The lure of Australia — which for me grew ever stronger as London felt increasingly stale and stressful towards the end of last year — was sun, nature and the promise of a populace known for being laid back. I landed on Friday 13 March, 48 hours before a law enforcing a two-week quarantine of all arrivals, and walked into a country in the first proper grip of panic and stress. ‘G’day mate’ had turned, understandably, into ‘we’re all doomed, and hands off my dry goods’.
In the 24 hours of travel time it took for me to get here, much had changed, and Australians — formerly gung-ho about welcoming me — were no longer so. Waiting to disembark the plane, amid rumours we were being detained for mandatory testing (if only), I found messages from cancelled airbnbs and a friend I was due to stay with disinviting me. Not to mention warning of the likelihood of total lockdown, Italy-style.
The sense of alarm is palpable. I am in Melbourne, in Victoria, the second worst-hit state in Australia after New South Wales (where Sydney is located, with 210 cases and the sharpest rise in confirmed cases today). A state of emergency was declared in Victoria on Sunday, the only state in Australia to do so so far, giving police powers to arrest those who disobey the new self-quarantine rules.
The anxieties multiply hourly, mirroring those in other countries: reports of a chronic shortage of testing equipment, slapdash and insufficient testing, bad government communication, under-diagnosis. The mood, now jittery, is on course to sink much lower, as the reality of shut-downs and cancellations sinks in. Each day, new dominos fall: all university classes cancelled, cricket cancelled, comedy festival cancelled, Grand Prix cancelled, museums shut, even — as I discovered this evening on the pier in beach suburb St Kilda — the promontory for viewing the penguins is shut.
It’s been a tough year for a nation who invented the idea of kicking back, laying back, and chilling out with a beer in the sun. First the wildfires, now this. And you can feel it. Streets and some cafes are not all entirely empty, but there’s a hollowed-out feeling, and a feeling that people are tiptoeing around. The conversation gets particularly animated around the subject of loo-roll, which is no longer a source of humour. Unlike in London last week, where I was able to locate some in certain newsagents, there is absolutely none to be found here.
Today there was a stabbing outside a Woolworths in a Melbourne seaside suburb, not attributed by police to panic buying, but the fact that such a statement was necessary underscores the sense of desperation now surrounding the purchase of dry goods. Cole’s, a Woolworths competitor, has taken out full page notices advising of rationing on pasta, rice and beans. To counter the panic buying, which has been particularly bad in Australia, supermarkets have now introduced elderly shopper-only hours.
Not everyone is worried. The young are concerningly blasé: last night’s jaunt to a rooftop bar was worryingly crammed, including the lifts, with devil-may-care millennials. In St Kilda tonight numerous venues crammed with beer-swillers and the tram back was crowded with youngsters hanging onto the rails and handles, swigging booze as they went. Is there a balance to be struck between the Aussie spirit of good times and blank fear? It’s too soon to tell.