To everyone who may find themselves on a benefit for the first time in the wake of this Covid-19 crisis; I’m sorry. It is extremely hard. Decades of successive governments neglecting our welfare system and a culture of beneficiary-bashing has created a huge economic and psychological burden for those who have no choice but to rely on welfare.

But please, don’t lose hope. There are many people and organisations across the country fighting to change WINZ’s outdated, intrusive relationship rules, and for benefits to go up to a decent, liveable level.

Join us.

Those of us who are already beneficiaries and low-waged or precarious workers are acutely aware of the difficulties of survival in a country once praised for its compassionate social policies.

I am one of those people. Supporting myself and my children on the Supported Living Payment has always been an uphill struggle. I didn’t choose to rely on support from the social welfare system to house and feed my family, but my chronic illness and PTSD means I am unable to find appropriate work.

I have done my best to create my own income from home by slowly cracking the writing scene in NZ after decades of hard work, but now that Covid-19 has arrived on our shores and woven its way into the community, it has never been harder to survive. Many people rely on part-time or casual work to top up their benefits — people can earn up to $80 a week before our benefit payments are decreased. But with nationwide lockdowns of all non-essential services, this vital income has vanished.

Along with that, new costs are mounting. The need for new, essential items such as antibacterial wipes, hand sanitiser, extra soap, Dettol, cough medicine, panadol, thermometers, and cleaning supplies quickly decimates our impossibly low incomes.

Because of my compromised immune system and the fact that Covid-19 can survive on surfaces for days, I need to isolate my essential non-perishable purchases accordingly. This requires extensive pre-planning and organisation, only possible for me because I have been independently following the progress of this pandemic since December 2019 and acted accordingly by early 2020.

I’ve been slowly stocking up on essential supplies since January to ensure I can ‘stagger’ my purchases until they are safe to touch. I avoid supermarkets for as long as possible, and I have maxed out my credit card. I am lucky to still have some canned and long-lasting foods left, because online shopping has been fully booked for weeks.

If I must leave the house, I have to decontaminate any items I have brought with me such as my cards, phone and keys, and surfaces that I touch. I must throw my clothes into a hot wash with antiseptic powder, then have a hot shower and scrub myself all over with antibacterial soap. It is exhausting, costly, and stressful.

My chronic, incurable conditions did not take a holiday with lockdown. I am often paralysed with pain and doing any simple task is exhausting. I started self-isolating in early February, as a precaution. Apart from essential appointments, such as IV infusions and having a tooth extracted, I have been in self-isolation for almost 3 months. I have lost too much weight, and I struggle to cook simple meals and keep up with chores. I am not entitled to any form of home help or services such as meals on wheels.

To be honest, I’ve never needed support so much in my life. In the past, I have managed to scrape through, but it’s been very hard going through this crisis alone. WINZ relationship policies discourage building connections with people and my social circle is extremely small.

It is time this punitive and cruel policy was abolished permanently. Surely the WINZ workers who answer the 0800 dob-in line for benefit fraud, including being in a relationship, could be reassigned to helping people access the help they need.

A month ago, PM Jacinda Ardern addressed the nation and said that even in this strict self-isolation period, people can have one designated person to help them out if they are alone. Even if I did have someone that could join me in my bubble, I could lose my income or be investigated by WINZ. It is a risk I can’t afford to take, though my physical and psychological health is suffering.

I’d like to see NZ wake up to the fact that it is inhumane to punish people for having healthy connections with others, while they struggle with unemployment due or physical or mental health issues outside of their control. It would be so nice to have someone in my life that I can share my love of film, music, and art with. A cuddle when the isolation, physical pain and covid concerns wear me down.

In this pandemic, we’ve seen that the Government has the power to make bold changes. I hope they will choose to prioritise everyone’s well-being by rebuilding our long-neglected welfare system. Allowing people like myself to access benefits regardless of our relationship status will remove a great deal of stress at a very hard time. It will also help families stay together, because right now, the people that receive the least amount of money are couples with children. And those who lose their jobs and can’t access the JobSeeker benefit if their partners earn more than minimum wage. This policy works for no-one in our communities.

We all know relationships and connections and being supported by others is what gets us through hard times. This is an increasingly challenging time for so many Kiwis. Individualising benefits would give us all the chance to build a safe and happy life with our loved ones.

By standing united, the wellbeing of this precious nation can be assured, not only now, but for generations to come. You can sign the open letter to change WINZ’s relationship rules here.

Kia kaha New Zealand. Wisdom and compassion will help us steer through this crisis.

Hannah McGowan is a writer and mum to two fabulous boys. You can follow her on Patreon.