Watching the worldwide Covid crisis unfold over the last two years (2020-2021) in the city with the world’s longest lockdown taxed everybody, including scholars and writers. They almost inevitably felt the effects of the pandemic personally, but also, as a matter of intellectual or scientific interest, they could not help but analyse what was going on. I was no exception, so here we go.
My household, like almost everybody else around here, sat in semi-isolation, suffered the loss or absence of loved ones and friends that we could not interact with, and experienced the sudden use of Zoom and related platforms to keep us working [in my case, teaching university students]. Ironically, we knew the software was a part of a communications industry that was suddenly taking over the world and reconfiguring jobs and work patterns. We were held in its thrall, while confined to a single place. Our jobs were unsecure and sometimes, our health and wellbeing too.
I resisted the effort the theorise something so visceral as a mass pandemic, as an academic. I left that to a friend, Jude Fernando who is better at it. I am not an expert on health or epidemiology, and the new sociology of human interaction may have been interesting intellectually, but it was also lived experience, in the capital of lockdowns. Melbourne suffered early and badly from the Covid virus, shown as a ‘first peak’, with many deaths in unprepared and unregulated aged care homes, and about 800 lives lost in total in 2020. This is now regarded as small by world standards, but the State and Federal leadership effort in 2020, rightly or wrongly, was to rid the state of Victoria [home to 6.6m people] of the virus.
Melbourne had extreme lockdown measures from March 2020 – Nov 22 2020, little freedom of movement, and most businesses were closed or tried to work remotely. Most Melburnians were not allowed to exit the city. The economy was in a parlous state. State borders were closed too, and many people were trapped on the wrong side of one. International travel was banned by the Federal government. Then, after that lockdown, we had a run in late 2020>2021 of about 60 days with no Covid cases at all, with freedom of movement. But Covid came back two months later, although by then, vaccines had almost been released and there was much less mortality. In 2021 we had some less draconian lockdowns, with interludes of freedom to travel, but plenty of serious confinement measures too. The reason was the arrival of the Delta Variant, and low vaccination rates that persisted for several months.
The pandemic and the health protection measures designed to quell the virus were new for almost everybody. I had, however, worked for some years in West Africa, and queued up with thousands of people in Ouagadougou to get a shot during a meningitis outbreak in 2001, and also saw the tragic effects of the Aids crisis face to face in the 1990s. But as COVID oozed into the pores of Melbourne -the worst affected Australian city – nothing really prepared anybody, including our family for its effects.
Since 2005 the three of us have lived on a wide inner city street that has been managed to minimize through traffic, except for a regular bus. So it is a street where, in principle, you can be outward facing and convivial, in the road or alongside it. However, many of the newer houses are now behind high fences and walls, or they have almost no windows to the street. Their occupants also drive out of their garages with electronic doors – while our household largely operates on foot or bicycle. This says a lot about the changing demography and class relations of our area, since those are all properties in a group worth well over $2m [US $1.5m], and in some cases double that.
We know many of our pleasant neighbours, and I spent much of the pandemic observing the street, wildlife, and passers-by from the porch, shaded from the elements. This was not idle observation – I was watching the world go by while preparing lecture notes, dealing with student correspondence, and devoting up to 55 hours a week to teaching activities during the busy semesters (July-October 2020 and July-October 2021, both in periods of almost complete lockdown in VIC). I was accompanied by a large ginger cat, who installed himself on a separate chair or on my lap. We conducted our “research” together.
In the second half of the year in 2020 and again in 2021 these full lockdowns meant that at times we were not allowed visitors, only allowed one hour outside the house, for exercise and some time getting essential supplies, an early curfew was imposed, and socialisation was limited to phones, Zoom and similar platforms. Our activities also included chatting with the immediate, delightful neighbours over the fence. People also stopped by while exercising, and to peruse the books in our community book box that I constructed on the front fence. But they were supposed to keep moving as part of the ‘reasons to leave the house’ edicts in place.
Our street runs east-west, and in Australia the sun rise in the east and travels northwards. This means in this temperate climate, moderately cold in the winter months, a northward-facing back garden is deemed the most desirable. Melburnians love these north facing gardens because winter sun can warm a deck or rear living area. This, combined with aggressive gentrification since the 2000s and a massive rise in house prices, has made our street ‘desirable’ particularly on its north side. We are on the south side, inferior in a jocular way despite also experiencing [probably the same] rising prices, and us southsiders have often laughed about the proliferation of ‘knock-down and rebuild’ house projects we have seen unfold on the north side.
After seemingly years of construction projects, there is a true differential now. As I look out from the porch to the north, I see no more original weatherboard or brick houses, except one. That is a large 1880s family home, occupied by the same household for over 40 years, but there are also a 2019 modern villa, a huge two storey 2000s house using expensive materials, a stylish steel frame house clad in tin siding built in the 2010s, a enormous architect home from the same decade, shuttered from any interaction with the streetscape [known as ‘the boot factory’ by a now deceased resident], and several others gutted or rebuilt from the front rooms backwards. To the south, we have a couple of modern houses, a decaying rental, a huge 1970s brick veneer built by a first-generation immigrant family, two older ‘single fronted’ narrow houses one of them ours, a 1960s or 70s house built by an Italian family, and further along, some posher housing. Further along again are wooden houses and narrow single-fronted rebuilds. I should say that down the road, there is less difference between ‘north and south’.
Our south side has endured as a place of residence for several families of Macedonian origin, for reasons I do not clearly understand, beginning when housing was much cheaper decades ago. This followed immigration to Melbourne from southern and eastern Europe in the 1950s, and many houses were then occupied by, or built by, first and second generation postwar immigrants [some of them related by family ties – which is still the case in our street]. Three families who bought or built houses in the 1950s are still here, and have told us something of the comings and goings. But the noticeable feature today is the north-south street divide: and more generally the variation in the origins of the residents, whose occupancy varies by when they bought their homes, and the political economy of the city and locality at the time they took up residence. Back in the 1950s, Northcote was a cheap inner city suburb (5km from the city centre) and migrant families were very common, particularly Greek Australians and Italians in the surrounding streets. Our local cinema showed Greek films and it is still, probably, the second language spoken. Those families gradually began to sell up, cash in and move out over the next thirty years, either through downsizing or simply taking advantage of rising property prices. The ‘gentrification front’ has now moved several suburbs to the North, and our area is the epitome of hipster, left leaning, inner city fringe Melbourne, caught between Clifton Hill, North Fitzroy, Northcote central and Brunswick to the west. The average house price in the whole area is well over AU$1.7m though, enough to displace hipsters and renters.
I have spent almost 20 years in the ten sq km of the ‘inner north’ of Melbourne – I like it but I am frustrated by the recent local trend, which is the high prices. This has meant more monied families have moved in, mainly well-paid professionals with large building or renovation budgets, who have perhaps sought to enter the area because they want houses on a quiet street with several rooms for families and with off street parking for their numerous cars and SUVs. There is some work in urban geography about cashed up inmovers and gentrifiers reducing the very urban edginess and positive vibe of the suburbs they populate, and this is happening. House price rises generate more rises, affordable by a smaller and often less diverse population. Arrivals like the local amenities and ambience, and excellent public transport [if they use it]. It is 20 minutes to the downtown universities, health precincts and offices by bike or train or car, and we have our own intimate train station, the least frequented on Melbourne’s network apparently, Rushall. But for somebody born and bred in Northcote, the money needed to buy a place locally is beyond most budgets. This is citywide and indeed national problem.
I arrived home from a month overseas at end Feb 2020, and lockdown started in March. I will offer 10 observations, out of many, from which something may be learned about the pandemic in an affluent, upwardly rising setting in a developed-world city. Some of these ae tongue-in-cheek, others not.
1) The pandemic was forced on the city, but it was an opportunity to localise all activities, to stop travelling and generate less mobility-related CO2 [Australia has a poor record on climate change and the energy transition, although renewables are now strong]. Even though this was enforced reduction of mobility. We could in theory at least, get to know the neighbours and each other better and help out. There was indeed more socialisation, but in our case, not across the various geographical and social divides. Many of these remained in place. Zoom meant we could continue more distant interactions, too. Positively, a localisation of my/our observational skills took place. We noticed more things – the growth of our vegetable beds, the birds and possums, the comings and goings at the local cafe where we spent a fortune in takeaway coffees, riverside activities of the non-humans and plants [also the changing graffiti] and pet and people movements and interactions. As a bike rider, the almost empty streets were a bonus.
2) As our mental health began to suffer, other people’s behaviours became extremely annoying. Lockdown made me very tetchy. You notice much more when you stay in one place, seeing and hearing quotidian things. This makes sense, and it is a fundamental geographical observation [by Yi Fu Tuan among others]. In our case, who would have thought we been quite so annoyed by loud lawnmowers, or ‘Mr Leaf Blower’, who availed himself of many opportunities to blow grass clippings and the debris from falling plane tree leaves and branches up and down his wide frontage. It appeared to be unnecessary noisiness when a broom yielded by this seemingly able-bodied man would have sufficed. The pandemic made me detest leaf blowers, and this was shared with the neighbours and by my wife. I am sure our noisy strimmer was annoying too, but it came out very rarely indeed. There are numerous other examples of magnified discontent….
3) The richer occupants had a lot of things done for them. Really, a lot. They are doctors and lawyers, civil servants, and other unknown professionals who can clearly afford domestic services [we have absolutely none, although being from a middle class British background, I knew such things existed]. And other things – I count about 7 BMWs and a few Mercedes across a few houses. Some of the big ones return north of 11l/100km, with is lamentable since a standard efficient car is now half that. Supermarket food was delivered in lockdown [most often to the northern side] mainly by trucks, with drivers who work through the night too. Gardens were professionally manicured and their swimming pools too [all 5 pools I am aware of]. We pottered around planting and harvesting our vegetables and occasionally strimming the grass and pruning [DIY stores were closed, but you could order stuff, which we never did]. Workpeople [identified by the logos on their trucks] entered houses to clean, fix electrical and aircon and plumbing problems on a regular basis [when allowed by the rules], while nobody came to ours – they never have. Laundry was collected and dropped off. One neighbour had somebody there almost every day for a year, concreting a driveway and then a verge and pavement, making garden beds, installing an irrigation system, sanding floors, installing heating and cooling, planting sparse low maintenance bushes, detailing three expensive European and Japanese cars, and then as soon as lockdown was over for a bit, buying a caravan and parking it in the street. I had an involuntary spectacle of hundreds of thousands of dollars of expenditure [the house was completed in early lockdown] and plenty of CO2 being emitted. When the major work was finished, somebody else had a ground-up house restoration down the street. The noise always started at 6.30-6.45am.
While we could certainly excuse and perhaps support people in the health and allied professions needing some domestic help during a pandemic, the extent of it was extraordinary, just along a short stretch of road. It certainly revealed geographical, ethnic and class divides. The people mainly of southern European origin who had been here a long time, had no such assistance, and limited visits from family and healthcare, but only when permitted. Their networks remained family-based. The few renters were the same.
4) Death had visceral and proximate meaning. At least four people died within the houses surrounding ours. My own mother passed away in August 2021 too, but in the UK, and distant passings also occurred for other migrant families like ours. I could not travel to Europe. There was some rallying of the community following these sad events, depending on what we were permitted to do [much preparing of meals for the families of the departed, for example]. None of these deaths were, to my knowledge, from Covid but still, the bizarre circumstances of the affected families meant small and restricted gatherings, and certainly no proper marking of lives in the usual way. I sat in tears mourning neighbours I had known for less than a couple of decades. All I could do was watch the hearse, and [for those of Orthodox faith] sprinkle some water behind it as it left. Entering houses and gardens was forbidden.
5) Health suffered. This is an obvious outcome, felt across the world. We were very, very lucky. We were not trapped in a tiny apartment, as were many Italian citizens during their worst lockdowns in 2020 when mortality peaked, we were not in a wholly unprepared country with no vaccines like other places I have lived, and we were not the Indian poor walking out of the major cities in 2020 because their livelihoods were lost. We did not have loved ones get Covid or pass away from it [although that came pretty close]. There were local places to travel to, to maintain some personal fitness, perhaps on the excuse of a daily supermarket run or sometimes a visit to a ‘covid buddy’ living alone, which was allowed. But in order to walk, run or cycle, rules of time and space had to be respected and I think they mostly were, by others across our area. There were hundreds of people exercising along the banks of the Yarra River and its tributary, where our main open space lies. The two colonial boathouses served snacks and coffee, takeaway only, and they were busy, as was a stall outside Abbotsford Convent. People cut the fence into the Northcote Golf Course as a citizen’s action, and had walks and picnics there when those were permitted. This was probably ‘breaking and entering’ but the Council did nothing and may even open up the land in future. Our street, being an attractive one close to a river and a bridge, attracted many walkers, some of whom loved the cat, or stopped for a chat.* [ I had one guy and a woman both tell me I should not have a cat, even in the inner city where small endemic marsupial wildlife is scarce. I was hurt. I don’t like dogs as much, and our cat is charming, lazy and catches almost nothing. Cats also help save people from mental meltdown in such circumstances.]
I was less fit as the pandemic persisted, having auto-immune problems and internal organs that are not in great shape at the best of times. I also had to work extremely hard during semesters. Skin was bad with ulcers and sores, digestion poor, circulation suffered to the extremities where I already have nerve damage. Shaving and haircuts were infrequent. Morning coffee went from a regular size to a large, for the first time in my life. The local pharmacist did not always have all my medical necessities in stock, and there were scares about supply shortages. Hospital consultant appointments went to Zoom, and blood tests at the hospital required entering via a Fort Knox arrangement. Toilet paper was impossible to find for several weeks but we laugh about it now as a FWP [first world problem]. Anti-bacterial hand washers disappeared in early to mid 2020, before local suppliers including breweries started to retool and make them. My voice was hoarse from many ‘student contact hours’ per week. Some pre-recorded lectures were finished only at 2am and the marking load was immense. But again, we were lucky. At least one of us had work. In 2021-22, RATS tests were impossible to find, as they were across the world. But we were out lockdown by then and miraculously spent Xmas and New Year in Sydney, where they were also in short supply and we had to do one to attend an outdoor event.
6) Adaptive behaviour kicks in under adversity. My immediate response to the lockdowns was to work out exactly what we could get away with to maintain sanity and health. Victoria, led by the Andrews Labor government, was very strong on quelling the virus, and it may have lost $$ billions doing so, but thus we avoided greater loss of life. We were frankly blessed in our immediate surroundings – even the 5km travel limit yielded walks, parks, and many empty roads for cycling. The hybrid car got no use, even as neighbours found more excuses to use theirs [why, I wondered, go to your local supermarket in a large SUV, when you could walk or cycle, and get exercise?]. Some people were forced to drive for essential trips of course, and there was an army of ‘essential workers’ in Melbourne.
Sitting outdoors in public space was forbidden for many weeks, and public playgrounds, toilets and even basketball hoops were shuttered for example. This meant no picnics or even sitting at all. This was completely illogical, since you can’t catch Covid sitting on your own outdoors – people just did not know enough about the virus back in early 2020, and the public authorities applied blanket rules, thinking you might somehow transmit it from sitting on a bench or a rock. We walked and sat in the ground, out of the way, not a threat to anybody. It was also possible to use Google Maps to find supermarkets or permitted shops right on the 5km travel limit. For me this meant one corner of an Aldi supermarket being on the 5km boundary, so I often went there instead of another. Still not sure if this was actually in the spirit of the rules. And yes there was police enforcement – we knew people fined $1,600 for going too far from home, for example to swim in the sea, or being out too late after curfew.
7) Long term effects on youth. I cannot say much here. But we lived this, and observed the effects of lockdown. Two years. A high school graduation party we went to, out of lockdown in December 2021, felt like coming out of prison for the kids and young adults. What palpable joy, for a couple of hours. But the effects of a lack of socialisation will linger for months and years. Just like prison.
8) The government, HE and its critics. Everything is political, everything has power coursing through it, and the pandemic magnified political points-scoring, iconoclastic behaviours, and new alignments in and outside formal political institutions. Dan Andrews, State premier, and his team managed the pandemic well I thought but their approach was hard nosed. Thousands more deaths were avoided, and hospitals were not overwhelmed by the virus. He appeared every day at a press conference until October 2020, famously declaring the end of that lockdown with an Aussie aphorism about celebrating with a drink a bit stronger than a beer, and from a from a bit higher on the shelf. The Federal government, by contrast, was slower to act, less forthcoming with financial aid for the millions affected by sudden job losses and loss of childcare when they were able to work, and only picked up the pace in 2021 when they realised Keynesian economic support from public funds was fully needed. Still, a failure to support free Covid testing kits in 2021 was a blow to their reputation, as was an early ending of a generous job support program and the shutting of international borders rather than allowing a bit more more travel with strict quarantine for essential trips, in a nation of migrants.
My sector, higher education, was absolutely gutted by border closures. There are lectures and professors, one extremely famous, living in the street. International students could not come to Australia. Meanwhile, universities were excluded from national job support packages! Still not clear why, and my reading of events from the porch was punctuated by unbelieving anguish as the government, or universities, announced new draconian policies one after the other. Our universities are poorly funded by government at the best of times so scarcely ‘public‘, very neoliberal, and reliant on international student fees. The Covid pandemic meant they panicked about falling income, and instituted rapid cost savings, destroying careers, jobs, disciplines and Departments in the process. Some, like UWA, are continuing these programs, allegedly to make themselves more ‘resilient’ to shocks in a business sense rather than defending their staff at all costs [as I would have done] perhaps with some low interest loans. Our academic staff, not the VCs paid over $1m a year, are the lifeblood of a university and they cannot be swept aside. But they have been, and 40,000 academics and associated personnel have lost their jobs in Australia. University managers also took the opportunity to trim programs and units they did not like anyway, we suspect. I spent months defending colleagues and resisting restructuring online and in petitions, all futile.
The pandemic taught me why I have stayed being an educator and researcher for almost 30 years. To chase facts and fight for justice, using knowledge gained. To pass on defensible knowledge, and to give people skills to do so themselves and to realise their dreams. Another problem in Melbourne and across Australia was that scholars and trained personnel were up against bizarre scientific theories that also circulated on the internet, that the virus was either made up, or not dangerous, and people should be allowed to do what they like, rather than respect public health orders. Some Aussies claimed, following fabricated QAnon and other theories, that it was all a conspiracy. I am not sure any of these people ever received relevant training at a university. These theories endure even after the US election on November 3, 2020 where Trump, the great bullish denier and ambivalent supporter of public health measures against Covid, was ousted. Mass hysteria began to subside a little, in the US and Australia, after the shocking invasion of US Congress on January 6, 2021 and later into that year.
Locally, Dan Andrews got plenty of death threats for his commitment to lockdowns and other restrictions. Especially in 2021, we saw stupid protests about ‘freedom’, countering mask wearing, vaccinations and other mandates. People got infected at anti-vax protests, with a virus that obviously did exist. Perhaps another side of the individualistic streak increasingly seen in our city, stoked by mainly right wing opportunists and various dark web conspirators with time on their hands. I never met these people, some of whom are nasty, except once after a protest, but I devoured the images and stories in the newspapers, trying to fathom how they could ignore factual scientific evidence, and breach democratic codes of peaceful protest. [some friends refused all vaccines, but at least they mainly stayed at home]. Even unionised construction workers got involved, when they were chastised for not wearing masks or respecting distance rules on site and during breaks, and Andrews shut down the Melbourne industry for weeks. Those were ugly times. The Djokovic incident in 2022 again brought worldwide attention to Melbourne, but it was a farce. The world no 1 tennis player at the time, here to compete in the Australian Open, was eventually kicked out of the country for not being vaccinated. He was briefly placed in the Park Hotel, right near my office, where Serbian flags of his supporters were mixed with other protesters still angry that genuine asylum seekers who have been there for many months and years longer are stilled trapped there. Djokovic complained about his hotel room, while his asylum seeker neighbours have not seen the sun or rain for months in most cases.
9) Welcome to the Virocene The term comes from Jude Fernando. Fernando suggests the Virocene is an epoch, so severe that it is changing global social interactions, political economies, and perceptions of risk and security. While some profit from it, class and racial divides are magnified. One real impact of Covid I followed was the referendum held in New Caledonia-Kanaky on 12 Dec 2021, a place I work and have visited many times. NC is a non-decolonised Pacific territory still part of France. An outbreak of Covid in late 2021 became deeply enmeshed in island geopolitics. It led to supporters of independence, the topic of the referendum, to call for a delay to the referendum date. This was the third and final chance at independence . The grounds were that so many indigenous Kanak had died that the customary mourning rites means they could not go to the polls, or campaign, out of respect for those they had lost. They pleaded with France to change the date, but it refused. These Virocene impacts warped politics on the archipelago, meant the referendum results were meaningless, and have created a political stalemate.
10) Recovery, and looking forward : weakly and strongly. I am still found on the porch, but less often these days. Even the cat has made it indoors so there are less menacing glances to passing small dogs on leads. Locally, the visits to the neighbours by tradespeople and delivery companies have subsided a little. Our messy house is looking a bit clearer, suggesting our motivation to clear it up is now better than during lockdown.
Prices of everything, here in a rich country with a high cost of living, have risen, partly in response to the toll of the late 2021-early 2022 Omicron variant on businesses and logistics.
House prices have really escalated, to insane levels. Richer members of society that I know or observe seem to have kept their jobs, or at least incomes. Schools and even higher education have reopened, although with many restrictions and new government edicts, including a hastily ‘job ready’ university fee realignment in 2020 to favour studying degrees in the disciplines the national Cabinet like best [by reducing the fees for STEM, and raising them for HASS of course]. As Raewyn Connell says, in her ‘notes from the sidelines of catastrophe‘, the worst set of government policies on higher education in decades.
But the pandemic has interpellated with odd forces. Capitalism has survived of course, somewhat dented by other factors like sanctions imposed by an aggressive China on Australia. The major authoritarian regimes are still in place, globally. The pandemic did not oust them. Hopes of a better world, ‘building back better’, in pronouncements many made in 2020, seem dashed in that respect. Global CO2 levels dropped but are rising again , even though many affluent people seem to have retreated from their obsessive desire to be hypermobile and to travel the world for non-essential reasons. Perhaps that is a sort of adaptive response to the pandemic, with a positive effect on climate change. Maybe we are just using more local energy instead tnough, to support the global IT architecture we are so much more reliant on for homeworking and deliveries. Hoped-for consumption and material throughput reductions, and degrowth, are rapidly disappearing.
The world is still crazier than any time I can remember since the late 1960s, and now Putin has invaded Ukraine, destabilising the world order. Covid hardly received a mention in the news about the invasion.
But the pandemic will be very hard to forget. Unless you are a cat.
* [non-Australians may not know that the country has a mixed view about cats, which were introduced predators, and can kill endangered small marsupial native wildlife if not closely monitored and fed regularly. Conservationists want them banned or kept indoors. ]