The one sight that you are pretty much guaranteed to see in Bali is a bunch of drunk Australians. With its short flight time and low cost, Bali is understandably a popular choice, and in late February 2020 Geoff and Jen succumb to the trend and fly there for a short holiday. Geoff, in his late 60’s, does not spend his time looking for cheap cocktails or bartering for a Bintang shirt. Instead, he takes a more leisurely pace – swimming in the hotel pool and absorbing the local culture. He and Jen take a day tour with a guide who describes how his family were killed in the Kuta bombing many years ago, and Geoff while sympathetic, is fascinated. It’s a big day, they leave at 8am and don’t return to the hotel until almost 9pm. The fact that this will be their last overseas trip for multiple years could not be further from Geoff’s mind.
It’s on the way back to the airport to catch their flight home that Geoff receives a message from his daughter back in Australia. The message warns somewhat randomly that they may in fact have trouble getting home – countries are starting to react to this Coronavirus thing that has been circulating globally, and now flights are even being cancelled. For Geoff who has been in holiday mode, the warning comes out of left field, but in fact, even their taxi driver is aware of their potential predicament – you should be okay, the driver reassures, but lucky your flight wasn’t a few hours later or you might’ve been stuck here.
The driver drops Geoff and Jen at the airport, chaotic with queues inside. They’ve never been to Bali before though, so perhaps this is all normal. They navigate their way through the bewildering security system – Indonesian officials try to confiscate a few jars of preserves they have purchased, on the basis that they won’t be allowed to bring them into Australia. They argue for a while – the local shop owner had assured them it would be allowed – until the officials finally give up and they are permitted to repack the jars in their luggage. They board the flight and arrive in Melbourne early the next morning before finally making it to their house in Taylor’s Lakes on the northern side of the city. In the weak morning light, they stumble around outside the front door trying to locate the house key which Geoff has shrewdly hidden inside his suitcase. It’s a relief to be home.
The holiday officially complete, Geoff and Jen expect to return to their usual life activities. Geoff’s mother, who is in her early 90’s and lives around a two hour drive from Melbourne, has unfortunately been unwell and does not appear to have made any significant improvement on their return. Meanwhile, Coronavirus cases are continuing to pop up in Melbourne, and broad restrictions are put in place throughout the entire state of Victoria. The restrictions murmur in the back of Geoff’s mind, but caring for relatives in scenarios such as this is an exception to the rules established by the Victorian government, and so he continues making the drive in and out of Melbourne to see her.
Perhaps due to the precariousness of his mother’s health, Geoff is filled with a strong need to visit his extended family who live in rural Victoria. He makes loose plans to meet up with about 8 cousins but strangely, when he arrives at the well-worn hotel in Victoria’s north, only 3 actually show up. Geoff is mystified until the cousin he is closest to finally explains: the others are just too scared to meet him face to face because he’s coming from the city where the virus is circulating. What if Geoff himself has the virus – from what they know, it’s super contagious. Geoff is sympathetic; after all, his cousins live in the bush where the risk of contracting the virus (or any virus really) is pretty damn remote. Still, he had never considered that his cousins may have this perception of him as some kind of dangerous diseased person – his time has been tied up with caring for his mother outside of Melbourne, he’s hardly seen anyone else to risk getting sick. The likelihood of him being exposed to the virus appears minimal at best.
The virus continues to spread throughout Victoria, particularly Melbourne, and Geoff’s mother sadly passes away on Good Friday in early April. His mother, pragmatic to the end and fully cognizant of the COVID restrictions for group gatherings, had made her expectations regarding her funeral more than clear – only her two children and their spouses should attend. The Victorian government subsequently announces a lockdown which is initially done by postcode, and includes the area that Geoff and Jen happen to live in, even though no positive cases have actually been identified in their particular suburb. It is not until positive cases are identified in aged care facilities, causing the death of 700 elderly people, that the serious lockdown begins, and by July, a metaphorical ring of steel is erected around Melbourne’s perimeter. Melbourne residents are now inmates of their own city and only permitted to leave for a handful of reasons.
Accustomed to a reasonably reclusive lifestyle, Geoff can bear the instruction to “stay at home” pretty easily. Instead, it’s the perceived curtailment of personal freedom that he struggles with the most. Born and having lived in Australia all his life, he has never had to submit to such definite limitations on his own freedom of movement. This is after all the winter period of his life, he’s retired, he has the time and the means to travel, both nationally and internationally if he wants, so why can’t he do what he wants? Shouldn’t he be allowed to choose how he spends his time? In the end, the logical part of his brain wins this internal battle and he can’t help but accept that the restrictions are necessary. They have to stop this virus.
The ring of steel that has been painted around Melbourne although strong is not equally guarded all the way around. Geoff and Jen take a drive to visit Jen’s elderly mother, which is one of the exceptions allowing them to temporarily leave. They take an alternative route out of the city, yet no one stops them to ask why they are travelling nor is there any obvious checkpoint. It is clear that there are ways to circumvent the ring if you stay away from the main roads. On the return trip, they take the main highway and glide smoothly into the city, while the outbound lane resembles a carpark. This is where you are required to justify your way out. Cars are banked up for miles and some even appear to have been abandoned in the emergency lanes – by people that have apparently walked to the other side and been picked up by a friend.
Lockdown during a Melbourne winter makes for a pretty cold and solitary existence, even for Geoff who doesn’t normally go out that much. Geoff does not see his daughter and her family who live an hour away for 3-4 months. Most of his friends live outside of Melbourne and unlike Jen he’s not one for online social activity. Nor is he able to continue his usual tutoring of students or volunteering activities. He’s not an avid reader, he doesn’t watch a lot of television, and their garden is already immaculate. He doesn’t do the crossword. Living in suburbia, there aren’t many places to walk within the permitted 5 kilometres and he finds himself longing to be in the country where he grew up and spent so much of his initial working life. In the country, walk 5 kilometres and you’ve probably walked out of town. In the end, Jen purchases a puppy for Geoff – an addition to their home that was always contemplated, but certainly accelerated by the conditions of lockdown.
Melbourne and the state of Victoria will go in and out of lockdowns for the remainder of 2020. The specifics of the restrictions fluctuate making it difficult to keep track, even the exercise allowance vacillates between 1 and 2 hours per day over the course of the period. Geoff and Jen ultimately decide to sell their Melbourne house in early 2021 and purchase a place 30 minutes outside of the city – a kind of hybrid of city-life (COVID-free) convenience and the freedom and fresh air of the country. The move clearly pays off when Melbourne goes into its fourth lockdown in the first half of 2021 and they are left unaffected, their new home considered to be in a rural area.
One year on from the first lockdown and following an outbreak of cases from across the State border, Victoria has entered lockdown number 5 (at the time of posting they were in number 6). Geoff, like many others in the state, is unfazed, perhaps resigned to the unappealing likelihood that this lockdown will probably not be their last. Or perhaps it has more to do with having a new house in the country, with boxes still to unpack and a garden in need of some serious love and attention. He is almost fully vaccinated – and is hopeful that once most people have had their two jabs the virus won’t have so much of an impact on daily life. The process of moving away from this virus, or learning to live with it, getting back to normal, or however you frame it, is certainly slow. He goes for a walk around his new neighbourhood with Harry the dog, and realizes with surprise that everyone is wearing a mask. He hasn’t twigged that it’s actually still a requirement to wear them even in the open air.
Geoff is fortunate to have already taken several international trips during his lifetime, although truthfully, he would like to return to England one day and go for another stroll in the Cotswolds. Yet, the future, including when he and Jen will be allowed to leave Australia, is unknown. At this point, he’d settle for a trip interstate, but even that remains uncertain for as long as the states persist with conflicting pandemic-management strategies.
Perhaps they’ll be out of this by 2022. Optimists would say sooner. Only time will tell.