Dr Gary Payinda is an emergency doctor working in Northland. He writes for the Herald on Sunday from the frontline.

Wuhan gave New Zealand doctors a warning two months ago, but it wasn't quite real, because China was a densely populated country so different to ours.

Last month, Italy was our second alarm bell, with stories of patients in respiratory failure getting nothing more than an oxygen mask and comforting words because all the ventilators were already in use.

Even then it wasn't quite real because Italy had such a high proportion of elderly, they kissed so much, and they lived in such cramped cities. Not as many paddocks, bush, or endless beaches as we have in Aotearoa.

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But as a doctor, it gets real for you very quickly when you actually put on a flimsy N95 mask, a small square of spun plastic microfibre the only thing standing between you and a coughing patient's lung fluid.

Did the patient actually have Covid? You wouldn't know for days, but he certainly had the right symptoms: a high fever and shortness of breath. And the right risk factor: a grandson who came back from Europe with a cough and fever 10 days ago.

You had talked amongst your colleagues about who would go in, and once you volunteered, they peeled off, leaving you alone.

When you go into the isolation room, everything gets quieter and lonelier.

You and the patient can't hear each other very well, muffled by the masks you each wear: he wears a surgical mask to keep Covid in, you wear an N95 mask to keep Covid out. You can't see things clearly because the visor's curved plastic catches light and reflections, not to mention the smudges from the disinfectant used to wipe it down after the last isolation patient.

No matter, because after a few minutes the visor will be half fogged up anyway. Even breathing is harder against the resistance of the spun fibres, made in Wuhan.

You hope the N95 mask really is effective at filtering 95 per cent of particles 0.3 microns or larger.

What about the smaller particles? And the 5 per cent of bigger particles that it misses? You slow your breathing down and feel the moisture of every breath on your lip and the tip of your nose. It itches, but you dare not scratch.

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Covid19.govt.nz: The Government's official Covid-19 advisory website

It doesn't get real for most of us until it is real, even if you are a doctor and should know better. You hope New Zealand will be different, because of our low population density, our active outdoorsy habits, our late summer sun, usually feared for its world-leading cancer-causing UV rays, now loved for its virus-disinfecting properties.

Then you read about New York City. One thousand deaths already, the numbers rising so quickly.

But then, they're so different to us. Millions of people, so many apartment buildings, no paddocks or beaches ...