Analysis - With the year drawing to a close and Christmas almost upon us, the sounds that seem to sum up the season are less jingling bells and carols, more the cough of Covid-19 and an enormous, exhausted sigh of relief.
The conversations at Christmas gatherings are less about the pre-Christmas rush and more about the country's collective weariness; it seems so many of us are stumbling towards the finish line in 2022, battered and more than a little bent. To steal from William Butler Yeats' The Second Coming, we feel like pretty rough beasts who this year can do little more than slouch towards Bethlehem. Though maybe 'crawl' is a better word.
Why so rough this year? The truth is that this year - 2022 - has been the real 'Year of Covid' in New Zealand. It's not something we've acknowledged as much as we should, given we're nearly three years into the pandemic that turned our lives upside down. Covid was about lockdowns and Zooms and that was 'before', wasn't it? Actually, 2020 and 2021 were the early acts of the play.
In those first two years, we created our Fortress New Zealand and held the disease at bay. It was clumsy at times, especially round the borders, but we achieved that glorious New Zealand goal of 'boxing above our weight'. From sport to foreign affairs, there's something deep in the Kiwi psyche that gives us a special pride when as a small country we do better than expected on the world stage. While so many countries around the world suffered months of sickness and death, we held our own, stayed home, saved lives, topped the charts.
Thing is, 2022 changed all that. Omicron changed all that. Variant BA.2 has breached our defences and laid us low, with more than 20,000 admitted to hospital with Covid-19 this year. It seems like an eternity ago, but you can see here from the Ministry of Health how in February everything changed:
So without the hoopla (dare I say novelty?) of 2020, 2022 was really the big Covid year here. It was the year we also got peak conspiracy, with the protests in parliament grounds. In many ways, 2022 was to New Zealand what 2020 was in many other parts of the world.
Of course, I appreciate that in many parts of the world 2022 was in truth a continuation of the pandemic and the misery it brings and in many ways we have still been a lucky country, with widespread vaccination and a health system that has held up under the strain, if at times only by its fingertips. I'm not second-guessing the core government strategy of protecting ourselves - and especially our most vulnerable - until a vaccine was available.
But this year, we got hit with the seemingly endless sickness, the growing death toll, the resultant nationwide exhaustion that many other countries have already endured. It's how we've done Covid differently - having the illness spreading without the lockdowns, relying on the vaccine to carry its weight, dealing with the disease at large in our country but after two years of trial and tribulation.
It's meant this year has been brutal for New Zealanders' mental health. We've had to deal with the arrival of the illness itself and the loss of life when we were already ground down after two years of keeping it at bay. Estimates suggest that more than half - perhaps about two-thirds of New Zealanders or more - have had Covid.
And now, as summer teases us with some relief and relaxation, bam! Here comes variant BA.2.75. We're back seeing a rolling average of about 6000 reported cases each day; more than 42,000 last week. Worse, the latest modelling from the Ministry of Health suggests that could almost double around Christmas. We could see more hospitalisations than in the previous March and July peaks.
It's left many of us are feeling like Michael Corleone, standing in his kitchen in The Godfather Part III, fists clenched, saying "just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in".
Yep, this has been our true Covid year and we are slouching towards Bethlehem and Christmas wrung-out and ground-down. And that's without even mentioning inflation.
All of which makes it a difficult time for the government. The electorate that fought hard and felt like world-beaters at the start of the year is in a very different mood now. It's a mood that wants to put the past behind it and move on. That means any incumbent party will be swimming against the tide heading into election year.
To go back to Yeats, Labour will be asking if indeed "the centre cannot hold" and if election year will be swamped by those ("the worst"?) who "are full of passionate intensity" for conspiracies and sideshows. They will be wondering whether Covid's grip will remain as firm in election year. As the poem says, "things fall apart" and who knows that better than politicians, especially after a year like this.
Labour and Green MPs will be looking at this slouching, ground-down country and hoping Yeats was right when he wrote:
"Surely some revelation is at hand;
"Surely the Second Coming is at hand."
Or in this case, a third coming. After a year like this, it will be a tough ask. For now, like the rest of us, all those MPs can do is fall over the Christmas finish line hoping for a refreshing, healing summer and better times in 2023.
- This article was originally published on the Pundit website.