A Pando, Iso, & Sanny: How Australians Are Handling ‘The Rona’ Down Under

It had never been more obvious that Australia was an island than when the pandemic hit our shores.

Raspberry trees line the chalk-white gravel path leading to a modest estate that seems as though it could host the royal family on a perfect March day. Was I still in Australia? Tasmania felt — and looked — like the English countryside. Sniffling into a tissue, I waved my school friends off as they attended one of our best friend’s wedding. Although COVID-19 free — I had negative test results that morning — I still couldn’t in good faith attend, as the pandemic was mounting in seriousness with each passing day.

One day later, all Australian non-essential gatherings of more than 100 people were banned. My friends had hosted the last wedding in Tasmania.

Two days later, my home state of Western Australia (WA) announced it was closing the state border, requiring every visitor to self-isolate for fourteen days. We spent the next few days hurriedly canceling and rebooking flights to make it home in time to self-isolate from my elderly parents.

On March 16th, overseas arrivals were required to self-isolate for 14 days and Aussies were encouraged not to travel overseas.     

On March 20th, the Australian Government’s decision to close its borders to all foreigners was a turning point. It had never been more obvious that Australia was an island than when the pandemic hit our shores.

WA, Northern Territory (NT), Queensland, and South Australia (SA) enforced border controls. Non-essential businesses were ordered to close on March 25th, and Australians were banned from overseas travel. Offices became vacant with workers at home. The cities went still.

Two weeks later, (WA) closed its borders for all non-resident visitors for the first time in history, and they have remained shut — and hotly debated — ever since.

While the Australian LGBTQ+ community faces many challenges similar to others in the country, they are particularly vulnerable in regards to mental health, according to a report by released by Equality Australia. Because of this vulnerabiility, they are at greater risk of depression and suicide due to social isolation, of additional health complications as a result of contracting COVID-19, and of accessing health care due to discriminatory barriers.  

When the WHO declared the coronavirus a global Public Health Emergency on January 30th, it felt like a distant problem for countries other than Australia, even when the first COVID case was confirmed in Australia in late January.

The situation changes daily. At the time of writing, Australia had a total of 19,638 cases with 483 cases in the last 24 hours, and 11,112 active cases widely from a recent second wave. To date, 255 Australians have died of COVID-19.

Sure, we all knew it was a long flight for us to get to the United States or Europe, but travel was easy for us. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2018-19 was the highest year on record for Australian residents returning from a short-term trip overseas, with 11.2 million trips. We are a nation renown for our penchant for travel, with the USA being our third highest international destination.

Commentary such as “You’re from Australia, what are you doing over here?” or “You Aussies are everywhere,” rings in our ears whenever we travel. And it’s true, we are everywhere — until now, that is. It’s this geographical isolation that has proven to be one of the strongest protections in Australia’s response to the pandemic.

At the start of the crisis, approximately two-thirds of COVID cases in Australia by source of infection were acquired as result of overseas travel.

“We were very lucky to celebrate our annual Mardi Gras celebration at the end of February, just before physical distancing became necessary to contain the coronavirus pandemic,” says City of Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore. “Tens of thousands of Sydneysiders and visitors lined Oxford Street on one of my favourite nights of the year — a fierce and glittering party borne out of that first bloody protest held in 1978.”

Mardi Gras 2021 has secured funding; however as Australia’s international borders remain shut, will this be a smaller event?

A Series of National Guidelines were developed in consultation with the Communicable Diseases Network Australia. A three-step plan was implemented to gradually remove baseline restrictions. Under this plan, each state and territory government was able to assess their local circumstances and move at their own required speed.

Social distancing and hand washing were widely accepted, even considering the days when people flocked to Bondi Beach, Sydney. It’s easy to focus on the people who aren’t following such protocols, and the sun, salt and surf were like sirens calling.

In April, a cruise ship bungle took over the nation both in debate and health. The Ruby Princess docked in Sydney, and some thousands of passengers disembarked into the city. The next day, New South Wales (NSW) Health Minister Brad Hazzard advised that passengers on the ship had tested positive to the virus, and at that time, led to 1 in 10 of Australia’s total infections. I’m pretty sure that the days of cruising the seas with cocktails and playing shuffleboard are done. Sorry!

But in my home state, the West Australian Government’s harsh border restrictions, implemented in March, kept the coronavirus from spreading within the state. Today, it feels like they have succeeded. 

At the time of writing, WA had 7 active cases, all in hotel quarantine and linked to overseas travel. Last week, I went out for breakfast and wine with friends. This week, I’m flying interstate to Broome for work. Last night, I did a spin class at my gym. But don’t get me wrong, I still felt fairly anxious about heavy breathing in a closed room with others. Disclaimer: This was my second time in a gym in three years, but I’m finding exercise does help with pandemic anxiety overall; 2020 is a good time to be mentally fit in my eyes.

As a former NYC resident, I’m not taking these liberties for granted. My social media, FaceTimes, and chats with friends from abroad are constant reminders of how lucky I am to live in Perth, the most geographically isolated city in the world. The nearest city with a population of more than 100,000 is Adelaide over 2,100 km (or 1,305 miles) away. 

I think our National Cabinet responded to the crisis with gusto. Socially distancing became a part of our lingo. Aussie’s even began shortening words as is common with Australian colloquial language. “Iso” equalled isolation. Hand sanitiser was called “sanny.” Corononavirus became “The ‘Rona.”

Fights erupted in supermarkets over toilet paper shortages which were man-made and not a sign of shortage in the supply chain. Being down to the last roll became a crisis!

As the initial wide lockdown continued, restrictions came into place for pasta, canned food, flour, toilet paper, and alcohol, sparking debates on human rights in the time of crisis.

Equality Australia reports on specific hardships for the LGBTQ+ community in social isolation and dislocation who rely on access to their community may be living in violence to living on their own.

Over the summer, when Australia burned with raging – and unprecedented – bushfires, the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, went on holidays. Public opinion was not in favour as he mismanaged a crisis of the land and people. Yet, for the next crisis, the polls began to turn in his favor.  

Morrison’s 213.6 billion-Australian-dollar stimulus package provided assistance to thousands of businesses and people who are experiencing hardship from the pandemic, leading to public opinion to sway back in his favor.

Similarly, WA Premier Mark McGowan’s popularity is skyrocketing in his state due to his unwavering stance on hard border closures — particularly against this second wave.

For me, I often wonder if popularity is a good thing for politicians. Like parenting, it shouldn’t be a popularity game. Boundaries and decisions need to be made for the greater good. Sometimes you’re luckier than others, like when your state is across a desert like Western Australia is.  

At times, things don’t go your way, but that’s not the fault of a single politician. All I think we need of politicians is for them to show up, be smart, be humble, listen, and support the public. Hey, if they can skull a beer too, that won’t hurt. 

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At the moment, the rest of Australia is not as lucky as Western Australia. Melbourne, Victoria — our second most populous city — is experiencing a second wave due to a hotel quarantine bungle. The inquiry, which will investigate links between the current Melbourne outbreak and the hotel quarantine program manned by private security companies, has been delayed until Melbourne’s Stage 4 lockdown is over.

The second lockdown is harsh. Melbournians are under a curfew from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. and masks are mandatory. Residents are allowed out of the house for approved purposes only such as shopping for food, caregiving, or one hour of daily exercise.

My friends who live there have reported seeing people sewing masks in the street to hand out to people. The vibrancy of Melbourne that once surrounded its nightlife and restaurants has transferred to the community projects like this.

Masks are mandatory when you leave home in the state of Victoria from Sunday, August 2nd (unless an exemption applies). At the time of writing, residents of New South Wales (NSW) are encouraged to consider wearing a mask if physical distancing is not possible. I predict that masks will soon be mandatory in Sydney, NSW.

The virus is now spreading from Melbourne into COVID free states that had previously almost eliminated the virus, like Western Australia. Not one to be caught unprepared — unless, of course, it’s not related to the health of my family — I ordered hand sewn masks. I think mask-wearing is likely to become a normal part of our lives for years. 

Sydney is increasingly showing new clusters linked to the Melbourne outbreak. As I read the news, I see my former place of residence – the inner west suburbs of Sydney – begin to record positive cases. Pubs, and cafes, which I attended regularly when I lived there, are now closed for deep cleans after recording COVID case contacts. I feel relief, followed by a sense of anxiety for friends that live there.

Rainbow Health Victoria suggests there is an urgent need to secure and enhance LGBTQ+ community-controlled health and community services to meet heightened needs. According to the report, domestic violence in same-sex households is similar to those reported in heterosexual ones; such violence might increase under isolation. Similarly, LGBTQ+ persons living in isolation with family members who don’t accept their identities may suffer rejection and even abuse, leading to negative mental health consequences. 

Until late July, Tasmania — an island of its own — had no reported COVID cases. Tasmania shut its borders except to returning residents, which assisted greatly in its response.  The cases are linked to Victorians.

South Australia, which shares a border with Victoria, is no longer COVID free.

The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) closed its borders to Victoria on July 3rd after a cluster of new cases ruined its COVID free status. 

The Northern Territory had zero community transmission or recorded COVID cases until this month. The NT, known for crocodiles and extreme heat and weather conditions, shut its borders from the start yet reopened in mid-July before the Victorian outbreak. Since then, three cases have been recorded.

Sunny Queensland was mostly spared — until now. In late July, two young teenagers broke quarantine to travel to Queensland. They were active in the community for eight days, then tested positive. There’s been some debate in Australia over how these two female teens were named and shamed on front pages of the media, yet the security guard hotel breaches in Melbourne were not. Especially in times of crisis, inequality can be found.

It feels like a lifetime ago when I think back to celebrating the festive season and wondering what life would bring for 2020.

My cousin and his now-wife celebrated their Australian wedding in early January in a country pub that played host to a mob of kangaroos at dusk. They were living in Shanghai at the time and flew back to China for their Chinese wedding. This wedding was canceled, as restrictions in China were put into place due to coronavirus. Then the pandemic felt foreign, like it wouldn’t reach our shores. It has, though, and now it’s a part of our social fabric to deal with and cope.

Australians have a saying: “She’ll be right.” It’s a frequently used idiom that is loosely translated to “Whatever is wrong will right itself in time.”

It’s an optimistic term, but it doesn’t mean we aren’t taking things seriously. Most Australians are considerate of the situation at hand.

In a recent survey outlined by independent news source The Conversation, for example, 87% of Australians said they often or always washed their hands, while 86% reported often or always staying home, and 86% often or always staying two metres away from others.

Masks will be worn, distances will be respected, and we will keep on with it, until of course, “She’s right”.


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