As Melbourne faces another winter blighted by COVID, Catherine Williams speaks for many when she says simply: “I’m exhausted.”
Williams has more reason to be drained than most of us. She is a nurse on a COVID ward at a Melbourne hospital and while some of us have had a hopeful window of pretending life was getting back to normal, she never did.
Catherine Williams, who like many Melburnians, feels exhausted.Credit:Darrian Traynor
“I’ve always been very much aware that it’s still around out there in the community and you think, is it ever going to end?”
That’s the question on many minds.
We’re tired of what we’ve been through. Tired worrying about what might be to come. Ask a Melburnian about the worrying signs and their mind springs to our past two winters: long, cold months of mask mandates and lockdowns. And while few think we are going back to those measures, we’re facing the reality that any hopes the pandemic was over were wishful thinking.
On Friday night, Jacqui Davis found herself doing something lifted straight from the winters of 2020 and 2021: catching up with her friends online because she has COVID after recently being away on holiday.
“We did the quiz from The Age on Zoom like we were back in lockdown, we were just dying to see friends again.”
“All our resilience tanks are running on empty.”
Davis also watched a live comedy show by Melbourne comedian Kirsty Webeck, who launched her online-only shows as a way to keep performing during the 2021 COVID wave. The shows are back, unexpectedly, for yet another COVID winter.
“It’s the uncertainty,” Davis, 45, says of the mood she detects in conversations with friends.
“For me, it’s the uncertainty of making plans. You have things to look forward to after so long of things we couldn’t do … catching up and going to things and COVID just throws that spanner in the works. It’s like everything is heading back to a holding pattern.
“All our resilience tanks are running on empty. I find that I have a bit less patience for other things.”
She also notes that the past two years have trained us to associate the worst pandemic news with winter and better news with the change of seasons.
“We associate coming out of the lockdowns with having the picnics in the park and reconnecting with friends. We got to those things in like October last year, and you started to appreciate the simplicity of going to a park with friends. Whereas I think now we’re back at feeling a bit sorry for ourselves. Like, ‘Not again’.”
The fresh wave of apprehension comes as many had returned to something approaching normal, with no desire to go backwards.
Kori Richards wonders, “How do you know you’re doing the right thing all the time?”Credit:Darrian Traynor
Zoe Ferguson, a 20-year-old Melbourne University psychology student, has had her studies upended by the pandemic — “I haven’t been to one in-person lecture for my entire degree” — but says her generation has mentally put COVID behind it.
“People my age don’t seem to really be as interested anymore,” she says.
“My friends and I probably haven’t spoken about COVID in three months. Even if one of your friends has it, it’s like, ‘OK, that’ll be fine’.
“People are over it now. We’ve had this freedom. I worry if we try to go backwards people are just going to say, ‘No’.”
Dental nurse Kori Richards, 27, echoes those sentiments. The demands of her very public-facing job, and the broader COVID experience, have left her tired of staying on top of the demands of living with the virus.
“How do you keep up with it?” she says.
“How do you know you’re doing the right thing all the time? It’s really tough. I definitely think a mask mandate is fine. But are we then going to be heading back into really desperate measures like lockdowns again, for something that we have a lot of experience with now?”
As a nurse, Williams is used to wearing PPE every day at work. Outside work, she is adopting the personal responsibility mantra around masks, social distancing, vaccinations and boosters. She doubts a new mask mandate would be effective.
Wearing a mask … now a personal choice.Credit:Darrian Traynor
“I think people are just so over being told what to do, and sometimes you’ve got to pick your battles.”
Zoe Simmons, a disabled journalist from Ringwood, is still counting the cost of previous COVID waves.
“This is a major, major issue for the disability community,” she says, having endured two years of disrupted medical care and the constant anxiety of catching the virus.
Now she says the threat of long-COVID should terrify people.
“I think more people should be concerned, not necessarily to live in fear, but to just be mindful that, yes, it might be just one sickness, but it could also be the rest of your life.”
Zoe Simmons is a writer who works from home. She is worried about contracting COVID-19 as cases surge around the country.Credit:Paul Jeffers
Samantha Stevens, a senior executive with a CBD-based company and a mother of two, says she is taking a more pragmatic approach to the increased COVID threat: masking up where required or when it’s wise; adapting her work schedule as circumstances demand.
“I think it made perfect sense to lock down until we knew what we were really dealing with … [but] it felt like that last lockdown in particular had a real sting in the tail, particularly for those of us who complied all the way through. We’re a bit weary of it. And not unusually, I’ve got two kids in primary school. The impact on them was just horrendous.”
In her corporate life, she says nearly everything can be done effectively from home. “Everything’s working perfectly well. But I think you do lose something from not having the day-to-day contact with people. Missing out on those incidental conversations that always bring you so much.”
Her employer has adopted a hybrid office/home model.
Research by the University of Melbourne’s Melbourne Institute has found this blended approach is still most common. It has found that 88 per cent of Australians in jobs that can be performed anywhere favour working from home at least some of the time, but that almost half say their employers do not support a long-term hybrid model.
A Victorian Chamber of Commerce survey of CBD businesses, released in June, found 42 per cent of employees were working in the office one to two days a week and 25 per cent three to four days. Only 19 per cent were back in the office for the full working week.
“We haven’t mandated any specific time in the office,” says Stevens. “We’ve said that hybrid is genuinely hybrid. So we expect you to spend part of the week in the office.”
Like many, she is bracing for the impact of the winter COVID wave on these arrangements.
“I’m noticing a lot of illness at work. It does feel like we’re going to enter into a pretty challenging period,” she says.
“We’ve got to make sure we’ve balanced protecting the vulnerable and making sure the healthcare system is able to cope, but making sure we enable small businesses and others to keep going. Which is why I don’t at all mind wearing masks … that’s probably the community spirit we should have.”
Beyond Blue has a coronavirus mental well-being support service which can be called on 1800 512 348 For more details, visit coronavirus.beyondblue.org.au
Support is available from Lifeline on 131 114.
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