Claire Mahon is a community advocate and the Labour Party candidate for Rotorua
It’s been a long seven weeks. Or, if you’re looking at my grey hair roots, it’s been a long three months as my hairdresser went into post-travel isolation before the lockdown even began.
As someone who’s been in a bubble of one, it’s been a lonely time. Sure, I’ve been flat-out busy with phone calls and zui, but none of that virtual contact replaces human touch. What has touched me, however, is how our team of five million have fought this crisis with love.
Early in our lockdown, I saw a Facebook post talking about how the empty streets and shops and stadiums are not a symbol of the freedoms we are losing, but rather a symbol of the love we are showing each other by staying home and saving lives.
I’ve seen this love being expressed here in Rotorua in many ways throughout the rāhui. I’ve probably spoken more on the phone over the last month than I ever did as a teenager in the pre-internet days, and that’s a high bar!
I’ve felt very lucky to be able to serve the community by answering calls from people with questions about what they can or can’t do at different alert levels, talking with employers and employees about wage subsidies, and listening to business owners and tourism operators share their hopes and fears for their future.
The part I’ve enjoyed the most has been the couple of hours each day when a small team of volunteers and I have called elderly and at-risk members of our community to check in and see if they need help. We’ve made over 1300 calls during lockdown, calling people from Reporoa to Mamaku, and from Rotorua to Te Puke, and the overwhelming message has been clear - our community members have been stepping up and helping each other.
Neighbours, friends, family, and whānau have all made sure that almost everyone we spoke to has a support system in place. And now that I’m getting out and about a little more, walking and driving around my neighbourhood, I’m seeing the evidence of this via the teddy bears in the windows, the Anzac poppies still on display, the 'kia kaha' chalk messages on driveways.
It’s not been easy for most though, and like many other whānau out there, both my blood family and my chosen families have been touched by the kinds of losses that one never expects to have to cope with alone; the death of a family member and the impending death of a loved one.
The loss of our communal rituals for grieving, the postponement of funerals, the solitary burials and cremations, the loss of tangi, have been some of the hardest sacrifices we’ve all been asked to make. It’s led me to wonder, how do we show love when we can’t share a hug? How can we share our life force when we can’t hongi?
One way I’ve been seeing our community members show love is through their support for our local businesses, artists, and charities. On Mother’s Day, the day when so many of us celebrate love, I was out like many of you, picking up some treats. I was after some chocolate-flavoured expressions of love, to deliver, from a contactless distance naturally, to a few special people who have shown me love and helped to nurture me and so many others in our community.
The bakery I went to was so busy! I spoke to the owner, briefly, and she said she didn’t even have words for how swamped she was, and how grateful she felt that so many were supporting her in keeping her dream alive during such a difficult time. I’ve seen this similar thing over and over again with our Rotorua businesses during the last few weeks. They’ve asked and we’ve answered, showering them with support through whatever ways we can, to the extent that we can each afford to do so.
There’s no doubt many parts of our community, like our families, are going to be suffering losses as a result of this pandemic. Unlike the funerals and tangi we hold for people, we don’t have rituals or processes for grieving the loss of jobs, businesses, dreams. We do however have ways we show each other love during these difficult times – the economic equivalents of hugs, in a way.
I see so many people doing this now as we work together to ensure our local businesses survive, through the social media posts they are sharing about the places they’re supporting, and in the efforts we’re putting into helping retrain, rehire, and redeploy people into new jobs.
It’s happening when we make the decision to shop local, buy from a local business owner, support our talented local artists, and contribute to our local charities. It’s happening when we share a smile and moment of kindness as we start to venture out and about again.
Love is what got us through the last hard seven weeks, and it is love that is going to get us through the next phase of recovery and rebuilding. What I’ve seen in Rotorua since lockdown is our trademark determination, creativity, and our love for this beautiful home we share.
While our borders may remain closed and we grieve the impact that has come from the loss of our international visitors, we have an opportunity to remind the rest of New Zealand why Rotorua is the cultural and spiritual heart of Aotearoa, a place that Kiwis love to visit, and a playground they love to return to.
And when our Kiwi family are safe, we’ll invite our cuzzies from Oz over to play too! Just like this lockdown period has given many families a chance to reset, our community now has a chance to reshape our economy and reimagine our vision for our future. I know we have enough aroha to share to get us through what’s ahead.