Freedom to be Free (of Covid 19)

Today is Monday May 18th. Kia ora katoa. It has been cold overnight, but it’s fine and sunny today. The days are slowing getting colder, in quite an orderly fashion – no sudden moves! I am moving from summer to winter in wearing long-sleeved tops, a jerkin or light sweater, and then putting on a warmer cardigan in the evening if I need to.  If I’m doing something active, like cooking, then, unsurprisingly, I’m much warmer. There is much more traffic noise and the sound of planes going overhead. This morning there is the sound of glass being collected by the WCC – a welcome relief, after several weeks of non-collection. On Saturday they emptied the recycling bin – as we found out quite by chance. This was a one-off to catch up, evidently.

This morning I learnt the following:

  • Justin Amash has pulled out of the presidential race as a Libertarian candidate. I heard him interviewed on Bill Maher’s show, and boy, does he have some right-wing views. For example, he believes the US should have less government. Enough said.
  • Some of Tara Reade’s reported actions make her claim of sexual harassment (what did she claim, exactly?) far less credible. I have tried to stay out of this issue, but US media have been rather obsessed with it.
  • One-fifth of patients who entered NHS Hospitals for other issues contracted coronavirus.
  • A chain of rest homes in the US weren’t following procedures.
  • Yesterday a young child in New Zealand was diagnosed with Covid 19, being a contact of someone at the Rosewood Home in Christchurch. This is the first time in New Zealand that a child has contracted the infection. We hope that he won’t go on to become very ill as some children overseas have. New Zealand schools and Early Childhood Centres open again today.
  • There was a photo of Andrew Cuomo being tested for Covid 19 – not because he has symptoms, but to show people it’s a good idea to be tested.
  • Yesterday (Sunday) the US had over 90,000 deaths. If this were a war situation, someone’s head would surely have rolled, and questions asked: there would have been an investigation – was intelligence at fault? Was there an ambush? Did the guys and gals have the right equipment? How come these units didn’t strike first? Was the opposing force superior? Shouldn’t they have retreated? Sadly, none of these questions are relevant. Around 1700 people are dying each day, from coronavirus, in the US.

There is an article in the Guardian (UK) about how there is a lot of talk about kindness, even before this pandemic.  But, as it points out, we haven’t created kind societies! The article is entitled “We’re all keen to show we care, but we’ve shaped a society that doesn’t care at all”, by Sam Byers.

We used to have good worker protections here in New Zealand: your employer couldn’t fire you at will, shifts used to be three per day, breaks are guaranteed, as was paid holiday, sick and bereavement leave; there was also leave to attend to family needs and a maternity leave provision; and a guarantee that your position would be held for you for a year, following birth of a child. There were also stipulations such as having a letter of appointment, setting out your various entitlements. Teachers had built-in “non-contact time”.  Many of these provisions came in long after I held my first job. I always believed that if you proved your worth, your employer would treat you fairly.  Did some people take advantage of these provisions? Yes, of course. Were there still unfair situations? Yes, there were – viz. the “sleepover” non-payment where intellectually-challenged folk were being “looked after”. This has since been rectified, at considerable expense.

Unfortunately, the unions, some of them very strong, took advantage of this strength and were perceived as “holding the country to ransom” (remember the Cook Strait Ferry School Holiday strikes?) Now the unions have been neutered, many of them no longer exist, or have been seen as irrelevant. Workers now have individual (as opposed to Collective) contracts, which have seen their previous rights and entitlements steadily whittled away.

Some examples of this include the following:

  • What to me seems the supreme evil of zero-hours contracts, where “employees” have to always be available, but there is no guarantee of paid hours (so how does one budget under these conditions?) Apparently since April 2016 these contracts have been illegal in New Zealand, and a guarantee of some hours work per week is required.
  • Two daily shifts of ten or twelve hours – what does this do to childcare arrangements?
  • Lack of breaks: when the Wellington Regional Council went to Metlink to run public transport in the Wellington area, all the previous (experienced) drivers were terminated, and drivers hired on the minimum hourly rate. They had the worthy aim of employing former convicts, but many of these people did not know the routes. Many too were over 70, causing them to be stood down in the early days of the pandemic. Many buses were late or missed when a by-law was passed requiring them to have regular breaks. I don’t remember anyone consulting me about all the changes, although I certainly gave them feedback when allowed to.
  • When I left one senior position, my employed refused to put on morning tea or any farewell function (I had worked there full time for several years).
  • Although in New Zealand each full-time employee is entitled to 4 weeks’ annual paid leave, many employers require this to be taken at Christmastime, in the year that it’s due, making it difficult to accumulate paid leave entitlements for a planned overseas trip.
  • The US does not have a maternity leave entitlement. Some states refuse to increase the minimum hourly rate of pay.
  • Bullying did, and still does, occur.
  • In the UK, years of “austerity” have seen social facilities steadily reduced or cancelled altogether – teenager drop-in centres, libraries, benefits have been reduced and got harder to get, as they have here.

You just get the feeling that everything has got harder for poor people, while the rich have become richer. In the US millions have lost their jobs, and consequently any employer-related health insurance scheme. They get little, if any, leave of any kind.

Surely there can be a “happy medium”, a meeting of minds, a negotiation, where compromises are made but where worker’s (i.e. people’s rights) are respected. Surely everything works better, and people are more productive, when there is a happy and safe workplace.

Surely there can be a “happy medium”, a meeting of minds, a negotiation, where compromises are made but where worker’s (i.e. people’s rights) are respected.

Since this pandemic has shut the world down (and it’s not haemorrhagic fever or typhoid or cholera, by the way), it seems right to take a moment to reflect on what kind of society we would like to be, and to change course (some more!). The Christchurch earthquake of February 2011 also provided such a moment – how would you like our city to be?

There is a chance not to go back to the “same old”.  Surely most of us want all workers to be fairly treated, and to feel safe at work, as well as at home. Surely we don’t want cruised ships visiting?  Ah, that’s a thorny one! Cruises have become so popular. But they are floating petri-dishes for infection – we have seen how norovirus has spread though some cruise ships with alacrity. Their air-conditioning units are thought to have been very effective in spreading coronavirus infections on board. They have some strange regulations on board, in terms of accessing medical care, punishment of crimes, and safety; crew members receive minimal pay and live in huddled conditions, yet must always appear cheerful  and smiling and well-groomed. And – perhaps the biggest and most important question of all – where exactly does their extensive waste go? Don’t ask, is the response I’ve received. Into the sea, of course.

While cruise ships provide employment, and visits may be good for the local economy (although just how good is up for debate, too, since the cruise lines control tours on land), the cruise lines have accepted bail out money in the US, yet failed to protect their staff, some of whom still can’t alight, and whose pay has been stopped. How is this fair?

It has been fascinating to see how the effects of this pandemic intensified. First they couldn’t disgorge their passengers (no one wanted them), and this “luxurious” life rapidly descended into a nightmare, where passengers were confined to their rooms: no sight-seeing, swimming, walking around, or other activities on board , no fancy restaurants, and a dodgy Wi-Fi signal. The “trip of a lifetime” became the “trip from hell”, a horror-story, where some wished they had stayed at home. Pity the folk who had chosen to make their home on board. Cruise ship stops brought several coronavirus cases to NZ, even after flights from overseas had been curtailed. Some of us don’t want them back.

New Zealand is taking “baby steps” into Coronavirus level 2. It seems many share the view that we don’t want to sacrifice the gains we’ve made, especially as we see other countries (Germany, South Korea) withdrawing freedoms they had allowed. There are new cases in China, too. “Why we’re free but staying at home”, reads a story in this morning’s newspaper. I remind myself, often, that there are very few new cases of Covid 19 diagnosed here, and testing is freely available, yet yesterday we had our first case of a child with the virus, and children go back to school today. This disease is still scary.

This morning Jane Bowron suggested (by way of her column in the newspaper – My plan for safer funerals) that funerals be by invitation, as weddings are, so that you retain some control of the numbers. This would imply that someone manages this, ensuring that people know, and that perhaps there’s some discretion over people who turn up unexpectedly. She also refers to the current notion of “celebrating” a person’s life. With respect, I’d like folk to give thanks for mine.

Another story suggests it’s “A long way back to normality”.  This includes the need to allow more space for folk to work, eat and play. We know that some restaurants would not be viable without having tables uncomfortably close together; on the other hand, many of us prefer places that aren’t crowded, and where there isn’t loud music playing, and where you can sit on a proper chair (not a bench, a high stool, or a bean-bag). One hopes that the practice of “hot-desking” will become a thing of the past, that buses won’t be crowded (yeah, right!), and that any queuing will allow for respectful maintenance of distance, even in a bitterly cold wind, as must surely come here soon.

Things will be different, whether we want them to, or not. Every country’s economy has taken some kind of beating. It seems that everywhere societies are made up of people who want everything to be as it was before (really?) and those who fear for their loved ones’ and their own lives, who want to be careful about health and safety before going back to work. They are torn between wanting to provide, and get back to some kind of normality, and fearing crowds (public transport, customers) if they do. In the US, some health workers have moved out of their homes so as not to put their loved ones (many of whom have immune-compromised health) at risk. Thankfully, and hopefully, such risk assessment is rare here in New Zealand. One hopes that everyone feels safe at work, and at home. Tonight I saw a New Zealand doctor talking to Dr John Campbell in England, about just how scared the medical profession was of treating rapidly growing numbers of sick people, before the lock down was started here.

In New Zealand, there are no new cases of Covid 19 today. The total remains at 1,499. Two people are in hospital, and there have been no further deaths. The move to level 3 did not result in any unexpected or community cases. On Wednesday the Prime Minister will speak about an application that will keep track of contacts, for an individual. There will be no “Big brother” type of ap that will track contacts centrally.  There is still concern about the maximum of 10 people at any church service or “gathering”, and this will be addressed next week. The Prime Minister has announced a pay increase for early childhood teachers, as part of this year’s Budget provisions.  They seek to ensure again that all early childhood teachers are qualified professionals, as the previous Labour Government did. There have been fewer daily breaches at the move to level 2 than at level 3.

Late tonight the figures are as follows: the US has 1,527,951 infections, and there have been 90,980 deaths from Covid 19.  In the UK, the figures are 243,695 infections and 34,636 deaths (their daily death rate is now falling, as it has in parts of Europe). The US still looks like leading the world in this race, although Russia now has 290,678 cases on infection, and these are growing rapidly.

So, it is all very sad indeed. But here, in New Zealand, we can feel grateful and proud. My eldest grandson had a great day back at school today. We have much to be thankful for. Nga mihi nui.

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