Right from the beginning of our coronavirus lockdown, I was fixated on the end. As we retreated into our homes and away from almost everyone we knew, I dreamed of a sort of bacchanalian V-day celebration once we made it through this strange and terrifying period apart. We could throw off social distancing protocols, put our arms around each other again and return to some idealised version of the Before Times.
Back then, the curve was soaring, long lines were forming outside Centrelink, police patrolled the local parks, racist attacks against Asian Australians were on the rise, borders were closing around the world and none of us were game to even accept a comforting cuddle from our mums.
Scary stories have endings, often happy ones, and I was focused on what ours might look like. ‘When this is all over, I’m not going to stop hugging my friends’ I wrote on 2 April.
A comment from one reader pierced that happy thought-bubble: “She hasn’t got it yet. This is not going to end any time soon.”
Three months later and the comment proved entirely prescient (if a little rude, Jesus). This isn’t drawing to a timely end and without a vaccine, none of us are even sure what an “ending” means any more, at least in the medium term.
Rather than a neat narrative arc with a dramatic beginning and swift resolution, the pandemic is proving to be exactly what experts told us it would be; a long game, with fits and starts, progress and setbacks.
There was such relief a couple of months back when it looked like Australia had managed to squash the curve and restrictions began to ease, letting us emerge from our lockdown hibernation with ratty hair and bad nails, but also a huge sense of tentative optimism.
The resurgence of cases in Victoria over the last few weeks has sharply deflated that optimism. Melbourne is now back in lockdown and police are back on city streets. Borders are again being sealed. Racist and classist screeds about sections of the community spreading the virus have found a home again in parts of the Murdoch press and on breakfast television. Thousands of public housing tenants have endured days of effective house arrest, with hundreds of cops at their door, a distressing and abominable situation beyond what anyone else in the community has been subjected to.
Elsewhere, even where the lockdown is easing, nothing is quite normal. Hopes for an economic snapback are fading as the reality of a recession sinks in. In my own neighbourhood, a few favourite haunts I hoped to return to just aren’t there any more. They’ve closed for good, because things were bad for too long. Many of us are still working from home, international travel and reunions are largely off the cards and whole industries like the arts are effectively still dormant.
All that adrenalised fear and excitement of the early stages of the pandemic is now gone. We’re bracing ourselves for the slog of phase two.
Melburnians understandably seem altogether crushed and exhausted as they head into another lockdown from Thursday, knowing exactly the toll – economic and psychological – that another six weeks will bring.
“I can’t even begin to describe the stream of texts I am getting from my 13-year-old son,” the ABC reporter Zoe Daniel tweeted on Tuesday after the news broke. “The prevailing theme of the messages ‘I hate this, I hate this, I hate this … so we can’t see ANYONE again…’”
For those of us outside Melbourne, there is an eerie emotional dissonance.
Few can fully hold on to whatever optimism we had, after seeing how quickly things have spiralled out of control in Victoria. It’s hard not to feel a form of survivor guilt that our own cities and states are not in a worse position. How to parse the reality that while public housing tenants in Melbourne are locked inside their homes, we in Sydney, for example, are back enjoying the pub? It’s suddenly clear that we’re not in this together any more, even if our sympathy or anger is with them. That energising sense of national solidarity is being splintered.
There is an eerie dissonance too in the way we’re living our lives now. The pleasure in the freedoms we have been able to exercise – meeting new babies or seeing older relatives kept distant during lockdown, or eating in restaurants again – are weighed against the lingering dread that we could backslide too.
Feeling like there was a neat ending in sight was a psychological crutch – one that helped propel us through bizarre and tedious weeks of social distancing, constant hand-washing and using skin-stripping sanitiser. These are habits many of us now find it too easy to fall out of, without constant mental recommitment.
The public has been chastised by leaders like the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, for getting lax with the rules, but while outright recklessness is to be deplored, it is human to slip up and some are bearing far more risk than others (like, say, hotel quarantine guards not given adequate training in infection control).
It provides no comfort, but a little perspective right now, looking at the far worse situation in the United States, where the federal government’s strategy seems to just be pretending the worst is over, and that the story has come to a triumphant end. The Trump administration is leaning into a re-election campaign after urging states to open up, against a backdrop of soaring infections and a death toll north of 130,000.
Here we’re at least grappling with reality. In my group-chats and conversations with friends, few are fixated on a V-day blowout party any more. The ones in America lately are, frankly, terrifying. We know now there is no neat narrative arc to this pandemic, and likely no perfect curve. This isn’t going to truly end any time soon – we no longer need reminding, because we’re living through it.