At the start of March, normal life starts to fray at the edges. In one very confusing shopping trip, I discover the store has run out of loo roll. Run out of loo roll? Where am I, interwar Moscow? Next I notice a woman wearing a mask. Is she planning a heist?, I barely refrain from wondering aloud. I arrive home, loo-roll-less and conscious that my sovereign right to carrying on as normal was slipping away. It’s embarrassing, but Sam in early March was a toddler having a tantrum, an Ivory Tower resident about to get a crash course in perspective.
Because of course, worse was to come. During the next week, the concept of social distancing was introduced and legislation to enforce it rushed through Parliament. The whole of my daughter’s basketball season was cancelled and every bastard on the planet started to talk about moving lessons online, including her piano teacher. Back in the supermarket, signs declaring a 2 tin limit on canned goods dangled off naked shelves: something I have not witnessed in my lifetime. Grocery shopping transmutes from a neutral experience to a highly tetchy one. Not just because you can’t buy what you need, but because everyone is suspicious of each other. I turn corners in there as if I’m in a haunted house. So the irritation persists but is layered with ominousness. Last week I’d vocalise my Marie Antoinette-style woes, but it’s now on the nose to dine out on such righteousness. Oh, and as for dining out? Can’t do that anymore as it’s takeaway only everywhere in Australia.
By now, coronavirus dominates my every thought and conversation. Each morning upon waking I no longer read a book for an hour, foregoing that wholesome pursuit in favour of scrolling.
Books read, Jan to mid March
Books read, mid March to Mid April
I scroll and scroll through news and social media for the latest, activating primal fear centres as I go. If my kids see me on the phone first thing I used to feel ashamed and hurriedly hide it. Every morning now, though, the poor buggers are lucky to attract a glance up from me. I have surrendered to being fully plugged in to the endless news and drama cycle. And there is drama everywhere I look. There are charts with plunging red arrows (stock market) and climbing red arrows (case numbers). I refamiliarise myself with how to read charts and pore over every inch with a sick devotion. I consider (but stop short of) taking up smoking again: it’s an activity that would resonate with the destructive, depraved vibe I’m cultivating. Instead, I start clock watching mid-afternoon and count how long it is til it is 5pm and I’m allowed a drink. I am on to my second by 5.15.
To the kids bemusement, we start watching the news every evening, where each night we hear new adjectives to describe case numbers (climbed, jumped, sky-rocketed) and see the Aussie government’s daily press briefings. The right wing administration drag their feet towards the inevitable lock down, which gives each briefing a Twin Peaks-esque quality. In one, we’re told you aren’t allowed in the shopping centre shops, but you can eat at the food court there. I turn to Johnno and ask “And who amongst us hasn’t enjoyed a food court meal without a visit to the shops?!”
In the nick of time, the country settled on the version of lockdown we’re currently in: people other than essential workers are only allowed out to buy groceries or exercise. Three weeks on and, mercifully, the curve in Australia has started to flatten. But I will never forget the way the journey to lockdown was eked out and how lucky the Government is that despite their dicking around, they managed to close the stable door before the horse bolted.
In the period of go-away-kids-mum’s-reading-the-news the crisis becomes deeply personal when JP and I lose the jobs we love at a thriving spa and massage business. I am in full agreement with my boss’ decision to close, even though that decision pulls the rug out from under us. Suddenly, the drama addict has a new emotion to assimilate: fear. Losing my job yanks me from popcorn-eating spectator to star of the disaster movie. To that point I’d taken an amoral view of the vile but human part of me that enjoyed moaning about the infractions on my charmed life whilst scrolling through catastrophe porn. But as economic insecurity rattled my nerves, that part shrivelled in shame.
There follows a series of days where I wake with the near instant knowledge that the innocence of sleep has gone, and it’s time to face the nightmare ahead. The morning scrolling continues, guilitly and joylessly. I am languid, heavy with the reality of not just being unemployed, but of being horribly alive in an unsafe world that’s melting beyond recognition like the Nazi’s face at the end of Raiders. In the hours before 5pm, when I can hotwire my way to being out of it, I find I am frequently out of my body for thirty seconds at a time, staring out the window, trying to forget myself. “This is not, this is not really happening!” my head sings, before reality crashes in with “You bet your life it is!”
Then my emotions careen to the other extreme when the Australian government responds to the unfolding clusterfuck with a generous benefit package for those who’ve lost their jobs as a direct result of the crisis.
I’ve always thought that living in a country with a functioning social security system was a privilege, but when I came to draw on that system I felt that privilege viscerally, genuinely experiencing gratitude within my body. This is no cursory reaction, either, as I discover when a civil servant calls to finalise my claim two weeks later. He asks me to confirm my address and I say “Before I do, I’d like to say how grateful I am for the Government’s support. I think we’re so lucky to live in a country that… ” and on I go, starting to weep a bit. It sounds for all the world as if I’m accepting an Oscar, rather than $550 a fortnight. Somehow we stumble our way through the call.
Next up, you can expect more histrionics as I describe my first experience of homeschooling. Hint: happy hour gets earlier and the servings more generous.