Locked down under in New Zealand

UNBC prof Whitcombe witnesses country's quick turnaround from pandemic prohibitions

After he’s finished his 14-day quarantine, which came on the heels of an 80-day pandemic lockdown that extended his trip to New Zealand, UNBC chemistry professor Todd Whitcombe knows what he will make his top priority.
“I’m going to Thanh Vu,” proclaimed Whitcombe, referring to his favourite Vietnamese restaurant. “I miss the food.”
Whitcombe left Prince George last summer on July 8 on what he thought was going to be a nine-month sabbatical from his usual duties at UNBC. He was scheduled to return on April 6, but by then New Zealand’s borders were completely sealed. He had planned to tour the South Island for the final month of his trip and was in Invercargill, on the southernmost tip of New Zealand, when Canada went into lockdown mode and began closing its borders. 
“I headed off down there knowing the disease was rampant and kept in touch as best I could and by the time Trudeau was telling us to come home I was on the southern tip of the South Island and the only airport operating was at the north end of the North Island, in Auckland,” Whitcombe said.
The day New Zealand announced its lockdown, March 26, he had just arrived in Nelson, a small city on the South Island overlooking Tasman Bay.
 “If I had pushed it really hard I probably could have got back to Auckland, but there was only four ferries running per day between Wellington, on the North Island, and Picton, on the South Island and they only have capacity for 280 cars,” he said. “There were 24-hour ferry lineups running past the lockdown date and the ferries ran for two extra days and one extra sailing, just to deal with the backlog. As I knew I would have to isolate wherever I was I got to Nelson and just stayed there.”
Of all the places to be sequestered while COVID-19 ravaged much of the world, Nelson was a pretty good spot to be. His hotel was right at the Tahunanui Reserve beach park, considered one of the nicest beaches in the country. The climate there is comparable to northern California and even heading into the Southern Hemisphere winter, it was quite pleasant for Whitcombe.
“I stayed there and walked the beach every day,” he said. “Eighty days in lockdown wasn’t a hardship but it was weird.” 
The first case of COVID-19 in New Zealand was reported on Feb. 28, a month after Canada’s first confirmed case was discovered in Toronto on Jan. 27. As of Sunday, New Zealand had 1,170 positive tests and 22 people have died, while Canada’s totals heading into Sunday were 103,032 cases and 8,516 deaths. 
After 17 days without a new case, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern declared on June 8 that COVID-19 transmission had been eliminated and that the country was lifting all restrictions on public gatherings and was ending mandatory social distancing. Schools, stores and restaurants are open. Pro rugby and cricket teams are back playing in full stadiums.
“The last four weeks there, you wouldn’t know there was a pandemic there,” Whitcombe said. “Internally, there are no cases. The grocery stores are open and there was never a run on food. The only thing that ran out, and this was before the lockdown, was toilet paper. The restaurants were open, but not at full capacity because the hospitality industry was tourism-dependent.
“Jacinda Ardern is getting praise internationally and justifiable so. They literally shut the country down for four weeks and nobody was out. They handled it well. There’s a real sense of nationhood and that’s what the government was able to utilize. It was amazing to watch from an outside perspective, to see the way people behaved and the vast majority did what they were supposed to do.”
Geographically, New Zealand (286,021 square kilometres) is about a quarter the size of B.C. (944,735 sq.km). Considering New Zealand has a population of  4.8 million, slightly less than that of British Columbia’s 5.1 million, B.C.’s COVID totals heading in to Sunday far exceeded that of New Zealand , with 2,878 cases and 174 deaths. 
“For the first two or three weeks, New Zealand and B.C. were pretty much neck-and-neck, and then B.C. surged and New Zealand didn’t,”  said Whitcombe. “New Zealand was at 1,504 cases for 10 days and then they let in a couple tourists who had COVID and since then there’s been a few more .”
Whitcombe, 61,  took his sabbatical to write a book, tentatively titled “After the End, Before the Beginning,”  which summarizes what scientists have theorized about the creation of the universe, galaxies, planets and life on earth and the scientific evidence that supports those beliefs.  UNBC has a long-standing relationship with the University of Waikato in Hamilton, which helped him decide on his destination.
“New Zealand is beautiful and the scenery is very different from British Columbia because there’s a lot of pasture land, but there’s also these intense jungles of forest with palm trees waving away,” he said. “As a tourist destination it rivals B.C. easily. It really is a spectacular place. The distances across the country are nothing, it’s a very long narrow country.”
The scarcity of tourists have  left popular destinations like Hobbiton movie set location for Lord of the Rings virtually empty and Whitcombe says New Zealanders are taking advantage of the fact there are no lines. 
He arrived at Prince George airport on Friday. With flight schedules totally disrupted by the pandemic, from the time he left Hamilton, 1 ½-hour drive from Auckland airport,  it took him 72 hours to get back to Prince George.  He left Tuesday morning on a flight to Los Angeles and the plane arrived too late to make the connection to Vancouver, so he was forced to book into a hotel to wait for a flight the following afternoon. He got into Vancouver on Thursday but had to overnight there before he could get back to Prince George. 
On the planes, the centre seats are left unoccupied. The passenger terminals were eerily quiet and in L.A. he has wait nearly an hour to retrieve his luggage because there are so few baggage handlers working. Lineups for customs and immigration were short and moved quickly.
“It was like (the movie) 28 Days Later, like there had been some apocalyptic event,” Whitcombe said. “Los Angeles has six terminals and they each have 20 gates and I think there were eight planes at the gates. There’s just nobody flying, at least on the international side. In Vancouver you could have rolled an elephants through that airport and not hit anybody.”
“My recommendation if you have to travel right now… don’t.”
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