Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.
William Shakespeare – Henry V
THERE I WAS, halfway through an episode of Vera, when my wife bursts into the sitting room, cellphone in hand. Jacinda and Ashley have called a special media conference for 9:15pm. It could only mean one thing. Community transmission of the Covid-19 virus had resumed. Our 102-day run of luck had run out.
Jacinda Ardern is much younger than the British actor, Brenda Blethyn, who plays Vera Stanhope, the shrewd and indomitable Geordie police detective, but both women possess the special quality which allows them to demonstrate leadership and compassion simultaneously. Jacinda’s performance on Tuesday evening was distinguished by something else, however: sadness.
She must have known, from the moment she received the “sit-rep” from the Director-General of Health, that her country and its people would be required to draw upon what scant reserves of courage and tolerance remained to them after their first encounter with Covid-19, to do battle with the monster a second time. She must have known, also, that she had no choice but to ask them, as Shakespeare’s King Henry V asks his exhausted troops, to make one more heroic effort against the foe.
So, as always, there was clarity and forthrightness from New Zealand’s prime communicator, but there was sadness, too – and just a hint of weariness. As if the burden of leadership which she has carried so steadfastly since 2017 has suddenly become a lot heavier.
At times such as these, our prime minister could be forgiven for wondering whether some malign political spirit has laid a curse upon her. As if everything that she is, and everything of which she is capable, can only ever be revealed fully at moments of harm and horror and national crisis. As if, on some divinely wayward whim, this daughter of the House of Sunshine has been sent to rule the Land of Storms.
Then again, the acceptance of one’s fate: the understanding that Fortuna’s judgements can neither be appealed, nor deflected, but only borne with such stoicism and grace as one can muster, has always defined the classic hero.
Perhaps that’s why so many New Zealanders hold their prime minister in such high regard. Because whether it be the Christchurch Mosque Shootings; the White Island Tragedy; or the Covid-19 Pandemic: Jacinda Ardern has consistently raised her shield against the slings and arrows of her outrageous political fortune, drawn her sword, and marched forward unflinchingly. Perhaps it also explains why so many New Zealanders have been willing to follow her.
Many, but not all.
It is the dirtiest of Humanity’s multitude of dirty secrets: that any display of genuine and unselfconscious excellence is bound to inspire the envy of those who, deep in their hearts, know they cannot – and will never – match it. This envious response to demonstrable talent is so deeply ingrained in a certain type of New Zealander that our culture has given it a name: “The Tall Poppy Syndrome”. It is our country’s curse: so few lofty flowers; so many secateurs.
How much better off we would be as a country if in this – as in so many other matters – we allowed ourselves to be guided by the wisdom of the Maori. Though by no means immune to the injuries inflicted by envy and jealousy, Maori culture recognised that there are some values that should never be sacrificed; some aspirations – and individuals – too important to abandon:
Whāia te iti kahurangi ki te tūohu koe me he maunga teitei.
Seek the treasure you value most dearly: if you bow your head, let it be to a lofty mountain.
The resurgence of Covid-19 in the New Zealand community is a grave threat, not only to the lives of the elderly and vulnerable, but also to the businesses and livelihoods of millions of New Zealanders. Short of war, it is difficult to imagine a more profound challenge to the resilience of our state, its institutions and citizens.
That challenge can be met in two ways: as a united people, determined to do all within its power to once again stamp out the virus; or as a disunited rabble, riven by envy, jealousy and malice.
Once more, Jacinda Ardern is asking New Zealanders to wage war upon the Covid-19 enemy.
Let’s knock the bastard off.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 14 August 2020.