A few years ago, I read Michel Faber’s novel The Book of Strange New Things. It’s a sci-fi story about a priest who leaves his wife on Earth to travel as a missionary to the distant planet of Oasis. As the novel progresses, the protagonist’s wife sends him a series of dispatches that relate the slow collapse of civilisation back on Earth. Things get progressively worse — the garbage stops getting picked up, institutions fall apart, and violence overtakes her city — with each change eventually becoming normalized, making way for a new reality.
In his distant outpost, the protagonist changes too: Intoxicated by unfamiliar chemicals in the alien air, he throws himself into his work until he forgets to eat and nearly dies. The couple’s respective realities drift further and further apart until they can no longer understand one another. Their experiences have changed them too much.
Two and a half years ago, I moved to Melbourne, Australia from New York City, where I had lived for eight years. Living over 16,093 km from home, in a place that looks not unlike my home state of California, always feels somewhat surreal. While the mundanity of familiar brands and normal-looking streets is interrupted every so often by a passing rainbow-coloured parrot or dodging a car driving on the other side of the road, it’s often easy to forget how far away I am. The internet means any sense of distance has largely disappeared: I can call my friends and family on FaceTime or message them on Facebook, just like I could when they were a block away. The only difference is that I’m waking up when they’re finishing dinner.
As this year has progressed, the pandemic has destroyed that sense of false closeness, bit by bit.
Australia, like many places around the world, has taken Covid-19 far more seriously than the United States has done. In June, after a successful initial lockdown that took nationwide daily cases down to virtually none, I was predicting confidently to anyone who’d listen that Australia would soon be free to return to normal life, even as the rest of the world suffered (just as long as we never opened our borders again).
But it didn’t last. Although the borders are closed, Australian citizens and those with permanent residency here have been allowed to return from abroad, so long as they are quarantined for two weeks. These returnees have been quarantined at hotels, and it was via these hotels that the virus slipped back into the country. There were some truly absurd missteps involved: the private security guards hired by the Victorian state government to prevent hotel guests from leaving were rumoured to be sleeping with their charges, sharing lighters, and generally ignoring that their responsibility was to prevent the spread of disease. Whatever the case, the virus spread to hotel workers, then their families, and soon a second wave was engulfing Melbourne.
In late June, the shit hit the fan. Victorians quickly found themselves barred from leaving the state; in a historically unprecedented move, all state borders were closed to them. Tighter restrictions were announced in 10 Melbourne postcodes. An outbreak in public housing was met with a sudden lockdown that essentially imprisoned the residents, many of them immigrants, in their homes — without warning.
On July 7th, as I watched my friends and family back home hit the beach and attend barbecues, Victoria’s Premier Dan Andrews announced we’d be heading back into Stage 3 lockdown for at least six weeks. This was the same level of restriction we’d experienced early in the pandemic. It meant we were only allowed to leave our homes for “essential” work or study, medical caregiving, exercise, or shopping for essential supplies. Restaurants were back to take out only, and schools returned to remote learning.
Despite these measures, the outbreak grew. From single digits, the number of cases per day skyrocketed to the 600s. Outbreaks in nursing homes across the state began killing upwards of 20 people per day. On August 2nd, Andrews announced an even stricter lockdown, dubbed Stage 4. Under this regime, we were allowed to leave our homes for only one hour a day, for “exercise”, with a maximum of one other person. Masks were mandatory everywhere outside your home. One person per household was allowed one shopping trip for essential items per day. Anyone who could work from home was required to do so. All non-essential retail stores closed, except for contactless collection of online orders. No-one was allowed to travel more than 5 kilometers — a little over 5 km — from their homes without a valid reason. In another historically unprecedented measure, an 8pm-5am curfew was imposed. These restrictions were enforced with large fines and police checkpoints.
Two and a half months later, Victoria has almost eliminated Covid-19 again. Our case numbers now hover between five and 15 a day. The restrictions have been eased slightly: the curfew is gone, and we are now allowed to gather in a group of five people from up to two households in public. Otherwise, not much about our lives has changed. We’re still waiting to be allowed to move outside the 5-kilometre radius.
Every time a new lockdown is announced, I feel a little more hopeless. I am grateful we are taking the virus seriously, that I don’t have to fear going outside. But living on the other side of the world felt isolating even before I was unable to leave my home.
Peering down into the US from my interstellar base over the last few months has inspired both horror and longing. My social feeds are a mix of trips and events in which I would do anything to take part and images of destruction and chaos that both terrify and enrage me. On top of the possibility of an actual coup or a Supreme Court appointment that will ruin America for the rest of my lifetime, my home county in Northern California has survived multiple wildfires in the last month. (The latter also feel like they’re on a horrific repeating loop, having forced friends and family to evacuate for the second or third time in the last five years.)
Just as I did this time last year, and the year before, and the year before, I’ve found myself checking the local news website diligently, looking at both fire containment numbers and the air quality index — as if knowing what was happening there would make a difference. When it all feels like too much (which has been often), I go and sit in a folding chair outside my apartment in our sunny parking lot and chat with our neighbours, a grey zone in our lockdown that’s been a peaceful refuge through these last months.
I realise how lucky I am to be here. I hammer gratitude into my brain repeatedly as I check the daily case count and hope I’ll be allowed to go to the beach again one day. Explaining to Australians how bad things are in the US used to be a kind of party trick, but we haven’t been allowed to go to parties for months now. Now, when I report the latest fire or catastrophic political event over Zoom drinks, things get awkward and I change the subject.
I think sometimes about what it will be like to return to the US after all this. I have no idea when that will be — just like the priest on his psychedelic planet, I’m stuck here for now, able only to watch events unfold from afar and try my best to understand an increasingly distant reality. I’ve missed so much in the last six months — the initial terror of the pandemic in New York, the racial justice uprisings of the summer, the smoke choking my friends and family on the West Coast. I feel grateful to have been spared most of those things, of course. But I also feel survivor’s guilt, and sadness that I can’t do much to help. The world I left in 2018 is gone, and the next one is not settled. I’m scared of what’s coming — not just in the course of this pandemic, but beyond it.
That future is always unknowable, but right now it feels nonexistent, so I have to find a way to be OK with just the present. I’m not the same person who cried when I realised it might be two years until I could see my family and friends again. I’ve changed. The world has changed. Not all of those changes are bad, but there is a deep grief right now that swirls around all of us like the air on Oasis, altering our perception for the better or worse.
I’ve started a little garden in the tiny patch of soil that separates our apartment from the carpark that has become my sanctuary. The seeds I’ve planted are just starting to poke their leaves out of the ground. It’s becoming spring here, just as the US recedes into fall. Something new will grow from this alien dirt. I just don’t know what.
Sophie Weiner is a writer living in Melbourne, Australia. She writes a newsletter which you can read here.