BEFORE COVID Irish rugby fans pictured on The Yarra Promenade in Melbourne ahead of a 2013 Lions Test. Melbourne is now the most locked down city in the world and Irish people living there are have been unable to come home since Covid-19 first struck. Pic: Sportsfile
Mayo native Patrick Horan on life in yet another Melbourne lockdown
As I type this on a Sunday evening, Melbourne has just ticked past Buenos Aires to officially become the most locked down city in the world since the start of the Covid pandemic.
Since March last year Melburnians have spent over eight months living under various combinations of severe restrictions, with no visitors to homes, travel distance limits, retail and hospitality closures and nightly curfews the most consistent among them.
And most disconcertingly for those immigrants among us, everyone in Australia has been banned from leaving the country without applying for special permission and having an exceptionally good reason, a restriction that will only be lifted next month and only in some states.
It’s been a challenging time for everyone, but everyone has experienced it in different ways, so probably best to get some caveats out of the way early: I’m fortunate enough to be able to work from home, I like where I live and who I live with, I don’t have kids to home school and I am predisposed to distracting myself with a TV series or movie marathon from one of the copious streaming services I can happily afford.
With all that said, it has still been something of a psychological rollercoaster across the six (count ‘em!) different times that the Premier of Victoria (the state which Melbourne is in) has announced another lockdown to allegedly spare us from an avoidable disaster.
Last year’s big one – which ran from early July to late October – was particularly brutal and seemingly endless, happening in a world before vaccines and while the rest of Australia was effectively living Covid-free. The saving grace through that grim slog was a simple goal – if most people did the right thing we could get the case numbers (which peaked at 725 in a day) down to zero and actually ‘eliminate’ this problem. Which we did and were all very proud of ourselves. We had crowds back at the cricket just after Christmas and lived the first half of 2021 with hardly any restrictions or virus whatsoever. We won.
Was it sustainable? Probably not. And definitely not once the Delta strain arrived with a brand new rulebook. An outbreak in Sydney that was not locked down as quickly as we would have liked (smug as we were about our 2020 success) inevitably made its way to Melbourne and here we were again, wishing September and October away while fantasising about previously unconsidered luxuries like sitting down to eat a sandwich in public or being able to go to a supermarket with another person.
Case numbers have surged far beyond last year’s peaks, not helped by Melbourne’s own Demons winning the AFL Grand Final for the first time in 57 years (imagine!). Rather than lifting the trophy in their home ground of the MCG, it all happened 3000km away in the Covid-free hermit kingdom of Perth. Melbourne fans were of course urged to do the right thing and refrain from gathering to watch the game or celebrate the win afterwards but, somewhat inevitably, this was not always strictly observed. Even without that sort of once-in-a-lifetime motivation to bend or break the rules, adherence to restrictions appears to be nowhere near the levels of last year amid inevitable lockdown fatigue, keeping case numbers stubbornly high.
Given the international travel ban, I didn’t even entertain the notion of a dash back to Dublin for the All-Ireland final (surely just being from Mayo counts as a special case by now?) but would obviously have liked to have had a couple of friends around to (*cough*) ‘enjoy’ it with me. I refrained, a speck of a sacrifice in the scheme of things but hard to deny that these are occasions to be shared and are not easily replicated (as much as we might take All-Ireland finals for granted now). Stories of the far more serious effects of family separations through illness, childbirth and other major life events abound.
The current exit strategy is getting 80 percent of the adult population fully vaccinated, a process that started slowly due to a bungling of supply by the Federal Government and a lack of urgency in a country that had been relatively untouched by the effects of the virus. Daily case numbers in Victoria – currently comparable to Ireland’s – carry a lot less meaning than they used to, but our 2020 obsession lingers, leaving many unhealthily hooked on daily updates and press conferences to give them some certainty or sense of progress.
Political point-scoring among state premiers and between states and the national government has been tedious and unhelpful when a united approach could have expedited matters. ‘Keeping the virus out’ has become a wildly popular, if clearly unsustainable, political position, leading to rash border closures and a dispiriting lack of perspective when it comes to the actual threat the virus poses.
For what it’s worth, I’ve always been fully supportive of Victoria’s approach, which has consistently prioritised citizens’ health and the stability and safety of the medical system above valid economic concerns. The death toll remains remarkably low compared to almost any other country. However, the mental health impacts are undoubtedly real and have surely yet to reveal themselves.
Also seeing the way other countries – Ireland very much included – have driven vaccination uptake and are getting on with things as ‘normal’, balancing the actual impact of case numbers and hospitalisations with reviving economies makes Victoria’s situation seem backward and even a little embarrassing now, having deluded ourselves that a world without Covid was possible. Even those of us most fervently in favour of a cautious approach have been chafing at this latest imposition on everyday life.
For now, those of us fortunate enough to be able to work and earn will put our heads down and get on with it for another few weeks, sticking to long-established routines to maintain our sanity as best we can. I can’t deny I’ve already been looking at flights back to Ireland in 2022. The hope is that like those 24-hour long-hauls, the destination of all these lockdowns will be worth the often gruelling journey.
Patrick Horan is a native of Kilmovee and is currently Head of Digital for Cricket Australia. He previously worked for Fox Sports, Melbourne’s Herald Sun and the Sunday Tribune.