• Tim Mathis

Everything I need to know about New Zealand’s pandemic response I learned in a bar in 2018


Solace in the Wind, Wellington
Not even Covid can beat Welly on a good day.

New Zealand has always been known for its pretty face, but during the Covid pandemic the country's personality finally started to get the recognition it deserves because its public health response was among the best in the world. Photos of Kiwis packing into unmasked concerts and rugby matches circulated across the locked-down planet because their border management prevented the virus from getting a foothold until literally 95% of the population had been vaccinated. New Zealand’s excess death rate actually went down in 2020 as the pandemic raged, and to this day the country has among the lowest Covid mortality rates in the English speaking world.

You can talk about luck and geographic isolation and social cohesion and Jacinda Ardern’s communication style, but personally I learned everything I need to know about why things shook out as they did in a bar in Wellington in 2018, a year before the pandemic.

The bar was called Hashigo Zake, which is a Japanese phrase that translates roughly to “pub crawl” but literally means “Liquor ladder,” which is better, isn’t it? To get there, my wife Angel and I entered through a nondescript door tucked among the downtown high rises, and walked down a narrow stairwell to the literal (if not quite figurative) underground bar. The space was ebony paint and stained wood and dim lights, which matched the standard Wellington weather outside - windy, grey and raining. I shouldn’t dwell on the dark though because I don’t want to accidentally set a noir atmosphere. It was a fun night. Angel and I were touring for a couple of months, meeting a friend who happened to be in town for a work training. Ben, let’s call him. (I’ve changed all of the names in this story - not because I have anything bad to say about anyone, but because it seems like the polite thing to do.) We knew Ben from a church we’d attended years before in a university town called Dunedin, when we were passing out of our evangelical phase. That’s a different story, but we hadn’t seen him in years.

At 7 pm, the bar was full of Wellington hipsters in full regalia - the town is the try-hard casual Portland of the South Pacific - but when Ben sat down, he was objectively the best looking person in the room, even in jeans and a plain t-shirt straight out of a day of boring work meetings. Ben is a gorgeous human being, personally, yeah, but I’m talking about his physical looks at the moment. Smooth caramel skin and dark hair and eyes. A square jaw and an easy smile. A rock climber’s tall, triangular frame, narrow waist, bulging biceps with veiny, toned forearms. When he and his wife visited us in Seattle in the early 2000s, we lived in the center of a historically gay neighborhood, and Ben literally turned heads, men gasping and clutching their chests when he walked by. He’s Maori and Pakeha - a blend of Polynesian and European genetics that proves objectively that eugenics was a terrible idea.

I’m not trying to do a Paul Gauguin thing and fetishize Polynesian bodies. I just want to explain why it seemed normal when I immediately noticed that Ben was being ogled. We were sitting with our craft IPAs or Pilsners or whatever, and Ben’s back was turned to the room when two men sat down at a table across the way - a tall, handsome redhead and a young, fit man of Asian descent, both well-dressed and appearing affluent. The redhead noticed Ben and stared, smiling and whispering to the man who I assumed to be his partner.

It seemed forward when the men stood and approached our table, but Ben has that effect.

“Ben, I think you’re going to get hit on again.”

“Huh? What?”

Ben turned. His eyes lit up, a smile spread across his face, and I imagine that the guys’ hearts fluttered.

“Hey! Chris! Yang! What are you doing here?!”

“We live here! What are you doing here?!”

The three hugged, slapping each others backs in that funny way that you do with old friends, and explained that Chris was Ben’s brother in law. Yang was Chris’s partner and they’d all known each other for years.

We invited them to join us and we started to acquaint ourselves. We explained that we were visiting from the States and spending a few months exploring the North Island. Chris explained his job, as you do when you meet people for the first time, but I have to admit that I don’t remember what he did. It’s nothing against him, really, it’s just that Yang’s work stories far overshadowed his own.

“I’m a scientist,” Yang said, “I guess I have a pretty cool job. I make sure that New Zealand’s kilogram doesn’t gain or lose any weight.”

Yang explained that somewhere deep within the bowels of a nondescript government building in Wellington, there is a lump of metal in a jar that weighs exactly one kilogram. It’s kept in a vacuum and is rarely handled to prevent skin oils or friction from causing any change in the mass of the lump. It’s used to standardize national weights and measures, and every so often, the metal is transported to France to be compared against the universal kilogram standard - another lump that provides the model for all of the others - “Le Grand K,” it’s called. If New Zealand’s version is not exactly the same as France’s, down to the molecule, the consequences for the economy, science and the entire society would be dire, so microscopic adjustments have to be made. Yang explained that this is how things have worked for centuries, and every country in the world has its own metal kilogram standard.

We didn’t learn this until later, but by coincidence, just before we met Yang, the international bodies that determine these sorts of things had voted to change the objective standard from The Grand K to a mathematical constant because no matter how hard the world’s top scientists try, The Grand K slowly but inevitably changes mass by small amounts, necessitating complicated adjustments around the entire world. It’s a little sad really, to think that the kilogram is no longer a literal thing. I’ve wondered what came of Yang’s job but I’m sure he’s found something productive to do.

This all would have been just an interesting coincidence, but the next day we’d also arranged a reunion with another friend - Sara, we’ll call her - in another downtown beer bar, Golding’s Free Dive. If you’re interested. Hashigo Zake has a better beer selection, but Golding’s felt more relaxed. It’s more of a bohemian open air warehouse than an underground hipster hideout. They served pizza, but not cocktails.

We’d also met Sara in Dunedin years prior, through work, and had loosely kept in touch with each other online. Somewhat coincidentally, like Ben, she’d visited us in Seattle in the mid ‘00s and wandered the same neighborhood. We collectively turned far fewer gay heads than we had with Ben, which isn't any sort of criticism. Since we had seen her last, Sara had spent a year in Edinburgh before building a career and life in Wellington, all of us moving through those changes that you do when you transition from young adulthood into early middle age. Sara was always hip, smart, and funny. The type of person who lives an understated, interesting life, which is very much archetypal for Kiwis.

“So what are you even up to these days, Sara?”

“Ah, just boring stuff. I have a cat. I’ve been dabbling in stand up and improv, but mostly just casually. I work for the government and do administrative work. Nothing exciting. Probably the most interesting thing to know is that my boss is the person who is in charge of making sure that New Zealand’s minutes and seconds stay the right length - they don’t get any longer or shorter.”

New Zealand has a population about the same size as the Phoenix, Arizona metropolitan area, but it can feel even smaller than that at times.

“Wait, what? I don’t know what’s going on, but last night we met the guy in charge of making sure the kilograms don’t gain weight!”

Sara threw her hands up, “No! Yang?! I love him! We get coffee all the time! He’s my favorite person at work! How did you meet Yang?!”

I explained, “Well, we were meeting up with our friend Ben who just happened to be in town, and Yang and his partner approached us in a bar, and it turns out they’re related.”

“Wait - Ben? It wasn’t Ben Kingi from Dunedin by chance was it?”

“Yeah, wait, what?!”

“He was my roommate in university! I haven’t seen him in years! We used to call him 'Hot Ben!' How’s he doing?!”

After the excitement of unexpected connections died down, we spent a few hours drinking and offering up material for Sara’s stand up routine. We said our goodbyes, and Angel and I continued on our way north, doing some hiking on Te Araroa, the country’s long trail, before hitching a ride to Napier on the East Coast of the North Island.

The next year, the pandemic hit, and New Zealand’s leadership, just a few blocks from where they kept The Official Kilogram, decided to shut down the borders for what would be more than two full years. Ben, for his part, signed up to do frontline screening and education at the ports in Dunedin to ensure Covid didn’t slip into the country through shipping channels. A real hero, that guy.

We talked to Sara again mid-pandemic, asking how she was holding up. She said that she’d changed jobs, and didn’t love it, but did occasionally see Ashley Bloomfield around the office.

“He’s really a nice guy! It’s hard not to fangirl around him.”

In New Zealand during the pandemic, Jacinda Ardern was the Prime Minister and the face of steady leadership, but Ashley Bloomfield was the country’s Anthony Fauci - the stalwart, mildly boring infectious disease specialist who spoke to the country daily, explaining what was happening and reassuring the population that the government would prevent suffering and death in whatever way that it could.

Across the next two years, Bloomfield and Ardern masterfully managed a closed border and small outbreaks and prevented both mass sickness and economic collapse. An election was held in late 2020 and their party was re-elected in a historic landslide by a country that was almost entirely on the same page. New Zealand’s efforts effectively prevented Covid from spreading in the country for a year and a half, until the Delta strain broke the defenses in late 2021. By the time that transmission was widespread, 95% of the population had been immunized and the worst of the pandemic was avoided.

In my own country, the United States, people hate each other, but only in a weird theoretical way, because we don’t actually know one another. We shout about a lot of things that we don’t understand. The evangelicals in the South are too far removed from the government workers in the Capitol to have any meaningful relationship - let alone to have been roommates in university. We don’t trust our government, and it seems like a strange sideshow operating in a foreign culture, run by vapid celebrities whose lives none of us can relate to. The result during the pandemic was a fractured and traumatic response, with preventable death rates among the worst in the entire world, despite our financial resources.

You don’t want to take anything away from New Zealand’s leadership, because the pandemic response was impeccable, but you also get the sense that the differences are not just about government. As everything was shaking out, watching New Zealand succeed while many places failed, I couldn’t help but think back on those bar connections.

Everyone knows everyone in New Zealand, and if they don’t, their mate does. Your comedian friend, who used to be roommates with your evangelical Maori buddy, knows the gay scientist in the bar who makes sure your kilograms don’t get out of whack. Both of them are right there where the decisions are being made, and can vouch for the people doing it. If you need to get a message to the Prime Minister, you probably can, and when you do she’ll probably sort out that you’re related by marriage a generation back, and ask you to say “Hi” to your uncle Hamish.

Those kinds of connections color things. It’s easy enough to trust your neighbor - and by extension your leaders - if they're probably also your cousin. At the same time, national tragedies are really worrying because everyone affected could be someone you know. It makes the world seem a lot smaller, and the things that happen in it a lot more consequential.

I’m sure the residents of Aotearoa have plenty of complaints about their country, but as an outsider I’d venture to say that things are different in places like that. Better, even. While being small and sparsely populated may not be a trait the country has cultivated intentionally, Kiwis should take pride in the fact that their tightly knit culture has made them more than just a pretty face. The pandemic numbers gave them the receipts to prove it.


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