Leper Colonies or Lockdown for Covid-19?

April 4, 2020
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WHEN I was in Britain’s Shetland islands a couple of years ago, in the days when you were allowed to travel, I came to a Mediaeval church with something called a Leper Window.

This was a window through which people suffering from leprosy or Hansen’s disease, known in those days as lepers, could watch the service while self-isolating. Here's a video I found on Youtube that describes a leper window in Paris:

It being the Middle Ages the diagnosis was, of course, unscientific. Pretty much anyone with an icky skin condition got to be a leper. There wasn’t much shrift (paperwork) involved.

I couldn’t help thinking of this horrible history while practicing self-isolation myself, and looking on the Internet at all those photos of people standing outside hospital windows holding up notes for people inside.

Certainly, it’s becoming a strain for some people. A friend of mine whom I can’t visit has befriended a little mouse that lives in his basement instead, a mouse he was trying to poison not so long ago. He’s taken to calling it Mr Jingles, a bad sign if you ask me.

And then there’s this poor bastard, a Mr Maddigan, who’s just been fined NZ $1,000 plus costs for violating our strict lockdown protocols by loading up with groceries and heading off in a small car for a remote part of the South Island’s mountain wilderness, after some domestic incident. According to the New Zealand news agency Stuff (and I’m not making that name up),

On Monday, Maddigan left Christchurch after things became a bit “fraught” at home [his lawyer] said. “So he hit upon the idea of isolating himself in his vehicle.”

Maddigan claimed he’d planned to go bush, a time-honoured tradition of the bruised Kiwi male, and that dragging him back to a populated area to face court proceedings made no sense:

Approached outside of court by Stuff, Maddigan said: “I was just living my life . . . living in the mountains is the epitome of self-isolation . . .

“How the f…k do you get In so much trouble just for living in the mountains. . . .”

Mr Maddigan, the modern outlaw: it’d be good for a song!

He probably has some grounds for complaint, as rich Aucklanders have been fleeing in droves to the Hauraki Gulf Islands by boat and getting away with it so far. As you can see from this map and the satellite image to follow, which I included mainly because it looks nice, there are plenty of coves to pull into. Though, the folk who live on the islands all the time aren’t too happy about it!

The Hauraki Gulf, with Auckland at bottom left. Source: (2017), Crown Copyright Reserved. North at top for this and the satellite image and maps that follow.

A closer view of the inner Hauraki Gulf and its islands east of Auckland (at left). Satellite photography is from NASA Earth Observatory Image Auckland_17_2002239.

So it seems that if Mr Maddigan had made his escape in a floating gin palace rather than a Honda Civic, he’d have been alright.

But certainly, cases like Maddigan’s and the whole business of being isolated, do raise real questions about how to deal with the social fallout. After all, you don’t want to be cooped up in a situation where things are ‘fraught’.

Is there any respite for people in a potentially abusive situation? What about all those empty hotels and motels? What about the socially isolated, who also face the risk of expiring alone if they do get the disease (apparently it can get worse quite suddenly)?

And what of people with boyfriends and girlfriends at the other end of town who they don’t actually live with, yet?

On a somewhat lighter note, what are we going to end up like if the government keeps on banning haircuts, for fear of coughing on the hairdresser or vice versa?

The lockdown would no doubt have to be extended a couple of times past its nominal four-week end before all the guys start looking like Yosemite Sam.

But on the other hand, some of the nation’s wealthier women, used to visiting the salon regularly, have already started to notice their roots coming through. To no longer part your hair too neatly is apparently the advice for that. Which is perhaps worse than no advice at all as far as the ladies who lunch are concerned.

And then there is the business of what it must be like to have had the disease and then recovered. Will you be part of a bulletproof elite of the immune who can go about while everybody else is still cowering? Or will you be stigmatised like the Mediaeval leper (‘what if they’re not quite cured?’), or maybe full of guilt and doubt for having possibly infected that nice old couple down the road who are no longer with us?

As with the dawning economic slump, these are all the knock-on ramifications of the outbreak.

In hindsight, the purely medical side of things, stockpiling enough masks and ventilators and so on, was only the start. And a start that most countries, NZ included, completely stuffed up, which is one reason why our lockdown is so strict.

Maybe once we get the new rapid antibody tests that everyone is talking about to supplement the existing ones, it’ll be possible to know with more certainty who’s got it, who’s immune, who isn’t and who hasn’t. And then it might be possible to relax a bit.

A Secret Oasis in Queenstown

In the meantime, we can still explore our local neighbourhoods and hiking trails.

Queenstown, where my editor, Chris, is stuck right now, has an especially good selection of trails up the local mountains, most of them with commanding views of the lake.

The following map doesn’t include everything. But it gives you some idea of some of the tracks that are most local to Queenstown, ones that you could embark on easily on foot from town.

Some Queenstown Hiking Trails and other sights. Map data ©2020 Google.

It’s followed by photos from Queenstown Hill and Bob’s Peak, partway up Ben Lomond, which are also shown on the map.

A Rough Panorama from Queenstown Hill

Queenstown from Bob’s Peak. Photo by Lawrence Murray from Perth, Australia, CC 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

These trails are very popular right now. In fact, they seem to be more crowded than the streets of Queenstown, which Chris flagged last week as beginning to be taken over by the animals, even before the mountain goats invaded Llandudno.

One trail that’s not shown in the map above is the Arawata Track in Fernhill, a suburban track that’s also quite hard to find from the street, as you can’t see the sign from the road.

The entrance to the Arawata Track in Fernhill, Queenstown, New Zealand. Background map data ©2020 Google.

The Arawata Track has got three lookouts over Sunshine Bay, and goes through a sort of oasis which contains pretty much the only original stand of New Zealand native bush in Queenstown. Here’s a video Chris made, from photos and clips shot just last weekend.

New Zealand native forests are all, essentially, rain-forests. They come in two main varieties. One kind resembles tropical mountain forest: ferny, evergreen and dinosaurian. The other kind is dominated by semi-deciduous beeches of the genus Nothofagus. But both kinds do best in localities where it rains regularly all year round.

For many parts of New Zealand, year-round rain can be taken for granted.

But the area around Queenstown is dry by New Zealand standards, even though it includes a big lake. Summers are often hot and parched.

So, when the first European settlers came in the 1860s the whole area was a more or less treeless desert, with the exception of the oasis at Fernhill. An oasis that doubtless lends the suburb its name.

An early settler of the Johnny Appleseed type named François St Omer deduced, nonetheless, that many European and American species of tree, more used to dry summers, would thrive locally.

And so, St Omer and his supporters planted pines and poplars, walnuts and willows, rowans and roses.

And much else besides. In fact, much of Queenstown is under the shadow of giant redwoods from California’s Sierra Nevada. Redwoods that are starting to get pretty impressive now after 150 years of growing.

And so, here’s the funny bit. Queenstown is undoubtedly the most touristy town in the whole of New Zealand. Yet once the tourists are allowed to come back, they will find themselves once more in a town that has plenty of trees, but hardly any of them New Zealand natives. You might as well be in some American ski town, or Europe.

Only in the now hard-to-find oasis of Fernhill, and in people’s well-watered gardens, can you see very many of the real trees of New Zealand here!

Note: The quotes about Mr Maddigan come from Blair Jackson, ‘Guilty of breaking lockdown rules’, The Southland Times (Invercargill, NZ), Friday, April 3, 2020. The online version of this story has a great photo of Invercargill’s rather fine law courts where the unfortunate Mr Maddigan was lately tried. Those with sharp eyes will see that proceedings still take place under the British lion-and-unicorn. Physical examples of Britain’s coat of arms can still be widely seen in New Zealand, as they weren’t removed or replaced after New Zealand gained formal independence in 1947.


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