Jessica Friedmann is a writer and editor living in Australia. She is the author of Things That Helped: On Postpartum Depression.
Last weekend, we jumped into the car and drove down to the beach. I’d been longing for saltwater since the bushfires swept through, closing the road to the coast. It was the first time we’d driven that way in months, and fields we passed were startlingly green, where in memory they were dry as a bone.
I wasn’t sure what we’d see driving through the national park. It was better than I’d feared, though the forest was still scarred and thin – I’d forgotten how quickly eucalyptus regenerates. Black trunks glistened with moss and new growth, so that it looked like healthy trees had simply been dunked in ink.
At the beach my son ran in and out of the water, letting the waves chase him. I dozed in the sun with my hat on my face, listening to the sound of the ocean. It was a reprieve, and we needed a reprieve. Today everything non-essential was officially shut down, and COVID-19 slotted down into the space only just vacated by natural disaster.
Up until now, the threat has felt unreal and distant. My son came home from school one day and told me that some kids had been teasing him. When I asked what they’d said, he chanted, “Owen’s got the coronavirus! Owen’s got the coronavirus!” – that’s how little material reality the virus seemed to have.
But a couple weeks ago, Tom Hanks posted an Instagram photo of Vegemite on toast, letting the world know that COVID-19 had reached the Gold Coast, where he was hunkered down. A stream of condolence messages went out to “Hanx,” as he signed himself, letting him know that his Vegemite was much too thick, and that he needed butter underneath to cut through the layer of salt.
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton caught the virus, too, and the response was much less solicitous. Mr. Dutton is the architect of some of the most shamelessly cruel immigration policies in Australia’s history, on which U.S. President Donald Trump based his border camp approach. At the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, he attempted to charge Australian citizens in mainland China a 1,000 Australian-dollar fee to be quarantined in the now-mostly-empty immigration detention centre on Christmas Island, where a single Tamil family is indefinitely languishing.
For as long the virus could be construed as China-related, the government didn’t want to hear it. But the last week has seen a flurry of press conferences, in which Prime Minister Scott Morrison is truculent and messaging is confused. We were told that schools would remain open, against the urging of doctors and parents, but that weddings would be limited to five people; funerals to 10; and haircuts to 30 minutes.
The unemployment wage has been temporarily doubled, lifting 700,000 people out of poverty with the stroke of a pen. It has always been this easy; I know I should be glad, but there’s a sour fury forming at the back of my throat. It’s being administered, as usual, in a punitive and Byzantine way, letting the most vulnerable slip through the cracks, and won’t come into effect until April 27.
State governments have been breaking ranks, with New South Wales and Victoria issuing their own school shutdowns. Tasmania has closed its borders, turning away non-residents. “We’ve got a moat, and we’re not afraid to use it,” the front page of the Mercury blared.
The Northern Territory has issued a quarantine, but it’s too early to know whether it will be effective in protecting remote communities, some of which are desperately in need of structural provisions such as tents. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have had to endure so much from government – the idea that communities might now suffer from what is essentially a colonial disease, spread by affluence and, in many cases, arrogance, is wrenching.
It’s impossible not to think of Donald Horne, whose book, The Lucky Country, became the byword for Australian complacency:
“Australia is a lucky country," Mr. Horne wrote, "run mainly by second rate people who share its luck. … Although its ordinary people are adaptable, most of its leaders so lack curiosity about the events that surround them that they are often taken by surprise.”
In my own small town, the networks that formed during the bushfires have begun to show their mettle. Panic-shoppers have cleared out the one supermarket in town, but there is an underground network trading in toilet paper and seedlings, pharmacy runs, care, support.
Over the course of the summer, ordinary people, in “mozzie squads,” loaded up their trucks with tanks of water and put out fires where they could. I am trying not to think of everything their lungs have already suffered; vapourized paint and fertilizer and insulation batts. There’s a health centre in town, but the Liberal National Party has cut 57-billion Australian dollars from hospitals in the past seven years. The nearest COVID-19 testing is an hour’s drive away.
Are we lucky? The edges of my gratitude are wearing thin. I’ve had enough of trauma, of sanctimonious inaction, of my own lack of control. Mr. Morrison proposes a six-month deferral of Parliament; six months without policy being passed, and still our schools are open, our funerals are policed.
Bondi Beach has closed, but our own little patch of South Coast is always there. The abundance makes physical distancing seem like a breeze. In the sparkling water and clean air and sand, it feels as though there are possibilities for living. The challenge begins when we turn around and head for home.
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