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What I learned in 2020: Alex Sloan

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As one of humanity’s most trying years comes to an end, we take a moment to reflect.

Canberrans have fared through devastating bushfires, suffocating smoke, destructive hail and a global pandemic in 2020. So undoubtedly, we’ve learned some things.

Today, broadcaster and journalist Alex Sloan reflects on the year that was.

Paint a picture of you after summer 2019/20. How were you affected by the bushfires and smoke?

Our bush property near Mt Budawang burned just before Christmas.

My husband Rob joined the volunteer fire crews and other co-owners of the property to save the buildings but I worried deeply about the homes of the animals who live there: lyrebirds, greater gliders, brush-tailed rock-wallabies, boo-book owls, wombats, quolls.

There is rainforest on this property and ecologists say it had never burned before.

Backburning towards the fire. We lost one small hut.

The response of the local community and the volunteers was extraordinary and uplifting in the face of such a frightening and ongoing threat. Attending a meeting at the fire shed in Mongarlowe I noticed a fire truck from Victoria.

I went over to thank them and said: “I was born and raised near Inglewood in Victoria”. One of the guys smiled, and turned his back to reveal his T-Shirt emblazoned with ‘Inglewood Fire Crew’.

Volunteers in this country moved from fire emergency to fire emergency and worked for weeks and weeks. How do we ever thank them?

Volunteer “firie” from my hometown.

While we were able to successfully back-burn, helped by the years of mosaic burns Rob has done (and continues to do) around the buildings, that fire continued to burn and joined up with the huge Currowan fire which caused so much devastation in January.

Fire chiefs, scientists, land-owners all know these devastating fires are a symptom of climate change.

People died, communities were devastated, many of our native animal populations are on the brink.  With “acknowledgements of country” we thank Indigenous people past and present for their custodianship of this land for thousands of years. How well are we looking after this land now?

Daughter in her happy place after the fire. Ecologist Professor David Lindenmayer says this bit of the forest is how Gondwanaland would have looked like.

How did you fare in the great hailstorm of 2020?

I watched the hail storm hit from the windows of the Intensive Care Unit in The Canberra Hospital. My Mum had been paralysed after a bad fall and had just undergone neurosurgery, so my car was in undercover parking in the hospital car park.

It wasn’t until I drove home along Commonwealth Avenue that evening that I saw the stripped trees and the dead birds that I fully understood the damage.

The next day I was doing some work at the National Museum of Australia and parked my car next to dozens of damaged cars, bonnets pockmarked with dents, back windows smashed, I literally crunched my way through glass and debris.

It occurred to me that we had been so lucky not to be in the path of this hailstorm.  I wonder about the next one.

What were your first impressions of COVID in early 2020?

Right from the start I took it seriously.  The TV footage of people in China being welded into their apartments, or at the first sign of a temperature being forcibly moved to a hospital made it real.

The devastation in Italy was also a shock. We had been lucky enough to visit Italy not so long ago and to hear reports of the death toll, of stressed Italian doctors having to make the heartbreaking decisions to triage according to age was another shocking reality call.

My thoughts went to our old people. It breaks my heart that so many older people have died without their loved ones there beside them, holding their hand. I understand the reason for the isolation, but it’s so tragic and sad.

Thanks to our health workers who in the face of divisive and toxic politics just got on with the job of looking after us all.

What was your first memory of being materially affected by COVID?

While I personally have not been hugely materially affected by COVID-19, our children have. My stepson works in the entertainment industry and lost his job immediately, he’s still struggling financially.

My daughter lost her student job as a childminder and returned from Melbourne to continue her studies online. I worry about so many people, those in the arts community, the university sector, women in retail and hospitality, men and women who have lost their jobs and businesses.

What were the low points of 2020?

Seeing so much of our country on fire and still a denial at the national level that this is a symptom of Climate Change.  Then to witness this scenario repeated in the US just underlines how much trouble we are in.

The market is moving away from dinosaur industries that cause climate change and destroy nature, Australia can choose a different path to rebuild the economy and tackle the climate crisis.

It beggars belief that our political leaders think it’s appropriate to put aged care to the market, without concern about loss of jobs, wages and conditions for aged care workers but want us the taxpayers to further subsidise the fossil fuel industry because of ideology.  Let’s protect all our workers, help them to transition to industries with a long term future that is in all our interests.

What were the high points of 2020?

When the toilet paper buying hysteria died down it was lovely to witness communities coming together.

In the early days, we saw many families out walking together in parks and surrounding bush, cooking together, gardening.

We finally decided the old dilapidated backyard plastic pool could be reborn as an elegant parterre vegetable garden.

Corona Gardens 2020.

It’s been incredible to see many of us respond to bigger and broader conversations online.

The Australia Institute responded early to the lockdown with an incredible webinar series hosted by Deputy Director Ebony Bennett. Thousands of people have joined every week to hear from a huge range of people including Nobel Laureates, former Prime Ministers, senior policymakers, health experts, and Indigenous leaders.

While some areas of the media have dumbed down, it seems there is a hunger for deeper conversations. I look forward to the HerCanberra podcast series with Emma Macdonald!

It has rained, our dams are filling up, our food and fibre growers are smiling, the bush smells great again.

ACT voters got it right looking to the future not to the past.

Trump lost.

Markets moving to renewable and battery storage, from ACT, SA, Victoria and now NSW.

Victorians have smashed COVID.

Watching our federal system follow scientific advice and put in place a responsible response to COVID from economic support to lock-downs and border closures when needed.

I’m not underestimating the economic pain, the hardship, how much people have struggled with mental health, but when you compare the death tolls in places like the UK and the USA, I am grateful I live in Australia, I’m grateful I live in Canberra.

What did you learn in 2020?

Rob and I never expected to have our 20-year-old daughter living and studying at home. It’s been a joy. We’ve proofread her essays, read some of her texts, watched the films that formed part of her “Film Unit” ( I may never recover from Werner Herzog’s The Grizzly Man).

While I cooked recipes from Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi—my next blog may be called “Sloanalenghi—Rob and Zoe would go bike riding together in the cold Canberra late afternoons.

Being together, working it out, has been wonderful.

Feature image: Alex Sloan. Credit: Martin Ollman

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