111 what’s your emergency?

‘When we first went into Level 4 [total lockdown], it was a little bit like slipping into a parallel universe. All of a sudden, I was still carrying on the same, but everything around me was very different. No traffic or people, petrol was really cheap and you could park anywhere in the city for free. It was a bit bizarre. Not paying for parking was pretty awesome though, and being able to park right outside work was great,’ Michelle laughs.

Michelle works at the Justice Precinct in Christchurch city centre, answering the 111 emergency calls and dispatching the emergency services.

‘At work we hot desk, so there was mass cleaning all the time, everything was sanitised. A company would come in every now and then and steam clean everything. But no one got sick,’ she laughs, ‘because everything was so clean! Even now, everyone’s still really, really healthy.’

Michelle loves her job, saying, ‘it’s the sort of job where some days I think, I can’t believe I’m being paid to do this, it’s awesome! You know, making a difference and helping people. Other days, I’m like oh my god, why do I do this!’

She works a shift pattern of six days on, four days off. ‘It was nice over lockdown, Neil was working from home and because now with this job we don’t see each other as much as we used to, it was nice to have lunch together every day. We had a great system going, it was quite sad when he went back to work.’

‘At the beginning, I felt very conscious of the fact I was sharing a workspace with a lot of police officers and paramedics, and I was maybe even a little resentful of people who were able to stay at home,’ she pauses, ‘this was when everything was quite frightening and nobody really knew quite what was going on, and all I wanted to do was self isolate. Not because I might catch it, but because I might be the one to pass it onto other people. When I was at home I wasn’t going out for walks, because I live in such a small community, and you’re always bumping into people you know. I just didn’t feel comfortable going out, and it was a long time before I went for a walk anywhere, which is why I got into exercise at home.’

Michelle’s referring to online fitness classes, which she loves, and fully intends to carry on with, because ‘they fit so well with my shift pattern and lifestyle now.’

I ask whether the emergency calls changed during lockdown.

‘Right at the beginning, when New Zealand first went into lockdown, the phones went nuts. Absolutely nuts. Everybody was dobbing everyone else in, people were asking ‘what’s all this about a lockdown?’, not having any idea what was happening. That lasted maybe about a week or so, then it just dropped off, like the edge of a cliff, it was really quiet. It’s only just started to pick up again now,’ she says.

We’re meeting some two months later, just after New Zealand moved into Level 1 and pretty much got ‘back to normal’.

‘It was quite weird. Obviously no one was going on holiday, no one was ill, so we had full capacity staff as well, which made the calls seem even slower.’

Of course, there’s no traffic on the road, so less car accidents, less crime because people aren’t allowed out. ‘There’s also no big Friday or Saturday nights out where everyone’s drunk trying to beat each other up,’ Michelle adds.

Most of the calls were domestic violence or mental health related, some people really struggling. They had calls from individuals who felt they couldn’t leave the house in a domestic violence situation because of lockdown. Michelle says, ‘they’d be ringing to ask if they could leave. The need to comply was felt so strongly, that people would end up in danger.’

It’s hard to comprehend, and we both sit quiet for a moment. I change the subject and ask Michelle if there was anything she missed during lockdown.

‘Having plans. We’re normally out a lot, and suddenly the diary was empty. There was nothing to look forward to, nothing on the horizon. It was a bit depressing. What was really exciting though, was when we went to Level 3 and the restaurants were doing takeaways. I thought, oh my god, we can get some really good food as a takeaway. It was just as good as going out to eat.’

We talk for a long time about food, and restaurants, and having time to do things in lockdown, and she says, ‘I made cheese. I hadn’t done that for ages, and it was great not having to do it in between other things; I actually had the time to make it properly.’

We talk more about food. It’s very important.

I ask her what she thinks a main memory might be in the future, looking back.

‘The emptiness struck me. Everywhere was empty.’ She laughs. ‘I was going to say like some pandemic movie! Like a zombie movie. And dark, everywhere was dark too. Just weird, and very eerie. It took quite a while to get used to it.’

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