Dear USA,

You look kinda like New Zealand right now. 

The last few weeks have seen our lives change drastically. Our days of consuming have been put on hold. Work places, stores, cafes, restaurants, and even outdoor recreation are currently off-limits. Our everyday busy lives filled with routines and social activities have been replaced by our kitchens, living rooms, backyards, and the people with whom we are closest. This week (at least where I am) the sun also came out and suddenly it’s a balmy 70 degrees outside.

I can’t help but feel a sense of nostalgia right now. At Christmas time in New Zealand it also happens to be summer. When December 24 rolls around, the whole country shuts down and goes on holiday for a month. Seriously. In New Zealand the minimum annual leave a company can give you is 4 weeks per year, plus 10 statutory public holidays. Four of those holidays are at Christmas/New Year, so you can spend just 6 annual leave days to get 2 consecutive weeks off. Almost everyone does, and most people take more weeks after that. The country goes camping, does yard work, plays at the beach, and spends time with family. It’s not uncommon for your local coffee shop to be closed for a couple of weeks. Basically everything that is not an essential service shuts down. What work places remain open operate with a skeleton crew.

It feels to me like much of the US is experiencing this right now. I’ve never seen so many people walking around my neighborhood. My social media feed is filled with people working on interesting projects at home. People are stocking their pantries and cooking; I think 70% of my friends now bake bread. Everyone. Is. Gardening. 

The government is pumping hundreds of billions of dollars into unemployment, building housing for the homeless, letting folks out of prison, and talking about paying essential workers more money. Society is realizing that the people compensated the least are in fact the most important to us (grocery workers, delivery drivers, caregivers, undocumented farm workers). There’s a lot of bad, and a lot more to come, but for right now it seems like many of us are being given unique insight into what life is like when it isn’t centered around a job. Not to mention the lesson in how much collective power we have when we all stop spending money for a single week. 

Most working people I know in the US have somewhere between 0 and 10 days of paid vacation time — and many companies only allow it to be taken in one week intervals. Many spend their week off work traveling and playing, because that’s the only time they have. It’s fun, but not necessarily restorative. Taking a week off barely allows your brain to switch from work to play. I grew up in a country with a much more balanced lifestyle, and I’ve been fortunate enough to take periods of time away from working. There’s something about taking large chunks of time off work that gives you a space to think, and a space to discover. Many people are now being forced to have that time and that space. It may come at a ridiculous cost, but it’s happening all the same.

USA, I hope you emerge from all this holding on to some of the lessons here. I hope that there are more voices calling for fair minimum wages, for healthcare access, for more reasonable work accommodations (contrary to what your boss told you last month, it turns out your job can be done from home). I hope people see that things like unemployment assistance, housing, healthcare, paid time off, fair compensation, and prison reform are not ‘socialist’ ideas but simply ideas centered around people. The government has shown these last few weeks that many of these things are actually possible, and in the interests of everyone.

And if you told a Kiwi that vote-by-mail was an issue in 2020, I doubt they’d believe you.

Respectfully yours,

Jono

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