Chasing Fifty Shades of Fox Glacier-5 Lessons from the Front Lines of COVID-19

New Zealand and a Pandemic

I often reminisce about my backpacking through the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand. I fell in love with it. There is so much more to explore in the post COVID-19 world. We will be backing our own backyards in New Zealand when it is safe to do so. We follow the guidelines as advised by our science and health experts.

During the lock down, New Zealand was beautifully painted with wowing sunrises and sunsets. The clear blue skies in the southern hemisphere and stars in the bright night skies added to it. Cool and calm. The environment in large industrial cities have changed and became clearer. Christchurch had the sharpest air improvement followed by Wellington then Auckland.

This says a lot about climate change and science.

A Dunedin Stunner during a global pandemic in late May 2020. PC: Leina Isno

I call New Zealand home and through the event of the COVID-19 global pandemic, I felt incredibly lucky to be one of those still alive with the basics of life; food, water, shelter, access to good healthcare, and sanitation.

Our simple but effective and blunt message from the Prime Minister Honourable Jacinda Ardern was;

“Go home, stay home and act like you’ve got COVID-19.”

I regularly tune into the news on CNN and New York times to watch America grabble with the deadly pandemic and The Guardian for the world updates. My heart breaks for these countries as the rising death toll mounts.

I’ve contributed to helping maintain the healthcare of New Zealanders during the pandemic. I was part of the front line and essential workers to testing for the COVID-19 in the Southern part of New Zealand. They were truly tough times. But I had many messages of support from family, friends and academics who were rightly worried about my health.

Their messages helped me through to stay mentally sane.

I was an essential worker on the front lines during the month long lock down in the Otago region, New Zealand. PC: Leina Isno

With the diverse and very skilled team, we managed a lot of testing risking our health and livelihoods supporting the NZ Ministry of Health and the Government. Those times came with some insightful lessons as I reflected on the country and global lock down.

One: Being an Essential Worker

Jack Tames lessons from the pandemic lock down highlighted that COVID-19 has been a lesson in what really matters. The notion and question of who becomes an “essential worker” allowed all of us to really stop and think about who is going to keep us alive and keep the country going in these unprecedented times. He rightly pointed out it is the nurses who tend to our sick. It is the supermarket workers who stock shelves for nineteen or twenty bucks an hour. It is the farmers who keep on ploughing the land, supply us with dairy products and harvested the greens. It is those who collect our rubbish and those who manage the petrol stations.

I have so much more respect and appreciation for our essential workers who kept New Zealand sustainable during a global pandemic.

Two: Embracing Neighbourly 

This global pandemic has enabled and highlighted the need to embrace being part of a local, national and global family. Its the only way forward. When the Honourable Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern ended her “State of the Nation” speech, her parting words of advice were;

“Be strong, be kind and we will go through this together. Check on your neighbours and start a phone tree for your street.”

The message from NZ Civil Defence was focused on knowing your neighbours for emergency purposes. My previous engagement on the Paremata Residents Association has reminded me that village planning was always an important priority. For example, know your neighbours water toby location for emergencies.

This pandemic has motivated and enabled us all to leave our differences aside and behaved more neighbourly.

Three: Creating Community Connections

During the global pandemic, our Pacific neighbours suffered two confronting realities; a COVID-19 global pandemic with inadequate resources to fight an imminent health crisis as well as a category 5 tropical cyclone that hammered Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Fiji and Tonga. Vanuatu of course suffered badly again after a category 5 tropical cyclone in 2015.

It was heartbreaking to watch. Part of the country was also dealing with a Volcanic eruption on Tanna with emissions of gas and steam plumes as well as rising ash content affecting food supplies for the locals. While our local Ni Vanuatu hid in caves during the disastrous storm, our Regional Seasonal Employment (RSE) workers in New Zealand were not able to get back home to their families after the international borders closed. I was alerted to a news post from my good friend Dr Mere Sovick from the US. The Hawkes Bay Community in New Zealand have reached out to support a pregnant Ni-Vanuatu woman who couldn’t get home.

I offered my support.

The value of community and connection were priorities during the lock down as an essential worker. PC: Leina Isno

This pandemic has made me more empathetic as I reached out to the young Ni-Vanuatu expectant mother (29 weeks gestation) through a Councillor Malcolm Dixon and an amazing Volunteer Nurse/Midwife Rizwaana Latiff. From the US to New Zealand’s Dunedin and Hawkes Bay, the rippling effects of aroha and arohanui are abundant in these tough times. Councillor Dixon reminisced on the phone about his younger times in Dunedin enjoying the snow, the Octagon and Lanarch Castle. Veteran Midwife and the selfless Community Volunteer Latiff spoke about her call through the Hawkes Bay Indian Mothers Groups as well as the other local mothers to donate baby and maternity wear for the Ni-Vanuatu single mother. Generous donations came in for the expectant mother.

Moments like this of striking up conversations with complete strangers were heartfelt and heartwarming. They have had a profound effect on me. Of being part of that global family. Of reaching out to others especially the vulnerable who needed that community support.

It was the right thing to do. To embrace that community spirit.

Four: The Value of Science and Empathy

When former President of US Barack Obama spoke on being science-driven during his first inaugural address in 2009, that was effective LEADERSHIP right there.

“We will restore science to it’s rightful place and wheel technology’s wonders to embrace healthcare’s quality and lower it’s costs.”

Science matters.

Science still matters today. In an epidemic. In a pandemic.

New Zealand embraced science during a global pandemic.

Our leading experts in Science have guided us. The value of research for important information in this pandemic has been insightful and welcomed.

Knowledge is power.

On the front lines, the Admin team processed all our data and microbiology for COVID-19 testing. PC: Leina Isno

The big names of Dr Ashley Bloomfield, Dr Siouxsie Wiles, Professor Michael Baker and Dr Ayesha Verrall we followed, trusted and respected. For some, we went as far as composing songs, poems and created merchandise to show our gratefulness on their leadership and their educational efforts to guide us through.

The basics of hand washing we were taught and shown mostly online while toilet papers and hand sanitisers were flown off supermarket shelves. Then strange words like flatten the curve with all sorts of graphs came to educate and show us that staying at home saves lives instead of going out. Other words like self-isolation, quarantine, social distancing and contact-tracing then became familiar norms for the lock down as we moved through our different alert levels. We tuned into our daily shows at 1pm for regular updates with the Prime Minister and her team, often labelled as “The Ashley Bloomfield Show.”

Our Prime Minister was an empathetic leader. Our repeated message of:

“Be strong. Be kind.” has so much weight, empathy and value in it.

Its a clear message that was delivered with kindness and decisiveness. It dictates what we can do and can’t do to combat the COVID-19 virus.

That’s leadership right there in a time of an unprecedented crisis.

We chose health first over economy.

We chose science and we valued our researchers.

Five: The Value of Climate Science 

A lovely young woman who was studying at the University of Otago enlightened me on her Geography Masters Project on Climate Science while I was testing on the front lines. Our conversations turned to the importance and impact of climate science after we spoke about Vanuatu’s recent Tropical Cyclone Harold that devastated our Northern Islands. She spoke diligently on Long Scale Climate Change and the role it played on climate change. She discussed how pollen helps us understand about climate change. I was desperate to find out more.

According to National Centers for Environmental Information,

“when pollen grains are washed or blown into bodies of water, their tough outer walls allow them to be preserved in sediment layers in the bottoms of ponds, lakes or oceans. Because of their unique shapes, scientist can take a core sample of the sediment layer and determine what kinds of plants were growing at that time of sediment deposit.

Knowing what types of plants were growing in the area allows the scientists to make inferences about the climate at that time by using knowledge about modern and historical distribution of plants in relation to climate. By analysing the pollen from well-dated sediment cores, scientists can obtain records of changes in vegetation over the years. Not only can pollen tell us about the past climate but they can also tell us how we are impacting our climate. Interestingly, the trends could even help us plan better for future climate changes but also whether human activities have had significant impacts on ecosystems.”

So why was this so important to me?

Our Vanuatu people did not have enough food after the Category 5 Tropical Cyclone Harold struck recently. I had to change my way of thinking; a way of moving forward to connect science and disasters and to be better prepared. It made me think of the value of research and embracing science for Vanuatu. Vanuatu needs this profession and field of scientific research.

Hybrid Yam Vanuatu
Former Vanuatu Minister of Agriculture Hon Matai Seremiah with one of the hybrid yam called ‘wailu’ named after Dr Roger Malapa. PC: Vanuatu Daily Post

The late Dr Roger Malapa, a trailblazing Vanuatu Scientist with a background in genetics left a huge legacy for us; the younger generations of Vanuatu. His incredible work of creating hundreds of varieties of staple crops that were more resistant to climate change in the Pacific needs to be recognized and valued. We needed to keep his legacy alive. Vanuatu needs us; the younger generations to step into the world of climate science and to think innovation to make a difference.


In an article on how New Zealand relied on science and empathy, the BBC praised the young female Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern. Her leadership has been exceptional on how she had led the country to contain the virus effectively. It had earned a global attention.

NZ had offered a model response to the COVID-19 by embracing empathy, clarity and trust in science. We chose health before the economy. We also had an effective and brilliant communicator and leader. We chose to be strong and kind. We chose to look out for our neighbours. We chose science to guide us.

In a pandemic response, science and leadership go together.

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