I left you at the end of The Covid Chronicles #1, heading off into the wild, wild west with Mr Books.
Our first stop was to visit my parents. This was the first time we found ourselves considering how social distancing might work in the real world. As we drove into town, we realised that we shouldn’t hug my parents hello, or even shake their hands. The news was full of images showing Prince Charles bowing to people to avoid shaking hands. So we waved and bowed too!
We also decided not to visit my sister and her two young children, who live in the same town. It was a bit weird, but all very jokey and jolly.
We drove onto the next town to stay with another sister for the night. More jokes about not hugging, but then we settled down to share a platter of cheese and biscuits (with one shared cheese knife) and a bottle of wine over dinner. It’s easy to forget all the ways we come into casual physical contact with one another.
This was the weekend the government cancelled all mass gatherings. National and local sporting events were postponed, including the Melbourne Grand Prix. It seemed to be the international teams strongly questioning the wisdom of running this event, given what was going on in their own countries, that finally made our government react.
Before leaving home I had bought a couple of Sydney Writer’s Festival tickets. As we left, I had received an email saying that all ticket sales were now suspended. Our booking was secure, but pending further advice no more ticket sales would go ahead. Another email, as we started off on our road trip proper, sadly explained that the festival had been cancelled for 2020. Bookings could be refunded or donated back to the organisation.
The messaging coming from all government sources at this time was mainly about social distancing. Stay 1.5m away from each other, and wash your hands with soap often and for the length of the ‘Happy Birthday’ song, sung through twice.
If you were a returned international traveller, or had been in contact with a recent international traveller, you must stay at home and quarantine yourself, or self-isolate, as we were learning to say. But everyone else was free to continue on with some sensible precautions.
If you had a job that allowed you to work from home, you should do so. Elderly people and those with auto-immune issues were urged to stay at home. Schools were still open, but parents who could have their children at home were encouraged to do so.
|The drive between Hillston and Menindee|
As we drove further into western NSW, it felt like we were not only moving into new territory for us, but also into a brave, new world where social distancing would be easy and natural.
We felt confident that we didn’t have the virus as we had not been in contact with any international or cruise ship travellers. Community transmission of Covid-19 was confined to specific events like a wedding in the Hunter Valley and a nursing home in Sydney. It felt like we were moving away from danger, into a much safer space.
Our first stop was the Parkes Observatory. At The Dish Cafe, the lovely young cashier, invited us to use the hand sanitiser on the counter and asked us to use our card, not cash, for the transaction. We had seen nothing like this type of precaution in the city before leaving. We weren’t sure if this was the latest response to the new messaging (and therefore Australia-wide), a sign that we were in a science-based environment on top of germ-control or if it was a major difference between city and country. It certainly seemed that this small country town was taking the virus far more seriously than inner city Sydney.
We had cause to revise these ideas a number of times throughout the road trip.
We were told by coffee shops that they weren’t going to accept our keep-cups anymore, yet we observed baristas manhandling the cups and lids of the takeaway versions without washing or sanitising between customers. Some businesses wiped down door handles, counters, tables and eftpos machines conspicuously and often, and some didn’t. Some places provided hand sanitiser for staff and customers, and some didn’t. Some shops accepted cash, some didn’t. Some bathrooms had soap dispensers, and some didn’t. Public toilets were their usual disgrace.
By the end of the first few days, we realised that the unclear messaging was allowing everyone to interpret the government advice as they saw fit. Including us, as we drove further west.
Around this time, I heard about the podcast Coronacast, a daily, ten minute chat between Dr Norman Swan and Tegan Taylor. They answered Covid-19 related questions and provided updates. After we caught up on the previous episodes, Norman and Tegan became our daily habit.
On our long drives over wide, open highways between small country towns in NSW and South Australia, we binged on ABC News Radio, only moving onto our next West Wing Weekly episode when we couldn’t take it any longer! We also discovered the Coronavirus Live Update site. I started off every morning by checking the latest world wide stats, taking some small comfort from how low down on the list Australia was.
When we arrived in the Clare Valley, messaging was beginning to ramp up. Most of the wineries, cafes and restaurants had moved furniture to enforce the 1.5m distancing rule. Most had signs on their doors asking anyone who felt ill to not enter. Hand sanitiser tables were set up near the entrance for customers to use. Some had demarcation lines around the counter, so we couldn’t stand too close.
|Outside dining at Sunset on Kangaroo Island|
Restaurants and cafe were still open, but with tables at the required distance. We chose to eat takeaway options for the majority of our meals, or dined outside. Many of these communities had been badly affected by last year’s drought and the summer bush fires. Many of the wineries had to dump this year’s grape harvest as it was too badly affected by the smoke. By the time we arrived on Kangaroo Island, a week later, we also saw whole vineyards completely razed to the ground.
These were areas desperate for things to get back to normal.
They were looking forward to an influx of Easter holiday-makers, as well as the local marathon being run, the weekend markets returning, the local arts and craft festival, food fair and hockey tournament. Everyone seemed so grateful for each bottle of wine, olive oil or honey that we purchased.
But on the weekend that we caught the car ferry to Kangaroo Island, the South Australian government came out strongly, saying it was time for them to protect their state and close their borders. By Tuesday 4pm, only South Australian residents would be allowed to enter SA, and even then, anyone arriving after the 4pm cut-off, would have to self-isolate for two weeks.
|Bush fire damage on Kangaroo Island|
This came on the back of the bungling of the Ruby Princess cruise ship in Sydney and the failure to stop flights from Europe and the US, in the same way we had stopped flights from Wuhan earlier in the year. At this point overseas travellers were responsible for 80% of the virus cases in Australia, yet very little border control or airport testing was in place.
The SA government had been shocked to discover that a group of German tourists had turned up in the Barossa Valley, from interstate, with signs of the illness. A number of them returned positive tests, causing a whole resort to go into immediate lockdown. As this news broke, we were at first simply thankful that we had not been to the Barossa this trip, but it was becoming more and more apparent that the virus numbers in Australia were heading into the badlands.
As we drove around bush fire devastated Kangaroo Island, we realised it was time to call our road trip off. Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Victoria were all making noises about joining SA in border closures. It was time to head home.