With a pandemic sweeping across the globe, I’m wondering if this is the moment when we finally realise how fortunate we are.
I think we can all agree that it has been an exhausting week. And month. And year. Australia was only just beginning to recover slowly from the horror show of the worst bushfire season in history, when we — as everywhere else — were struck with a global pandemic.
It happened gradually and then all at once. It’s hard to believe now, but just a fortnight ago I was in my hometown of Sydney planning two birthday events: one for myself and one for my mother who was turning 70. As I watched the spread of Coronavirus, I made the difficult decision to cancel both celebrations.
At the time, it seemed perhaps overly-cautious. How much could possibly change in the week that these parties were scheduled to occur?
The answer was…everything.
Within 24 hours of my birthday drinks that didn’t happen, a travel ban was imposed, “social distancing” became a common term, and non-essential businesses were slated for closure. I spent my first (and I hope only) quarantine birthday with just the few family members I was staying with. We all stopped leaving the house. For my mum’s birthday, we decided that her children and grandchildren shouldn’t even visit — it simply wasn’t worth the risk.
Cutting short my visit to return to Melbourne where I live, I said goodbye to my mother on the doorstep of her home, not knowing when I would see her again. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. We are fortunate that she can be isolated, but worried — as so many are — about the growing likelihood that she will spend months on her own.
A few days ago, a friend messaged me to ask whether I should come back to Sydney before the state borders close, so as not to be on the opposite side from my family for an indefinite period of time. The thought of this twists my stomach into knots, as I ask myself when I will see loved ones who are overseas and interstate again. I have a sister who lives in Prague and another in China (and currently in government quarantine following exposure to COVID-19).
With all international flights soon to be grounded, they suddenly seem the half-world away that they actually are. We used to be able to count on the fact that we could always get on a plane to visit each other — the only obstacle, of course, being money.
But as the walls come down indefinitely, it also occurred to me that this is the reality that most people in the world live with, pandemic or no pandemic — being separated from loved ones with the uncertainty of not knowing when a reunion will occur. For the first time in my life, I’ve actually felt the physicality of borders which have always, for me, been invisible lines in the dirt.
We are so used to being able to do pretty much what we want when we want it: swim at the beach, get on an aeroplane, have a haircut, buy toilet paper. It makes us furious that these privileges, one by one, are being taken away — so angry, in fact, that we fail to even recognise them as privileges. We believe this kind of freedom is our birthright.
The display of 20,000 Australians at Sydney’s Bondi Beach despite government warnings to stay home — like the thousands on spring break in Florida and flocking to seaside towns in Britain — demonstrates just how fiercely we cling to our sense of entitlement. It is evident in the Hollywood celebrity refusing to stay home, declaring “some people value freedom over their lives” and in the wealthy people returning from ski resorts and cruise ships infected with the virus and failing to self-isolate.
At this moment, thousands of Australians are still stuck in cruise ships, adrift on the oceans, with disease spreading across the population on board — and no country willing to take them in. Now, they are being quarantined in luxury hotels and complaining of prison-like conditions.
While this is an unenviable situation to be in, I do wonder whether the people who have unexpectedly found themselves in it will discover empathy for the boatloads of desperate asylum seekers who have been languishing on Manus and Nauru for seven years — in actual prisons.
As we fight each other over toilet paper, I wonder whether we will emerge out the other end of this crisis with greater empathy for the people in the world who constantly struggle with access to toilet paper — along with other things we consider basic necessities. I’ll admit that the scenes of Australians filling their shopping trolleys to the brim and brawling in supermarkets don’t fill me with a lot of positivity.
But there are reasons to feel optimistic about how the world will be re-shaped after this is all over. People are connecting in ways that we haven’t for a long time: for example, the amount of time I’ve spent actually talking on the phone this week instead of texting, the number of messages I receive (and send) just “checking in”, and the fact that I now play virtual board games with my family.
Will this newfound connectivity continue as we grow used to self-isolation? (And will we finally work out how to solve the unceasing technical issues?) What about once life goes back to “normal”? And, most importantly, when we finally resume our lives, will we have a lasting appreciation for just how good we’ve always had it?
We can only hope that one positive outcome of this terrible experience is a brave new world where we hold a greater awareness of how lucky we are — and a stronger sense of compassion for those who don’t have our privileges. That we will no longer take any of it for granted.