In our story series ‘How Are You Today?’, we have a meandering, mental-health focused chat with some of our most well-known New Zealanders. Check out previous chats with people like Hayley Holt, Roseanne Liang and Jacinda Ardern. Today we chat to Siouxsie Wiles.
Note: This interview was conducted just before the election.
When the first whispers of coronavirus started to emerge in early 2020, Dr Siouxsie Wiles was told by her close friend ‘document everything.’ In a bit of fortuitous timing, documentary director Gwen Isaac had just had her next project scuppered by the closing border and needed a new subject. She asked Siouxsie if she could follow her along during the pandemic response.
What emerged was Ms Information, a documentary that not only captures the two years that changed our lives, but feels like a microcosm of who we were as a society before the pandemic, and who we are now. If Covid started off as the villain of the story, misinformation and threats soon took over.
Perhaps no-one has felt this shift more acutely than Siouxsie. On top of her full-time role as Associate Professor of Molecular Medicine and Pathology at the University of Auckland, Siouxsie’s largely unpaid work throughout the pandemic saw her the target of increasingly personal and vicious death threats.
We talk to Siouxsie about mental health, when she knew Covid-19 was going to be an international crisis and the clarifying power of righteous anger.
Hi Siouxsie, how are you today?
[Laughs] I always struggle when someone asks me that because it’s like, ‘do you really want to know? When actually inside we’re just crumbling?’ [laughs]. I’m not great, to be honest. It’s been an awful few years but an awful last few weeks, especially. I’m pretty glum.
I found the documentary, Ms Information, incredibly emotional for many reasons. You’ve been such a port in the storm for many of us during the pandemic years and seeing the invisible work that went on behind the scenes was astounding, as was seeing people’s anger towards you. So, glum feels appropriate.
Our pandemic response turned out to be the right response but how the pandemic played out in the long-term was very dependent on the global response, and we were one of the very, very small number of countries who did what we did. Globally… it wasn’t great.
We showed that liberal democracy can act in quite a shocking way, and have really good financial outcomes and health outcomes. But that made us a target for people who really want to destroy our democracy… who don’t want us to be a bit of a shining example.
I know that makes me sound like a bit of a conspiracist but I don’t think people have any idea of what’s going on behind the scenes internationally to really change who we are as a country. And we’re seeing the results of that – the seeds were sown in 2020 and they’ve just blossomed into these horrendous, choking weeds.
In the documentary, you describe yourself as a naturally glass half full person. Is that still how you see yourself?
I have more days now when I’m glum. It does just feel like I have to pick myself up again because ultimately, that doesn’t solve anything. And part of the reason for wanting to make people like me feel glum is so that we give up. So, I guess what motivates me is righteous anger [laughs]. I get cross, and getting cross helps me back into the game.
Ms Information centres on the growing problem of Covid-19 both globally and in NZ, and then the response. When did you first hear about Coronavirus, and when did you suspect it was going to hit pandemic level?
I first heard about it in late December, early January. I was overseas on holiday with my daughter, and I remember thinking, ‘enjoy your holiday, don’t look at that yet.’ We got back to NZ in January, and then a few days later I did my first round of interviews.
‘It was really important to me is that I didn’t project that terror externally. Inside I was terrified.’
At that stage, it was ‘yes there’s a thing happening, we don’t know much about it and China is saying it’s not very transmissible.’ Within a couple of weeks, I was back in the television studios saying ‘Well, that escalated, didn’t it?’
By the end of January, China was building hospitals and it was very clear. Then Italy became overwhelmed. I remember looking at the per capita intensive care beds and hospital beds, and seeing how much worse our [hospital bed] numbers were than Italy’s, and thinking, ‘Oh my god, this is going to be really bad.’
The thing that was really important to me is that I didn’t project that terror externally. Inside I was terrified – I felt like I was one of those ducks, gliding on the water and underneath, my legs were going like crazy.
One of the central themes of Ms Information is money. A lot of people assumed you were being paid for your work in the pandemic, but as the documentary shows, it was all done as unpaid work on top of your normal academic job.
In the lead up to the last election, Judith Collins’ office put in an OIA request [Official Information Act] to the Ministry of Health, wanting all the emails between Ashley Bloomfield and me, and also asking how much I had been paid for my communication work. What I think they were looking for is that I had been told what to say, and been paid to say it.
What she got instead was a pdf of 140 pages of emails from me, telling [the Ministry] ‘Hi, can I introduce you to So and So, because I feel like you need to be talking to them,’ or ‘I read this [scientific] paper so I’m going to say that, you might want to read that too.’ If anything, it was more the other way around. And there was no money [laughs].
They never did anything with the OIA, because there was nothing in there. Some of my time at the university was bought out on Shaun Hendy’s modelling contract… and that was all done through the university. But I was never paid for any of those interviews. God, I wish I was – I did thousands.
Your name ended up on the Nuremberg 2.0 list, the list of scientists, government officials and journalists that started circulating around the time of the Vaccine Mandate protests. Emotionally, and logistically, what does it do to your life to end up on that list?
For me, it means that there are definitely people out there who really, genuinely seem to think I should be prosecuted and then executed. And that worries me, because they share my home address. I worry about what might happen if someone decides to act on that.
‘There are definitely people out there who genuinely seem to think I should be prosecuted and then executed.’
The thing about me, of course, is that I stick out like a sore thumb, precisely because of my hair. And so, I’ve had people say, ‘why don’t you change the colour of your hair,’ and it’s because I haven’t done anything wrong. I’m very stubborn like that [laughs]. Why should I change who I am, instead of dealing with why people have fallen down these rabbit holes?
The last few weeks have been horrible – I was photographed covertly at the airport, which was then shared on some horrible channels, including by someone who’s currently on the run from the police for threatening to kill Jacinda Ardern. Someone threatened me while I was out cycling. When somebody stops me on the street to say hello, and a lot of people do… I do have this initial reaction of ‘is this friend or foe?’ I don’t know whether someone might hurt me.
How do you navigate that with a teenage daughter, because they’re so online?
Mine’s not. She doesn’t use social media.
Does she know the level of what you’ve been dealing with?
She does. We have different surnames, which she is quite pleased about – she liked being a bit more anonymous. It’s tricky – I really feel for her.
I would imagine you have been in survival mode for a long time due to all of this. What are some mental health tools that you know work for you?
The big one is going for a bike ride – if I’m feeling particularly fried, I’ll go for a bike ride. Which is why being threatened on my bike has been hard – like, please don’t take that away from me. I like board games, but I must say I’ve been feeling so glum recently that even those aren’t sparking joy.
The big thing that actually gets me through is the support of my family. I’ve already recently started talking to a professional – I hadn’t realised how much all of this had affected me until there was that horrendous shooting at the construction site [in downtown Auckland] and I just collapsed. Because that’s my fear, right? Someone coming to your place of work with a firearm.
But it’s not sustainable, feeling like this. I don’t know how much longer I can keep going.
I have to remind myself, well, we’ve got to do something about this. We have to try and come together and not be so gloomy that we hide away all the time. Hiding away for a little bit is fine though – if you need to be under your duvet, with a hot chocolate and marshmallows, then totally do it. But at some stage we have to emerge again.
A lot of people are asking me ‘what do we do? How do we get the government to take on board the things we should be doing,’ and part of me is like, ‘I just need to be right now.’ We may not be able to rely on the government, so what can we do for each other? That’s where I’m at.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity
Ms Information opens in cinemas this Thursday, October 26. Click here for screening times.