We crossed over this week: coronavirus is heaping cruelty upon cruelty

Brigid Delaney
The Guardian

Monday marked the turning. There appeared a line that we all stepped over together into this odd, unsettled twilight land we now find ourselves in.

On Friday thousands still gathered at Bondi beach. But a friend who was there said the vibe, which couldn’t be captured by the pictures (themselves now viral), was more complex. “There was this instinct to come together one last time, to seize the dwindling moment,” he told me. It was less wilful blindness, he said, and more paradoxically a life-affirming impulse in the face of the terrible known unknown that was coming next.

By Sunday, Bondi’s brief Weimar Republic moment was over. The beaches were fenced shut. We all knew now, if we didn’t know it then, that our lives would enter a new, much darker phase, unlike anything most of us have experienced.

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By Monday an estimated 88,000 people lost their jobs in the hospitality industry alone and tried to file for unemployment. The system crashed under the demand.

Black Monday brought waves upon waves of frightening news (record job losses, NRL season over, Olympics won’t go ahead, Queensland to shut borders, 3,000 Australians stranded on cruise ships; pubs, cafe, licensed premises, gyms etc all shut at midday). There were heartbreaking sights: the streets all across the country empty, except for thousands and thousands of people queuing at a mandated social distance for Centrelink. The next day people started lining up at 4:30am.

The virus is invisible – but the economic devastation is a tragedy you could see. Each job loss represents a seismic explosion in an individual’s world. By the end of Monday at least 15% of people I know had lost a substantial portion of their income, or their jobs or businesses they had spent decades building up.

And in all this - when you need it most you cannot get a hug from your friends

Suddenly jobless in my circle were yoga teachers, barmen, baristas, cafe owners, a university support worker, university cleaner, personal trainers, roadies, two tour managers for bands, freelance journalists, friends in PR and regional journalism, playwrights, coffee cart owners, sound engineers, winery owners, chefs, cinema operators, kitchen hands, film production crew, ushers at theatres, stage hands, driving instructors, those doing contract work for financial services, event organisers, florists and professional MCs.

When I spoke to these friends, the conversations were flooded with fear.

As a society, white Australia has not experienced this level of fear collectively before.

Fear is everywhere this week. You can see it in people’s eyes and hear it in their voices. It even leeches out of text messages – as if the virus had the power to distort even the most disembodied form of communication.

But mostly fear is in the air – thick and heavy all around us like an invisible pea soup, carrying an almost chemical taint. This taint feels hormone-like in its elements, a kind of an anti-pheromone that repels rather than attracts. Passing people quickly on the streets the fear is dense and hard to move though and when home, secure in our houses, we carry it back with us on our clothes and around our bodies.

There is cruelty heaped upon cruelty with this pandemic. The fear is not just the mortal fear of contracting what could be a deadly virus, the fear is losing your job and having no money, the fear is being evicted and made homeless, the fear is foreclosure, the fear is being separated from your family – whether interstate or overseas (or in my case, a town two hours away), the fear is bankruptcy and sacking your staff, the fear is your debt, the fear is for the education and anxiety of your children, the fear is for the health of your elderly parents, the fear is for your immunocompromised friends. It goes on.

The fear also includes each person’s unique personal reckoning. Right now we’re all meeting our own fears and limits. Character is being swiftly revealed. Each person’s bundle of fear is different: you are in an imperfect or dysfunctional relationship, or you are isolated alone in an enormous tower in the city in a 50 sqm flat, or you are single and lonely and miss your friends, or you are sheltering with a violent or unpredictable partner, or you are overwhelmed by your children, or you are in substandard or insecure housing, or you are with near strangers in your random share house, or with your boyfriend of three weeks, whom you really don’t know that well – yet.

And in all this, when you need it most you cannot get a hug from your friends.

What parts of ourselves are we going to meet there – in our quarantine houses and apartments, during our 4am insomnia and aching with loneliness and heartache for the lovely, bright lost world outside our doors?

The new world of fear and distance

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On Monday, in central Victoria, it was the last day of trade for many small, independent businesses in my town. The high street had changed overnight. A man (security? management?) stood at the door of the butcher’s shop in gloves, wiping down doors, policing social distancing. Shoppers were wearing face masks, people swerved away from each other when passing in the street. Everything looked familiar, and entirely strange. The weather was crisp and sunny and the gold leaves were yet to turn.

I got my last coffee from my favourite cafe and stood in a warming patch of autumnal sun.

Across the street there was a funeral home, and a service was coming out. There were plastic chairs spaced far apart in the forecourt and large bottles of hand sanitiser on trestle tables.

People came out dispersing onto the street. I watched and waited – then I saw it – people hesitating, then hugging each other quickly on the road.

Watching this broke my heart. It was a bit of the old world of touch and comfort and a bit of the new world of fear and distance. This is the week we’re crossing over.

The cafe shut – indefinitely now, the tables were packed away. I stood still in the patch of sun for a long time after, crying outside a funeral for a stranger, and then walked home to isolate.

• Brigid Delaney is a Guardian Australia columnist

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