To say 2020 is a tumultuous roller-coaster ride would be a bit of an understatement. Nine months ago, it felt that all that we could think and talk about was the climate crisis and how that lead to the devastating bushfires that engulfed Australia. We were put at the edge of our seat with the horrors of Koalas being roasted and towns wiped out by flames. Air quality dropped to hazardous levels, and finally, we understood the real impact of climate change. I wrote about how 2020 seemed to be starting on a wrong foot, but I could not imagine how much we were about to trip and stumble. When Covid-19 hit, we quickly changed our focus from pollution to the fear for the safety of our lives.
Between the pandemic and the racial fallout alone, our lives have shifted entirely. When I first read about a new virus in China in December 2019, I didn’t even give it a second thought. I was planning my travel itinerary in 2020 and also listed China as a possible destination. In early January, when MM warned that my possible plans to travel China might be dangerous due to a new virus (which did not even have a name yet) in Wuhan, I thought he was paranoid. Nevertheless, I had a change of travel itineraries and ended up heading to Singapore for Chinese New Year, celebrated my niece’s first-month and went on a cruise to Thailand with one of my oldest friends. I had a wonderful time with my family and friends, followed by a stint in Japan before returning to Melbourne, Australia.
Of course, by then, the virus finally had a name – Covid-19. The world fell into unimaginable chaos. Covid-19 dropped on everyone’s doorstep. Like it or not, life as you know it changed. We had to adapt and learn fast to face it head-on. Whether it was dealing with social distancing, stopping all travel or worrying about friends or family that are immunocompromised, we made the sacrifices.
Being an early adopter of wearing masks and social distancing in Singapore, I faced “are you overreacting” looks when I first started handing out masks and hand sanitisers to family and friends. Of course, their stance soon changed, and most people became obsessed with getting supplies. It was also the first time I found my supermarkets empty of toilet paper, anti-bacterial cleaning supplies rice and instant noodles.
When I returned to Melbourne, in early March, I was surprised that many people in Australia still felt like it was a Chinese virus and not a global pandemic. People abandoned Chinatown, and a whole slew of racism was unleashed. Racism towards any minority race has always been bubbling in the background in any country. However, Covid-19 gave these people a reason to lash out unreasonably. While I never personally encountered racism, accounts of random attacks on Asians in Australia from the news and friends became commonplace. To these racist groups, it didn’t matter if you were Singaporean, Malaysian, British or even Australian. If you were from Chinese descent or looked Chinese, you were deemed to be from China, probably ate bats and carried the virus. Family and friends were worried about me since reports of hostility seemed to be more prevalent towards Asian females as they were “easier targets”.
Wearing masks at that point was still considered an “Asian thing”. If you wore a mask, people avoided you. I recall an incident where I had my seat on a domestic flight conveniently rearranged by the airline staff at the last minute. Upon boarding, I realised that their ” necessary rearrangement” placed anyone who was wearing a mask at the last couple of rows on the plane. I remember jokingly telling my friend that if they don’t start learning to distance themselves, wash their hands and wear a mask, Covid-19 might end up being considered an ” Australian thing”.
At that time, the organisers F1 Grand Prix Melbourne race were still rushing to keep it open despite the multitude of signs popping up to indicate that it was simply a bad idea. Eventually, on the 11th hour, it was finally declared cancelled. The closure of this significant event finally brought home the severity of the situation of the pandemic to the average man on the street. By mid-March, Australia closed their borders to all non-residents and implemented a nationwide lockdown. Australians and PRs are essentially also “locked-in” the country and are unable to leave without approval.
I relived the deja vu experience of empty supermarkets I saw earlier in Singapore. It didn’t matter if where in the world you lived in. People reacted in the same way. Many questioned and laughed at the obsession with toilet paper but still stockpiled it anyway.
Before the end of March came to a close, not only has the USA topped China as the country with the most coronavirus cases; both Prince Charles and Boris Johnson had fallen victims to COVID-19. I consumed a slew of Covid-19 information daily.
At first, my logical reasoning was that the more I know about it, the more I could do something about it. As I soon learnt, many things in life are beyond your control and that it is just as important to know how to limit the amount of unnecessary information we are exposed to. Balance is still key to a healthy life. We need just as much positivity to counteract against the negatives we face. With this new mindset, I limited my consumption of social media during this period.
It’s no secret that I love adventure and travel, but my introverted nature took lockdowns like fish to water. Working from home is not an alien concept to me. Technology and digital enable has helped bridge some of the traditional needs of human communication. Some of these changes which are most likely here to stay even after the COVID -19 crisis has passed. Two months later, lockdown seized while restrictions were slowly lowered.
Small gatherings were allowed, gyms opened, and dining out was allowed. The State of Victoria seemed on the surface to be more cautious than most, in terms of lowering restrictions. In June, we believed Australia has the virus beat. However, this is not to be.
While everyone was starting to emerge out of their shells and feeling safer, there was a breakdown in the hotel quarantine program that allowed the virus to spread throughout Victoria. 99% of all current COVID-19 cases can be linked to three “transmission networks ” in May and June. The sources are returned travellers staying in the mandatory hotel quarantine program that was handled by the state. With no proper command chain, the private security guards that dealt with the scheme not only did not wear a mask or observe social distancing; they even mingled with the travellers, slept on the job or went missing while on duty!
The spiralling outbreaks led to Melbourne’s Lockdown 2.0. The strictest version to date, other than the precise rules that prevent you from meeting anyone (inside or outside), was 8 pm curfews. You can only exercise or buy takeaway food or shop at the supermarket (alone) within your 5km radius. Schools have closed. Almost all retail stores and businesses are closed. Those considered essential services have to reduce their labour capacity. Even if you had a legal reason to leave home for work, you have to carry formal documentation of that permit in case of a police check. Masks are now mandatory.
There are always the sporadic groups of anti-vaxxers and people who still believe that the virus is a hoax. In general, however, most Melburnians are just trying to endure. Another round of (albeit smaller) supermarket rush and this time the missing items were masks, frozen fruit and vegetables, dairy and chicken meat. If anyone has learnt anything from the earlier supermarket wipeouts, it’s that you never have a real need to stockpile or join the insane queues. Give it a little more time, and the items will get restocked (although prices do keep fluctuating).
Currently, I’m entering into my 8th week of lockdown 2.0 with no clear end in sight. As someone who finds solitude somewhat pleasant, even I find myself struggling with Lockdown 2.0. Turning into a full-fledge hermit, it has also been eight months since I had my hair cut or a facial. I try to do most of my shopping is online and only go to the supermarket when I can’t meet the minimum delivery requirements.
I’ve found that there truly is no substitute for human physical presence. My mother in Singapore had a medical emergency and scheduled for open-chest heart surgery. Not being able to be physically there for her was hard. I’m thankful that dad is an amazing husband throughout this ordeal. Working from home helped him be there for mum even more.
While feeling blessed that I have a safe place to bunker down in (especially since I’m continents apart from close family and friends), the air of uncertainty and inability to plan ahead did bring my spirits down a little. Who would have thought that binge-reading ebooks or binge-watching tv could make one feel “stuck in some endless loop “.
It is a time for temporal introspection. Set free from having to be at somewhere all the time, I am weathering this phase by focusing on the habits that I want to cultivate, such as cooking, gardening, writing or learning to cope with impending deadlines better. Recently, I’ve also forced myself to do short walks around the neighbourhood to the beach once a week for some fresh air. I view the involuntary pause in mobility as training grounds in flexibility and adaptability. Instead of feeling stuck in the present with no vaccine in sight, like many, I’m coming to accept a new normal and facing each crisis with even more resilience.