2020, the year that wasn’t and was. a personal reflection. Never gonna give you up!

Toni, Rick and Clare in March at Christchurch Horncastle Arena

We meet him, in Christchurch, the man responsible for one of the greatest Eighties hits, a hand shake, a smile of delight and the presentation to him of a bottle of Pinot Noir. It had been a long journey from my cousin Sally in Somerset to the drive from Nelson to the venue. Along with us that day was Clare, my colleague’s wife. She had no idea of what was to happen, she was only aware that we were meeting up to see him play. The look on her face when we were escorted back stage before the gig was priceless and greatly enhanced when he appeared with his agent. This was the week before lockdown came into force. Rick Astley was the perfect antidote the coming storm at the time as was the MarchFest in Nelson a few days later, the last time I’d see any of my family for several weeks.

It is New Year’s Eve in New Zealand as I write and the weather is surprising mild with cloud cover masking the blue sky and sun. This is unusual for the time of year but was predicted as a consequence of global climate change. It happened several years ago when our close friends from the UK came over the same time of the year in search of clear skies and warmth. Sadly, I listened to the BBC radio this morning to hear the news of yet another leap in the COVID body count, this time 981. The radio presenter was discussing this tragic milestone, the worst daily total since April and the grimly predicted a similar picture in the coming weeks, despite the development and introduction, at astounding speed, of a variety of vaccines. Their uptake has just begun but it appears weeks will be required to build immunity and additional boosters necessary to increase their immunological effect.

Knee jerk signage but not at the time!

Who would have considered the word “lockdown” in 2019 to be so contentious and emotive? It seems to me, so far flung from the present UK epidemic of restrictions and curtailments of normal life hard to comprehend. Those living there I’ve communicated with or have heard off appear to be struggling with the immensity of this. It’s long term effects, of isolation from friends and family, to businesses dependent upon those locked down and the greater economy as a whole will be difficult to calculate. What seems to be remarkable though is that the UK health service continues to manage in the way it does. Surely the message of this pandemic is that for the national economy to thrive, even survive, in unique and unprecedented events demands a robust and resilient health service. This aligned with the leadership of the country carefully listening to and appropriately reacting in accordance with their scientific advisers has been the success story of those, including me, living in New Zealand. This is born out by the resulting repatriation of tens of thousands of Kiwis back to their home land when the borders here were reopened in June. This in itself has created many new and unforeseen problems including the unaffordability of housing increasing on an already struggling marketplace.

“What has socialism ever done for us?”

Despite this the country is prospering, comparatively, to other western nations affected by COVID 19. I still go to work, can plan holidays and weekend breaks, am free to travel within New Zealand unrestricted and see friends and family without restriction. This was not the case back in late March. The tumultuous nature of the government’s decision to do a hard lockdown came as a surprise with many doubters and push back. Several weeks later with alert states returning to relative normality and only a handful of fatalities life began to resemble its pre March picture. Contact tracing and testing continued and the pulse of life led to the occasional local outbreak which was dealt with remarkable effectiveness. This I confess has its own problem, that of complacency, and many not conforming to the ritual of scanning QR codes when entering premises and shops anymore.

This reflection on those heady events will now turn to how we, Toni and myself, have adapted to this new normal which really began in January of this year, 2020. It was then that events became more news worthy. Our daughter and her partner were planning a trip to Europe and the UK and I was becoming increasingly concerned about their welfare and ability to return in the event of this news becoming more serious. It seemed that any cold or flu like symptom was an indicator of a COVID infection. An old school friend of Toni’s, living in Canada lost her young Son to COVID in March, or so we thought. The anxiety of this and the rapid onset of measures to combat and control this, its immediacy and the somewhat draconian response was breathtaking. A workplace presentation on sustainability in dental practice was soon changed to become the forum to discuss what we do if or when the inevitable decision to lock down occurred. Toni, as a core midwife at Nelson Hospital, had no choice but to continue regardless of the pandemic but we soon both adopting the strip off at the back door to go directly into the shower, unceremoniously throwing our work clothes into the washing machine. This became the norm until lockdown and continued for Toni through the early weeks of the crisis. I became head chef and gardener and was kept very busy on various projects that were in the long grass. It wasn’t long, however, before New Zealand returned to work and in particular for me stood some obstacles before my headspace and mental health accepted this new reality. I had made this decision based upon the notion the dental hygiene profession would suffer as a fear of COVID, this was reinforced by the fact that we as clinicians deal with all manner of oral flora and our mechanical processes, our instrumentation of biofilms can create bacterial fields potentially harmful to us and others. This concern was reiterated by the governing and regulatory bodies decision to ban the use of ultrasonic and sonic scaling equipment in higher alert levels. I’ll return to this shortly.

Banksy at his best extolling the virtues of essential workers during COVID

At this point I must allude to the role that social and main stream media played during this time. I was glued, like many others at the time I suspect, to the only real form of immediate communication, the internet. I must have spent many hours listening to podcasts and media broadcasts to either understand the nature and response to COVID nationally and globally but also as a distraction. My mother, at the tender age of 81 years, and myself began a Zoom thread that continues weekly to this day. Respect to her, adapting to the new technology scene and adopting this a form of real communication with us. At one point I was organising meetings from here between her, her sister and nephew, all in the UK! Strange times indeed. The media I believe will take some responsibility for its reporting of events during COVID when all the facts are known and lessons learned from it. Social media in particular will be more cautiously approached by those of a more discerning persuasion. Feverish and hungry consumption of any news be it verified or wholly misleading will change I hope after infections and vaccines bring an effective degree of heard immunity and normality return.

A menacing dark cloud taken from our balcony summing up the moment of lockdown

In May, whilst stationed in my home I decided to apply for a new profession, the fear that dental hygiene as I knew it would cease or irreparably change drove my application to train as a nurse at Nelson College. I was surprised that my application was immediately accepted and my headspace began to accept the inevitable move from dentistry, after 38 years. I kept this quiet from my colleagues initially and uncertainty with this decision began to appear when I considered the income I’d lose and debt I’d incur after 3 years of training. I was also perturbed by the fears and anxiety shown by my daughter-in-law who was into her final year of training locally. The idea that you were in a lottery after graduation as to where you ended up working appeared totally Dickensian to me. This affected me and a few counselling sessions and medication helped me traverse the stormy seas of my emotions. Life felt tough to me and affected my workspace as well as my headspace.

Herman our German Toyota Mini Campervan

I am very thankful that we did our odyssey back in 2019. We learned much from it especially the decision to make it our last for quite some time. We decided to buy a tent and all the finery that goes with the camping scene, a tow bar for the Volvo and a decent bike rack to transport the Ebikes around this country. The purpose of this was to save the expense of long haul travel, it’s environmental footprint and impact as well as the time in transit, jet lag and organising headaches. We were also fortunate to meet Cedric in August. He was a traveller from Northern Germany, like many thousands of young folk making a pilgrimage to these shores, supporting the economy with their presence and being witnesses and ambassadors to future tourists wanting to travel to our country. Annoyingly to me they get a bad press in this country, free campers for which Cedric was one, have been bad mouthed for poor toilet behaviour. A few have been responsible for this feverish media assassination but most are abiding and responsible, furthermore they add to the economy in multiple ways and buying Cedric’s converted Toyota Estima was acknowledgement of that and support of him. Herman, the aforesaid Toyota is now a firm family favourite and we thank Cedric for his attention to detail in converting this MPV to a mini mobile home. This is an addition to the travel inventory and Oli, our Spaniel, can now be part of our journey too.

Social Distancing during vintage at Neudorf Winery – Germans and French playing their part

Another positive from 2020, from a completely unforeseen angle was the provision of free training for primary industries. Apiculture being one of these. Now bees have been off my radar of interest until the last few years. Dear friends of ours have been drawn to the beauty and necessity of beekeeping and have inspired me to consider it as a hobby, if not a job in the future. I wasn’t really aware of this opportunity provided as a COVID response to aiding the economy but thanks to Facebook and the Nelson Beekeeping page I fortuitously stumbled upon it. The class of 18 features more females than males, they are really passionate about their learning and contribute much to this journey. I’ve now 2 hives, in the 2 corners of the garden, have endured many ups and downs with Queen bee dramas that many an expert hasn’t had to endure, several stings and a curious obsession with watching them landing on the hive laden with pollen. Anyone who thinks that a foray into keeping bees is an easy ride be warned it is far from that. There is a need for regular inspections, checking for a variety of infestations and diseases and a need to conform to a responsible yearly management plan to protect the bee colonies of New Zealand and their welfare throughout the year.

Bees in a brood box and feeder with bracken as a gym

To sum up 2020 has been a rough ride, an emotional and physical rollercoaster to me and I would reliably assume many others. I’m not in the super COVID risk age group unlike my mum and the in – laws. I have learned much about myself, faced a few demons and changes along the way. I am lucky, as part of the team of 5 million New Zealanders, that we had decisive leadership who took the right advice from the right advisers and the right time. The damage was minimal and the social consequences I hope less than predicted. I will continue as a dentalcare professional, as a gardener, a writer, and now as a budding hobbyist beekeeper. Where this coming year will take me I’m not certain, Toni will hopefully get her new hip and our friends from the States, returning to Aotearoa will find a place and settle back into this great country. I wish all who read this and friends and family the very best, health, happiness and a greater degree of certainty for your future. Kia Ora.

An eternal memory where nature felt more powerful than manned flight – Air New Zealand paralysed and on the deck

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