Is this what we are? Are we what we do, what we say, what we show when everything goes wrong? Are we fights in the supermarket aisle over toilet paper, or are we nurses slumped at the desk because we can work no more? We’re finding out.
It’s Day Three of the state of emergency. This afternoon my phone pinged with a warning from an app that’s supposed to warn me about bushfires. This time, the alert read ‘communicable disease’.
Wash your hands, it told me. Don’t visit old people. No gatherings of more than 100 people.
But of course I already know all that and more, more, more. I know the mortality rate. I know the virus’s name: SARS-CoV-2, and the disease it brings, COVID-19. I know when and where it began, and how many people it has killed. I just don’t know where it will end.
This morning, I rode out on my bike before dawn. I stopped at three houses, leaving at the door of each a bag of home-grown fruit. I didn’t knock, didn’t ring. Just left my gift and snuck away.
It’s something that I do sometimes, because I’m out so early and because I enjoy the feeling of laying a pleasant trap for my friends. I picture the moment they emerge from their houses and find my gift: grown, harvested and delivered with no fuss.
Today, at each house, I was so aware of the lives within. At one, a teenager with a chronic ailment. At the next, a friend’s husband firmly in the risk group for this virus (with an even older father not far away). At the third, a young woman in quarantine because she’s just come home from overseas. All that risk.
We’re not supposed to travel. We’re not allowed to gather in large groups. We should, really, not go out at all. This is the new normal, three months after the virus first appeared.
Only a few people have died so far here in Australia. The hospitals can easily cope with the cases we have. Today. But where goes Italy, there go we. And Italy is closed, locked down, its medical services overrun and overwhelmed, and hundreds dying for lack of care. They’re having to choose who to save … and who not.
The sense, here, of watching a tsunami build out to sea, is all-consuming. No one is ‘panicking’ if panicking means running screaming in the streets. But they are panic-buying. Toilet paper, of course, because, well, I don’t know why—but also food, medicine and other household goods.
You know all this. Whoever you are and whenever you read this, you’ll have felt at least a brush of the sleeve as the virus passed by. Even if New Zealand’s strong containment of all arrivals works, this virus will smash that country economically. Things have gone from fine to disastrous in weeks. And what I’m writing now will be outdated in mere hours.
But I am writing now, for now, and I want to understand what COVID-19 is telling us about ourselves.
After I dropped the fruit, I rode north up the creek path, passing dog walkers and runners on the way as the day slowly dawned. It all seemed normal and yet not. The world is suddenly contingent. We might not die, if we are not old or ill already. But the world is not the same.
This is what I’ve seen. A middle-aged man with a full shopping trolley turning his back on an old man—racially Chinese, as it happens—who attempted to cut in on the supermarket queue. The old man had waved his $10 note and clove of garlic and pointed at the till. His request was clear. But the first man looked him in the eye, said ‘I don’t understand’ and turned his back.
This tiny interaction chilled me, not for the refusal to cede a place in the queue, which was his right, but for the denial of humanity in the way it was done.
I hear people talking, in the street and on their phones and their words float down to me: immunity, fatality, coronavirus and insurance. They say things like: ‘how it is in Taiwan?’
Last night my husband went to my parents-in-law’s apartment with a huge stock of food. They’re returning to Australia today and they’ll have to stay home for two weeks. They’re over 70, so they should stay home anyway, for months and months.
This virus kills the old. My brother messaged me yesterday: ‘Your thoughts?’ Our parents are going on a club trip next week, to another town, with their equally aged friends (they’re 83) and of course, they shouldn’t.
I messaged back: ‘in the end, they’re grownups’. But every time I think of them, I’m scared. They’re old, I know, and no one lives forever. But not now, not this.
Everyone should stay home. My university has cancelled classes. Two days ago I sat in a 500-seat lecture theatre with four other tutors and two students, listening to a lecture. All the other students stayed away, and since then we’ve all been madly trying to go online with a course designed for workshops and for good old fashioned conversation and discussion.
I see articles on books to read while you’re working from home and I curse, because it’s not like that. No one is settling onto the couch to binge-watch Netflix. We’re all worried, anxious, stressed.
I’ve lost a lot of money. Some in shares and some—who knows how much—in my share-based superannuation fund. I freelance and I’d love most of all right now to ditch one of my contracts, but I can’t. I’m lucky I am still working. So many aren’t.
Any day now my two school-aged kids will be sent home, and stay there, and I’ll add home-schooling to my roster. I already feel like a criminal for sending them to school, despite the official ruling that school is in, for now.
It feels like so much is ahead of me.
My husband’s been sent home. Because he works in tech, and because he manages a team, he’s been deemed key personnel and not permitted to get ill, so now he’s working in the lounge room while I occupy the study with my piles of books and notes and frantic emails.
If this is the apocalypse, I think, why are we doing this? Why is he dialling into remote meetings about debugging software, and why am I formatting an Excel spreadsheet for a project that may never be completed?
Because, I tell myself, if everyone gives up, if no one kept calm and carried on, that really would be the end. Banal work conversations are simultaneously irrelevant and so, so important. We need and want a world where software and timelines matter, where we have the luxury of caring about minutiae.
At that ghost lecture, the speaker asked her ghost students: Why write at all right now? She had a point. Why put down words in any order when the world is crashing down around us? But then she gave her answer: we should write because, when we are in extremis—anxious, looking for direction or just stuck at home and bored—we turn to books. And for there to be books, there have to be writers.
Nothing makes sense today. We are locked down, socially distanced, cancelled, quarantined, afraid, all for a thing that hasn’t happened yet.
Some of us are being selfish, out of fear. Some are seeking to help others. Some, like me, are just crashing through, focussing on the next thing that must be done and trying to block out the wider chaos.
We’re all washing our hands. This is Day Three. Tomorrow I might tell a different story, but today, this is who we are.
– March 18, 2020