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Aaron Dahmen: There's an isolating curse to our Covid freedom

Aaron Dahmen,
Publish Date
Mon, 21 Dec 2020, 6:00am
Aaron Dahmen says we have to remember that we're humans who survive on connection. Photo / Supplied
Aaron Dahmen says we have to remember that we're humans who survive on connection. Photo / Supplied

Aaron Dahmen: There's an isolating curse to our Covid freedom

Aaron Dahmen,
Publish Date
Mon, 21 Dec 2020, 6:00am

We're winning the fight against the virus, but as Aaron Dahmen writes, there's an isolating curse to our Covid freedom.

On Christmas Day nine years ago, I donned shorts and a shirt, feasted on good food, and excitedly opened presents. Bright lights glammed up the tree, and there were the mandatory but embarrassing hugs and kisses from relatives. 

For many Kiwi families, it'll be no different in 2020. 

But nine years ago, I celebrated Christmas with my dad for the last time. We knew it was coming. He'd been sick with motor neurone disease for about 12 months - our feast was soup because he couldn't swallow properly, and his gifts were brought to him because he was wheelchair-bound. 

None of that made his passing four days later any easier.  I was 13.

Since then, the summer break has been one of reflection, mourning, and grief. Not openly, of course. I usually plaster a smile on my face and bury any feelings, so I can be "happy" like everyone else. So I too, can feel like celebrating. 

Mum lived those experiences with me. She gets it. When I spend Christmas with her, we can commemorate and grieve, all at the same time. Years later, she moved back to Germany, her country of birth. It was no longer possible to build the life she wanted for us in Aotearoa. She didn't want us to just get by.

I've seen her three times since she left - often for a month or two at once, and often over Christmas. Our time together is rare, but intensely valued. 

Which brings me to the Covid-19 pandemic, and indeed, our country's battle against the virus.

There's no doubt we're on to a winner. We have a managed isolation system that is clinically efficient. Our contract tracing capacity has been vastly ramped up. By early next year, even a vaccine could be on our shores. 

We're beating this thing. But there's a cost.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's talked about the sacrifices we've all made, and those we continue to make. She's right. They are real and painful. 

Many of us have stories with loose threads – and this pandemic has picked away at them, little by little until our hearts are raw.

There was a time when Covid hadn't yet gripped the world, and plans for me to visit mum were still afoot. As the year went on, that travel was put on the back burner, and my hope painstakingly waned.

I clung on to hope for a long time.

It wasn't until a day in July that I packed up my things at work, went home, and cried. The Government had just announced plans to start charging for managed isolation. That was the final nail in the coffin.

I'm not saying we should, or shouldn't be charging. I understand why there's concern with taxpayers footing the bill for those slipping out to swanky holidays, then coming back to our shores.

But for me and others who don't have buckets of gold lying around, it ruled the option of travel out, and set down a split between the financial haves and have-nots.

Charging thousands of dollars for quarantining Kiwis who return from stints overseas, no matter the worthiness of the trip (like a relative's tangi offshore, or for the precious moments before they pass), can't help but feel like a pinch of cruelty in our land of kindness.

For a nation of five million people, with another million-odd of our Kiwi whānau living overseas, it sits heavy on my heart.

Many of us have gone Christmases missing those who packed up and emigrated across the ditch or further afield. As it stands, that empty chair at the end of our dinner table might not be filled for years.

It's one thing isolating from the virus, but isolating from our sisters, brothers, sons, daughters - and yes, mothers, living overseas? Indefinitely? A home where you can't invite people in makes our country feels like a gilded cage - one where we can't get out, and they can't get in.

Our Covid-19 response has been honed to an art form. Over and over again, we've heard the message from health officials: The system is working.

But we have to remember that we are human too. We are not a system. Humans are irrational. Humans are emotional. Humans survive on connection.

When mum and I talk over the phone, hours go by before the world catches up on us. We laugh. We cry. Then we both sigh - knowing we must say goodbye, yet not knowing when we will see each other again. That heavy feeling returns to my heart.

The land of kindness never felt so far away.

Aaron Dahmen is a political reporter for Newstalk ZB


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