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It's absolutely useless to be prescient if no one notices. I filed my fortnightly column for Canvas on Tuesday morning, and thought: "This is a timely piece of writing. The day will surely come soon when the events it speaks of will come to pass." And then I waddled off to go about my business, as free as a bird, as free as every resident of Auckland – until the Prime Ministerial press conference that evening at 9.15, when it was announced we'd all have to be returned to our lockdown cages.
The column was headlined: "When, not if." Those three words were the central motif of the column; every paragraph began with those three words, and led to variations on the same theme. Dr Ashley Bloomfield and all the other experts in the field of pandemic risk had spent a good part of last week chanting the mantra of when, not if, advising us that that we all had to be prepared because it was only a matter of time before a second wave of community transmission.
The clock was ticking. I thought: "The alarm surely won't go off before my column appears on Saturday."
The alarm – and the Civil Defence warning, that blast of scarifying noise sent to our phones last night – has duly sounded, and here we are, in captivity, again, and it's only supposed to be three days although no one believes that. I look back on that abandoned Canvas column with something resembling nostalgia, even though I only wrote it yesterday. That seems a long time ago. The column went like this, as follows.
When, not if. News report, the Herald: "New Zealand should brace for a second wave of Covid-19, says director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield." The advice to be prepared for another instance of community transmission, and to then go back into lockdown, that meditative state of avoiding other people exactly like the plague, is good and proper, as well as a total drag. It was fun the first time. It was new, it was dramatic, it was the most amazing time in history and we were witnessing it – it's hard to feel excited about a lousy sequel.
When, not if. The Herald: "University of Canterbury mathematician Professor Michael Plank said Victoria's current surge – 384 of its 4775 active cases were reported in 24 hours – could easily play out in New Zealand." When Australia was on fire earlier this year, you could take an evening stroll in Auckland and smell the smoke; right now, it's sending another, even more devastating kind of signal.
When, not if. When, exactly? Next month, next week, tomorrow? Otago University epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker, quoted in the Herald: "If there was suddenly an outbreak in South Auckland tomorrow, it could take several generations before people were even aware of it. Small numbers of people can go on to infect large numbers of people." Another way of putting it is that an outbreak of community transmission may have started last month, last week, yesterday.
When, not if. Research shows that every single story which has ever featured Otago University epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker also features a warning, a dire prediction, a kind of like really depressing forecast. Baker, from that same Herald story: "We need to consider the reasonable likelihood that something will go wrong." Something always does when he's around.
When, not if. Be safe. Be prepared. Get ready. Get masks. Health Minister Chris Hipkins, interviewed in the Herald: "The ministry is now recommending that as part of our collective preparations for any future outbreak of Covid-19 households add sufficient masks for everybody normally resident in the household to the emergency supply kits." Oh right: get emergency supply kits.
When, not if. That's just the way we live now, one of the variations of new normals, in the strangest year of all our lives – more to come in 2021, or until a vaccine is perfected. And no doubt we'll take another lockdown in our stride, with the good cheer, the common sense, and the community spirit that got us through it the last time.
But what a state to have to endure, this waiting, this apprehensiveness, this realisation that sooner or later we're going to return to the loss of freedoms and social distancing and all the rest of it – sooner or later we're going to go backwards.
But it's not just lockdown, and transmission, that we're waiting for; we're waiting for economic collapse, or whatever forms of financial crisis, which hasn't happened yet but is apparently bound to happen, according to another set of warnings, dire predictions, really depressing forecasts. Health professionals are on hand to give us daily briefings.
Economic professionals will soon be on hand to give us daily briefings, too. The patient is at risk; we are the patient, waiting patiently.
If, not when. Wait, what? Is that kind of thinking even allowed?
When, not if. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, interviewed by Mike Hosking at Newstalk ZB: "The reason we are asking people to keep a mask on hand, Mike, is if we experience a resurgence. It would be false hope to claim that everything is done and dusted." That actually sounded a lot more if than when but point taken, message received, warning duly heeded.
It ain't over. It's still out there, with its potential to cause profound alterations in the myeloid cell compartment, ie kill us. Lockdown levels 2, 3 and maybe even 4 are upon us. I better get around to buying some masks.