As Britain and Japan spin the pandemic wheel, this country has the drawbridge raised, but frustration is building.
Someone has decided to amalgamate two daredevil reality TV shows, Jackass and MythBusters, and mount a couple of international productions, best known to us as Freedom Day in Britain and the Olympic Games in Japan.
These are basically real-time experiments on live humans, who, to be fair, know what the risks are in advance of the experiments they're about to be involved in.
It's unfortunate that most of the participants are not exactly voluntary. Millions of Japanese and Britons are decidedly unkeen and have done everything possible to block these extravaganzas.
A bit selfish, really, because from what happens to them, the rest of the world will find out some useful information about pandemic spread. For instance, that if you send groups of people from all over the world on aeroplanes to one common venue, some vaccinated, some partially vaccinated and some carrying the virus, you create the perfect arena for coronavirus to stage its own variant Olympics. What? We already knew that? Never mind.
In Britain's case, we will see what happens when a country with a population only about 60 per cent fully vaccinated and a statistically significant anti-vax quotient trusts its citizens to go about their business without taking pandemic precautions unless they feel like it, while Covid numbers are on the rise. Okay, we already know how that will work out, too.
But we saw how self-restrained British folk can be during the recent European Championship football final. Be fair: one can't catch Covid by sticking a firework up one's bare backside and lighting it for the international cameras like that guy in Leicester Square. Nor can one catch it by joyfully waving one's willy at the world atop a car, like the chap filmed outside the Wembley PC World store. Even those early adopting jackasses who went about Britain licking public door handles and supermarket shelves were to discover that it's quite rare to get the bot from hand contact.
So, there's nothing to worry about. Is there?
It's beginning to feel as though this country, among many others, will be in partial sequestration for longer than the most pessimistic experts have been predicting. Australia is shutting down like an advent calendar in reverse. Fiji is in desperate straits.
And if anyone thought that full vaccination was the final word on the subject, there's Britain's health secretary, who was double-jabbed but came down with Covid nonetheless, forcing himself and Prime Minister Boris Johnson – who nearly died of Covid last year – into isolation right on Freedom Day.
The great benison that "at least children don't get it" didn't last, either. Children have now fallen ill and died of coronavirus.
The next person here who nags in the media about the urgency of "a road map for the future" is apt to find themselves wearing an AA guide à la the British football/fireworks fan.
As Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern noted after chairing a virtual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting last week, the opening of borders will be complicated by the different vaccines used by different countries. Continual assessment will need to be made of their relative effectiveness, alongside each country's vaccine statistics.
Some critics say New Zealand is being unnecessarily risk-averse. Tell that to people in France, Italy and Denmark, among others, who are increasingly having to produce proof of vaccination to get much past their front doors. Even technology company Apple has decided to delay its back-to-the-office edict worldwide, because Covid numbers are on a tear and even it knows it's not immune.
Seeing people die avoidably in terrifying numbers tends to focus minds, which is why Britain's experiment, while widely deplored, will be a milestone sociopolitical exercise, even though it's unlikely to produce any surprises on the epidemiological front.
The Olympics went ahead, mainly because its controllers think TV royalties and sponsorship deals trump pandemics.
Britain's open-up decision is almost entirely political. Civil disobedience has been simmering since the first lockdown, and it had begun to look as though not even the new surge in cases could prevent widespread defiance. That "most people" are vaccinated has made it hard to keep the lid on people's frustration. The experts insist it's not yet safe, but the pandemic's history of necessarily changing epidemiological assessments give refusniks a useful, if dumb, excuse. If even the experts can't agree, why shouldn't one lager up and fly barefaced to Barbados singing all the way?
Every administration in the world has faced that tension: let us out versus keep us safe. For the sake of civil cohesion, New Zealand seems fortunate in having an enduringly comfortable majority resolutely opposed to anything even faintly experimental. The violence of some people's opposition to the travel bubble with Australia took the Government by surprise, but it has now done its attitudinal homework. Just because New Zealanders have been increasingly slack about mask wearing and contact tracing, that doesn't mean they're not worried. Just because they're impatient – where's my jab, when can I go to Bali? – doesn't mean they're brewing up defiance to restrictions.
Still, they are brewing up defiance. Starting with growing frustration at the inequitable and confusing vaccine delivery and the downright cruel quarantine lottery. It's hard to think of a modern government that has faced as many socially divisive issues at once – some of its own making – while remaining popular: housing shortages, gang shootings, unhappy farmers, mutinous local councils, vaulting electricity prices, new car taxes, He Puapua Māori governance, labour shortages, building-product scarcity, mistreated immigrant hopefuls, hate-speech controversy and wage-growth pressure.
New Zealanders are also reacquainting themselves with an old foe, inflation. The consumers price index had come to seem like analogue TV and landline phones – a lumpen old thing boomers used to be familiar with. Last week, it turned up fresh and fierce, with all the communicability of a new Covid variant, at 3.3 per cent.
How timely for the Government, then, that world focus is shifting to the British and Olympic Covid roulette. The politics of "at least that's not happening to us" can be pretty powerful. Already we have the poster gal: unruly tourist, English Covid sceptic and race baiter Katie Hopkins just got deported from Australia for mocking and flouting managed-isolation rules in a manner so puerile even the Wembley willy waver and Mr Rocket-Bottom will have winced. In a pandemic, even Jackass has standards.