by Cheryl Pearl Sucher
It was the middle of January and my Kiwi husband and I were packing for our annual holiday to our other home in New Zealand. The Covid-19 virus was wreaking havoc in Wuhan, China but seemed confined to that Asian province. However, in the short time between preparing to leave and the actual date of our departure, January 28, Wuhan was cut off from the world as the Chinese authorities prevented all forms of transportation from entering or leaving the city. While the number of those affected beyond Wuhan were still minimal—570 infected and 17 dead—we were concerned and consulted my cousin, who is an infectious disease specialist. He believed, as many then did, that Covid-19 would fade away like the last pandemic virus SARS, affecting most only as a bad flu. Both my husband and I were still working—my husband in Trenton, New Jersey, while I commuted a few days a week to my part-time job hosting author conversations and curating the cookbook and travel sections at McNally Jackson, an independent bookstore in downtown Manhattan.
I left for New Zealand a day before my husband, who gave me the single N-95 mask that we use when we work on the eternal renovation of our 1860 historic cottage. Since flying to New Zealand from New Jersey requires four flights totaling 24 hours, we usually divide our travel into two parts, staying overnight with close friends in California before boarding the fourteen-hour flight to Auckland. After landing in San Francisco, I called my husband to tell him that I had arrived safely. As California is the major American gateway for flights from China, he wanted to know if people in the airport were wearing face masks. I saw a few, but they seemed to be the exception and not the rule. “We’re safe,” I said, as I truly felt we were.
While on the plane from San Francisco to Auckland, we crossed the international Date Line, arriving in New Zealand two days after take-off. During my flight, the World Health Organization declared that the outbreak of Covid-19 was a global health emergency. On January 31, I landed in Auckland in inclement weather that brought torrential storms to the South Island, forcing many of the nation’s heralded Great Walks to close indefinitely for the first time in years. The only obstacle I encountered during my long plane journey was when the plane from Auckland to Napier was diverted to Palmerston North due to squalls that wouldn’t allow it to land. The pilot made that decision in the air, and so we flew north, where we collected our luggage and boarded a bus that was to add an additional three hours to my already lengthy journey. My husband landed the next day.
Our three weeks in New Zealand were bucolic. We were able to see friends and family and even escape to the South Island to spend a few days in Dunedin, where we had lived during the early years of our marriage. We rented an SUV and ventured through the luscious Ida Valley, visiting a few vineyards and discovering the set of Jane Campion’s new film The Power of the Dog, built to resemble a mid-nineteenth-century Montana ranch. After blowing out a tire on the gravel roads, we came to rest as guests of friends at the famed Millbrook Golf Resort and visited nearby Arrowtown, a rehabilitated gold rush village. We strolled through Queenstown, the adventure capital of the Southern Hemisphere as well as the bolt-hole for American billionaires looking to build escape homes in the event of the apocalypse.
After a week’s holiday, we flew north to Auckland to meet with family members before traveling home, learning only then that the American President had suspended entry into the US by any foreign nationals who had traveled to China during the previous fourteen days. By this date, 213 people had died and nearly 9,800 had been infected worldwide. But in New Zealand, the weather was still stunning, the scourge a distant malady even as both the US and New Zealand closed their ports to air travelers from China. As I entered the gate for my plane to San Francisco, Air New Zealand representatives checked my passport and asked if I had traveled to China during the previous two weeks. No one took my temperature, and other than swathing my hands in sanitizer, I buckled myself into my seat in anticipation of the fourteen-hour plane ride to San Francisco, my only worry being whether or not I had enough time to watch the entire first season of HBO’s series Succession, a dramatization of the dynastic greed that seems to have gripped my homeland.
I landed in the United States on February 18, my husband having arrived a few days before me to go back to work in Trenton. The airports were packed with travelers and no one was wearing face masks or protective gear. It took a while for me to find my suitcase before calling an Uber to drive me home.
During my holiday, I hadn’t even thought about the relative safety of New Zealand. But within a few weeks of our arrival home in New Jersey, the New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, would shut down the country, prohibiting most international travel and domestic transportation, as well. She commanded the population of five million to remain within their intimate bubbles and because her leadership was firm but also compassionate, the country obeyed her singular lead. After six weeks of careful scrutiny, the Coronavirus appeared to be completely eradicated in Aotearoa, the Land of the Long White Cloud.
Our first few weeks back in the US were active but calm. There was an uptick in Coronavirus cases and illness clusters in the New York suburb of Westchester, as well as on cruise ships that were not allowed to land. However, as March began, the Coronavirus was already moving with the rapidity of a Los Angeles wildfire. By March 9, there were 500 cases recorded in the United States and on March 11, the World Health Organization declared that the Coronavirus outbreak “could be considered a pandemic.” That same day, the Italian Prime Minister ordered a lockdown of the Lombardy region. Photographs of overcrowded emergency rooms monitored by frontline medical professionals dressed like futuristic Abominable Snowmen appeared on the Instagram feeds of Italian colleagues, captioned by such dire warnings as “This is going to be you in two weeks.” Harrowing photos of empty cathedrals stacked high with empty wooden coffins bracketed videos of quarantined Milanese apartment dwellers appearing on their balconies to applaud spontaneous vocal recitals. Dolphins were dancing in the Venetian canals bereft of gondolas and vaporetti. As native species reclaimed their natural habitats and Il Duomo in Florence emptied of its relentless crowds to allow the singer Andrea Bocelli to serenade the world on Easter Sunday by singing the melodic plaint of Schubert’s Ave Maria, it seemed as if the planet were rebelling against our incessant abuses.
At home, the crowds on New Jersey Transit were dispersing. I had no difficulty claiming a seat during rush hour, and the teeming masses of commuters scrambling through the halls of Pennsylvania Station were starting to thin out. Cleaners were everywhere, as were the growing numbers of the homeless claiming their spots in the station’s empty expanses. The subway was similarly devoid of the usual rush-hour crowds, but no one as yet was venturing forth dressed in personal protective gear. The bookstore was still open but our familiar neighborhood customers were starting to disappear, relocating to their vacation homesteads, replaced by tourists who were sheltering on their way back to their homelands. Some stores were voluntarily closing, as many of my colleagues seemed anxious about their commute and started to voluntarily furlough themselves for fear of infecting their families. The two American pastimes, baseball and basketball, were canceling games or postponing their seasons, and governors and mayors were debating whether to shut schools down before the annual spring break. Soon all theater productions and live concerts were called off, and within days, schools and everything but essential businesses were closed, the latter subjected to strict rules of social distancing. Now everyone was scrambling to find surgical masks and disposable gloves and going shopping for two weeks at a time, learning how to keep fit by taking virtual exercise classes and planning virtual cocktails with distant friends. It was Passover when the lockdown began, and we held our ritual seder on the computer, hosting friends and family from their individual bubbles. My friend celebrated her birthday in lockdown, Zooming in friends from as far away as South Africa and London. When we visited one another online, we began by asking everyone where they were, what they were doing, what was their lowest moment, and what was the best thing to happen to them during the quarantine. Most appreciated the fact that they were suddenly able to spend long hours with loved ones as the demands of their work and study days had often kept them far apart for long periods of time. We all remarked how it felt as though we were reliving the Passover plagues as boils, fires, and scourges ravaged our planet, but we similarly believed that through faith and love and virtual togetherness, we would make it through.
We didn’t know how long our quarantine would last, nor who would survive it. During the first weeks, we made contact with relatives and friends all over the world, many of whom we hadn’t seen or spoken to for a long time. There was an eerie resemblance to my experience of 9/11. Even though my husband and I were then living in Dunedin, New Zealand, I had gone home to my Manhattan apartment a few days before that tragic day to celebrate the Jewish New Year and visit my parents’ graves, as was my custom. On the day, I was one of the few individuals whose Internet connection was still operative and thus was able to communicate with my New Zealand family as well as many anxious friends and family members eager to discover the whereabouts of their loved ones. After being turned away from the local Red Cross Center, where lines of individuals were waiting to donate blood for survivors who never appeared, I spent the day communicating with people near and far, learning of those who had escaped the Twin Towers on foot, or walked across the Brooklyn Bridge from their downtown offices, or traveled in minions uptown to cross to Queens or the Bronx, or to the ferry terminals to Staten Island and New Jersey. I was able to locate all the individuals who had not communicated with their loved ones; until very late that evening, that is, when I learned that the sister of a friend I was supposed to meet for drinks that night had been lost, as she worked for Cantor Fitzgerald on the 104th floor of the first tower to fall. After the initial shock, I reported to Radio New Zealand on the crisis from my Upper West Side apartment. On the first day international flights resumed, I flew home to Dunedin to the relief of my New Zealand friends and family and the hopes of my New York community.
The irony was, it was toward the end of that first week of quarantine that I learned of the illnesses and deaths of people close to me. The mother of a good friend, who had recently survived eighteen months of intensive cancer treatment, contracted the Coronavirus at the beginning of April. She was never intubated, but instead made comfortable. Her family agreed to move her from her adult living facility to hospice. She told everyone that she was done. My friend was living in Florida and her mother in New Jersey. She spent her mother’s last days communicating with her on an iPad.
Soon afterwards, I learned that one of the few remaining friends of my parents’ circle of survivors, a German woman who had converted to Judaism after meeting and marrying one of my father’s closest friends and poker players, contracted the virus and died, overnight.
In the interim, Covid-19 cases have been completely eradicated in New Zealand, despite a recent hiccup where two visitors from the United Kingdom were released from quarantine on compassionate grounds without first being tested for the Coronavirus, and subsequently drove from Auckland to Wellington to meet with friends. They were then discovered to have the Coronavirus, and the Prime Minister, lauded all over the world for her empathy and firm action in closing the country down in time to save the lives of thousands, was not amused. She subsequently instructed the New Zealand Defense Forces to oversee the quarantine of new arrivals and audit the process. Regardless, the country has returned to its new normal. Shops have re-opened, as have restaurants and museums. One can actually go for a haircut or sit with friends at a bar and enjoy a cocktail. My husband and I are wondering why we are not there, knowing that we cannot return until we figure out how we will earn our livelihood, which was the reason we returned to the United States four years ago. For the moment, we are working from our home in New Jersey as the state prepares to open for the summer. I am writing and receiving unemployment until the bookstore opens to the public, while my husband maintains computer systems for the state. We are wondering if we will be able to return to New Zealand for our annual visit in March 2021. We have virtual chats with my elderly in-laws on a weekly basis, sharing gardening tips and praising New Zealand while assuring them that we are all right, that the recent protests against racial injustice and police brutality are the necessary steps toward establishing the true equality promised by our constitution. Friends offer to send us their PPE as they no longer need them. We tell them we are grateful for their concern, that we are well stocked, but for the time being we have to remain in place, mostly because there is no way to travel internationally except by private charters, but also because we have a job to do—supporting those fighting for social justice and civil rights. We hold up New Zealand and its firm, compassionate leader as a beacon to the world, hoping to once again live safely and securely between our two worlds.