The parallels with the Middle Ages were hard to ignore. All those hovels, crammed together beneath the castle walls. All the mud and straw, the food stalls and health remedies and the simmering discontent. Someone even brought a pitchfork. I would not have been surprised to see ducks and chickens.
And the great propensity to believe in omens. The signs and portents pronounced by the priests of the new holy scripture: those revelatory channels of the internet.
The protesters at Parliament wanted us to think we live in a society so undemocratic and unjust, our rulers should resign right now. A surprising number of them said those same rulers should be tried for their "crimes"; some said they should be executed.
If this really was the Middle Ages, if we really were subject to the feudal authority of lords and bishops, the heads of those protesters would all be rotting on pikes by now.
But we don't live under feudalism, or its modern counterpart, which is fascism. We live in a democracy whose mechanisms for managing conflict have turned out to be far more complex and more rewarding than critics had supposed.
We've never had a pandemic like this before, at least not in anyone's lifetime, and we've never had a protest like that before. So everyone's had to work out the best way to do things, in real time, as each new manifestation of the crisis rolls over the one before. But it's worth recording: the police did very well; the politicians, on the whole, did too.
So did the public: New Zealanders have not been particularly susceptible to fear-mongering, about either the safety of vaccines or the health of our democracy. And so did the media, which has been inquiring and open-minded and, day after day during the protest, went to considerable lengths to report different sides of the story. Many journalists were threatened and harassed and many contracted Covid for their pains.
And while all that was going on, other things happened. Our vaccination rates rose to sit among the highest in the world. Our rates of hospitalisation and death remained among the lowest. Even as Omicron started to peak around us, it remained possible our health system would not be overwhelmed.
But this does not mean all is well. The protest highlighted divisions among us that we're not very good at managing.
DIVISION IS not the problem. On the contrary, division is healthy. One of the roles of a democracy is to allow it to flourish, without society breaking down.
In this country, we often like to pretend we are undivided. But when we do that, we hide and ignore the differences among us, and that has a habit of bringing out the worst in us.
In World War I of 1914-1918, New Zealand conscientious objectors were tied to posts between the trenches, to be used as target practice by any soldier on either side.
In 1951, it was illegal to report on the activities of locked-out wharfies, or give them or their families any support. Acceptance of the nuclear family and hetero norms were, until quite recently, required of everyone: that brought enormous hardship to so many people.
And as the Royal Commission into Abuse in Care reminds us daily, our inability to deal with children who were different, difficult or just plain unlucky has had horrendous consequences. They were Māori, or they were simply poor, and in the name of civilisation, savage things were done to them.
We made this possible because, as a society, we believed we lived in an egalitarian paradise. We insisted there were no great social inequities to address and that blinded us to the suffering they caused. It's been true in healthcare, in education, in policing, in the entire legacy of colonialism, and it is still true today.
We've seen some of the consequences in this pandemic. The life experience of many Māori and Pasifika tells them the state does not act in their best interests. Some of them are anti-vax because of that. Some of them attended the protest at Parliament because of that.
We're not good at talking about these things, much less doing anything about them. We shouldn't be surprised how upset people get because of it.
THERE'S A man who emails me several times a day – well, he emails the Prime Minister, Parliament's Speaker Trevor Mallard and others, and copies me in – and he firmly believes he is 1) being entirely reasonable and 2) speaking for the majority.
The other day, not untypically, he wrote: "Ardern and Mallard's next move will be to have New Zealand's Parliament lawns patrolled by heavily armed guards, with shoot-to-kill orders ... possibly Trevor will also get his fence complete with turret guns."
Perhaps he's joking. But what's the joke, really? Most days, this man struggles to contain his rage.
Another who emails me regularly has insisted he is neither abusive, nor unreasonable, nor a misogynist. This week he sent me his "new logo". It says, "Free New Zealand: Ditch the Bitch".
Maybe these men are not the same as protester Brett Power, who tried to force his way into the Parliamentary buildings and carry out a "citizen's arrest" on Health Minister Andrew Little, so he could have him put on trial and then executed.
But are they radically different kinds of protester, or are they on a single continuum? What unites them is their hatred of the Government, a hatred that has morphed into a belief that Jacinda Ardern somehow has no right to govern.
There's more. At Parliament, for a while, they insisted they were united by their opposition to mandates. But it was hard to discern anti-mandate demands that were not also anti-vax, anti-mask, anti-every pandemic regulation. That's been true for Brian Tāmaki's Auckland protests too.
A couple of other factors also provide the glue. One is an affirmation of personal autonomy: no one has the right to tell me what to put in my body or what I can do with my life and, if I choose differently from others, I should not be penalised for it. Social responsibility and social consequences don't come into it.
Brett Power calls himself a sovereign citizen and he believes this. A peaceable anti-vaxer believes it too. It's called: You're not the boss of me.
Another uniting factor at Parliament was the mutual care and collective fighting spirit that evolved.
Clearly, both these things were immensely rewarding for the participants. And they're good instincts. In ordinary times, we often celebrate them: playing as a team is the best way to win the game.
But mutually supportive collectives are not always a good thing, especially in a society-wide crisis. A white-supremacist armed militia is mutually supportive. So are the fevered supporters of online conspiracy channels. So is a rioting mob.
AS THE protest evolved, different factions waged a battle for control. The organisers of the convoy that started it all said they wanted an end to vaccine mandates, the repeal of Covid-19 laws and for anti-vax doctors suspended by the Medical Council to be reinstated. That's far more than just being anti-mandate, but they made it clear they weren't there to storm Parliament.
On the far-right online channel Counterspin, though, they promoted the idea that this was a war.
On his Politik website, veteran political journalist Richard Harman commented: "Naïve politicians, including Winston Peters and Christopher Luxon, who tried to suggest the protesters may have had a point about vaccine mandates, had no idea what was really going down on Parliament's lawn; inside the protest; inside the tents.
"Behind all this is an insidious leakage into New Zealand from the insane end of the United States Trumpist right wing." That's where the idea of an illegitimate government comes from.
Harman also said the insane Trumpists had some willing helpers. "The extreme right-wing dirty tricks New Zealand site, "BFD" (formerly Whaleoil) repeats most of the American conspiracies as it defames New Zealand politicians – though it praises Winston Peters."
The Freedom and Rights Coalition (FRC), set up by the Tāmaki's Destiny Church, supported the convoy organisers in their moderation. For their pains, hilariously, Counterspin called them government agents.
But by the time of the protest march over the Auckland Harbour Bridge, just days before the end of the protest, the FRC had changed its position.
That day, the group's keynote speaker, Jamie Warren, used Counterspin language. "What's happening at Parliament is a war," she declared. Warren is Tāmaki's daughter.
After I wrote about the bridge march, a man emailed to assure me the protesters were not fiery rebels. We're doctors and teachers and nurses, he said.
The protest group representing his interests is Voices for Freedom (VFF). They're an extremely well-funded group that presents itself as "concerned mums". Membership includes some of the tiny number of health and education professionals who are anti-mandate because they're anti-vax.
But VFF isn't a benign force in this debate. It's been banned from Facebook and censured by the Advertising Standards Authority for its "socially irresponsible" and "misleading" vaccine information. It has actively promoted conspiracy theories about the secret plans of government and global elites.
In the end, when lumps of wood, gas canisters, crockery, metal poles and the bricks from beneath their feet were thrown at the police, it looked like only the extremists were left. But how many of those rioters had joined the protest intent on peaceful action, only to find themselves embracing something very different?
Former New Conservative Party leader Leighton Baker billed himself right through as a broker between police and extremist leaders, but he was still there on the final day and he was arrested. His daughter, Chantelle, live streaming the whole thing, didn't disassociate herself from the violence. On the contrary, without evidence, she helped spread a rumour it was the police who were burning the tents.
Whether or not it's a continuum, there's a job for everyone now, separating the truly violent and insurrectionist from the rest.
Since the protest was ended, small bands of the extremist hardcore have popped up here and there, trying to keep the flame alive. But, very suddenly, there is no longer a big crowd. Everyone else has gone home.
Omicron continues to surge and the surge probably continues to be manageable, although who knows what will happen next week or the week after. The border is open for returning New Zealanders, and others will follow soon enough. MIQ is being shut down. The Novavax vaccine, which some of the VFF people say they wanted instead of the Pfizer option, will be available from this coming week. The mandates will end soonish too.
EVERYONE'S SICK of it. Sick of life like this. The anti-mandate lobby, which is far larger than the protest at Parliament, blames the mandates. Everyone else blame the virus. But we're all sick of it.
National, NZ First and Act have recognised the widespread dismay at the way the pandemic keeps rolling on. Like the anti-mandate lobby, they say it's the Government's fault. The Greens and Te Pāti Māori have seen that dismay too, although they're more likely to argue about equity than play the blame game.
The economy has given National, especially, the stick it's been looking for to beat the Government. Not at the macro level: as Finance Minister Grant Robertson keeps trying to say, trade is up, unemployment is down, debt is eminently manageable and if you're in farming or many other sectors, the numbers have never looked so good.
But a lot of that is abstract. As National leader Christopher Luxon says, inflation is up and we all feel that every time we shop. The collapse of tourism is especially hard, because tourism is an economic mainstay in almost every city and town and seaside village in the country. All businesses that need walk-in customers and all sports and entertainment events are struggling mightily.
But is it really the mandates keeping the people away? It's our own reticence, isn't it? Right now, people are deciding, on good health advice, it's better not to go out so much. There's no point blaming the Government for it.
TWO YEARS down on this pandemic and we may just be getting started. Long-Covid is more serious and more widespread than we feared and there's a lot about it we still don't know.
Epidemiologist Michael Baker warned this week that new Covid variants are likely and we should not assume they will be either less transmissable than Omicron or less harmful than Delta. They don't know.
Will we have a new booster for each new variant, the way we do for the flu? How will they keep up? Will we even want to do that? Baker warns, again, that while a super-vaccine, capable of dealing with all variants, may be possible, we should not count on it anytime soon.
Perhaps, many people say, we will learn to live with Covid "the way we live with the flu". But the flu kills 500 of us a year, in ordinary times: more than die on the roads. It would be many more, except that flu shots have been normalised.
Besides, Covid has taught us the way we've been "living with the flu" is wrong. We should wash our hands often and well. In certain situations, it's good to wear a mask. We should definitely not go to work when we're sick. What were we thinking?
The key advice remains: Try not to get the virus. So we're changing the way we live with everything.
At the universities, the lecture halls are empty. Has tertiary teaching changed for good? Will those halls ever fill with people again?
Will the inner cities ever fill with people again? Work from home will always be a thing, for some of the people some of the time, so what will happen to all those buildings? How will businesses survive, if they need those walk-in customers?
Perhaps, as an architect suggested to me this week, we will do our group activities in pavilions. Open to the breeze.
The transport networks are empty. But when we stop trying to hide from Omicron, will the buses and trains fill up again? The solution can't be to have everyone driving all the time: gridlock would be the only winner. So what are the priorities now for transport spending?
We're not going back and it probably won't get easier as we go forwards. Despite the mandates, Omicron and violent protest, it's been a marvellous summer, endlessly warm and yet not drought-stricken or too badly hit by floods. That's not going to last. The climate crisis won't stop happening.
The far-right extremists won't go away, either. So we'll have to keep getting better at dealing with them and with their capacity to drag people down conspiratorial rabbit holes.
The commentator Ben Thomas has observed that conspiracists are perfectly geared to the value put on self-improvement in the modern world. "Doing your own research", as they call it, is tremendously seductive. You feel privy to special information and you find a community of like minds. It makes you feel like you've "found the cheat codes to the test".
That's hard to unpick. Impossible, even, unless the "normal" society those people leave behind has better things to woo them back with. Stronger communities with less inequity are so important to that.
THE NUMBER-ONE task? There are three of them, as there always have been. Managing the pandemic, so our health system can cope. Also, ensuring we all have enough to eat, and enough of all the other things we need. It's called maintaining a functional economy.
And the third No 1 task? Managing the social pressures. Keeping everyone in the tent, so to speak, except for those determined to burn it down. We do have to isolate ourselves from them.
He waka eke noa, Robertson said with his first Covid budget, in 2020. We're all in this together. But that can be true only if we stop ignoring the differences and divisions among us.
In the first half of that year, when Covid struck, 90 per cent of job losses were among women. And then recovery funding favoured industries traditionally dominated by men. Because the Government didn't think about the gender impact of its policies.
In 2020 and early 2021, as Covid spread in New Zealand and there were no vaccines, we endured some tough lockdowns. Evidence overseas makes it very clear they saved a lot of lives, especially among the poor, overcrowded communities of South and West Auckland. The Government was clearly thinking hard about race differences.
But when the vaccine rollout began in 2021, that was abandoned. Age-related priorities geared to the needs of Pākehā put Māori at much greater risk. Community outreach not organised through trusted community organisations limited the reach of the vax campaigns.
Whenever we think of ourselves simply as a unified people, we risk the needs of those who are not comfortably in the mainstream being forgotten.
To put that more bluntly, getting "back to normal" can't mean we sacrifice Middlemore Hospital and all who rely on it.
Grant Robertson has a $6 billion kitty to spend in his Budget in May. There's a lot riding on that.
WHEN YOU hear the music ringin' in your soul And you feel it in your heart and it grows and grows And it came from the backstreet rock & roll When the healing has begun
That's the reprobate Van Morrison, brilliant singer, unforgivable Covid renegade.
The song, not the singer, that's usually the thing. For everyone who's felt marginalised by Covid policy and wants to find a way back, the time for healing has begun.
Not that music is magic: as the Nazis who loved Wagner showed us, it doesn't turn good everything it touches. But music can do that, as the orchestra in Sarajevo, and Live Aid and every other benefit concert ever has shown.
This isn't a war, and heaven knows we can see right now what real war looks like. But the pandemic is hard. By the time we get to next summer, how about a big festival vibe, all over the country: music showing the way ahead.
Dave Dobbyn knows about this. In 1984, at a concert in Aotea Square, parts of the crowd rioted in Queen St. The heavy-handed police force, misreading some of the divisions in society, arrested him. Later, he wrote Loyal. And then Welcome Home.