In early February, when Covid-19 was only just entering public consciousness, Justine Gamble was already worried. The Kaitaia-based Resource Teacher of Literacy and Behaviour (RTLB) had fallen victim to an earlier pandemic, contracting swine flu, along with 3,000 other New Zealanders, in 2009.
The disease had made her very ill and left her with ongoing health issues.
“I was coughing up blood and my lungs were damaged. Now I have asthma and bouts of bronchitis,” says Gamble. “So, you can imagine, this Covid-19 pandemic is very real to me. I’ve experienced first-hand what a virus like this can do and I worry what infection with coronavirus could do to someone like me, who has an underlying condition.”
Over February and into March, as Covid-19’s impact began to ramp up, Gamble and her daughter, Dani Elliott, began to discuss what they might do to keep her safe. It wasn’t going to be simple, because Elliott’s work puts her in situations that could easily compromise her own health as well as her mum’s.
Elliott’s primary job is working as a teacher aide at Kaitaia Intermediate, a job she loves. At the same time, she’s studying to become a teacher through the University of Waikato. But that’s not all. The 20-year-old is also a volunteer firefighter which, in rural New Zealand, makes her a first responder, attending all kinds of emergencies and facing all sorts of risk, including coronavirus infection.
The 20-year-old is also a volunteer firefighter which, in rural New Zealand, makes her a first responder, attending all kinds of emergencies and facing all sorts of risk.
In the days leading up to lockdown, the pair developed a plan: if and when the Government announced Level 4 restrictions, Elliott would need to move out, rather than risk the possibility of bringing the virus in to the home.
“I packed a bag, ready to go,” says Elliott. “I’d made an arrangement to stay with a firefighter colleague if we went into lockdown, but in the end it all happened really quickly.”
On the week New Zealand moved to Level 3 and then Level 4, Elliott wasn’t rostered to work. The plan was that she would spend the first couple of days of lockdown at home with her mum. She was rostered to work on the weekend and would move out then, once there was a call-out.
On the evening of Wednesday 25 March, as the hours ticked toward complete lockdown at midnight, the siren sounded in Kaitaia and Elliott knew that some of her rostered colleagues were headed to an emergency.
“Soon after that though, the siren went again, which meant there was another event,” says Elliott. “So, I just jumped in the van and drove.”
“I ran outside,” says Gamble. “But she was already out of the driveway and my first thought was – we didn’t even get to hug.”
While the first call-out had been to a fire north of Kaitaia, Elliott and her mates soon found themselves at a local, serious car accident involving someone Elliott knew.
“She was a teacher I’d known from primary school,” she says. “So that was pretty awful. But that’s what happens, I guess. In a small town everyone knows each other.”
Over the next couple of weeks, the pair led separate lives. For Gamble in particular, housebound and on her own, it was difficult.
“With Dani suddenly gone, I hit a bit of a low spot. I was on my own and I had no idea how long this was going to go on,” she says.
She also worried for her daughter, whose work had become significantly more dangerous.
“It was a fear of the unknown and I decided I needed to manage that by finding ways to keep myself occupied. I made a list of all the chores I could do around the house and then I found a hobby I could do. I taught myself how to crochet. Good old YouTube!”
“I made a list of all the chores I could do around the house and then I found a hobby I could do. I taught myself how to crochet. Good old YouTube!”
Meanwhile Elliott, living with her friend, was also keeping busy. “For the first couple of weeks there were quite a few call outs,” she says. “I was on-call five days a week and on most shifts there was something. Car accidents and fires, mostly.”
Despite the Far North still being in permit-season for fires, lockdown seemed to prompt a lot of yard-cleaning. “It sucks,” says Elliott. “People have suddenly got time to clean up at home and they’re burning stuff. We are still in a drought here and the fires have meant unnecessary exposure for firefighters.”
Apart from the callouts, Elliott occupied herself with university work. “I pretty much spent most of my time doing assignments and painting,” she says. “Also, I made jam quite a bit. I love jam.”
But it didn’t last.
“I was with my friend, which was all good, but it was a bit awkward because it wasn’t my space,” says Elliott. “After a couple of weeks, I was a bit stressed and homesick. I was missing Mum and my dog, and so I told Mum I was ready to move back home. We just had to come up with a new arrangement.”
Gamble was keen to have her girl home. It had been tough. Every time she’d heard the siren go, her anxiety levels had risen. And though they were well intentioned, messages from friends and workmates, asking if her daughter was okay, just added to the stress.
“Dani’s a smart 20-year-old woman, but I was in Mummy-mode.”
“Dani’s a smart 20-year-old woman, but I was in Mummy-mode,” says Gamble. “I’d be asking her: ‘Are you wearing your PPE gear? Are you showering when you get back from a call out? Are you tying your hair back?’ I was so happy when she said she wanted to come home.”
Gamble spent a couple of days preparing for her daughter’s homecoming. The plan was that Elliott would be at home, but in her own separate bubble.
“We’d decided she would live in the garage, which wasn’t ideal, but I wanted to make it feel comfortable and happy,” says Gamble. She spent a couple of days preparing the space, making it private and decorating it with some of Elliott’s favourite things. She set up a camp stove so Elliott could do her own cooking.
“It’s actually quite nice,” says Elliott.
The pair also worked out strict procedures on how to manage call outs, PPE and showering. It was inconvenient, but Elliott decided it was best if she used the shower and toilet at the station, rather than share facilities with her mum. The station was only a couple of minutes’ drive.
Keeping to their separate bubbles seemed especially important when Elliott began to feel off-colour. A test was quickly arranged which, to their relief, proved negative.
A couple of weeks on, Mum and daughter are getting used to their new lifestyle. They’re feeling quite safe. As the new school term unfolds, they are keen to play their part in the altered way of doing things. Gamble and her team are talking with schools about how the RTLB service can continue to support teachers and students. Meanwhile Elliott’s got activities planned for her special-needs students, when they finally get back together.
“I’m going to be focusing on keeping safe,” she says. “My students are naturally so touchy and affectionate and inclined to put things in their mouths – so we will work on that.”
They both agree that while the past month has been difficult, there has been a new community spirit.
“I’ve never felt so communicated with,” says Gamble. “Everyone has been checking in with friends and colleagues to see if they’re safe and happy. So, while we’ve been isolated, I feel connected.”