DIY in the time of COVID
Updated: Nov 17
By Ben Gaskin
During World War 2, Major Ralph A. Bagnold founded the Long Range Patrol Unit. He wanted “men who were energetic, innovative, self-reliant, physically and mentally tough, and able to live and fight in seclusion in the Libyan desert.” This checklist led him to approach the 2nd New Zealand Division, of which more than half the division volunteered. Bagnold believed that New Zealand farmers possessed these qualities. Farming is tough wherever you are, even tougher in as geographically isolated a place as New Zealand.
Whatever else can be said about the arrival of Europeans in New Zealand, the journey here was no laughing matter. It was dangerous, expensive, and took anywhere from 75 to 120 days. The same difficulties faced traders. This is perhaps the origin of that “DIY Kiwi attitude” we’ve all heard so much about. Early migrants were effectively stranded on the other side of the planet. And such supplies as eventually reached them were bound to be expensive. This was the case until more recently than we might suppose–just ask your parents about the relative prices of appliances and other accessories.
New Zealanders have always had to do a lot with less. This can be said as much for the indigenous population as later migrants. Our geographical isolation has almost always hampered the diffusion of techniques and resources. This fact has been progressively hidden from us as globalization proceeded apace. It has been further strengthened with the advent of the internet. The world has become connected in a way that transcends physical distance, the importance of which has correspondingly diminished.
If our current situation can teach us one important lesson it is the fragility of this illusion. The complex supply chains that serve us are easily disrupted, especially by unpredictable events. Take face masks, for instance—they tend to be made overseas. They are produced and transported to New Zealand at a rate intended to match demand. But some things can’t be foreseen, like COVID-19. Our distances means that any response will always lag behind. We won’t have the supplies we need; and we don’t.
This is a simplistic version of the situation now facing New Zealand. We are not alone in this, a similar situation faces the rest of the world. But we ought to know better. As a nation, we learnt in the second world war that Britain couldn’t protect us. And today we’ve learnt the world can’t protect us. What are we to do? We might take some inspiration from the New Zealand farmers of the Long Range Patrol Unit. We need to be energetic, innovative, and self-reliant.
Jacinda Ardern has already shown this capacity. She has not waited to see what others have done—this lockdown was a decisive move. And yet it will surely be insufficient on its own. Neither the world nor our government will save us if we don’t play our part, at the very least we must not work counter to the government’s effort. Don’t be an idiot, you’re not the exception: stay home. But that need not be all—what can we actually do? As long as we wait passively to be saved, we’ll always be anxious. We must act, not only for the good of others but also for our own sanity.
The Czech Republic response to DIY in the time of COVID-19 has been a case study in self-sufficiency. They have achieved 100% mask usage in ten days, despite facing the same shortages that plague the rest of the world—and especially, little old us at the bottom of the Pacific. How? Simple, they made their own. While these home-made masks might be less than ideal, they’re certainly better than nothing—as can be seen from the graphic below.
We don’t have to feel helpless in the face of this thing. This tale from the Czech Republic is just one among many stories of bottom-up resilience that have come out of this crisis. There’s also the open-source 3D-printed ventilator created by the Poland-based VentilAid project. And there are the local distilleries that have shifted to producing hand sanitiser. “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” Honestly I had always thought it a silly saying, but now I understand. Because our country isn’t some abstract entity, it’s the people around us—neighbours, friends, adversaries, acquaintances. And down here in New Zealand, we’re all in this together.