Sometimes you need to stand back to see the big picture. Imagine taking a few…
Of all my almost 80 years on this earth I have never experienced one so bizarre and unpredictable as 2020.
It began badly on New Year’s Eve as I huddled with my children and grandchildren on Malua Bay beach under an orange, then black sky, choking in hot smoky wind as bushfire swept down on us from two directions.
Fortunately, a sudden southerly wind change saved the approximately 1,600 of us standing silently like bewildered refugees at the waters’ edge.
After a long, slow drive on the only road not closed by fire, we arrived in Canberra on New Years’ Day where the air during most of January was made unbreathable by smoke from fires in the south, east and even in a nearby Canberra suburb.
We endured a furious dust storm and hail so heavy it damaged many houses in my neighbourhood and thousands of cars. I thought the coming year just had to get better.
In February, I resumed my normal life. I sang again in the choir as I had over the past years, attended meetings and friends came to visit. There were news reports of a new coronavirus that didn’t yet have a name, but that was in China, a long way off. My children started planning a big 80th birthday party.
By early March I was becoming uneasy. After the third of March, my choir suddenly ceased rehearsals and my calendar became full of crossed-out appointments. I have not ventured out of the house except on solitary walks since, and rather doubt I will have my birthday party this year.
The sudden and complete shutdown in response to the world-wide COVID-19 epidemic has brutally revealed the fault lines in our society—the vulnerability of people in the rental market, of homeless people, workers in our increasingly casualised workforce, of children in poorly funded state schools, of overseas students and refugees and asylum seekers on temporary visas and the inadequate health and other services provided to our First Nations people.
More positively, the immediate cessation of most forms of transport has demonstrated how much we normally pollute our environment.
The epidemic has forced me, and others, to re-examine our values. At home, I was confronted with a dilemma. Over the past three years, I have had a young asylum seeker living with me.
He is studying nursing and working as a casual in aged care. He has become like a grandson to me but now I felt he could be a source of infection. So we came up with a solution. We partitioned his part of the house off from mine.
It meant a lot of reorganisation but now I feel safe and he has stayed. It is a comfort to know he is in the house and helps with the shopping, so I don’t have to go out, and my children are pleased that I am not alone and am cared for by someone who has excellent values and is trained in infection control.
He has had so much disruption in his life—the murder of his father and two brothers, a dangerous sea voyage on an overcrowded boat as an unaccompanied minor, life in a detention centre for children and, like thousands of other asylum seekers and refugees, he still exists uncertainly on a temporary visa, even after seven years in Australia.
I am glad I have been able both protect myself and continue to give him stability in his life during this very unsettling time. He will be a valuable asset to Australia in the future as a qualified nurse.
Most Australians have no memory of the last time we experienced an influenza epidemic.
It was brought to Australia by returning troops in 1918-19 and misnamed the ‘Spanish flu’. I don’t think many people talked about it afterwards.
I have heard two first-hand stories of that terrifying time. When my father was travelling to work by train in his late teens, he saw coffins piled high, much taller than a man, on Central Station’s Mortuary platform, waiting to be transported by rail to the Rookwood Cemetery.
The other came from an elderly neighbour of my parents. In the early 1970s, I was asked by my mother to bring her some food. As I sat and talked to her tears filled her eyes as she told of seeing her beautiful young daughter after her death from Spanish influenza.
Beneath her golden hair her face was totally black. She could never get that image out of her mind and even as a very old woman, she mourned her daughter every day.
Life only got worse for Australians and most of the world following the First World War and the pandemic. The Great Depression with its massive unemployment and growth of Fascism followed, and was badly handled by the then government.
We are still as frightened but now know more about viruses—and there is the possibility of a vaccine.
Australian political leaders have, with a few notable exemptions, responded positively and competently in responding to both the health and economic impact of the current epidemic. I hope they will continue to do so in the future, although I may not live to see it.
I have dreams that this epidemic will produce a more just and equal Australia—one that creates more secure employment and reduces our dependence on imported goods by encouraging industry and fostering the education of its workforce.
I hope that all Australians will have a place to call home, that their children will get the best education possible and that all living here will be treated as full and equal members of the community of the nation as citizens, regardless of their race or religion.
I also hope that we will provide security of residence and a path to citizenship (as we did in the past) to all who have sought refuge from persecution in our country, regardless of the manner in which they arrived.
Feature image: Mudassir Ali via Pexels