Was buying a one-way ticket to Melbourne an omen? Tempting fate? I did it precisely because this could happen – and yet I sure feel no smugness about having planned for the worst.
Finally in my home city for a holiday after 15 months stranded in Auckland, where I work and live, I’m now stranded in my teenage bedroom for at least an added five days to my already month-long trip.
The room hasn’t changed much: Bob Dylan poster, single bed mattress on Futon base, bookcase half-stacked with CDs, guitar amp, mic stand, handwritten periodic table blue-tacked to the wall, a faded miniature print of Jackson Pollock’s blue poles hanging askew, a lot of novels scattered and pristine text books shelved.
When news of Melbourne’s seven-day lockdown unsurprisingly hit yesterday morning – after we reached 24 community cases the day before – a handful of Herald colleagues sent me messages to check how I was.
On the scale of journalistic strandings in war zones, oppressive dictatorships and natural disasters, sitting down to mother’s cooking most nights under central heating definitely lacks a certain romantic danger to it.
So the current situation really isn’t the “worst scenario”. It’s just another lockdown, of which we’re all now accustomed, but just a little more logistically elaborate for me. My scheduled annual leave ends tomorrow, so I’ll be working from Melbourne next week until at least next Saturday. The transtasman bubble is paused until 8pm on Friday, June 4.
My work panorama will be a second-storey bedroom window looking out on Ruckers Hill in Northcote, which I’ve walked up and down thousands of times – once for primary school, mass, and friends’video games, and now largely for low-lit hipster bars.
It’s hard not to get philosophical about the capriciousness of Covid and these quickly escalating descents into lockdown. Those few days leading into that dreaded word are almost like the seconds before a potential car crash as you anticipate quickly escalating situations almost in slow motion.
As soon as we heard the MCG was identified as a location of interest during Saturday’s AFL game seating 23,000 people, everyone in the city probably mentally accepted a lockdown was inevitable. It came two days later.
I was set to fly back on Thursday for the Voyager Media Awards last night in Auckland Town Hall, but that plan was scrapped on Tuesday when the transtasman bubble was paused. A disappointment to miss all the hijinks.
But it also clarified something useful about lockdowns I’d been brooding on in Auckland’s own February Covid interruptions. Not being able to go to the free cocktail event tonight crystallised how trivial my own personal horizon was. There has to be more to my life priorities than a free party, surely?
And I don’t think I could necessarily have made that self-assessment if my concerns weren’t directly set against the backdrop of the illness and death which silently pervade all lockdowns. One person is in ICU from this outbreak.
Weirdly, those two drastically different consequences – cancelled social events and death – stem from the same source. Covid is boh a nuisance and a killer, and if you and the people you know are on the right side of that ledger it probably deserves some pause and grace.
Among the Melburnians I’ve spoken to about yet another outbreak there is undeniably a little bit of contempt for the Victorian Government, which seems to either be incompetent or cursed.
Talking with my brother, there was a feeling that lightning doesn’t strike twice and something in our contact tracing must be deficient. Melbourne’s superior night-life was also thrown up as a reason for why we seem to be the nation’s Covid liability city. I noticed one of the exposure sites was a bar, from 1am to 4am.
But I also realise we the public are two-faced on this matter. The health officials are damned if they do and damned if they don’t when it comes to snap lockdowns. If Melbourne had been sent into a three-day lockdown a couple of weeks ago when the first isolated case of this outbreak appeared, I undoubtedly would have complained about how pedantic it was.
It’s also taken this event for me to fully appreciate the New Zealand Government’s hyper-cautious elimination approach to Covid. Melbourne had four community cases on Tuesday morning, and I am fairly certain if Jacinda Ardern was Victorian Premier the city would have been put into lockdown that night. Who knows how much spread that might have prevented?
Yet the vaccine rollout has been far superior in Australia, with 3.8 million doses administered so far to New Zealand’s 560,000-odd.
Both my parents, one aunt and my 96-year-old grandmother have had the first of their two Covid vaccinations. People in similar demographics around the city probably gain a certain peace of mind heading into this lockdown from their own first Covid jab.
But also, I sense a lingering underlying trauma among some from Melbourne’s 112-day lockdown from June to October last year. It was one of the longest straight hard lockdowns experienced across the world.
People here almost avoid the subject of that winter ordeal with a kind of “don’t mention the war” neurosis. But there’s also a battle-worn resignation to the current lockdown among people here that seems different to the slightly more alarmist and emotional responses of Aucklanders as they headed into lockdowns. New Zealand has had it good, and there is almost a spoilt naivety to the average Kiwi’s expectations around personal freedom in the Covid era.
The “man from Wollert” at the heart of this Melbourne outbreak has also taken on a kind of Clint Eastwood “man with no name” sinister mythology within our household at least. Travelling solo from South Australian quarantine to wreak havoc in Melbourne – infecting a family from Epping in the city’s north with no explanation. The authorities are still at a loss over the missing link of how he and the Epping family crossed paths. But it’s the exact same highly infectious genomic Covid variant -leaked into Australia via India – both the family and the Wollert man have.
My parents’ place, where I’m staying, is in the inner north of Melbourne and the outbreak is centred in the outer northern suburbs. My Dad is also a GP whose practice is located in those very northern suburbs. A petrol station around the corner from him was among the Tier 1 exposure sites that require 14 days’ isolation. So it’s all definitely close enough for me to be checking the outbreak locations of interest on the Victorian Health coronavirus site with some regularity. It’s at 39 community cases at the time of writing. Melbourne’s second-biggest sports venue, Marvel Stadium, has been added to the now 121 public exposure sites for another AFL match attended by 33,000 people.
I can assure you there’s a lot more mass carousing at these footy matches than a Bluff wedding.
June 4 may be an optimistic end date to my stint as a reluctant Melbourne correspondent.
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