Opinion: What it's like losing two family members during lockdown

My Aunty Liz and Ate Vina.
My Aunty Liz and Ate Vina. Photo credit: Newshub Nation.

OPINION: Recently I spoke to my 72-year-old aunt in the Philippines - via a six-way family video call - as she sat inside a plastic tent outside a hospital building in Manila. 

Until that point we had spent days not knowing if our Ate Vina was dead or alive, or if she even had enough to eat and drink. There were spots on her lungs, the doctors said. COVID-19 was suspected; but it could have been just pneumonia, or maybe tuberculosis. 

But 10 days after being admitted we were still waiting for the results of her COVID-19 swab. In this corner of the world fast-tracking results are not reserved for the sickest, but for those with money. 

In the Philippines' public system, you wait as long as it takes. Which in my aunty's case had been over three weeks. After a bit more probing we discovered it was because her swab was missing-in-action. We were advised to pay close to $NZ300 for more tests. 

My aunt in those first few days in hospital was unconsolable; she was alone with no access to a phone. The moment we had with her was stolen. We'd had to ask a special favour to get a cousin on to hospital grounds close enough to see her. 

Two weeks after she was first admitted, we were told she had been moved into an Intensive Care Unit and was put on a ventilator. 

No family was able to be by her side. Doctors whispered messages in her ear from us. Organising a video call for family to see and talk to her at that time proved impossible.

So when I hear the endless array of nitpicking at systemic failures in our COVID-19 response I wonder if we Kiwis know how lucky we are? COVID-19 is affecting those in developing countries disproportionately to the rest. 

But it is not just poorer nations struggling. As a London-based BBC presenter took pains to remind me recently as he questioned whether Kiwis grumbling about the government response were aware of the context they were living in. 

In the UK they have all just come out after four months of lockdown; strict social distancing remains in place and the virus is growing by the hundreds each day. 

Across the ditch in Melbourne TVNZ's Sunday show highlighted how medical staff were putting their lives on the line to combat the virus. Daily people young, and old, were dying. 

Of course it is not an easy ride here in New Zealand. Our short, but sharp lockdown; and Auckland's recent stint at Level 3 was tough.  

But given the relative lack of cases here it seems we've become victims of our own success; as many question whether the current economic cost outweighs the virus' health cost. 

A question worth asking, but given the long-term impact of the virus on health and subsequently, the economy remains unclear, the jury is still out. 

And regardless of where you sit on this elimination vs containment debate, the reality is New Zealand is still in an enviable position in the eyes of the world. 

Even as we see this latest outbreak grow daily; we can still track most of it back to the original cluster. We get daily briefings; are given an open line for questions and a regular document dump from the Government. 

So when talkback show hosts draw comparisons to North Korea and political leaders espouse conspiratorial rhetoric - it does make me wonder if we have any idea of how tough it can get. 

I begin to wonder if the negative politicking is being done not to get answers - but to get power.  The concern is relentless opposition that outweighs the reality undermines our public health response, fuelling those rallying against our chosen path to elimination. 

This is not - and should not - be about politics. No-one, regardless of their political allegiances, could and should guarantee a perfect response. 

The seriousness of our losses should never be ignored but neither should our achievements. One glance across the Tasman is proof enough of how much worse we could have it. 

And yes, those in charge have made mistakes but what's important is what is learnt from these mistakes, not that they were made in the first place. 

So let us all take a moment to step back; give credit where credit is due, continue to ask questions, offer constructive criticism and provide realistic suggestions. 

We have, afterall, managed to keep the virus at bay for longer, buying valuable time to increase capacity in our intensive care units; to get a better understanding of the virus; and increase our contact tracing capabilities. 

The hope now is that we continue to stem the flow of COVID-19 into our country and keep our most vulnerable safe. 

I had another aunt fall ill this month. Aunty Liz was 84. She was also in hospital - this time in Invercargill. 

I was able to get an exemption to fly to be with her, to - mask and all - be by her side with the rest of our family in those precious last hours. She knew she was loved and was surrounded by dozens of us who could tell her so. 

We gave her the funeral she had meticulously planned before her death.

My aunty in the Philippines did not have these comforts. She died alone. 

Our family could not have their last goodbyes. We are unable to give her the burial she wanted. 

So as the bickering; public outrage and pitchfork rattling continue in New Zealand, I beg you to remember what you still have.

There is no free-ride when it comes to COVID-19.

Corazon Miller is a political reporter for Newshub Nation based in Auckland.