It was the middle of February and I’d just come home from being away for the weekend when we first started talking about the coronavirus. There were a handful of people in Australia who had it, and while the global implications of this loomed large, it seemed like we – at the time – were fairly removed from it all.
In fact, with my limited knowledge of both China and infectious illnesses, it sounded a little bit like China’s strict lockdown reaction was somewhat disproportionate. Like it was being paranoid, like they were trying to save face more than attempting to stop a virus from exploding into the world. I was also reminded how extraordinary it was that China could have so much control over its citizens that it could tell the population they had to stay home to stop the spread.
Every morning, my alarm goes off at 6am, and I cue three or four news podcasts to listen to while I walk the dog before going about my day. After a few days of every single one of these podcasts not only leading with COVID-19 news, but devoting a huge proportion of the broadcast covering it, I knew there was something really, really wrong.
Watching COVID spread so rapidly was utterly terrifying. There was no denying it was coming for Australia and it sounded deadly. Everything felt like a ticking time bomb, just that awful wait before hell was unleashed on us. Far from thinking China was overreacting, I was worrying nobody here was taking it seriously enough. And it was only the start of March.
Early in March I started hearing reports of toilet paper being completely sold out in supermarkets. I thought it was a joke until I turned down the aisle one day and saw it empty for myself. I took one of the last two packets in disbelief. Fortunately for me, I opted for the 24-pack instead of the 8 pack, even though the 8 was what I would probably normally have bought, and what I actually reached for first. I still don’t know why I changed my mind at the last second.
On March 6 I went to do a big shop and just wandered the whole store in utter confusion. No pasta, no rice, no flour, no yeast, no sugar, no long-life milk. No toilet paper, wipes, or tissues. There was no children’s Nurofen to be purchased in the whole of Melbourne. Sanitiser? forget it! there is none!
I didn’t see toilet paper back on the shelves for at least another six weeks, probably longer. Checkout operators would tell me of people who would hang around, ready to pounce. To abuse. I could hear managers on the phone to customers answering questions about when it would be in. Images of people in the news stocking whole trolleys with nothing but toilet paper, and people fighting in the aisles over the last packet. It was inconceivable.
Supermarkets started shutting down their delivery services. I had managed to get enough groceries to sort us out for quite a while, and I know how to eat well on a budget and a pantry of staples, but I was wary of having to do so much shopping around. Normally I wouldn’t mind, but when you’re trying to limit your movements, it’s disconcerting. I also really felt for people who were frightened but didn’t have the kind of money to go around buying anything extra, or struggled to find the basics they relied on. I am by no means well off, but started buying the most expensive option of everything, to leave the cheaper versions for those who had no choice. Guilt over my privilege would to go on to be a huge motif in this pandemic for me.
By the middle of March, people in Australia had started dying from the virus, large events were being cancelled, schools were turning up positive tests, and the first case of human-to-human transmission in Victoria was detected: these weren’t people bringing it back from overseas, it was here. In the community.
At this point, Australia had 175 cases, 36 in Victoria.
We started talking more about the health directives proposed. We were all washing our hands and singing happy birthday twice. Wondering what would happen if it got into our school. I was reading brutally detailed accounts of people who had the virus, which took my breath away (ironic, no?). I started limiting our movements even more drastically. We stopped going to after-school sport, the library – everywhere we would normally be going.
I would travel to uni on the tram not touching a single thing, sitting at the back in my classes, then going straight home and showering. Eventually I started driving most of the way and just walking the rest. I would skip what classes I could, and it appeared I wasn’t the only one. We all got an email from our tutor asking us where the hell were we? Why were we not showing up to class? It beggared belief that I had to email my reply: dude, there’s a fucking pandemic.
By March 16, the University of Queensland had a couple of positive cases and cancelled classes. With both parents in our household working in schools and me going to uni, we were coming in contact with hundreds of people every single day, even with our self-imposed restrictions. The likelihood we would have to self-isolate as close contacts was very real, let alone get the damn thing ourselves. I started lurking reddit regularly to see when or if our school and uni would switch to online classes and what the inside word was among those in the know.
On March 18 a human biosecurity emergency is declared in Australia.
By March 20, Australia’s borders had closed. Our March 31 trip to Mexico was clearly not going ahead, but none of it was able to be refunded. Travel insurance didn’t help either – they don’t cover pandemics. To this day, all our flights are still in credit: just out there, lining the airline’s pockets instead of ours.
On March 21 social distancing rules were enforced, and the states started shutting down non-essential services. Biggie’s birthday party was cancelled long before, and I had already pulled both her and her sister out of school, except for when I had to work on site. The minute I finished my shift, I took them home with me. I felt a little bit crazy, like now *I* was probably overreacting but I can’t tell you how much this virus petrified me. It still does. I had seen too many pictures of seriously ill people on trolleys in plastic bubbles, surrounded by healthcare workers in top-to-toe protective equipment, knowing they were dying without their families and only this frightening new reality for company. I’d seen videos of young men in hospital beds gasping out their final messages to the world. Accounts like this woman’s story were keeping me up at night. Healthy people were getting hit, and hit hard. This thing was trying to kill us.
By the 22nd of March, Australia had 1316 cases.
People started losing their jobs and the lines for Centrelink were huge. The government created payments for jobseekers and families to help get them through the crisis. We weren’t eligible for any of them.
Our school was shut down just ahead of term ending, with directions to not worry about academics, to just spend time together and think about it later. Now was not the time.
By April 1, we were under strict stay-at-home orders, which were to tentatively end on April 13. We couldn’t leave home unless it was to buy supplies, to get or give care, to work if we couldn’t do it from home, for education, or for exercise.
By April 2, Australia had recorded 4975 cases, with 1000 of them in Victoria.
By April 3, the world passed one million cases.
By April 5, we should have been at Disneyland. Instead, we were nearing the end of our first week of lockdown. The gates had even been taken off the local dog park to discourage people getting too close together, so Charlie and I would just walk the streets in the dark of the morning. We filled our days with plenty of minecraft for the kids, puzzles, board games, reading, and I was still full pelt at uni, staring down my first essay in a decade, wondering how I could ever concentrate but also so grateful for something to focus on rather than refreshing the coronavirus worldometer and scrolling twitter for updates all day.
Easter came and went with none of its usual waterside weekend with family glory, catching Victoria’s last gasp of fine weather. I did get properly dressed for the first time in weeks though, had some decent white wine, and ate what my dad calls “visitor food” for days.
School went back in the middle of April, but not as we had ever known it before. M started teaching his classes out of our spare room, and the girls did school at our kitchen table. I fit uni in where I could. We adapted fairly fast and found a bit of a groove. There was a lot we found really positive about this time, so I’m grateful. As the weeks went on though, I was less and less strict about school. The girls were fine and I was sure anything they really missed out on they’d catch up on when they needed to.
I went into the canteen once a fortnight to make bulk meals for any school families who might need or want them. It’s something we normally do twice a week, a quick and easy meal option for parents and carers to grab at school pickup. It felt weird to be out of the house, but I loved seeing the teachers and staff who are on site again, and even some of the families who came to get a takeaway.
By April 16, the world had recorded two million cases globally.
My 40th birthday came and went on April 24, and M had made it as fun as he could. There was champagne, of course, cocktails, my favourite dinner, and a video he’d made of everyone sending in messages that made me cry, then laugh, then cry again. A very surreal feeling to pass such a momentous milestone, however. I had been looking forward to it for such a long time.
By now I had developed a fairly regular tightness in my chest, which I knew from reading about it was a sign of anxiety. I’ve never had anxiety the disorder nor been a particularly anxious adult, but I was now very unsettled. I couldn’t even listen to my usual audiobooks or podcasts at night or while going to sleep any more as I was absolutely not in the right mindframe. In fact, I was even interviewed about my new listening habits for the newspaper – turns out I wasn’t alone. Besides, the sounds of the Welsh forest ARE v. soothing.
I still get that chest tightness feeling occasionally – and it’s funny to note that it’s my body’s main mode of physical upset now, whereas before if there was anything to worry about I felt it right smack in my gut. But I’m fairly adaptable, and we settled into our new routines quite quickly, so it stopped becoming a regular thing. I felt safer at home than having to go out all the time with unseen virus lurking around just waiting to invade, that’s for sure. We still had our jobs, our home and our health. The only thing I was now worried about was literally everyone else in the whole world.
Toward the end of the month, other states start lifting their restrictions even more and I am equal parts incredulous and horrified.
By April 27, global cases of coronavirus topped 3 million.
I also say to M in passing around this time: “I reckon America will get to a million cases”, absolutely baffled at their lacklustre response. I want to be baffled by their sheer individualistic stubbornness, but I know them better than that.
On April 30, Australia records 10 coronavirus cases.
On the 11th May Victorian restrictions are supposed to be revised. I could not see a global pandemic subsiding by then. In fact, despite Australia’s case numbers, the world felt like it was just getting started.
On May 26, the kids went back to school. Smalls is in Grade 2, so she was part of the prep – 2 cohort who went back full time, and Bigs attended the children of essential workers classes when I was in the canteen. I was still worried that we were far from being over this thing. Going to school felt big.
Also on May 26, a night manager at one of the quarantine hotels in the city would test positive for COVID-19, but we wouldn’t know that – or what it represented – until later.
Of course, by the end of the first week, the kids have a runny nose and sore throat. I tell school that they’re not attending and that I can’t work and I call the coronavirus hotline as even with the sheer amount of information we’re given, I still don’t know if kids are supposed to get tested if they show symptoms, like the rest of us are encouraged to do. The lovely nurse on the other end advises me that they should, and it would be best to take them to the children’s hospital to get tested rather than go to a mobile testing site. The test is unusual and uncomfortable and if children are to be tested, it’s would be better to have it done by people who deal with children professionally.
We are given masks and are the only people in the waiting room. I’ve only ever been there twice before, and not for very long, but it has always been absolutely packed. It feels strange indeed to see it so empty. We sit and wait, watching the cleaner wipe down every single possible surface and then some around us.
The test itself is carried out without a drama, even though I’m nervous taking two kids on my own. I still get shivers thinking about the time I took them to get their ears pierced and the scenes that occurred when one kid carried on and frightened the other one about getting hers done too. I thought for sure someone would set the other one off, but they both took it really well. Only Smalls yelped “hey!” when it went up her nose but we all laughed and it was over. The doctor told me he was fairly certain they did not have coronavirus “because it’s not around here,” he said. “There’s none in the community at the moment”.
The next day their results came back negative.
We went back to school for one day and then of course, the inevitable: I had a runny nose and sore throat.
I opted for the drive-through testing station, which was going to be easier with kids. We didn’t have to wait long, maybe 15 or 20 minutes, and before I knew it I was being asked questions about my health and urged to go forward for the swab.
I, unfortunately, did not have as pleasant an experience as the children.
In fact I forgot there were children in the car entirely when that swab went into my nose and what felt partway into my brain – and then swirled around – and as calm as I had been, I shrieked a little bit.
Then the doctor cheerfully called out “other one now!” and jammed it into my other nostril, where I shrieked again. When it was over I turned to the kids and laughed about how poorly I had reacted, and they just lorded it over me that they hadn’t made such a scene. It only occured to me later that I might have frightened them, and if they ever needed to get another test again it might put them off. But I literally couldn’t help it. And besides, they were fine.
My result took a little longer to get back – about two and a bit days, but it too was negative.
On May 31, Australia recorded 12 new cases of coronavirus. By then the world had well and truly hit 6 million cases, only 45 days after it reached 2 million.
Some restrictions lifted throughout the first few weeks of June in Victoria but we paid little notice. We continued staying at home unless we had to work. The only time we went anywhere was to a local cafe for breakfast when our power had gone out. We had to register at the door, and use the sanitiser, but people were still seated indoors and too close to each other, and the menus weren’t wiped down between customers so I ordered everyone not to touch anything, scarf their food, and get the hell out of there. I could almost see everyone’s breath, and the place was packed. The food was awful and overpriced and I left thinking if we got covid after all that it was not even worth it.
I had craved ramen during lockdown – it’s always something, isn’t it? – but I ended up finding a recipe I loved so much it cured me of needing to go out to get it.
M did go to the Black Lives Matter protest in the city – masked, gloved, and socially distanced, of course – but as the girls and I had been sick recently we did not want to risk passing it on.
We went instead to see my parents and siblings in Ballarat for the night. I was so glad we did, and have remained so these months after, as we have not had the chance again. I miss them.
I also ducked in quickly to A1 bakery to grab some essentials (and a cheese pie but who are we kidding that is also an essential) and it felt so good. It reminded me what we love about living in Melbourne. Sure the four of us would be happy anywhere – spending 24 hours a day cooped up indoors for months on end have proven that, if anything – but it’s Melbourne’s multiculturalism, places like this, and the vibe that makes Melbourne Melbourne that keeps us here. I realised how much I’d missed the streets of the city beyond my immediate neighbourhood. I missed seeing someone other than myself reflected back to me.
School holidays were THE BEST. I had finished my first uni semester and could now, finally, do what it felt like everyone else in the pandemic had been doing without me: watching endless hours of television, reading trash, and bouncing off the walls bored as hell.
I am never bored, but you know what I mean.
I introduced the girls to Star Trek, and spent far too long doing a jigsaw puzzle that was missing two pieces. I read a non-uni novel, which was novel, until I realised I had enrolled in the wrong classes for the following semester and the ones I needed to enrol in I should have started reading for weeks ago. I ordered all my books and made a start on those. I bought a hand-held vacuum (being home all the time with all these people and a dog and three cats meant I saw dust and mess and grime everywhere), which no shit, was life-changing. I also had our regular vacuum serviced. I bought a carpet shampooer. I stripped the kitchen and scrubbed it. Same with the bathroom. Every day I had a little project I had to knock over to sort the house out: straighten out the linen cupboard, move Biggie’s clothes onto hangers in the closet, clean out the spare room, clean out my closet, you know: all the niggly things that feel like they never get done. Later too I would even buy a vacuum for the windows, which brought me much joy.
By June 20, restrictions had tightened up again in Victoria. There were 22 new cases overnight in the country.
By June 30, certain postcodes inMelbourne were under Stage 3 stay-at-home orders again, after a spike in community transmission and some suburbs being declared hotspots. Our school was in a hotspot zone, and while our suburb escaped restrictions, we were surrounded on all sides postcodes who did not.
June 30 also saw, Australia record 63 new cases of coronavirus.
By July 7, Victoria recorded 191 cases in the previous 24 hours, bringing the state total to 2824. There were rumblings we were going to see a return to Stage 3 restrictions, and I believed it. I tried to order a grocery delivery but nobody was delivering. I grabbed gloves and a random disposable mask I had in a drawer somewhere and headed out to the local independent supermarket. I had no intention of going out again any time soon so I bought as much as I could under their restrictions, which were generous. I felt like a bit of a goose in my full protective getup, as I was the only one going to that level, and totally stuck out like a sore thumb. There were definitely people not adhering to social distancing rules throughout the store, and I avoided those aisles until they were empty. Paranoid? Yep, you bet. But it turned out by the end of that week the whole supermarket was closed down due to positive employee cases, some of whom worked the day I was there, with a cluster of least 5 known positives. The last I saw, that cluster ended up growing to 20, and I no longer felt silly for going to such extremes on a grocery run.
The next day, July 8, Stage 3 restrictions were imposed on all of Melbourne for at least 6 weeks, not just the hotspot postcodes. My kids would get an extra week of school holidays before returning to online school on July 20. M would go back on campus and teach his classes remotely from there. I would go back to work three days a week to make a daily lunch for teachers and staff.
Australia recorded 141 new cases of coronavirus, 134 of which were in Victoria.
This arrangement would last for two weeks.
Every day I’d look at the coronavirus numbers, and when it felt like one amount was bad enough, two days later it would be so much worse. 141, 168, 279, 193, 270, then 319, 410, 458, 518… every day brought with it fresh horror.
On August 2, Melbourne moved to the mythical Stage 4 restrictions for a minimum of 6 weeks, while the rest of Victoria would move to Stage 3. Face coverings were already mandatory from late July, to be worn every time you left the house, including for walks. I had bought some online before the Premier had even finished his sentence as he announced it in his press conference. I spent the next couple of days sewing some for us all from old pillowcases and interfacing.
By this point I had reverted back to crying every day during these press conferences. The positive case numbers, the death toll, the danger our healthcare workers were in, the thought of my parents having to wear masks at the shops, the stories of the elderly suffering the worst of this in their understaffed nursing homes… ah that got me. That got me real good.
By the time we hit 701 cases in Victoria, a month ago now, I just about dropped the phone.
The world hit 20 million coronavirus cases at the start of August. 20 million.
But since then, life has been stable. The numbers in Victoria have been going down. M and the girls are almost finished term 3. I am on week 5 of the uni semester and about to tackle the first lot of essays. We’re still slogging through Star Trek, and I’ve now introduced the girls to Dr Who.
We can get groceries delivered this time, hell, anything delivered, and this new normal feels normal. We can go out twice a day: once for exercise for max an hour, and one person from our household can go out to buy supplies for max an hour. We are under curfew from 8pm to 5am, but where would we go anyway? It’s been cold these last few months so staying home hasn’t felt like a drag. Again, we have our routines. It’s nice to take things at our own pace, and boy have we saved some money. In fact, we even paid off a credit card that we got when we were young and stupid which we kept using every time we went overseas.
We have made the best of these lockdowns, which has meant we’ve got the best out of them.
Some things are a little different, like the time we had a virtual house inspection for our rental.
And seeing public health messaging has felt a bit dystopian. So has seeing public spaces locked up to keep us out.
School is no longer at the kitchen table but wherever the hell anyone wants.
The sun has been coming out more and there’s one more week (so far) of this second, Stage 4 lockdown, so things are feeling much more positive on the whole. I have every expectation it’ll be extended, as we’re not out of the woods yet, but I’m happy. We’re healthy, we’re safe. Today, Victoria recorded 113 cases. Yesterday it was 89. The day before it was 71.
The wattle is out. We’re going to be OK.