Mildura is one of Australia’s border towns located on the Victorian side of the Murray River, cross the bridge and suddenly you’re in a whole different state. While working as the in-house lawyer for a Government department, Michelle chats idly with a co-worker whose mother is planning to go on a cruise, despite this “Asian flu” that’s been floating about. Out here in Mildura, six hours from Melbourne and another 10 from Sydney, stuff that goes on in the cities is often irrelevant to those living in regional areas. Yet, by the end of the week, news of this “flu” seems to have travelled so far along the highway they can almost see it rising from the dust on the outskirts of town, so much so that Michelle suggests to her co-worker that her mother should probably rethink her cruise plans.
Largely controlled by the Government, Michelle’s employer soon starts issuing guidelines for handling this new “coronavirus”. “Working from home” is initially more of a recommendation than a mandate however and Michelle finds herself still zipping in and out of the office amid the hum of the government’s daily changing directives. The day care facility where Michelle’s two little girls go is still open, but after discussing, Michelle and her husband Zach make the decision to leave their girls with Michelle’s parents instead. It seems sensible to keep them home given they don’t have any control over who their girls interact with at day care. Other than the focus on hygiene, all changes in routine are left to parents to explain – the imposing sign which guards the now cordoned off playground is of little use to its main patrons who haven’t yet mastered how to read.
Restrictions ramp up over the coming weeks, and soon even visiting other people’s houses is forbidden. The gravity of this rule lands with a thud in March as Michelle’s youngest Hazel is about to turn 1. Kids’ birthday parties are totally wiped from the menu, but damn it, they can still have cake, so Michelle recruits her oldest daughter Iris to help mix and decorate it – who cares if Hazel won’t remember any of it? Throughout the day, Michelle snaps photo with her phone of their tiny family of four, feeling weirdly guilty as she wonders how she will explain the absence of party guests to Hazel in 21 years’ time.
It’s the lack of in-person social interaction for their two little ones that scratches constantly at the back of Michelle’s mind. Within her mothers group May is normally crammed with birthdays and events calling for multiple social get-togethers, but this year, such events have been reduced to something of a drive-by letter-bomb affair. They drive to the house of Iris’s little friend, intending to do the usual drop, honk and drive, but Iris, sitting in the back seat, is unable to comprehend why she is not allowed to go up and knock on the front door. In the end, mercifully impeded by her booster seat and child lock she makes her own gloomy conclusion, “Well, I guess that’s it, I don’t have any friends anymore.”
Iris’s own birthday is also in May, and like Hazel and the rest of her friends there will be no party this year, just mummy, daddy and baby sis. Michelle, again determined to properly mark the occasion, bravely dons her super-mum cape and spends the next 3 days constructing an elaborate unicorn cake, glass of wine within easy reach at all times. Even the gifts this year can’t escape the pandemic’s indelible scent and in addition to a new bike Iris unwraps a bunch of home-based activities in anticipation of those future lockdowns. The family of four take a walk around the block to Michelle’s parents’ house, and wave to Grandma and Grandpa who stand on the front step, unable to exchange the customary birthday cuddles.
By mid-2020, things seem to have stabilized and Michelle decides to make the move back from government-based work to private practice, taking up a position as partner at her old law firm. Any sense of security is short-lived, however and soon enough Mildura finds itself once again subject to restrictions which are imposed state-wide even though there are no positive cases in the region. For Michelle the difference between working in the public sector and private is striking – instead of receiving specific instructions developed by a specially assembled government COVID team, Michelle and her business partner are suddenly personally responsible for the firm’s entire staff, with little to no practical guidance on how a private business is supposed to operate during a pandemic. Strong in her resolve that the number 1 priority is protection of their staff, Michelle finds herself not only assisting reluctant employees to work from home, but also running around to put in place the currently non-existent technological infrastructure needed for remote work to successfully function. Certain staff must be sent home without pay and the knowledge that they are living pay cheque to pay cheque tugs at Michelle’s conscience like a thick rope. As soon as there is the slightest hint of restrictions easing, Michelle is greeted by a queue of staff begging to return to the office, weary of home schooling, of struggling to establish a clear boundary between home-life and work, and craving the social interaction which naturally manifests in an office environment.
Their work from home set-up is not perfect – like many law firms, they still use hard copy files in addition to an electronic system, and it is not uncommon for frustrated staff to find documents missing from either location. Many of the clients they deal with, especially those needing assistance with family or criminal issues, don’t have ready access to the internet and are therefore unable to attend consultations or court hearings remotely. Courts too, in rural areas as well as the cities, are forced to adapt and conduct hearings via video-link. Continued delays resulting from multiple adjournments leave clients frustrated and their lawyers increasingly anxious about the impending workload which will inevitably catch up with them.
As Mildura grapples with fluctuating state-wide restrictions, across the bridge in New South Wales, a wholly different state with wholly different rules, life progresses pretty much as normal. Residents on the other side of the river still go to the pub on a Friday night, still have their friends around for dinner, and still spend their weekends socializing. They don’t know what it is to live in a lockdown world and a frosty division between the two now disparate communities can’t help but grow. Michelle and Zach, like so many Victorian residents tired of restrictions which seem totally disproportionate to a zero case situation, go to the supermarket across the border just for the pleasure of shopping without the requirement to wear a mask. Eager to support local businesses, they take their family for a ride on a paddle-steamer which picks them up on the Victorian side of the river as they stand waiting, faces hidden behind the mandatory masks. Yet, as soon as they step onto the boat, they are informed that masks may be removed. After all, on the river they are officially in New South Wales.
In early 2021, Michelle and her family sell their house on the Victorian side and move across the river to the free state of New South Wales. After so long without a single positive case, in July 2021 it finally happens, and unluckily the café where Michelle and Zach went for their coffee that morning is classified as an exposure site. Not only is the Mildura side of the river sent into lockdown, Michelle and Zach must also self-quarantine in their new house with the girls for 14 days.
Confined to the house because of “that naughty coronavirus”, Iris and Hazel adapt pretty well to mummy and daddy working from home and the strict instruction that the front door is made of “lava” and therefore must not be crossed. A rule of, if you can reach it you can eat it, is implemented and while Michelle passes the hours attending court via video-link, the girls drag stools to the cupboard to pull down their favourite snacks, conveniently ordered from Woolworths online. Overall, the 4 enjoy the enforced family time, and the two weeks would have ended relatively painlessly if the Victorian government hadn’t refused to issue their official release simply because they are New South Wales residents not Victorian. It’s an absurd technical point which begs the question of who actually issued the self-quarantine direction under which they have been confined these past 2 weeks.
Living across the river, Michelle now has to allow an extra 20-30 minutes just to cross the congested border to get to and from work, and with her NSW license plate is regularly stopped by the local police that have been deployed to the border. But it’s crossing for non-work related reasons that causes the most anxiety when one evening in July, Michelle’s dad who lives on the other side of the border is unexpectedly taken to hospital by ambulance. At 7.30pm, desperate to sit with her mum who is not permitted to enter the hospital under current restrictions, Michelle jumps in her car and drives towards the checkpoint, uneasiness fluttering in her stomach. What if they don’t let her through, even though she clearly has a permitted exemption for travel? Being a lawyer, Michelle is not one to shy away from a fight and gripping the steering wheel, she steels herself ready to ignore any contrary directive, just drive straight through and deal with any fines later. Thankfully, the police are understanding and she is quickly allowed to cross the bridge.
It’s been a long road, and Michelle thinks of vaccination like a seat belt, “if I wear it, I’m not going to die.” Yet the path ahead remains uncertain. Iris is due to start school next year, and Michelle worries how she will adapt to a new environment continuously interrupted by lockdowns. She longs to hug her extended family that live all around Australia, whom she hasn’t seen in months, but is thankful to be living regionally surrounded by open space, with their big backyard and mostly decent weather. Still she can’t help but dream of the day when they will plan a holiday and not have to worry about it being cancelled.
She is looking forward to having Australia back.