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Dublin: 19 °C Wednesday 5 August, 2020

'I feel safe': Irish in New Zealand and Australia on life as lockdown eases

Cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand and Australia remain low.

A sign tells surfers to leave once they have finished surfing at Bondi Beach in Sydney.
A sign tells surfers to leave once they have finished surfing at Bondi Beach in Sydney.
Image: Rick Rycroft/AP/Press Association Images

IRISH PEOPLE IN two countries that have largely suppressed the coronavirus report a complex set of feelings as they look back on the Covid-19 outbreak in Ireland from the other side of the world. 

Neither Australia nor New Zealand has experienced the same kind of Covid-19 crisis as other countries around the world. 

The latter has so far reported 20 deaths from coronavirus, with just under 1,500 cases confirmed. In Australia, 95 deaths have been recorded and the number of cases stands at below 7,000. 

From Ireland’s position, with social distancing restrictions in place, the sign that life in New Zealand is slowly returning to normal might be a source of envy. But people in New Zealand and Australia say that even if restrictions are lifted, the nagging fear that the virus could return doesn’t go away. 

New Zealand’s government has loosened its lockdown, which for more than a month had closed schools and most businesses, and only allowed people to leave their homes for essential work, to get groceries or to exercise.

Most students will continue studying from home and workers are still required to work from home if they can, while everyone is required to maintain social distancing. Restaurants can now reopen for takeaway orders, construction can restart, and golfers and surfers can enjoy sports.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said that people had done an incredible job to break the chain of transmission but cautioned they needed to remain vigilant. Quoting a microbiologist, Ardern said, “there may still be some smouldering ashes out there, and they have the potential to become a wildfire again if we give them the chance.”

Irish people in New Zealand speak fondly of Ardern, who has been praised globally for the response to the crisis. Referring to her as Jacinda, those who spoke to said the government’s response had left them reassured. 

Last week, Ardern announced that the country had “won the battle” against coronavirus. 

“I felt safe in New Zealand. If there was any point I’d felt unsafe, I’d have been on a flight home. It was really safe here,” says Kevin Crowley, a civil engineer from Limerick who lives in Wellington. 

Crowley says it’s felt more “relaxed” in recent days. But, he says, that only came after an intense period of restrictions. 

“A lockdown is a lockdown. I think all the measures here were taken to full effect. They have near enough eliminated it.”

new-zealand-wellington-prime-minister-press-conference New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has drawn praise for her handling of the crisis. Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

Irish people in New Zealand have also quickly learned the language of a pandemic. While in Ireland the country has gotten used to listening for the latest updates from health officials and the government, New Zealand’s coronavirus response is articulated through “levels”.

With the country having moved from Alert Level 4 down to Level 3 – which is focused on restriction, as opposed to full lockdown – people there say the guide gives them a useful roadmap for what the future might look like. 

“I was thinking about the possibility of coming home,” says Gavan McNulty, a barman from Sligo. 

“But I have enjoyed my time out here and the way they started controlling it so quickly gave me great confidence staying out here,” he says. 

Sarah Curran from Waterford is a nurse in Wellington. She says she decided against coming home at the start of the pandemic but feels “guilty” about deciding to stay. 

While New Zealand hospitals have largely escaped the pressures seen in Europe and the US, Curran says it hasn’t “been easy”.

“There have been some rough days in there,” she says. Nonetheless, she says she’s “lucky”.

“Sometimes I feel guilty talking about how good life still is for me and I haven’t had the worry of is there enough PPE on the ward.”

“I feel if I went home, the chances of me catching Covid-19 are quite high,” she said.

Like others, Curran praises Ardern. “We have such fantastic leadership here. People say that auntie Jacinda is looking after us,” she says. 

And while New Zealand might look like a paradise compared to Ireland’s empty streets and shuttered shops, Curran says she still feels a certain nervousness for the future. 

“The fear isn’t going to go away overnight,” she says. “That fear will take a long time to go away. We have never experienced a pandemic in our lifetimes.”

The pandemic has also raised difficult questions about when people abroad will see Ireland again. 

“It’s a waiting game. I don’t know when I’ll next be home at the moment. But I’m okay with that,” she says. 

Ronan O’Malley, an instructional designer from Castlebar, echoes that feeling. “The only frustration is the distance I am from home,” he says. 

Still, he says that things could be worse. “I live in a house of six and there’s three Irish in the house,” O’Malley says. “We’ve been joking saying we could stick with this lifestyle after lockdown.”


Things are similar in Australia. There, authorities reopened Sydney’s Bondi Beach to swimmers and surfers and hundreds returned to the water as soon as the restrictions were lifted. People can only use the beach during daylight hours, cannot linger on the sand and are counted to ensure social distancing.

However, every state has different rules – meaning the approach to Covid-19 differs slightly between each region. 

Irish people say they believe there is less fear and panic about the virus in Australia than there is at home.

“Among the Irish community over here, we’re seeing how bad it is at home. Some of the Australians are a little bit naive about what’s going on worldwide,” says Elizabeth Wilson, a TV producer from Clondalkin who lives in Sydney. 

“When I’m talking to my friends at home, it doesn’t feel as scary over here,” she says. “Life doesn’t feel as trapped as I’m seeing at home.”

australia-sydney-covid-19-beach Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

In Sydney, restaurants and pubs are closed – but hairdressers remain open. 

Still, while Australia has dodged the worst of the pandemic so far, Wilson says she still has concerns that a second wave could emerge if restrictions are lifted too early. 

Wilson thinks Europeans are naturally more cautious when thinking about the future. 

“Among Europeans, we’re seeing and hearing more closely about what’s going on at home,” she says. 

In Melbourne, which is in Victoria, some bakeries remain open and some offices are going back to work. 

Stephen Smith from Naas works in the travel industry and says he’s been hit pretty hard by the pandemic. 

Nonetheless, he’s heading back into the office – although social distancing regulations will be in force and much fewer people will be there. 

Still, he shares the fear that the worst impact could be yet to come. “It could be that it hasn’t really hit us yet,” he says. 

Coleen Burns from Down works in a bakery in Melbourne and says she’s never been busier. Her local area is still busy and she says the restrictions in place at home seem a million miles away. 

“It’s like a Friday night every night of the week. Except that the bars are closed,” she says. 

The quality of life in Australia, she says, seemed a better option than coming back to Ireland to wait out the pandemic. “I would be pulling my hair out if I was back home,” she says.

“I couldn’t imagine it,” she adds. 

Burns hasn’t been home in three and a half years and was hoping to come home for two weddings in the coming weeks. Now, things are a little more uncertain. 

Her visa expires in September and she still doesn’t know what that means for her. “I don’t know if we can fly out of here in September,” she says. 

Still, she remains upbeat. 

“As it stands I’m happy to be ‘stuck’ here. I’m in the best possible position.”

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