.
"And I'd lost all my work.
"It seemed really obvious to start telling the stories from different people's perspectives."
• Covid 19 coronavirus Victoria: All the Melbourne lockdown changes from today
• Covid 19 coronavirus: Auckland's rapid lockdown has given New Zealand a better chance of elimination
• Covid 19 coronavirus: Did lockdown end early on this Auckland beach? Crowds flock to Takapuna
• Covid 19 coronavirus: Melbourne lockdown could lift in weeks
Those perspectives were of 21 New Zealanders from a range of sectors; government, mental health, education, media, social services, corporate and small business.
They include Finance Minister Grant Robertson, microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles, Queenstown Lakes mayor Jim Boult, the Prime Minister's chief science adviser Juliet Gerrard, Auckland City Missioner Chris Farrelly and Foodstuffs chief executive Chris Quin.
Northlander Michelle Sarich, the co-principal of Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Hokianga, was involved, as were Auckland funeral directors Francis and Kaiora Tipene, who both hail from the North.
Little chose the group because he wanted people with different viewpoints to explain how they were affected by the pandemic.
"They were random people to some extent," he said.
"Little did I realise, until I looked back, who I ended up with was Northland to Southland, 50/50 male to female, a good ethnic mix, good social status mix ... even though it wasn't fully comprehensive, it was a really nice sample of New Zealanders."
The book is a real-time account of how they coped as the level 4 lockdown was imposed on the nation earlier this year, and as we moved down alert levels step by tentative step.
The project kicked off in early April, with Little conducting short interviews with subjects each week.
There are some interviews which date back to January, when reports of the coronavirus in Wuhan began filtering in. For those, Little asked his subjects to recall their initial reactions to the virus.
"When the interviews started, they had no idea what their lives would be like at the end and whether or not we would even succeed," he said.
"They didn't know what was going to happen and they found the strength to keep going.
"That's something for us to bear in mind when we work out where to go next."
Little – who has worked as a writer, magazine editor and publisher for more than 40 years - penned the book while in his bubble in the Hokianga, where he lives with Nissen and her dad Cedric.
Each chapter kicks off with a timeline of key dates, statistics, and local and global events for context.
They're followed by diary accounts from the subjects, and serve as a fascinating reminder of a world plunged into strange times.
New terms and realities that connected the nation and became suddenly familiar to us all are sprinkled across the pages.
Bubbles, flour shortages, takeaway cravings, PPE, panic buying, the pain of being away from loved ones, home-schooling angst and wage subsidies – the country had a new lingo.
The interviews wrapped up on June 8, just as New Zealand moved into level 1, when there were, temporarily, no active cases.
More good timing.
Little calls it "serendipitous", though he was under no illusion the pandemic was over.
"The book ended on the day we went to level 1 – that was my deadline," he said.
"It was a satisfying ending at the time. Though I never thought the disease wouldn't come back."
Little is grateful for those who agreed to be part of the project, who gave their time so generously.
Even the likes of Grant Robertson, Siouxsie Wiles, Juliet Gerrard and Chris Quin, who would have been rushed off their feet, found up to 30 precious minutes each week.
"They got it," Little said.
"It was one of the nice things, out of everyone I approached there were only one or two people who didn't agree.
"I think they could see the value of it. The busier the people and the more responsibility they had, the easier they were to deal with. They'd just lock it into their calendars.
"Not one person missed a week. People were great, they were really co-operative."
The lessons Little learned throughout the project were twofold.
One: The efficiency of public servants and those in positions of power caused him to realise "this country is really well run".
Two: The generally supportive mindset of Kiwis to do what was needed to beat the virus.
Without a unified effort, the lockdown would have failed and the death toll would have been considerably higher than 22, he said.
Little recalls feeling "really proud" of what New Zealand achieved as a team of 5 million.
"I was amazed at how well people handled it.
"It showed the country can do something together when they have to and it worked.
"It brought back the old New Zealand virtues of co-operation and looking after each other and working together.
"That's what I hope will resonate with people.
"We can still be the New Zealand that looks after each other, rather than the New Zealand we've been since the 1980s which has been everyone out for themselves."
The Covid Chronicles, published by Harper Collins, was released on September 16 and is available in bookstores nationwide.
The Northern Advocate has two copies of the book to give away. To be in to win, email firstname.lastname@example.org with your full name, address and phone number.