Day 120 in the time of coronavirus and my thoughts tonight drift over the Tasman to Melbourne and the wider state of Victoria, where people are suffering. In the last twenty four hours there have been 384 new cases and six deaths and still the numbers are rising and there seems to be no end in sight. Unbelievably Melbourne is now in a second lockdown and this time it is police-enforced, they patrol the state border, and on the northern boundary the state of New South Wales has restricted people from Victoria entering for the first time since the 1919 flu pandemic. The premier of Victoria, Daniel Andrews says, ‘I’m scared of this. We all should be.’
It is alarming how rapidly the situation has deteriorated for in mid-June, Melbourne, like New Zealand was doing well. Life was returning to normal, or as normal as it might be in the time of coronavirus. Restaurants, gyms, the beaches were open again. There was talk of a trans-Tasman bubble opening anytime soon. Instead the case numbers in Victoria are now almost as high as in the UK.
Supposedly it all began at a city hotel when there was contact between security guards and seven returning travellers in quarantine, who then later tested covid-19 positive. They say the transmission could have been the result of something as seemingly innocuous as the sharing of a cigarette lighter, although that is an unfortunate analogy as cigarettes are not innocuous. Then it spread like lightening through public housing towers and aged care facilities and into the community stretching hospital and medical resources so thin that specialist medical teams from around the country are now being brought in.
It makes me sad. Melbourne is one of my favourite cities. For many years I travelled there annually and indulged, for that is how it feels now in what was another life with its overseas travel to soak up culture, moving freely following individualistic whims and, in Melbourne, steeping in the vast array of cultural activities on offer. I was happy wandering the streets under the leafy plane trees, threading my way down tiny lanes amongst some of the most splendid examples of Victorian Gothic architecture anywhere, big and solid and monumental, smaller, detailed, glorious. Always I would visit Butterfield’s church opposite the railway station, with its constructional polychromy and if I was lucky find a pew and listen to a choir rehearsing. And of course the art galleries, I feasted on the exhibitions.
My last trip was in 2017, six months before my marriage ended, when I was fortunate to see a retrospective of the work of Australian artist John Olsen, his paintings, panels, sketches, ceramics, tapestries, his workbooks and journal entries — oh he was a writer as well, such descriptive, lyrical prose. His work is featured in the photograph here. To think that those galleries are now closed. Streets are silent. The people are indoors.
I was considering all this when I sent a text message to my cousin who lives there. We hadn’t been in contact for some time but reading her reply I felt instantly close. Her words illustrated the hardship people are facing better than any news item. She said they’d had a scare last week. Her husband had been in contact with somebody who had tested positive with Covid-19. Everyone was then tested. So far all the associates of this surgeon were negative. Then she wrote that she has her good days and bad days. ‘It’s really hard to keep the spirits up on the cold grey days when the news is bad and there is no end to the stories of the selfish types who believe it’s a conspiracy, refuse to wear masks, continue to hold parties and large family gatherings, don’t isolate when they are Covid-19 positive etc etc. This time has been an insight into human nature.’ Then she said something that surprised me. She wrote I had been her saviour. What could she mean? It was my book, the pain journal I wrote almost nine years ago, ‘Giving Yourself to Life’ which was about a confounding neurological pain I suffered, and still suffer, and finding a way to live with the raspy, snapping sensations that then grew into a kind of treatise on all the pain that afflicts the human spirit over the course of a life. At that time, in my life there was earthquake pain watching a beloved city fall down, for I was writing in 2011 — 2012, there was the pain of past losses, there was the pain of witnessing my mother living valiantly with MS. My cousin said she turns to this book for inspiration ‘when I am down. It resides permanently by my bed now.’ Her revelation is moving. I had no idea when I was writing that book all that time ago that it might one day help someone during the pandemic.