MY CORONAVIRUS STORY, 2020: Part 1
In early March 2020 something sucked the fun out of the world and the joy disappeared. The dark cloud started to gain media attention in late January. Something was oozing out of China. At that stage it didn’t look like it would smash the whole planet. Besides, the Swine Flu in 2009 and SARS in 2003, were similar problems that stemmed from China. These were brought under control before too much hysteria had taken hold. I watched, surprised, as Italy was hit, thinking, like most, it would soon be dealt with. I was wrong.
I had booked a flight from Savannah, Georgia, to Sydney on February 28th. At this stage the US had 64 confirmed cases of Coronavirus. The first reported US death was on March 1st, a man in Washington state, in his 50s, with underlying health issues. The NY Times published an article by Sheri Fink on March 13th, predicting that as many as 1.7 million people in the US could die from the virus.
I had to fly out because my three-month US visitor’s visa was due to expire. My wife had a teaching contract in Georgia, with The Savannah College of Art and Design. Her extended visa was organised but I had to leave. I’d arranged however, for two exhibitions in Australia during this time, to make the long journey worthwhile.
The crowded flights took me from Savannah to Charlotte, North Carolina, then from Charlotte to LA. All seats were full. The passengers showed little evidence of fear, or concern. During my short stop at the newly renovated LAX, I noticed about 15% of the travellers wearing face masks. My Qantas flight to Sydney was another full flight. I was wedged into window seat by a pleasant, overweight American couple on their way to Perth for the first time. The long flight was without incident apart from one passenger a few seats away, requiring assistance, an hour before we landed. The attendant asked if there was a doctor on board. One came to help.
Sydney Airport was a breath of fresh air after the crowded, full flights and the crush of the US airports. It felt comforting to be home, more so this time for some reason. Here, the sense of urgency was no longer noticeable. The newness and spaciousness of the surroundings was a comfort. I flew to Adelaide with two empty seats beside me. Exhausted, I took all three and napped. I’d booked myself into an Adelaide city hotel for two nights in order to rest and acclimatise. Adelaide was not yet affected by the virus tsunami. It was only a background murmur in early March. Everything was operating normally.
I was sore from the long journey and had my muscles pounded and kneaded for an hour by a Chinese masseur. During my week in Adelaide the stories from China and Italy, gained more air-time. Beginning February 4th, flights from China and Iran had been barred from Australia but flights from Italy and Europe were still coming in. In the local supermarket, the toilet paper section was strangely empty. It soon became a nightly news story after three women were filmed physically fighting over rolls of toilet paper. This was screened around the world and Australia looked ridiculous. Soon, it would be the same story everywhere. The PM, Scott Morrison appeared nightly on TV to tell us there was no problem, the shelves would be restocked. We were not to panic. The shelves were never restocked and toilet paper wasn’t easily available again for the next six weeks. What else was a falsehood?
My first exhibition was in Adelaide, at Aptos Cruz Gallery on Saturday, March 7th. The opening was well attended but there were no sales.
After my opening, on Saturday evening, I began a journey to Canberra. I’d arranged to drive my daughter’s car to her as she’d started her first year at Australian National University just weeks before. I made it to a motel in Bordertown the first night, then to a friend’s seaside house in Mornington, Victoria the second night.
In Canberra the sun was shining with the weather perfect, bright and warm. The broad streets were busy. I took my daughter to dinner at a large, well patronised Asian restaurant, and we enjoyed a delicious meal. The next afternoon, March 10th, I flew to The Gold Coast to spend the night at my sister-in-law’s house with her husband and their three children. I picked up my wife’s Jeep, that had been stored while we were overseas, and drove ninety minutes the next day, to Bangalow, NSW, to stay in my brother-in-law’s vacant, self-contained cabin. The plan was to wait there for two weeks until I made my way North to Townsville. My exhibition at The Perc Tucker Regional Gallery was scheduled to open on Friday, April 3rd. I spent the days between March 11th and March 18th reading and painting, feeling relaxed and settled in Bangalow. I visited the Bangalow pub a few times and caught up with friends who’d arrived there the same time as me. There was talk about the virus but it hadn’t impacted at that stage. There was only a sense of nervousness. I was wondering if my Townsville exhibition might be impacted but I brushed it off. Townsville was a long way away from the bustling Gold Coast. Surely it would be safe?
In a mirroring of early overseas restrictions, on March 13th, the PM announced a ban on outdoor mass gatherings of over 500 people. Just days before, he said he was planning to attend the National Rugby League’s big football match in Sydney. He was criticized for this by the opposition party. Indoor events were now limited to 100 people.
My accommodation in my brother-in-law’s cabin, came to an end suddenly on March 18th, when he explained that a friend of his, returning from LA, needed a place to self-isolate. I had to move within two days.
I decided to head to Townsville early. To bide time, again I stayed on the Gold Coast, with my sister-in-law’s family again for two nights, then, on Saturday March 21st, I headed north, via the Sunshine Coast. The Sunshine Coast streets and beaches were packed; jostling.
I drove on and headed towards Rockhampton spending the night in a motel. I found a local pub to get a steak and a beer. The service was still normal but there was a sense of tension building. The following night I stayed in a caravan park, an hour from Bowen. Dinner that night was at another pub but now there were ‘new orders’ in place. Tables had to be spread apart one and a half metres to create distance between patrons. The bar staff were noticeably on edge.
I made it to Bowen, two hours from Townsville, on Monday morning, March 23rd. I felt a sense that I could get stuck in Australia, so out of caution I went to the Centrelink office in Bowen. I’d heard the PM make announcements about economic relief across the board, for those affected by the closures. In this small town, The Centrelink office wasn’t crowded, but there were precautions already in place. The receptionist asked the standard questions I was to hear over and over again in coming weeks,
‘Have you travelled overseas in the past fourteen days? Have you been in contact with anyone with Coronavirus?’
She then asked my age. I told her ‘66’. She then quickly shut down any hope of getting assistance.
‘Go home and go on-line,’ She said, ‘You need to apply for the old age pension. We can’t help you here.’
I tried to protest that this was a long and difficult process but she wouldn’t listen. She was firm. The conversation was over.
Next door was an inviting bakery. It was 11.30 am. At the counter the woman explained I was just in time to be allowed to sit down at a table. In a half an hour, from midday there would be no more indoors dining. Everything would have to be ‘Take-Away’. That day all the pubs in town shut-down.
I was last in Bowen six months earlier. It’s a winter haven, warm, relaxing and beautiful. My wife and I did a three and a half-week, Australia-wide road-trip during the previous (2019) winter. We drove from Broome, right across the country to Northern Queensland and stayed in Bowen for two nights. The Whitsunday Sands Resort, had direct access to the beach, beautiful views and a beckoning, blue pool. I painted an ocean scene from the rocks. Returning this time, my idea was to bargain with the management for a reduced rate. I could already see that tourists were scarce. A cheaper rate would allow me to stay in comfort until my Townsville exhibition launched. Surprisingly, my plan worked! I offered $300 a week, instead of the usual $800 plus, and it was accepted. Initially I was excited. I paid two weeks straight up, dropped my things into my room then went to explore the beach.
On Monday 23rd with my opening eleven days away it was still possible to have indoor gatherings of up to 100 people. I couldn’t predict how quickly things would change. I phoned, the director of the Townsville City Gallery, Jonathan, to discuss the situation. Jonathan was optimistic about having some form of an opening. I was booked into a Townsville hotel for the three nights leading up to the exhibition.
Trying to cover all bases, I looked at the possibility of flying back to the US, to be with my wife. In the evening (March 23) there were still flights available for a reasonable cost that flew out on Sunday, March 29th. The next morning this was all but impossible. By Wednesday 25th March, Australians were no longer allowed to fly out of Australia at all.
On Thursday, 26th March new restrictions were imposed. Gatherings were restricted to only ten people, or less. Some form of opening might be possible? Things were moving faster than I could grapple with, the net was closing in. On Sunday 29th March, it was announced that only gatherings of two people were allowed! I had lost any sense of certainty. Sleep was becoming an issue. I began to experience night time panic attacks. Wide awake at 2 am, I felt a sensation of falling with no ground to land on. My stomach was a mass of uneasy butterflies. Unable to sleep, I walked in circles around my room then took back some control, breathing slowly, as I calmed myself down.
The resort was initially relaxed. I painted in the first few days. I swam in the pool; waded in the ocean. I spoke mainly to the pleasant fill-in manager, Kathryn and her husband, Greg. The actual managers had just flown back in from Fiji and had to quarantine, in their quarters for two weeks. Gary was curious and caring enough about my plight, to seek me out and talk to me. Kathryn and Gary didn’t have a base. They lived most of the time, in their camper-van, on the road. They stopped at times to camp, or to mind a property on their continuous journey around Australia.
The resort kept shrinking on me. After just one swim, the pool was closed. A sign on the gate said,
‘Closed until further notice due to Coronavirus’.
Barely anyone had been using the pool since I’d arrived.
I cooked twice on the communal BBQ. After the pool was closed, the BBQ was also deemed ‘out of bounds’, a dangerous place! The beach looked like it would be next. I had to get out of the resort before only I had my room. That wasn’t secure either.
I spoke to Jonathan one more time to see if there was any point in coming to Townsville. I knew that soon I’d be trapped in North Queensland. State borders were closing. A trip to Townsville would cost me another day or two. In the near-deserted town of Bowen people were no longer engaging in friendly conversation. People looked at each other with suspicion. I had no access to friends, or relatives.
I was driving my wife’s Jeep, registered in Queensland. My license was South Australian. In order to tie my license together with the car registration, I thought I’d change my license to a Queensland one, using my sister-in-law’s address. I surrendered my South Australian license, in Bowen. A couple of days after I did that, I was about to drive to South Australia, through New South Wales, with Queensland plates and no license. I did have a piece of paper saying I had surrendered my license. As back-up, I asked Jonathan to email me a letter explaining I had been in Queensland for my exhibition and now the exhibition had been cancelled. I would be returning to my South Australian base.
Early Monday morning, March 30, 2020, I set off from the Whitsunday Sands Resort, in Bowen, North Queensland in my wife’s Jeep, with a tank full of petrol. Petrol was cheap due to a world-wide oil supply surplus. I headed through the outback route, to the small town of Injune, on the Carnarvon Highway. With stops, it took me ten hours. When I did stop to fill-up, or a break, the travellers and the attendants were tense and grim. At the bowser, the protocol was to wear gloves before lifting the pump. No cash was to be used. Injune was far enough for one day. It had a couple of motels. I stopped at the first one as it got dark. The motel was full of white Utes that belonged to council, or government workers. No-one was in a friendly mood, no ‘Hellos!’. A sign on the reception screen-door said to phone the motel manager, to avoid people coming into the reception area. The manager answered my call and took my details at a distance, before handing me the machine to pay, by card, $150 for the room. Only a couple of rooms were left.
It was an early start the next morning to get to Bourke, another ten-hour drive, with stops. The roads were empty, apart from the big trucks and the white Utes. Passing through a small, mainly Aboriginal town with a full bladder, I saw a public toilet and slowed down. A sedan with back and front seats full of young Aboriginal guys glared at me. The vibe was, ‘out-of-towners were not welcome here’. It was best to just hold it and drive on.
At the Queensland/NSW border vehicles were being stopped and checked at police road block. The Queensland border had been closed, but NSW was still open. I made it to Bourke before dark.
Early the next morning I headed to Broken Hill. Broken Hill was near the South Australian border. I had heard that border restrictions were going to get even tighter by Friday, April 3rd. I wanted to pass through on Thursday afternoon, April 2nd. I had emailed the director of The Broken Hill Regional Art Gallery to hopefully meet for a coffee. I received an answer that it was not recommended. Any meetings with more than one person, or with persons passing through, were discouraged. We could speak on the phone if I wanted? I wanted a face to face, so I told her I’d pass on the phone call.
An hour, or so, out of Bourke I saw a dishevelled, disorientated man near a stranded sedan. His car had gone off the verge. I stopped, reversed and wound down my window to talk to him. He had no shoes on his muddy feet. Recent rains had soaked the area. A remnant of a ‘rollie’ cigarette hung from his bottom lip. Asking if he was ‘OK?’ soon led to me agreeing to drive him to the next town.
Sitting in the Jeep, he told me he’d driven all the way from Adelaide, fourteen hours, in one shot! He slurred his words making it difficult to understand him. He was heading to central Queensland, another ten hour’s drive. He had driven through the night and said he was blinded by the high-beams of a passing truck. He swerved off the road and his car had bogged on the muddy verge. He told me the police knew about it. As we drove, a police car passed us, probably heading to his car. A couple of times he mentioned he needed a water hose for his radiator. I told him he needed a tow first. He wasn’t entirely with it. I got him to a service station where he was totally ignored by the staff who were not going to help him. All I could do next, was to drop him at the local police station, so they could figure his mess out. It was 8.30 am.
ENTERERING SOUTH AUSTRALIA
I drove on for four more hours, getting to Broken Hill by 1 pm. I bought a pasty and a drink, then headed on towards the border. Nervous, I wondered what questions the police would ask me? My story was complicated. My wife was in the US. I had no actual Australian home address. My license plates were ‘Queensland’. I had no actual license, just a piece of paper. I was unsure where I would be staying and ran through the imagined questioning in my head many times. First thing, the police were going to ask for was an address. This would be recorded. Very likely, they would check on it to see if I was there, at any time! I had a letter with me from a friend who said I could use his address. He said I could sleep in his (crowded) art-studio for 14 days. There were problems though. His wife was a nurse. She needed to work. He had two sons at home. His own health had been an issue for the past few years. I was getting out of Wi Fi range, leaving Broken Hill, when my friend with the studio called me. He was worried about the same concerns I had. It wasn’t an ideal place to stay. I didn’t know where else to tell the police. Where would I be staying? I called my sister. We have not had the greatest relationship over the years. She lives with her husband and their cats in a large house, but there are no separate spaces. Their place was ruled out.
I headed on, away from Wi Fi then saw a sign that said the police block was in 200 kilometres, two hour’s drive! That was further than I’d imagined. I thought there must be some turn-off to the left perhaps, towards The Flinders Ranges, before that 200 kms? I might not endure the ordeal of the road block? I might be able to head off at a tangent and not have to be locked into quarantine for two weeks?
A two-hour drive got me to the small South Australian town of Yunta. This is where a quarantine station has been operating for many years in order to check for fruit coming into the state. Fruit fly was a problem. I saw a sign pointing to the Arkaroola Village in the Flinders Ranges. The road to the left would take me eight hours to reach Arkaroola. My mother took me there when I was twelve years old. It was a wonderful outback resort village amongst beautiful scenery. Over the years I’d returned several times to paint the fantastic scenery. The thought of escaping all this, spending a few days in that calm sanctuary.
I fuelled up and had Wi Fi service again. I checked my messages. My phone rang. It was my friend with the studio. He knew all about Arkaroola. He told me it had recently been closed because of the virus. Luckily, I didn’t set off down that path. I had run out of options and I was only 15 minutes from the police road-block. I had one last idea. I asked another artist friend, Sophie, if I could use her address and stay for two weeks? Incredibly she said yes! She had a self-contained area in her house that she rented sometimes for extra income. It had recently been vacated. The lodger had lost his Uber driver work in SA and had moved back to The Gold Coast. The lodger and I would trade places.
At the police road-block my vehicle was first checked for fruit. Next a young policeman stepped up to ask me questions. He had a pleasant approach, almost apologetic. He didn’t mind about the Queensland plates and gave me the choice of showing either my license, or my passport. Naturally, without a proper license, I offered my passport. He just wanted an address where I would be for the next 14 days. He told me my isolation time started from the time he stopped me. It was all done in a few minutes and I was on my way, driving four more hours to Sophie’s place in Aldinga.
ADELAIDE, APRIL 2 2020
At Sophie’s, I drew up a crude chart of the next 14 days of self-isolation. I crossed the day’s off as they passed. The continuous coronavirus news on TV and radio was unbearable, unwatchable. All freedom to make plans, to work and to move were removed with no end-date offered. I went through more panic attacks and sleepless nights.
‘It’s for your own good.’ They repeat. ‘We must flatten the curve.’
‘We don’t want any more deaths.’
Secure in their own jobs, the politicians embraced their newly-found super high profiles. They now had the ability to make snap decisions that instantly affected everyone’s lives. Words and catch phrases, mostly annoying, were invented, introduced and used repeatedly. They sounded like something from a video game.
‘Lock-down’, ‘Social distancing,’ ‘New Normal’, ‘We’re all in this together’
The numbers of new ‘Covid’ cases were displayed each day, along with the number of deaths. For the media, the more deaths the better. More difficult to find in the reports though, were the ages of those who died? Another 90-year-old who struggled with their health for years, succumbed and the death was added to the rising tally. There were never signs of hope, or any hopeful news. For peace of mind, the TV simply had to be turned off.
Sophie’s house had a beautiful garden which was nurtured by her ‘other half’, Kym. I’d brought with me, from Queensland, paints and canvas, so I occupied myself painting garden scenes. The house backed onto a public reserve with a walking path that led to the ocean. It took 20 minutes to walk to the ocean. I felt compelled to walk at least part way most days. There was always the thought that a police car would pull up to Sophie’s house and knock on the door to check if I was home? If I wasn’t, I’d face a large fine.
After I’d crossed off my 14 days, on my first free day, I went straight to Centrelink, to seek some kind of financial support. The government was throwing truck-loads of cash out and I was trapped without means of support. At 8.30 am, I joined the very long line of despondent people. I waited an hour to shuffle to the Centrelink front door. A surprise sale of a painting was keeping me afloat but it was already dwindling. At the front counter, the Centrelink receptionist was rude and dismissive. She simply asked my age and once I stated it was ‘66’, she said there was nothing they could do. I must go home and get ‘Online’. I pleaded with her to speak to one of the staff. I just had some questions? I’d waited an hour. Reluctantly, she relented. After a long wait a woman, about 40, who appeared impatient, approached me and beckoned me to follow her. She led me to her desk, indicating that she wanted me to sit as far away from her as possible. I might have Covid. Having explored my files before she called me, she sneeringly said,
‘I see you’ve already been rejected from the pension! You left the country shortly after you last applied for the pension last time’.
She was not willing to listen, or even let me talk. I had to ask her, several times, if I could please, simply explain my situation? I just wanted to know what options I might have to get some assistance? She kept shutting me down, so loudly in fact, that the Centrelink manager came over to her work-station. The manager, also female and in her 40s, looked at the woman for an explanation, then at me. I tried to reason with the manager who I could see immediately was more sympathetic.
‘Please, I just want to explain my situation and ask for any options? I’m not being given the opportunity to speak.’ I blurted out.
The Centrelink manager asked me to follow her to her work-station. She gave me the breathing space to explain my situation, how I had been caught out by the pandemic and couldn’t return home to my wife. She was understanding and helped me register online at a Centrelink computer. Ultimately though she said there was little that Centrelink could do. She suggested I contact my local politician for emergency funding help, if I became desperate.
Seeking solutions, I spoke to my Melbourne-based accountant Evan. I asked if he could get me through the difficulties, the 100 pages of application forms to apply for the pension? He was unable to do that but he casually suggested he could try to get me on the new ‘Job Keeper’ program. This was the plan introduced to temporarily help workers who were laid off because of the pandemic. This scheme paid those eligible, $3,000 a month for a limited period until the economy started to recover, which, in May, was expected to be by the end of September. I felt an enormous sense of relief when Evan told me the application had been accepted. A month later, the first payment appeared in my bank account. It felt like a miracle! I had some money.
One day in early June, toilet paper suddenly reappeared on Adelaide supermarket shelves. This was a clear indication that, for now, the panic had subsided. South Australia had very few cases (as of August 3, 453 cases with 443 recoveries, and only four deaths).
In early June, things looked like they’d settle down in Australia and around the world. Most Australian states were out of ‘crisis-mode.’ Some state borders were opening up. There was talk of ‘travel bubbles’ between places with low infections. Towards the end of June though, things headed backwards again. USA was in the news with new rising cases in Florida and Texas. In early July, Victoria started to struggle with small outbreaks and NSW closed its border to Victoria. All other states followed. By July 8, Premier Daniel Andrews put Melbourne under a six-week lock-down. On July 22, the wearing of face masks was made compulsory. On August 2, Melbourne entered the ominously-termed ‘stage four lock-down’, meaning that everyone was required to stay home for six weeks, possibly more? Everyone had to wear masks once they left their homes. If caught without a face mask a person could be held down and one would be forcibly put on, plus they would receive a huge fine. They could only leave their houses for an hour a day and there was a curfew from 8 pm. Premier Andrews appeared on TV every day for months, with continuous bad news, looking grim, announcing new crackdowns. In October he was still at it while offering no hope.
Meanwhile I had to make a move.