So This Is ‘Covid Normal’

So This Is ‘Covid Normal’
Photo: Courtesy Sophie Wiener

Last weekend I attended two days of the Brunswick Music Festival in the northern suburbs of Melbourne. In front of a sea of semi-socially distanced picnickers, local bands like indie rockers RVG tore through sets they haven’t played live in a year. People chatted with their friends, hugged, and drank beer. No one wore a mask. The next day I went to an in-person, indoor yoga class (no masks), stopping on the way for a quick brunch (outside, but just because the cafe was already full).

As an American, I am hyper-aware of how unrelatable my current reality is to the rest of the world. I worry about how much of my life I should even show on social media or mention in conversations with friends back home. But the truth is that life in Australia has returned to something that closely resembles normality — or “COVID Normal”, as the government likes to call it.

In Victoria, which in mid-2020 shouldered the worst covid-19 outbreak the country has seen, we still wear masks on public transit and in the grocery store. State borders still close suddenly and unexpectedly — I had to cancel two trips interstate in January due to minor covid outbreaks in Sydney and Brisbane. Snap lockdowns still occur, like the five day Melbourne “circuit breaker” in February in response to an outbreak of 13 cases, which happened to ruin my birthday weekend. But we’re used to these interruptions now. Most of the time, things are fine.

During the 110-day lockdown Melburnians endured last year, there was controversy and debate over the government’s decision to pursue what amounted to a strategy of elimination: keeping the city locked down until the virus was completely gone. I personally didn’t believe it was possible — right up until the day we hit zero cases. But that strategy is the only reason we’ve been able to achieve a “COVID Normal” reality. Because we have eliminated the virus (outside of a few cases in hotel quarantine and the occasional minor outbreak), we can live our lives free of fear. The gift of elimination is the certainty of knowing the danger is infinitesimal. At this point, I’m probably more likely to get hit by a car on my bike than I am to catch covid-19 at a party.

There have been numerous in-depth breakdowns of why Australia succeeded where so much of the world failed. Other than basic measures — like free, widely available testing and high quality rapid contact tracing — one of the biggest factors has been the implementation of border restrictions so tight that tens of thousands of Australian citizens are still stranded abroad and unable to return home (although this hasn’t stopped the government from allowing hundreds of people to travel into the country for money-making events like the Australian Open, and bringing covid-19 with them).

Another is consistent, coherent, science-based messaging from all levels of government, with rare exceptions. It helps that the Australian political landscape is far less polarised than the U.S. — incredibly, trust in the Australian government has actually risen to new highs during the crisis. The welfare state also helps enormously. Australia’s current national government is conservative, but even they have had to see the wisdom of supporting people through a crisis like this. Businesses have been paid to not lay off employees, and employees who couldn’t work due to restrictions are paid directly by the government. Many people on welfare are actually better off now than they were before the pandemic, and activists are fighting to keep it that way.

There are other theories as to why we’ve conquered covid-19. At a party the other day (in person, on a bar patio, without masks) someone noted that for better or worse, Australia has always been great at coming together to stomp out anything perceived as a foreign threat. This time, instead of targeting Asian immigrants or refugees (though those groups both have suffered during the pandemic as well), the threat happened to be something worth defeating. These xenophobic and racist tendencies could help explain the comfort most people seem to feel with closing the borders for years at a time, even if it hurts the Australian economy.

For decades in the 20th century, the White Australia policy prevented much of the world from immigrating here, despite plentiful space and resources (white immigration, on the other hand, was actively encouraged). Today, some Australians seem happy to allow the country to become a self-sufficient fortress, excluding anyone who wasn’t lucky enough to be here when the pandemic struck, even Australian citizens. Pride is an element of this psyche of isolation as well. Often relegated to an afterthought by the rest of the industrialised world, Australia now seems to say, “we never needed you anyway.”

As the Southern Hemisphere summer comes to a close, things may be COVID Normal, but that doesn’t mean we’re all feeling COVID Awesome. Watching my friends and family suffer back home, I’m plagued by survivor’s guilt and increasingly frustrated by a stubborn depression I can’t seem to shake. It’s not just me — Victorians in particular have been traumatised by our pandemic experience, for all that that experience may seem to the rest of the world like we got off lightly.

Our nearly four month lockdown included restrictions harsher than what most Americans could even dream of: we were only allowed outside once a day for an hour of exercise; one person per household was allowed to shop per day; there was a 5 km bubble we weren’t allowed to leave; and for most of it the only socialising allowed outside the house was a one hour walk with one other person, while masked. The lockdown kept getting extended, and even people like me, who understood and supported the rationale began to feel like it was never going to end, that we’d be trapped in the tiny world of our apartment forever.

With the rhythms of daily life largely reinstated, it can sometimes feel like nothing ever happened, like the pandemic was a terrible collective hallucination we’ve all awoken from. But the experience of lockdown, fear, and uncertainty still haunts us. The announcement of Melbourne’s snap lockdown incapacitated me for a day as I relived our months spent in isolation. Any new outbreak, no matter how small, can seem like a beacon of doom.

Even when the direct threat of infection is over, experts predict that the psychological toll of the pandemic will be prolonged, especially in groups who have lost their livelihoods. For many, the looming end of increased unemployment benefits and the eviction moratorium are incredibly stressful. These are just some of the ways in which Australia is a preview of the future the rest of the world faces when the initial crisis phase of the pandemic finally subsides.

And then there are the border restrictions, which impact me directly as an immigrant. I never intended to be away from home for this long, and the uncertainty around when I’ll be able to see my friends and family continues to eat at me, fuelling my anxiety and also my sense of being stuck in a perpetual present, without any sort of future to which I can aspire. Without any certainty around when I can go home, my future still feels unreal and inaccessible.

I sometimes feel like I’m living like an episode of The Good Place: my life is pleasant and theoretically stress-free; I have a good job; I live in a nice neighbourhood full of cute bars and restaurants that I can finally visit; the weather’s nice. But I’m not allowed to leave. I feel out of context, lost in a place that is deceptively familiar, yet just different enough to feel alien. The gulf of experience between myself and my friends at home, which I wrote about in October during our lockdown, has only continued to widen. When we finally meet again, we will have very different memories and scars.

As the darkness of the Northern Hemisphere winter eases, and the chaos of the Trump presidency recedes, I am starting to feel a tentative hope. The rising vaccination rate in the U.S. is heartening, and every time a friend or family member gets the shot I breathe a sigh of relief. I don’t know when life in the rest of the world will look the way it does here. But by the end of summer, I hope, things will be better. I can’t wait for the people I know to experience the joy of stepping out into the world again without fear, though I know that might take years. But it won’t last forever, even if it sometimes feels like it. One day, you will be able to touch and hug and dance and laugh together again. You may begin to feel like you’ve woken up from a terrible nightmare. The sun will shine.

A few days later, I returned for a last concert at Brunswick Music Festival’s outdoor stage. As flying foxes flapped overhead, emotive singer songwriter Angie McMahon began her set with a meditation. She asked the seated crowd to close our eyes and breathe in. “We are so lucky to be here,” she said, making explicit the collective mood. “Whatever state you’re in, I hope you enjoy the music.”

Sophie Weiner is a writer living in Melbourne, Australia. She writes a newsletter which you can read here.