Lesley, Teacher. Waikato, NZ.

My experience of the pandemic began much like of those of all NZers – understanding why we needed to go into lockdown while “we flatten the curve”. An unknown disease initially but with research and information very quickly being available showed that many of the responses made little sense but we followed the rules in the hope we would soon see the end of the restrictions. Masking, scanning, PCR tests, PPE, unprecedented times, bubbles, social isolation, teaching on zoom and online, were new terms and ways of life that we all became familiar with and learnt to deal with. My family suffered with missed opportunities (birthdays apart, graduation, not being able to support elderly extended family, not being able to bring overseas relatives over, a wedding which became an elopement etc) but we still shared these as communal experiences where we could empathise, encourage and support our fellow Kiwis. Tiny but irrevocable steps led us forward to a path that we could not have envisaged.

Our experience took us on its own trajectory once the border between Waikato and Auckland was instituted and then the events of the months following. The border prevented us from being able to see (even if from the other side of the road) our elderly parents whose physical, emotional and mental health was impacted due to loneliness and isolation. This weighed very heavily on us. My son lost his direction and purpose as university was not the experience he had anticipated with many hours alone, inadequate tuition and missed social opportunities. He has not been able to find equilibrium or trust in a system ever since – a life that is now in disarray.

However on 3 December 2021 NZ stopped being my place. I no longer felt at home in the land that had been my home for nearly 28 years. Discrimination and segregation became law in NZ and I was transported back to the past of the apartheid regime I grew up under and escaped from. We were no longer equal citizens in our adopted country because we did not have a vaccination passport. We didn't have a QR code which shows that we had allowed ourselves to be coerced, bribed or simply offered our arm willingly to an experimental drug. As a cancer survivor I had read the papers on turbo cancers and made the decision not to have the vaccination. My exemption was declined and I was now a pariah. People's attitudes became hostile and petulant as though “vax free” means “contagious” or “infected”.

I lost my job due to the mandating of teachers. Strangely, I was deemed quite fit to go to school and work in the bubble for essential children during all the lockdowns. But on 15 November 2021 I was no longer allowed to interact with students face to face, no longer allowed to set foot in my classroom or on school premises without risking being fined or arrested. There were a few of us in the same boat but not enough. Most made the pragmatic decision, despite all their protestations beforehand. When push came to shove I was part of a very small group that actually did what we said we would do and gave up our careers. I have taught in classrooms for 20 years – nurtured other people's children, instilled a love of reading and words, played games with children who had never been played with, teased, laughed with, prayed for and loved so many little ones over the years. However, that day I was tossed aside as though a piece of garbage because I would not comply to an unfair and unscientific mandate. No other options were given such as rapid antigen testing. We became persona non grata, packed up our resources and left the premises like dogs with our tails between our legs. No opportunity to say good-bye or explain to our students where we were going and why we would not be at school, no dignity given to us by letting us complete the term and, for me, not even pay until the end of the school year as my boss did not deem it necessary as he had to pay for a reliever to take my place. Please note: my student teacher completing a placement took over my role and she was working for free. The others in my team were embarrassed, indifferent, intrigued by my decision but did not know how to respond so many did not. The team leader appeared at the door with a bag of goodies to reassure me that I am not a leper – however, she did not ensure that I had enough work to get to the end of the year making a very stressful few months of financial leanness a little bit leaner.

My mother's retirement village told her she could not have me to visit or sit in her lounge and drink a cup of tea with her. She felt like a prisoner in her own home as she could not have her grandchildren share a meal in her home or take me to choose library books from her library. Her life became poorer because the establishment was fearful of a disease. We became invisible people.

I have always believed children should be made aware of injustice from a young age. They should have it pointed out to them how blessed they are to live in a country where they have food, don't live on a rubbish dump, can access education as a girl, have medical care. I have spent my teaching career teaching children that they need to be grateful and they need to be mindful of others who are not as fortunate. However when the time came for school adminstrators to put into practise what they asked us to teach – no bullying, stand up for yourself, use your own brain to make an informed decision, bodily sovereignty, consent I was not able to do my job because there was no compromise offered in using rapid antigen tests.

Fear ruled over logic and common sense. Keeping granny safe was the mantra. The first time in history that children have been required to keep their elders safe rather than the other way around, the first time in history that we were vaccinated and boostered with a substance designed for one disease (covid-19) but was now being used for a mutant virus (Omicron).

And then with one short announcement. our society shifted. The unvaxxed were no longer a threat to the rest of the country. They were no longer dangerous or dirty. They were now invited to rejoin society and go back to “normal”. But what is normal now? We could rejoin social clubs and gyms instead of training alone in our homes. We could head back in to restaurants and eat on their tables instead of having to sit in their cars. We could stay in a hotel again and go and get those much needed beauty treatments. But this isn't normal. Because restaurants, cafes, beauticians, hairdressers, and gyms are the least of what was taken from the unvaccinated on December 3rd 2021.

Families have disputed so heavily over these mandates that there are relationships that have been destroyed. People lost not only jobs that they loved, but careers they had invested time and money into for many years My daughter can not work in her chosen career that she spent years training for because she is afraid of having an allergic reaction to the vaccine as she has had for many others on the “schedule”. She was mocked and humiliated in her work place until she left. People lost their homes. People lost their faith in the people and communities they were meant to be a part of.

The rejection doesn't go away because Cabinet said it was now ok, grief does not dissipate because I can now work again. Fractured relationships will not be healed by a few get togethers. We gained a new community, alternative ways to “do” life, new things that give us meaning and opportunity to share ideas social interaction.

But the damage is ongoing. My mother has myocarditis as a result of the vaccine (diagnosis from a cardiologist and exemption granted) as she had wanted to “do the right thing”. I returned to work where people pretended I had never been away, others walked out a room when I walked in. As an educator I see students who are significantly delayed emotionally, socially and academically. My lived experience is of students suffering from depression and mental illness, apathy and lack of motivation and teachers who are disillusioned with the system and burnt out – not to mention sick. The pandemic started being about health and it ended being about control and money. It ended with police brutality, court cases and a divisiveness that has not been experienced in New Zealand before.

We are forever changed by the pandemic.

Share This