We started as a single team on a single alert level.
For seven weeks in 2020, we were one nation under lockdown, and then together we celebrated zero Covid and the freedoms of level 1.
But five months into the pandemic our paths diverged.
An outbreak in Auckland put the city under stricter control measures than the rest of the country.
This would happen again and again and again — placing a cyclical mental, physical and economic burden on Aucklanders while the rest of the country got on with it.
Auckland now faces its greatest test yet as the city battles to get a Delta outbreak under control.
The region's case burden has surpassed everywhere else in New Zealand combined, and the psychological impact now includes a greater risk of actually contracting the virus.
As Auckland trudges on under lockdown conditions, its team of 1.7 million carries an ever-greater load on behalf of the whole country.
This is the tale of two pandemics
Sep 19, 2021
The story begins on March 21, 2020.
In a rare live broadcast to the nation, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern introduces the alert level system that will come to define Kiwis' lives.
Aotearoa is at alert level 2 ^, she announces.
Two days later, with active Covid-19 cases at 102 and climbing every day, the country enters an early version of level 3 ^. Many workers head home immediately, stopping off at supermarkets to stock up in a rash of panic-buying.
The first day of level 4 ^ in New Zealand. Streets are empty. The whole country stops at 1pm to watch the daily government briefing.
New Zealand reports its first Covid death, as total cases crack 500.
After the first few tentative days of lockdown, a sense of community spirit begins to emerge.
Here and there, teddy bears appear in windows and, before long, the great New Zealand Bear Hunt is in full swing. It’s a godsend for a nation of bored children — and gains some fervent fans among the ‘big kids’ too.
New Zealanders’ collective actions and unity at level 4 has put us in the rare position where we can make choices about our next steps… We have the opportunity to do something no other country has achieved — elimination of the virus — but it will continue to need a team of five million behind it.
Level 4 is scheduled to end but is extended for five more days. The wage subsidy bill hits $10.46 billion, paid to 1.7 million people, with thousands more laid off from work.
Takeaways and barista coffee are back on the menu as New Zealand drops to alert level 3 *. Active cases continue to drop as people recover.
The first day of level 2 * nationwide. Friends and family who haven't seen each other for seven weeks are reunited. Restaurants and cafes re-open. Regional travel is possible and Kiwis book holidays in droves.
A momentous day: the government announces that there are no active cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand and the country will drop to level 1 * from midnight.
The 'team of five million' has pulled through.
A milestone is reached: 100 days with no community transmission.
But that's about to change.
Four members of a family in Auckland test positive for Covid-19. No one knows where the infections came from.
As contact-tracers race to determine the source of the new cases, Auckland is placed into level 3 ^ lockdown, while all other regions enter level 2 ^.
For the first time, Auckland's path diverges from the rest of the country. Roadblocks are placed at the regional border — physically cutting the city off.
From four initial infections, the Auckland outbreak has grown to 58 cases. The prime minister announces the general election will be postponed to October.
Small numbers of community cases are still being confirmed in Auckland daily, but the city moves out of lockdown into a new level — level 2.5 *, which allows businesses to open, but strictly limits socialising and gatherings to no more than 10 people. Aucklanders are allowed to travel but are warned to take level 2.5 with them.
The rest of Aotearoa moves to level 1 *.
The team of five million is reunited as Auckland joins the country at level 1 *.
The occasional border-related case keeps the nation on its toes but by Christmas, community transmission seems a thing of the past.
The most pessimistic attitude can’t ruin a whole Kiwi summer at level 1. The #nzhellhole hashtag was initially sparked by a Donald Trump remark in August 2020 after Auckland went back into lockdown, but peaks again as New Zealanders flock to beaches, campgrounds, and summer festivals — and don’t hold back bragging about it on social media.
Out of nowhere, three new community cases are discovered, once again in Auckland. A snap level 3 ^ begins in the region and Auckland schoolchildren — many of whom missed weeks of class in 2020 — are sent home just a few days into the new school year. The rest of the country goes to level 2 ^.
Three more community cases are confirmed in Auckland, including two high school students. Despite this, the country goes ahead with a planned level drop and Auckland returns to level 2 * at midnight, and level 1 * five days later.
The first Covid-19 vaccine doses in New Zealand are administered to a handful of vaccinators and staff working at the Jet Park Hotel near Auckland Airport, a quarantine facility for people testing positive for the virus.
Like everything else, Auckland has borne the greatest share of the MIQ burden and corresponding risk: 15 of the 31 current MIQ facilities in New Zealand, and both quarantine sites for positive cases, are in the city.
As new community cases show that the latest outbreak is not contained, Auckland returns to level 3 ^ for the fourth time. Calls increase for people living in south Auckland to be prioritised for the vaccination roll-out.
Auckland moves back to level 2 *, with level 1 * kicking in five days later. The region has now spent four weeks longer in alert level 3 than the rest of New Zealand.
A month later, lockdown again seems a thing of the past as homegrown music heroes Six60 create history, becoming the first band to play a live show at Auckland’s Eden Park. Nearly 50,000 fans pack into the stadium, unmasked, in a scene that is now so rare in other countries that it makes global headlines.
Large events are able to go ahead all over the country during the long stretches at level 1: the All Blacks play seven home tests during 2020 and 2021, four of them in Auckland.
The country clocks up another 100 days at level 1.
A man who visited Wellington from Sydney tests positive for the highly infectious new Delta variant, after he returns home. The capital shifts into level 2 ^ separately from the rest of New Zealand for the first time. After six days on high alert, Wellington shifts back to level 1 * without having to go into lockdown.
On August 17 at 2:30pm, the Ministry of Health issues an emailed statement that will mark a new chapter in New Zealand's pandemic story: 'Health officials are investigating a new case of Covid-19 in the community,' it says.
Hours later, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announces what to the outside world was remarkable but to Kiwis seemed almost inevitable as a result of this new case: From midnight, the country will go back into level 4 ^. The origin of the outbreak will later be genomically traced back to one of the many MIQ facilities in the city and be confirmed as the more virulent Delta strain.
August 18 marks the first day most of the country have been confined to their houses since May 2020. For Aucklanders, it's an all-too-familiar scenario.
Covid-19 testing sites mushroom across the country to accommodate thousands of people who visited the growing number of locations linked to the outbreak. In Auckland, people queue at drive-in testing stations for up to 10 hours — so long that health workers find themselves jump-starting dead car batteries.
From a single infection, the Delta outbreak has swelled to 511 cases, with thousands of potential contacts. Apart from a smattering of cases in Wellington that are confined to people already isolating, all of the new infections are in Auckland.
The prime minister announces that the country will drop to level 3 * from September 1 — except for Auckland, which will stay in level 4 until at least September 14.
Auckland is doing a huge service for all of us, and not just now but throughout this pandemic. It’s Auckland that has maintained our gateway to the world, that has done a lot of the heavy lifting in welcoming Kiwis home safely, that has worked hard to keep the rest of New Zealand safe when there has been an outbreak. Auckland has done it tough, and they’ve done it tough for all of us.
There are still things to smile about. Not even Cabinet ministers can escape being Zoom-bombed by their own children, as Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni discovers when her son marches into the room holding a phallic carrot aloft while his mum is being interviewed by video. Sepuloni briefly goes viral and swears to never buy the bag of odd-shaped carrots again.
The rest of New Zealand moves to level 3 *.
Another, less positive, milestone: Auckland chalks up its 100th day at alert levels 3 and 4.
With the outbreak contained to Auckland, Cabinet agrees to move all other regions to level 2 * from September 8. Auckland once more finds itself alone in lockdown.
A dozen or more cases are still being diagnosed in Auckland every day, including a handful of mystery cases with no epidemiological link to other infections. The government extends Auckland's lockdown for at least another week.
Galvanised by the outbreak, up to 90,000 people a day are getting vaccinated against Covid-19 and nearly a third of the population is now fully immunised. Despite being the epicentre of the outbreak, Auckland's vaccination rates are only just higher than the national average.
You need to prioritise your vaccination where the risk is greatest. We started off by prioritising border workers, those with co-morbidities, the older people. It's time to say, now we've got to prioritise those most at risk of catching Covid — and guess what area that is?
Auckland has now spent 40 extra days in lockdown, with a long stretch at level 3 still ahead. Family and friends remain separated. Almost all businesses are still closed.
The isthmus has become an island, with reunification still distant on the horizon. Day by day, the team of 1.7 million and the rest of the country drift a little further apart.
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