News and events

A year at home

A year ago today it all went off. The talk of theoretical disruptions from the COVID-19 virus became very real in Australia.

I thought I’d look back over the past 12 months.

Hopefully I haven’t messed up any of the chronology, but if so, please leave a comment.

March 2020

It seemed sudden – cases grew through the month from nearly nothing to 50+ per day.

Preparations for staying at home started happening. Memorably there was a rush on groceries. White collar workplaces were readying and testing their remote access. On the 17th I went and got a haircut. I suspected it could be a while until the next one.

On the 22nd March 2020, things really started moving. After slow moves from the Federal government to phase in restrictions on public gatherings, Premier Andrews announced a shutdown of all non-essential activity over 48 hours. This got dialled back a bit, but was quickly followed a similar national announcement and across the country.

Through March the CBD had already emptied as many people started working from home – myself included from the 23rd March. At the time it was hard to imagine how long it might be in effect.

Those of us who could work from home were fortunate. Many other people were unable to work as their workplaces closed over the following months.

Bentleigh station, peak hour 25/3/2020

By the end of March, PTV had organised for Yearly Myki Passes to be “paused”, which was good – and an option I quickly jumped on. (They did it by issuing a replacement card with a fresh unactivated Pass, which normally has a one year limit, coming up fast for many of us. It sounds like after that, people will need to contact them for a refund or to get the Pass status reset.)

In my family we started having weekly Sunday video chats, first on House Party, then later on Zoom. It’s amazing to think that anything approaching this capability is only about a decade old at most, depending as it does on broadband internet and widespread use of devices with cameras and microphones, such as smartphones and iPads.

We were taking things seriously in part because of family members who are immuno-compromised. I started washing my hands whenever arriving home – something I still do a year later, but in one extended family household, they also switched for a while to getting everything by delivery, and putting newly arrived goods into “quarantine” for 24 hours.

April 2020

Cases fell as the initial restrictions seemed to be working in fighting off the first wave.

I installed the COVIDsafe app when it was released. I’ve still got it running on my phone, in fact, though in retrospect it seems not to have been worth it. I can understand the logic – and it would potentially be useful in a big outbreak. But it seems to me that the 15 minute proximity setting before it does anything is probably too high.

In April I also mail-ordered my first masks, some reusable sleek black numbers for each of us in the house. They weren’t needed at that point, but it seemed like a fair bet they would be at some stage, so I wanted to be ready.

The masks came with a few filters, but through the year I ordered more filters and various other reusable masks – I’ve ended up with a few different types, so these days I’ve always got a few ready to go. I haven’t (so far) resorted to disposable masks, though some argue they are more comfortable.

Water fountain elaborately wrapped to prevent usage during COVID-19, April 2020

May 2020

Restrictions eased as case numbers continued to drop off, though there were problems with local clusters, particularly around meat processing workplaces.

But around the world, things were not looking so rosy, and it looked like in Australia we could count ourselves lucky that the borders were closed and any arrivals were going to hotel quarantine – even if it wasn’t perfect.

June 2020

By mid June cases in Victoria were starting to increase again. It was our second wave, sparked by an escape from hotel quarantine in late May – not for the last time.

By the end of the month, lockdowns were in place in a few suburbs, but it was about to get worse.

July 2020

Early in the month was the controversial snap hard lockdown for the public housing towers in Flemington and North Melbourne. Whatever the reasoning – and logically you could see why they thought they had to do it – it seemed heartbreaking to see people trapped in their own homes, initially with a lack of supplies.

Also early in July, Stage 3 restrictions were introduced, including lockdowns spread to all of Melbourne (and Mitchell shire, probably thanks to the southern end being inside metropolitan Melbourne) in early July, and included restrictions on leaving the city.

The day before the lockdown started, I went to a furniture showroom in Moorabbin and ordered a new couch – the old one would be moving out with my sons. The couch, made locally, ended up being delayed thanks to the lockdown, and finally eventually arrived in November.

By late July, we were being told to wear face coverings when leaving home. So those masks I’d bought back in April (and others since) came into play. The “face coverings” rule later became tightened to masks.

Pedestrians wearing masks, Centre Road, Bentleigh

August 2020

On the 2nd of August, with hundreds of cases emerging each day, more restrictions came in. Stage 4 included a curfew from 8pm to 5am, masks anywhere outside your home, and the 5km travel limit came into effect.

The curfew brought with it night time public transport cuts which mostly didn’t make sense and, I think, should not have happened.

It was in the middle of this that my sons moved out – a permitted activity! On the night after they left, taking with them my yet-to-be-replaced old couch, I remember ordering a burger and sitting in the livingroom on a Poang chair and watching Attack The Block.

Being at home alone has been difficult in some ways – but it’s certainly made work from home easier. It’s like having a huge office to myself.

In late August I posted a blog reflecting on life in lockdown, and getting tested. We didn’t know it then, but early August was the peak in cases.

It was hard being stuck inside the house except for a limited number of permitted activities each day. But I didn’t feel as hemmed-in as some people. My partner lives beyond the 5km travel limit that was imposed, meaning I could legally go and visit her each weekend.

My birthday came and went. No big party, but some good gifts arrived, and we did have a nice birthday dinner from Maha, delivered via Providoor. It even came with a Spotify playlist to set the mood.

One gift that arrived from a friend was a record. Paul McCartney’s McCartney, like myself, first released into the world in 1970. I’d told my friend I had been thinking of buying a record player – this was the perfect excuse to start seriously shopping for it.

By this time, more information on how COVID-19 actually spreads was starting to firm up. Human-to-human transmission, especially airborne, was now seen as a lot more serious than surface transmission – hence the shift worldwide to masks, which at one stage had been seen as unnecessary.

September 2020

It was probably inevitable. Trump got COVID. The might of the US Government threw all it had – far more than the average American would get – in ensuring he recovered quickly – which may have resulted in him dismissing it as nothing major. In retrospect it seemed he learnt little from the experience.

Meanwhile back home, it took some time but Melbourne was starting to defeat the virus. Cases started to drop again, thank goodness. The lockdown was harsh, but it was working.

By late September, restrictions started to be eased, with the night time curfew being removed.

October 2020

There did seem to be a stubborn tail, with new cases around Australia (especially in Melbourne) continuing to crop up.

Plenty of people developed new hobbies in isolation. For me, apart from record player shopping (I think I’ll post separately on this), it was old TV, and Lego.

All this is certainly made easier by online shopping, of which I’ve done more in the past year than ever. (Click, click, click, ka-ching, oops!) A steady stream of parcels would arrive at the house – often, perhaps inevitably, during Zoom calls.

The common thread for my isohobbies is that clearly I seem to be reliving my 20s and 30s – no doubt helped along by turning 50 and becoming an empty nester.

My home’s newly spare rooms sparked thoughts of downsizing. I do yearn a bit for the inner tram suburbs of my 20s and 30s – Hawthorn and Glen Huntly – where living close to both the trains and trams, in different directions, made getting around easy without driving for all types of trips, not just work trips. I suppose I could try and move back there, but a glance at the prices shows it’d be financially perilous to do so – even with a downsizing.

November 2020

At last no local cases.

After reaching zero, Victoria had no local cases diagnosed for two months straight. For those of you living outside Melbourne, I can’t tell you just how much of a relief this was.

The “ring of steel” came down, and I got to exit Melbourne on a day trip for the first time in months to visit a relative. Fresh country air at last, if only for a few hours. It was lovely.

December 2020

Summer! Christmas time! It wasn’t normal, but it was closer to normal than in months – being able to shop (with masks) and see family. Our usual Christmas gatherings were within the household limit.

When local cases appeared again in late December, retrospectively tracked back to a spreading event in a Black Rock restaurant on the 21st, it gave me a bit of a sense of dread. The subsequent border closure with NSW caused some grief for relatives, some of whom had to race back from Christmas holidays.

One aunt got stuck in Sydney, unable to return home to Perth. And when it did eventually happen, she was in strict self-isolation at home for a fortnight.

Moorabbin station, October 2020

January 2021

The Black Rock cluster gradually burnt itself out, and we returned to no local transmission – with just a few cases entering via hotel quarantine.

Meanwhile, the first vaccine was approved for use in Australia. Its arrival and application has been slow, but I suppose we’re in less of a rush than many countries.

February 2021

Another case escaped from hotel quarantine, and for a while it was feared that a cafe at the airport might have caused it to spread across Melbourne and across the country.

I remember getting a little bit emotional watching as they announced a 5 day lockdown – a temporary return to the restrictions of last winter. Would it really be just 5 days, or would it go longer? Were we returning to a prolonged lockdown, with all the impact and anguish that brings?

Thankfully it was just the 5 days. I wouldn’t be surprised if the cafe worker having worn a mask while infections saved us from a much bigger outbreak.

Wearing a facemask in the station

March 2021

We seem to be in a holding pattern. Around the world, there are fears of a third wave, and authorities (in most countries at least) are rolling out the vaccinations.

Vaccinations have only just started in Australia. They’re hoping to have everyone who wants it done in the next six months or so.

In Australia, every few days one of the states will report an individual case has escaped from hotel quarantine. There’s a bit of a panic while they contact trace and try and contain it. Hopefully they’ll get everybody associated with hotel quarantine vaccinated ASAP.

Otherwise, life in many ways has almost returned to normal – though I’m still working from home, and it looks like I will be for some time.

This has included doing a couple of TV interviews from home, which has been interesting.

Talking to Channel 7 live from my home office, October 2020

The main thing (in Victoria) that you’d notice is the use of masks in large shops and shopping centres, public transport and taxis/Ubers, and QR codes (or manual sign-in) for restaurants, pubs etc.

Popping on a mask to catch a train or go into the supermarket (or into other shops that require it) is no big imposition, but some people are ignoring the rules or making a big deal out of it.

There are people who say we don’t have any cases so we don’t need masks. I think that’s incorrect. Cases can pop up at any time and we don’t know about them until after the fact. We never know how many cases are out there right now. All we know is that (probably) there were no cases 1-2 weeks ago. Masks are insurance against the cases we don’t know about yet.

Having seen what’s going on overseas, my conclusion is that if there’s one thing worse than severe restrictions and mandatory masks, it’s leaders not taking COVID-19 seriously – and letting it spread and letting thousands of people die as a result.

Overall I’m still cautious. Perhaps the influence of my immunocompromised relatives has rubbed off on me. For now I’m still a little reluctant to eat-in at a restaurant (but al fresco or a picnic takeaway is great if the weather’s nice). I’m not keen to go to the movies or pack into a bar to see a concert. And I’d love to plan a holiday, even domestically, but it seems like it only takes a few cases and the borders might lock-down again.

If I go into a shop, I tend to pop a mask on even if it’s a shop where it’s not required. (Some leaving their mask signs up even though they’ve dropped the requirement isn’t helping.)

And I still often cross quiet streets when walking if I see someone coming the other way.

Everybody’s view will be different, but I feel like things won’t really get back to normal until the vaccinations have been finished.

Hopefully that’s soon, and hopefully once it’s done, it’s really over.

By Daniel Bowen

Transport blogger / campaigner and spokesperson for the Public Transport Users Association / professional geek.
Bunurong land, Melbourne, Australia.
Opinions on this blog are all mine.

11 replies on “A year at home”

Excellent summary of the past 12 months. My last day in the office for 2020 was 24 March, similar to yourself.
One aspect of life that is a long way getting back to normal is public transport patronage which remains less than 50 per cent of pre-pandemic levels. When I use PT I could swing a cat and hit no one!
I know heaps of people who now drive whereas they used PT until 2020. Will be interesting to see if and when PT usage ramps up again.

You can say that, so much of the fear centers around the videos that are so called leaked from China. You had young healthy people who would just drop dead in the street.

As the COVID spread across the western world, we found out, this is not the case. Perhaps China leaked those videos on purpose, with the hope we will lock down in fear like we did.

While there was a deadly impact on elderly people in nursing homes, that was pretty much the limit of the experience for the majority of us. The experience for most of us, was no worse than the common cold, if that. As time went on, we learned this more and more.

I shall also, go as far as to say, the reason why Trump lost last year, was very much due to the covid outbreak. His strongest support base, which are mostly the older generation, where the ones who had most of the fear around covid….I let you draw the conclusion.

@tranzitJim – just a touch under 100,000 people under the age of 65 (what we loosely term as the limit for old age) have died in the US from COVID-19 ( I’d wager we didn’t have the same experience because of our pro-active policies around containing the virus. On the flip side, over 400,000 have died over the age of 65, likely due to lax policies. Are those lives not worthy of protecting? As a young, healthy 32 year old sure I probably wouldn’t have died from covid-19, but had I, and most other people, not adhered to warnings we would likely have many more dead here in Australia.

From months of experience now, I reckon that, unfortunately, disposable masks are more practical and comfortable than any of the reusable ones I’ve worn.

@stretts, good point.

You can do a lot to protect those who are vulnerable.

You can perhaps say, lockdown everybody that is over 65, and not lockdown 18 to 64?

In terms of the Australian (as opposed to globally, as they are mandated in many places!) experience of the pandemic, face masks are a uniquely Victorian part of day-to-day life. Other parts of the country have either never had mask mandates and the proportion of the population who ever wear one is extremely small (e.g. SA, TAS, ACT), or have briefly had such restrictions that have been removed after a shorter period (e.g. Brisbane, Perth, Sydney), as opposed to Victorians who have been wearing masks continually since July last year.

Tomorrow evening will be the first time since then that it will be permitted for people to go to the supermarket without one on. It’s probably going to take the population of Victoria quite some time to adjust to not wearing one.

Nice summary. While nearly all COVID deaths in Australia have been over 70’s, this is not the case in other countries. Among friends of my wife’s relatives in Indonesia, quite a few have died of COVID in their 40’s and 50’s. This news is never reported in either Australia or Indonesia and probabaly doesn’t get included in official stats. Most developing countries would be similar.

Re public transport patronage, the most relevent cities for a post-COVID world are Perth and Wellington, where patronage has returned to about 70% of pre-COVID levels. These are some of the few cities in the world where local transmission was eliminated after the first wave, and (I think) staff were able to return to city offices. It shouldn’t be forgotten that COVID co-incided with a quantum leap in software for working from home, and forced its rapid adoption. Prior to COVID we had incompatabilities such as Skype that wouldn’t allow presentations, Skype for Business that allowed presentations but couldn’t connect to people who only had Skype, and we couldn’t invite participants who didn’t have Skype for Business. Then these were replaced with Teams that overcame these limitations. The influence of getting this software (along with others such as Zoom) just right should not be underestimated. We have now become used to scheduling multiple meetings witihin a day, which will reduce business travel. If the bosses prefer to work from home, this will reduce the expectations of returning to the office, and with it public transport demand. At my son’s workplace i inner Melbourne they now all come in for a meeting on Monday, after which they work from home for the rest of the week.

I feel like I want to know more about what happened in other states because I read the lockdown was national and not just for Victoria. Did those other states really have a concept of Stage 1/2/3, because they don’t use them by now?

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