The sound of day one of New Zealand’s nationwide lockdown was birdcall. Wood pigeons, tui and saddleback woke to quiet cities and towns, where their songs became the soundtrack to the shutdown.
Many Kiwis rose late on Thursday, having no work or school to attend, and nothing to do beyond the prime minister’s instructions to “save lives by staying home”.
In Auckland, usually clogged highways, was miraculously empty, and the police commissioner Mike Bush said besides a few stragglers needing “education” on the rules, Kiwis had been compliant with the new measures, which prohibit anyone from leaving their homes except for essential supplies or a brief respite of exercise, taken locally.
In Wellington, parliament had been abandoned, and the last glimpse of prime minister Jacinda Ardern before lockdown was through an impromptu Facebook live video, recorded from her couch in a tracksuit after putting toddler Neve to bed.
Down south, hundreds waited in Picton to board the inter-islander ferry, which had 2,500 passengers to move before all domestic travel is stopped on Friday. For many, it is a race against the clock – if they don’t make it home they’ll be stuck for a month or even more.
On the west coast of the South Island, locals are used to isolation, and looking after each other is second nature in a region that is the least populated in the country, and prone to getting cut off due to floods or landslips.
Lewis Holland, owner of the Ngakawau Store in Hector, a village of just a few dozen people at the top of the South Island, said his tiny grocery was more of a community service than a traditional shop, and has been classified an essential service by the government, allowing it to stay open.
“Some of the elderly people will call us and we’ll make up their order. And when they come around we can just put it in their back seat and you know, sort out the payment later,” Holland told the local paper.
In Dunedin, on the south-east coast of the South Island, many took to the town’s copious parks as the crisp Autumn day rose. One woman started a lonesome round of golf on the empty rugby fields of Unity Park, while an old man sat alone on a park bench, staring at the harbour, and waving to strangers in the distance.
As lockdown settled in, the number of cases rose, with director-general of health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, saying more sick people were to be expected for at least the next ten days. After that, authorities would be able to assess if lockdown measures were working. By then, if Kiwis followed the rules, cases should begin to decline.
There are now 283 confirmed and probable cases of the virus, Bloomfield said, and seven people in hospital, though none in intensive care. Despite few flights still operating, hundreds of people continue to arrive into Auckland’s international airport, and anyone without convincing self-isolation plans is being escorted by police to nearby hotels and motels for enforced quarantine. Around half of the new arrivals had not made adequate plans, police commissioner Mike Bush said.
In Christchurch, a hub for tourist arrivals, vast parks full of campervans have been set up for tourists to self-isolate if they have made no other arrangements. Campervans are still permitted, but anyone travelling in one must drive it directly to one location, and lockdown there for the coming month – an unwelcome prospect as the temperature plummets, and the days grow shorter. Kiwis have taken many travellers in, after appeals for help and accomodation on social media.
In the hours before the lockdown took effect, a number of couples rushed to the altar, unwilling to brave this strange and unprecedented period as merely betrothed.
In Manawatū a couple who were supposed to be married before 120 people on Saturday instead tied the knot with six witnesses on Wednesday night.
“For us, we’re Christians, it’s not about the glamour of the day, it’s about the commitment,” groom Scott Nicholls told the Manuwatū Standard.
“We’re committed to this for the rest of our lives.”
Panic-buying continues at pharmacies and supermarkets, with the director-general of health ordering prescription limits after medicines were stockpiled. Countdown supermarket has boosted its delivery capabilities, and introduced exclusive shopping hours for emergency and frontline workers.
Speaking to the nation on Thursday afternoon, prime minister Ardern said New Zealanders needed to continue to practice kindness, even as the realities of “our new normal” began to bite.
“On Monday we said we needed to shut New Zealand down. And here we are on Thursday with our streets essentially empty,” Ardern said.
“That is a remarkable feat and I want to thank the nation for that.”
Ardern’s traditional opponent, National party leader Simon Bridges, seemed to have heeded her message of kindness, announcing that he would open up his Facebook messenger so anyone in New Zealand could ask him and his team for help – be it groceries, a chat or financial advice and support.
Many took to social media to document their first day of lockdown, which for many involved DIY projects, home-schooling children, new recipes or large stacks of books to read.
For Kiwis who have already lost their jobs, or face an uncertain employment future, the news that national unemployment could rise from four to 30% following the crisis was not welcome.
But as in any crisis, the small, island country is quickly banding together, buoyed by the calm pragmatism of their leader.
And one phrase is uniting the nation as they quietly surge ahead, divided but together.
“Kia kaha,” (“stay strong”) people text each other, or write in chalk on deserted pavements.