I swapped New Zealand for New York during the pandemic – the safest country in the world wasn’t safe for me

Friends and strangers told me I was crazy to leave New Zealand for America. But I’d built a life in the Big Apple and wasn’t willing to give that up

Laura Pitcher
Tuesday 18 August 2020 17:56
Jacinda Ardern says it is 'patently wrong' New Zealand is experiencing a 'big surge' in coronavirus case

Like many people who have a loved one with a life-limiting disease, news of a global health crisis and subsequent lockdowns brought my father, who suffered from Lewy body dementia, to the top of my mind. As a New Zealander living in New York, I returned home almost immediately, before the border closure in March could have stopped me from spending what would be the last few months with him.

New Zealand proved to be one of the safest countries to be during the coronavirus pandemic. Its ocean borders and strong leadership meant it made the 100-day mark of being Covid-19 free before a small cluster of domestic cases were identified recently. That promise of safety, however, did not make me part of the country’s “brain gain” (a number of overseas New Zealanders who have permanently returned). I returned to New York last month at a time when New Zealand’s daily numbers were at zero and America’s were surging.

Many friends and strangers told me I was “crazy” to leave New Zealand for America. I’d call fellow New Zealanders living overseas to make sure I wasn’t and listened to their stories.

Some friends lost their jobs and came home devastated. Others decided to stick it out and accept the uncertainty of not knowing when they’d ever be able to return to their country again. Many people I know are still battling with their own personal dilemmas of where to be as international travel becomes more difficult. In my case, I knew I had to go back to the US and that I couldn’t stay in New Zealand.

Leaving New Zealand after graduating, I built a life for myself in New York that I’ve watched crumble and rebuild itself more times than I can count. I’ve achieved many of the career goals I made for myself after coming here, found friends that feel more like family and adopted a cat. I’ve also watched my long-term relationship disappear (after moving to New York together) and have been forced to grieve the slow loss of my father from a distance.

My experience of the four months I spent in New Zealand this year felt like a final goodbye to a country that many view as a safe haven. The place I spent most of my childhood and young adult life, but no longer feels like home. Instead, the country now holds the weight of a painfully failed relationship, the notable absence of my dad and the mental health battles that plagued my adolescence. I spent quarantine there in a room filled with memories that I had moved so far away to grow up from. The “safest country in the world” didn’t feel safe for me.

I’m aware that having options for countries to live in during this time is an immense privilege, so too is knowing I can make these decisions without having to worry about any major risk due to underlying health conditions. I’m also aware that many would view my decision to return as stupid. Yet, staying would have compromised my career, relationships, and mental health – all because the country offers more physical safety. My panicked rush to leave New York didn’t feel the end of my story in a city I’d found home and community in.

What’s also evident is that our “new normal” isn’t going anywhere for months or even years. While for many New Zealanders the country feels like the perfect place to wait the pandemic out, New York is my home now, despite it being in an unpredictable and politically-frightening country.

So in a time that can feel hopeless, I take solace in my decision to return to a life that I’ve built, in a place that fills me with the tiniest slither of optimism. After all, for many living overseas, the safest place to weather a storm can simply be the place that makes you feel like it’s a storm worth weathering.

Laura Pitcher is a freelancer journalist.

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