This past December, Noa and Ilan Shabtai, small business owners from Ramat Gan, embarked on their dream vacation to New Zealand along with their three children. They had planned an extended trip with lots of travel, but things quickly changed with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
Now, after spending months in New Zealand during lockdown, the family has no small appreciation for their host country. In early June New Zealand’s government announced that the virus has been effectively eradicated locally.
“So long as that last infected person hadn’t been given a certificate of health, the entire country remained under restrictions,” Noa Shabtai said on a video call from New Zealand with Zman Yisrael, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew sister site.
“Even with zero new sick people. Wherever we went, we had to first register with the COVID-19 app, so that the authorities could track us. It was incredible to see how, up until the very last minute, everyone adhered to the 2-meter [6-foot] distancing rule in public spaces and followed all of the directives,” said Shabtai.
The country continues its vigilance. At a Wednesday press conference, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said, “To avoid a second wave of Covid-19 we must continue in a phase of being on guard.” At the same time, she called New Zealand a “safe haven in a very dangerous world.”
It’s a moniker the Shabtai family would agree with.
In advance of the trip, the parents pulled their three children out of school and kindergarten. The oldest child, a girl named Liri, is a 10-year-old fifth-grader, and the twins, Gali and Ophir, are 5. The parents hired staff to manage their businesses in Israel and began a routine of working remotely. Ilan is the owner of a pool-repair business; Noa is a film director, playwright, and owner of an aerial acrobatics school.
After arriving in New Zealand they bought a car and a caravan and started making their way south across the country. In January, when they heard news of the outbreak of the virus in the Far East, they continued traveling. The same was true when it hit Israel in February.
“We followed the reports from Israel with concern but didn’t think anything major would come to New Zealand,” Noa said. “There were only a handful of cases and the rate at which the disease spread was really, really slow when compared to Israel.”
Noa said that according to the reports from the Israeli Health Ministry, confirmed coronavirus carriers in Israel often turned out to have visited dozens of places a day prior to diagnosis. According to reports in New Zealand, most of those who’d been infected had been at home, and rarely had gone out to meet family or friends.
New Zealand has a population of 5 million, compared with Israel’s over 8.6 million, but is over 100 times larger in land mass.
“There’s no population density here, the open spaces are immense, and so the rate of infection was very slow,” she said. “But it’s also related to the different mentalities of Israel and New Zealand. People here go out mostly to visit friends or to be in nature. They are not consumers and don’t have a culture of shopping in malls. I looked into it and saw that there’s a total of two branches of H&M in the whole country.”
In Israel, once the number of COVID-19 patients had reached a total of 2,170, schools across the country were shut, as were places of entertainment. Gatherings of over 10 people were prohibited. On precisely the same date, with the number of corona-positive individuals at a mere 100, New Zealand shut its borders to foreigners and imposed a 14-day quarantine on all returning nationals.
The government of New Zealand immediately took a firm and unequivocal stance on all matters pertaining to virus containment: 10 days after having shut its borders to foreigners, Prime Minister Ardern announced that the country would be entering a period of closure. She gave citizens 48 hours to prepare. That left the Shabtai family in a bind.
“We followed what was happening in Israel throughout and we figured that at some point they’d go into closure here, too, but we didn’t know when,” Ilan said. “When we got to Wanaka, in the South Island, in a mountainous region ringed by glaciers, we had to make a decision. If there was going to be a closure, we could either go into town and rent an apartment or try to get on one of the rescue flights heading back to Israel.”
In the end, the family decided that the best solution was to hunker down on Ilan’s brother’s farm in Whangarei, in the North Island, where he lives with his wife and children. The journey from the farm to Wanaka had taken the family four months; the way back — some 1,600 kilometers, or roughly 1,000 miles — took them four days.
“We were racing against time, trying to make it to our family’s place before the closure went into effect, and New Zealand was a colossal mess. Since everyone in this country is always out and about, the roads were jam-packed with people heading home and the ferry service linking the north and south islands was so full it was hard to find space. Everyone was swooping down on the food stores and the shelves were bare,” Noa said.
“We were scared to be far from home at a time like this. Particularly we were scared that if the health system collapsed, we would be treated as foreigners rather than as citizens and that if we fell ill, we wouldn’t receive the necessary medical attention,” she said.
They reached Whangarei in the middle of the night, a few hours after the onset of the closure, and went to sleep in a trailer park in town. At dawn they were awoken by police officers asking them to clear the area. The closure had started and they were to enter the family home.
New Zealand transitioned from near complete freedom to near complete closure in the span of two days. The educational system was shut, as were all places of entertainment and all public transportation. All but essential workers were sent home and people were permitted out in public spaces only to buy food and medicine, though outdoor exercise, in nature, was permitted.
As soon as the Shabtai family arrived at the Ilan’s brother’s farm, perched between the mountains and the sea, all of their fears and concerns dissipated.
“I’m glad we chose to ride out the closure on the farm rather than in an apartment in Ramat Gan,” Noa said. “It’s green everywhere around us, there’s a creek and a few cows out in the pasture, some chickens and rabbits on the grass. The kids were happy and I also hardly felt the need to wander anywhere outside the farm. I was free to hike around the area and go to the beach — though not to swim, which was prohibited.”
Prime ministerial calm
Throughout the closure, the family said, the forecasts for the future and the instructions relayed to the public were given in clear terms — a stark contrast to the state of affairs in Israel. New Zealand was one of the few countries in the world to refrain from recommending that the public wear masks over their mouths and noses.
While many studies have shown that masks used together with social distancing can be an effective prophylactic against coronavirus transmission, the scientific community initially lacked consensus. The World Health Organization only began recommending that the general public wear masks in June.
Now settled, Noa and Ilan set themselves to the task of helping with long-distance learning.
“Until we arrived on the farm we weren’t strict about keeping up with studies, but during the closure we finished up all the material that the kids were supposed to have learned in the subjects that matter most to us — Hebrew, Math, and English,” Noa said.
“The prime minister [of New Zealand] delivered speeches that were calming and resolute, and all of the citizens followed her [guidance]. We were always told how long each stage would last. We knew that the closure would be for four weeks, and that afterwards there would be an announcement regarding easement of restrictions,” she said.
In the meantime, the country put its health services on an emergency footing. This proved to be unnecessary. Noa and Ilan’s sister-in-law, Laura Shabtai, is an ER nurse at the local hospital in Whangarei. Up until recently, she said, she’s been bored during her shifts.
“Hospital activity was cut to 30 percent and all patients who could be released were sent home. People with other conditions hardly arrived at the ER and the number of people sick with coronavirus, during the entire period, came to a total of three,” Laura said. “Hospitals were empty and the ER was empty. Only recently, once all of the restrictions were lifted and the danger of corona passed, did the ER go back to normal and people again started to come in.”
The number of infected individuals in New Zealand, as of early June, was 1,500, with 22 virus-related deaths.
Laura, who worked for 15 years as a registered nurse and midwife at Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba and Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem, compared the Israeli and New Zealand health systems.
“There are issues related to technical machinery and procedures that are more advanced in Israel,” Laura said, “but in terms of patient care, you can’t compare the attention given to the patient here and that offered in Israel.”
Laura said that patient treatment, and ultimately their satisfaction, is no less a priority than their health. Staff treat patients with respect and speak to them candidly, explaining their status with patience, willingness to listen, and an eye for their needs.
“I of course am aware of the difference between the center of Israel and the periphery, with patients in the center [of the country] being treated far better than those in Beersheba. But in New Zealand, I work in a peripheral hospital and the treatment of the patients is wonderful,” Laura said.
Admittedly, the ratio of patients to staff, she said, contributes to the individual treatment.
“As a midwife in Soroka, I had to at times tend to three separate births simultaneously. It was grueling. Here, as soon as a woman reaches the epidural stage, she has her own personal midwife, who is there only with her,” she said.
Not hurrying home
The coronavirus forced Ilan and Noa, like the rest of the small business owners in Israel, to deal with the financial backlash of the current situation.
“With a heavy heart I shut the [aerial acrobatics] school down for two months,” Noa said. “Luckily our expenses while traveling are far less than while living in Israel, because the ridiculous compensation we got from the [Israeli] government doesn’t even cover the tax that I owe for this period.”
Ilan notes a discrepancy between the way citizens are treated in the two different countries.
“During the closure here, people were calm. All of the salaried workers knew they would get paid for this period, business owners knew they would be reimbursed, and no one was in a rush to get back to routine. You see the government’s attitude here toward its citizens and immediately feel the difference,” he said.
“Even as tourists, as soon as this broke out, we got a personal message informing us that we needn’t worry and that our visas had been automatically renewed until September 25. Tourists stuck in New Zealand and scrambling to get on flights received $300 a week for housing and living expenses,” he said.
As soon as the closure was lifted, the family left the farm and continued to travel in the South Island. They are in no hurry to return home.
“The initial plan was to return in June, but we’ve pushed that back. We miss our family and our friends and our businesses, but financially speaking our lifestyle here is cheaper than in Israel. Everyone we’ve spoken to back in Israel says that the directives are unclear and that the coronavirus still hasn’t gone away,” Ilan said.
“Obviously New Zealand is also headed toward a difficult period, because their economy is based on tourism, but as things stand now, it’s a whole lot safer here,” he said.
A version of this article originally appeared on Zman Yisrael, the Hebrew sister site of The Times of Israel.