A glimmer of hope in the lights of Piraeus

One of the most concerning moments of my life was at the end of a night out in Piraeus, the port city of Athens, capital of Greece.

I was 14, or thereabouts. I was in Athens with my uncle Tim, and my Grandma, Grandma’s sister Rene, and my auntie, Julie. It was the holiday of a lifetime, or that’s how they’d sold it to me. And in many respects I suppose that it was, except that I’d been badly sunburned on the shoulders while swimming for hours in the glorious waters of Vouliagmeni — years before it reputedly became a beach so filthy that you had to negotiate the dog turds like you would land mines. I never saw a turd on Vouliagmeni.

But I was burnt so badly there that I couldn’t move my neck, like Christian Bale’s Batman in Batman Begins. I also couldn’t walk without looking like a duck. I’d been sunburnt at the tops of my thighs and the low-hanging basket section of my buttocks, and on the cine film I look like I’ve filled my underpants with moussaka. My Grandad, who because of a brain haemorrhage couldn’t walk at all, let alone like a duck, never failed to make a smart remark about me shitting my pants at the Temple of Poseidon whenever the family gathered to watch that film.

We went out most nights on that Athens holiday. We ate roasted corn cobs outside the Hellenic Parliament, where the military in their woollen tights, choir boy smocks and pom-pom clogs try to look intimidating while they Change the Guard. We feasted on roasted meats and rosé wine in tavernas in the Plaka, where I watched my very first belly dancer, up close and almost personal, images that became seared on my memory like a slide carousel stuck on a single frame. And for some reason, late one night we headed down to Piraeus, the famous Mediterranean port city, for a restaurant feed. So late, in fact, that when we emerged the streets were empty — dark and utterly deserted, as if the Spartans had launched another Peloponnesian War and declared a citywide curfew.

The enduring memory I have of that night is standing on the kerbside and sensing, very clearly, the mounting anxiety among the adults, who were meant to have solutions, not concerns. There were no buses. No taxis. No one to give us a lift. We walked, I think, to find transport. But there was nothing. We became lost in the back streets. Lost in an empty port city with no such thing as a mobile phone, no map, no clue, no way of getting back to the restaurant, let alone Vouliagmeni. I remember my own sense of panic, and of saying something like, ‘We’re lost,’ but actually thinking, ‘We’ll be lost forever.’

Then Tim said something that I suspect was truly formative for me.

‘Do you think we’ll still be standing here in the morning?’

To which the answer was, of course, ‘No’.

’Which means,’ he said, ‘that at some point between now and then we’ll have made our way home.’

Do we think we’ll be in this pandemic forever?

The right answer, of course, is no. It cannot last forever. The Spanish flu ended, and so will this. But it’s also true that we’re entering the darkest days of the pandemic, and after two years of it already, it feels sometimes that ‘We’ll be lost forever.’

From the first months of the pandemic in 2020 I thought that this would be a five-year crisis, a personal hunch that was bolstered when I talked to Jacinda Ardern for Crave cafe later that same year and gauged her own expectations. Something about the nature of how the coronavirus was spreading, its domino effect through Europe and the Americas, then Southern Asia, as well as the large turning circle of vaccine development, authorisation, rollout, followed by the development of antivirals, and their authorisation and rollout … I didn’t share the optimism of many people that I was mixing with at the time that we would get through this within one to three years. So, the lingering effects of the pandemic have been no surprise to me. I’ve found the past few months to be particularly difficult, but it wasn’t unexpected.

I’ve thought for a while as well that 2022 would represent the worst year of the pandemic — if not for New Zealand then certainly for the world … but probably for NZ too. And I’ve started to hear experts say, with some evidential grounds, that this year will be the peak of it, followed by a couple of years of steady decline as more medicines are developed and the human race either adapts or learns how to ‘live with it’.

If that’s true though, it means two things: that in NZ we are yet to face the hardest days of Covid pandemic; and that there is reason to hope. The peak of the pandemic for us will probably resemble the pattern that’s been set in Melbourne and Sydney in recent weeks — much higher case numbers, many more people in hospital, more deaths, businesses closing not because they’ve been told to lock down or because they’ve gone broke but because they can’t find the required staff because they’re home isolating after coming in contact with positive cases (or they themselves are sick).

I also think it’s fair to say — purely from what I’m observing — that we’re in a better position to face the Omicron surge than either Melbourne or Sydney. The percentage of our population that is double-vaxxed and boosted is much higher than theirs was when the surge began; we have maintained strict practices around mask use and social distancing and indoor crowd limits that they have not; because of this, as a society we seem far more at ease with government-mandated restrictions than the Australian populace (who resist being told what to do at the best of times). Our success at managing the Delta outbreak hopefully means that we will have commensurate success when the Omicron outbreak ultimately happens.

On top of this is the mounting evidence that the Omicron wave is shorter than that of Delta. It began to wane in South Africa more quickly than expected, and the impact of the virus at an individual level seems not to be as severe, particularly among the vaxxed and boosted.

Even so, my own expectation is that in coming weeks and months NZ will suffer the impacts of the pandemic like we haven’t so far. I expect that more people we know will catch Covid (so we should get our boosters as soon as we can, before the rush); I also expect that supply chain issues will worsen, and that we may even see what’s been happening in some Australian towns, where supermarket shelves have been emptied (so we should make sure our emergency supply boxes are replenished in good time). And we should expect to catch Covid ourselves at some point (so we should stock up on Panadol, ibuprofen and electrolytes now).

When I was a kid, there was nothing worse than feeling lost. It was my great terror. And when the panic rises, it’s very difficult to be convinced that you’ll be found again.

But what my uncle Tim said under the port lights of Piraeus was true. We would not still be lost on the streets by morning … which meant that at some point during the night, we would find our way home.

We have some dark days ahead. But they won’t last forever. We could well be facing the worst months of the pandemic — its peak — but that also means things are about to improve. The pandemic will end. The crisis will be over. There’ll be a new dawn, a new day, and we’ll realise we’ve made our way home.