Australia; the land of ‘no worries mate’, ‘yeah nah’ and relaxed vibes. Never where I thought I would wake up at 6.30 am with the sole purpose of hunting down toilet paper. Then again, pandemics also weren’t on the cards when thinking about the remainder of my year abroad. Bushfires, job hunting and uni took centre stage for the first few months of 2020. Life’s happenings created a distraction from the travel bans against travellers from China, the spread of the virus to Europe, Iran, America and the increasing number of hand sanitiser stations. I read an article about the lockdown in China but felt only detachment from the situation. ‘It’s just like a bad flu’ and ‘no need for undue alarm’ juggled amongst the media.
Yet, on 11th of March, COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic, the news barely reaching my ears, still reeling from a five hour lab and feeling ready to go to the beach. I did not understand why my friend was so worried about airlines being shut down. That weekend, my housemate’s panic was almost sneered at by a home doctor who told her she couldn’t be tested anyway for not meeting the criteria of trace testing. I watched Instagram stories of friends leaving Erasmus early; it seemed to be impacting the world I knew of, family and friends, but down under this distant blue sky and stretches of a new semester, I was silently, optimistically willing for it all to blow over far away and fast.
Then, almost overnight COVID-19 crept in as cases in Australia grew. The fallout from the pandemic went from a hypothetical to a reality. Supermarket shortages, bans on gatherings of 100, interstate travel restrictions, pub closure, takeaway only options, bans on gatherings of 10, supermarkets with restricted hours, restrictions on customers allowed into the shop and distance marks on the floor. Every day something new seemed to be introduced to try to combat the ‘rapidly evolving’ situation. The buzzwords ‘cancelled and social distancing’. All of a sudden Australia and I seemed to be taking things seriously, and as I watched the situation spiral in the UK I could see why.
My housemate described it as ‘living in two places’. It was hard to watch the number of cases and death rate rise so rapidly and be so far away. It was also troubling to think of a situation where Australia would follow the pattern of the UK. For many reasons, friends left and returned to their home countries, some like myself stayed. Though I never really questioned it; I wasn’t ready to say goodbye and for the love of God, I had just bought a wardrobe organiser. Yet, rational reasons like not wanting to risk a long haul flight and bringing corona home to vulnerable family members or the hassle of flights being cancelled and getting temporarily stranded somewhere halfway backed up my choice. Moreover, my family were content with me staying as long as I felt supported and with fewer cases here I thought it didn’t really make sense for me to return.
Now, April in Adelaide, normality seems almost an illusion. I cycle home from a park where I met a friend at a 1.5 metre distance. Empty busses, quiet roads and a large spray-painted ‘stay at home’ sign tightly bound to a bridge greet me on my way. It is almost peaceful apart from the anxieties in my mind. I pedal faster thinking of greater opportunities for crime, before braking round the corner to dodge an old man putting his bin out.
In general, though, I feel lucky and happy here, where the number of new cases is slowing and low compared to the UK. Social distancing policies are now widely implemented and something is comforting about seeing society acting to protect those most vulnerable. I feel hopeful with chalked messages on the ground, feeds full of positivity and recognition for key workers. I call my family and friends more, each offering a different perspective, my Nanna visually describing everything that passes her window. Thankfully they all remain well. I find strength in everyone I know, all experiencing the same life-changing event, everyone making their sacrifices to help others. Though it makes me question what else we should be socially responsible for. I hope the situation improves soon and that when I return, hopefully in July, I can hug tight and not just give 2 metre glances and elbows.
Yet, at times, I struggle with the uncertainty of it all. The unknown end and rippling impacts. I am thankful for my studies continuing online and my housemates to provide a distraction and company. At least one of us reaches a breaking point once a day. Often, ending in a fantasy about a pub, a big frothy pint or just social interaction with someone else and somewhere else than within these four walls. I get rushes from seeing people in supermarkets, when I see someone I know, it’s a spiritual high. ‘When this is all over…’ gets thrown around a lot, but I just heard Edinburgh Fringe is cancelled which sends me into spirals of imagining social distancing lasting for ten years and a ‘forgotten youth’. TV shows, biographies and news articles flash into my mind interviewing the ‘FREE HUGS’ man’s diminished business amongst others. Shaking my head, I ground with what I know. We are living through a pandemic which has already highlighted the delicacy and determination of the world we live in and that life still goes on, just maybe, as always, not as imagined.
[Aimee Punshon – she/her – @_aimeeaimee_ ]
[Photo credit: Aimee Punshon]