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The beginning's end



We are at the end of the beginning. ‘If you feel you have coronavirus…’ I tune out emotionally and daydream as the public service announcement plays over and over in empty trams and trains, and in deserted shopping centres. Likewise, the regularly updated posters, once read and puzzled out, are quickly part of the scenic wallpaper.

Empty train Melbourne (Getty images/Rodger Shagam)

In Australia, where despite our blunders and our worst and best efforts we have had a limited amount of fatalities, we seem to be in our Drôle de guerre or our ‘phoney war’ (that’s what historians dubbed the period from September 1939 to April 1940 during WWII for the relative lack of action).

The initial panic purchasing has settled down (the belligerent racism has unfortunately not gone away). The soothsayers, mythmakers, truthshakers and doomsayers have had their hits, their headlines, fatality rates, sources of indignation and horrified delight.

Across Oz, we have settled into a scared, resigned half-life. Those of us in essential services get up, travel into emptied workplaces and travel home to repeat the same the next day.

An estimated million Australians rendered unemployed through dire need to contain the spread of COVID-19 have become acquainted with the pain of a frayed safety net and are exploring the federal government’s stimulus packages with bosses or former bosses.

Our nation’s senior citizens are mothballed. Those of us with elderly parents and grandparents are hoping we will see them again on the other side of the viral tide. Children, teenagers and the twenty-somethings, post-bushfires, are online or binge watching what they can.


'Chalk drawings of birds, rainbows, butterflies, flowers emerge on footpaths, and teddy bears poke their hirsute snouts against windows to amuse young kids and their weary parents and carers as they perambulate the same blocks, getting the same raised eyes, smiles and nods.'


Shopping for the bare necessities, eschewing physical contact, isolating ourselves to protect the vulnerable. The holding pattern is holding; at least for now.

And what is the price of this half-life we are living? 

Family violence stats seem to be spiking in some states, especially New South Wales. Amanda Gearing wrote that there ‘is no longitudinal research on what happens when families are required by government regulation to stay at home for six months, because it has not happened in living memory. Victims and their children who live with the perpetrator will be at constant risk.'

Australia’s mental health is also being impacted by the uncertainties and isolation. The Australian Government has funded a COVID-19 National Health Plan and Beyond Blue has great resources for us to share.

Spiritually? I think we are seeing some signs of resilience in people’s homes, streets and lanes.

The signs of joy — if muted — can be traced. A neighbour down the road invites us to join the valiant handful of suburbanites standing at our fences and sing. Don’t worry, be happy. Always look on the bright side of life. You get the idea.

Chalk drawings of birds, rainbows, butterflies, flowers emerge on footpaths, and teddy bears poke their hirsute snouts against windows to amuse young kids and their weary parents and carers as they perambulate the same blocks, getting the same raised eyes, smiles and nods.

My house of musos is planning to play some hymns in our front yard on Anzac Day. The young bloke has been polishing the 'Last Post' and 'Reveille' on his cornet.

The missus is driving an hour up country to pick up her elderly Mum’s car and take it to be serviced. Entreaties of love and concern will be murmured towards the screen doors with the obligatory physical distance maintained.

These past months have changed me. After decades in media and communications roles, I have started a new gig as a marketplace coordinator for the Salvos at ‘614’, at 69 Bourke Street in the heart of Melbourne. That means I give hungry people food.

Part of my role is coordinating a team of volunteers. One person has come in so far to help out for a day; the rest are understandably and rightly protecting themselves, their dependents and loved ones.

One day I estimate I pack and tote around 70 odd food parcels. Pasta, long-life milk, cereal, tins of tuna, beans. Chocolate and lollies and toothpaste. I am learning from the people I work with, and the people I serve. They are inordinately patient and kind and wise.

We’re seeing generosity and inclusion on the part of companies and groups. Hotels and motels are opening rooms to get people safely off the streets. The Parliament of Victoria is storing and cooking food for us to feed people.

These are signs of promise, not despair.

As for the punters, some of them are depressed, some are dismissive, and others are oblivious. One bloke tells me not to worry about the ‘bloody Canola Virus’.

I don’t know what the middle will hold for us, or how far away the end of the pandemic will be. But the beginning has taken the scales off our eyes. We are seeing who we really are as a people.



Barry GittinsBarry Gittins is a Melbourne writer.

Main image: Empty train Melbourne (Getty images/Rodger Shagam)

Topic tags: Barry Gittins, COVID-19, Australia



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Existing comments

What have I missed during our isolation? Not being able to be with two of my grandchildren on their birthdays, my voluntary work and attending Mass. What have I been scared about during our isolation? My son in London, being isolated, but at least able to work from home. On the positive side, I've found out how resilient are all my children and grandchildren. I've found out that being able to walk in the sunshine is a privilege. These are important things to know.

Pam | 24 April 2020  

Isn't it amazing how a public crisis motivates politicians to remanifest Churchill - in their own image of course. The number of Battle of France and Battle of Britain direct quotes and reinterpretations I've heard lately from the most unlikely of Churchill reincarnations falls almost without exception something short of seriousness. But it does much for comic relief.

PaulM | 24 April 2020  

Thanks Barry. Keep up the thoughtful commentary based in practice.

Craig | 24 April 2020  

There is a sort of mad Goon Show or Monty Python humour to this whole business and that is not to ignore the real tragedy of what has happened. The title of your article, slightly changed to 'The End of the Beginning', could be the title of a bittersweet play because these times are bittersweet. I must confess, where I live in Brisbane, I have seen the better side of human nature. Everyone has faults but I think we are all trying to get there.

Edward Fido | 24 April 2020  

“(the belligerent racism has unfortunately not gone away).” The profession of social science would be careful to attribute causation to some factor without careful study of the actors concerned, lest it be committing a reductionism. Psychologically ‘normal‘ people can be sceptical or hostile towards some ethnicities but their scepticism or hostility would tend to be expressed in muted forms that are barely visible out of social prudence. Lack of impulse control, or deliberate criminal action because of inability to empathise, is usually a mental health issue and the event is usually an opportunistic crime caused by the idiosyncratic circumstances of the situation. In this case, Covid might have provided a convenient script with which to shape an outburst. Had the virus originated in the US, a couple of girls with audibly North American accents (perhaps Canadians) might have been victims instead. So too with misogynism attributed to certain rape/murders when the real proximate cause seems to be mental illness in the offender. But, of course, it is handy to the Left agenda that mental illness is always beatified and canonised as a sainted victimhood when sometimes, being a sickness and nothing more, it simply has an impersonally aggressive nature.

roy chen yee | 24 April 2020  

Enjoyed this article very much. I'm not sure where media commentators shop, but I am still seeing huge spaces in supermarket shelves. The freezer section in IGA was nearly cleaned out on Monday last week. Nice to see the slow return of toilet paper, but nowhere near the usual stock amounts. I think the panic buying is as bad as ever. As is rightly observed, overt racism is still with us; perhaps this is most concerning. Were these people always full of hate and have now found their target? I fear this is so.

Annon | 24 April 2020  

It's times like this when we should appreciate the benefits of a federal system of government. The way in which the prime minister on the one hand and the premiers and chief ministers on the other have worked together has been impressive but the reason that they have had to do so is because neither side had a monopoly on power or resources and both sides needed the other in order to achieve their objectives. Imagine the the outcome if this had been a unitary state with someone like Dutton as PM imposing his or her solutions across the board.

Ginger Meggs | 27 April 2020  

Ginger Meggs: “but the reason that they have had to do so is because neither side had a monopoly on power or resources and both sides needed the other in order to achieve their objectives. Imagine the the outcome if this had been a unitary state with someone like Dutton as PM.” If you’re suggesting that Dutton wouldn’t have had a lockdown, you’d very probably be mistaken. The Great COVID Lockdown is a phot op godsend for a PM: every day in the centre of the public eye looking strong and statesmanlike and bearing more fruits to the populace in one form of hibernation pocketmoney or another. Who could resist? Only a strange Trumpian genius could derail such a gift from the gods.

roy chen yee | 01 May 2020  

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