Here in Melbourne, today is officially the last day of lockdown. With the highest total number of days in lockdown due to Covid, we’ve been declared the “lockdown capital” of the world. This has included six lockdowns, three short and three long.
Recently, as restrictions have eased slightly, I’ve been reflecting how lockdowns shrink my world, and how that then affects me when coming out of a lockdown. It can be a conscious effort to choose to go to places or do activities that I would have gone to and done without a second thought in 2019.
Memories of first living alone
It reminds me of when I first moved into my current house. For some years, I’d known that getting my foot on the property ladder was supposed to be my next major life step, and I’d found a house I liked in an area I was happy with. I was gaining new freedom and independence. It was supposed to be a great time.
And yet I felt that my world was shrinking, not growing. It was late autumn when I moved, so it would always be dark when I got home from work. The days were short, and the evenings were getting colder. Sitting in my lounge room, working on my computer, I felt like I was trapped. It could even feel like the walls were closing in on me.
In time, I grew better at managing this. Spring came, then summer. I don’t know the feeling went away completely, but by the time winter came round again I was more comfortable with my house and my place in the world.
Back then, I had a number of religious activities that would get me out of my house and among people, like it or not. One of the things I did after leaving religion was to find other activities that took me out of the house. Yes, winters might involve cold nights at home - but they could also involve festivals and concerts and plays and lectures in the city.
What I came to realise from this was that my world would shrink if I didn’t consciously push boundaries. Of course, that’s not necessarily always a bad thing - but if was if it led to me feeling alone and trapped.
Not “just staying home”
There was a lot of emphasis during the pandemic on “Just stay home, OK!” (maybe put more politely as “Stay home, stay safe”). This was supposed to be doing us a favour: It would give us lots of spare time. Perhaps we’d find the time to practice an existing hobby, or pick up a new one. However, even if we didn’t, we were supposed to be grateful for the opportunity to binge-watch Netflix guilt-free. Sorry to disappoint, but binge-watching Netflix is not my idea of paradise.
Perhaps I’m just too literal minded, but I quickly came to realise that many of my friends sharing the “Stay home” message were still leaving their homes for various reasons. Which made sense. I left my home too - just saved myself the trouble of sharing a message I wasn’t going to follow.
The fact was, there were permitted reasons to leave the home during lockdown, and where they applied to me and I considered them relatively safe, I used them. As a result, I probably got out more than many people.
For me, the most notable permitted reason was “exercise”. In fact, it was a rare day that I didn’t leave my home for a walk or run somewhere. Much was made of the need to make sacrifices, and I certainly made some - but I wasn’t going to be trapped in my house for a sacrifice I considered unnecessary.
And yet, my world was shrinking
There were of course limits on this freedom. In the first lockdown we weren’t allowed to go an “unreasonable” distance or to spend an “unreasonable” time exercising. Who really knows what that means?
The effect was that, while I considered outdoor exercise safe enough - particularly in the more sparsely populated suburbs of the Dandenong Ranges - I stayed fairly close to home. Yes, I was trying to do “the right thing” - but I also didn’t know if I was stopped how police might choose to interpret those rules.
The one time I remember going a little further afield was at the end of April. As a team we’d worked late into the night merging a project we’d been working on for at least a year, and we were told to take a break the next day. Autumn was passing, the Dandenong Ranges gardens were large and likely to be beautiful, and so I went there at lunchtime. I still vividly remember the colour of the leaves and the feel of the sun on my face and the sense of peace there:
It was outdoor and I didn’t expect to encounter too many people there, so it felt safe and not too unreasonable. It was also closer than some of the gardens I would have explored without a second thought in previous years. However, it was further afield than I’d been for a while. My world had shrunk, and I wasn’t sure whether I was doing the right thing, let alone whether others would think I was doing the right thing.
In later lockdowns the limits were more clearly defined, both the distance you could travel and the number of hours that could be spent in exercise. I found this easier to work with than the arbitrary “reasonable” standard. Typically it was 5km and either 1 or 2 hours, though as lockdown eased it sometimes stretched to 10km or even 25km. Right now it’s 15km and 4 hours.
But the “world shrinking” was also about social interaction, not just how far I could go from my home. I wasn’t seeing any family members except electronically. The same was true of co-workers. Sometimes I might pass a number of people while out walking, but other times I might pass nobody.
I lost many of the activities that distinguished different days of the week and gave structure to my life. It was harder to keep track of what day of the week it was. I lost track of the time, and days and weeks blurred together. There were days when I wondered whether it was even worth getting out of bed. Not many, but they were there.
Part of my goal with the daily exercise was to counter that: exploring the local streets gave extra purpose, and following different routes each day added variety. I saw continually changing bear hunts and Spoonvilles. I saw autumn leaves and spring flowers in people’s gardens. I discovered many great locations to watch the sun set from. My world may have been shrinking, but I still tried to push my personal boundaries (while remaining within the boundaries set by authorities).
When restrictions ease
In February, I described how I’d handled the easing of restrictions last year. It involved consciously pushing boundaries every time I was able to go further afield or do more.
I’ve done the same this time round as our radius has been extended to 10km, then 15km. There are spring gardens to see and admire, and experiences to have. For example, last month found me out in the hail watching a wombat who’d decided it was all too much and was cowering in the shelter:
Returning to the same gardens a couple of weeks ago, the flowers were even more spectacular:
The bees were out in force:
The lake was peaceful as ever:
Even if the ducks felt like disturbing it:
There was even a rabbit in the fray:
And that’s just one of a number of gardens I’ve gone to this spring when permitted.
Am I really ready for easing restrictions?
One of the things that I’ve really disliked about lockdown is just the feeling that I’m being restricted. The same has been true when restrictions have been tightened, such as the curfew and restrictions on the number of hours able to be spent exercising. It doesn’t necessarily matter whether those things are things that I would have wanted to do, or even things that I would have considered safe to do: I don’t like feeling restricted. Sometimes I felt resigned to just getting through it however I could. But other times I did feel trapped, like my world was shrinking.
So, with that in mind, surely when things were permitted again I’d immediately get back to them? It was easy to think that while stuck in lockdown, but in practice it turned out not that simple. I noticed it most after the first lockdown, when there were many things - like dining indoors - that I considered safe but wasn’t yet ready to actually do. And I wasn’t alone in that.
The second lockdown last year had a more gradual re-opening, so I had more time to prepare for it mentally. I also came to conclude that my government’s risk assessment was typically more conservative than mine, so if they thought something was OK it was likely that I would consider it OK too.
Previous lockdowns this year were short, so I think it was easier to bounce back mentally. This time round, we’ve eased lockdown a bit, but we’ve been in lockdown for three months and I’m feeling those same feelings all over again.
Returning to pre-lockdown haunts
Last weekend particularly brought it home. I’d figured out that Emerald was within my permitted 15km, so I went there on Saturday. I’d been there four times between February and May (in order: walking Gembrook -> Emerald, walking Sassafras -> Emerald, admiring autumn leaves round Emerald, and walking Emerald -> Belgrave). The last two had been consecutive weekends just before lockdown #4 was called.
It’s hard to describe how weird it felt returning there. It was less than 5 months since I’d been there, but it felt so much longer. It was like I was returning to a long-lost CovidFree world of optimism. And I wasn’t quite sure I was ready for it (I had actually been further afield in June/July between lockdowns, but Emerald in autumn had been burned into my mind as a pre-lockdown activity).
It was good, really. It would have been weirder if I’d gone exactly the same way as I went in May, but I managed to find new views and trails I’d never been on and really enjoyed it. It’s part of the world of Puffing Billy, though I expect it was suspended for lockdown (probably fortunately, given driving there I saw some people walking over one of the historic trestle bridges):
I also spent time watching yet another wombat (first time I’ve seen one in Emerald):
It wasn’t the first time I’d felt how weird it could be returning to a well-known park. A few weeks before, I’d returned to a park I visited near the end of June. Back then I’d been standing at the top of a lookout tower waiting for the sunset (which, for the record, was spectacular). I took the opportunity to check the news, and there it was - all of Sydney was going into lockdown.
Those moments have an effect. They leave memories. And sometimes they make me wonder how quickly I can really return to the mental freedom and optimism of former days.
A resumption of family gatherings
But the bigger shock on the weekend was hearing on Sunday that we were going to be permitted up to ten visitors in homes from Friday. This wasn’t on the roadmap, and certainly wasn’t what I was expecting given how high case numbers are and how long authorities have spent emphasising that home visits aren’t safe.
Is this wise? I believe all my immediate family members are either partially or fully vaccinated, so it’s unlikely to make much difference to us meeting up this week rather than in a few weeks time. But is it the right time for the state? I’m not sure. They can recommend that only fully vaccinated people make use of this freedom, but once they’ve opened the flood-gates I think they’ll be hard to close. Last post, I said that with the case numbers not having peaked I expected government to slow down the easing of restrictions. I certainly wasn’t expecting it to be sped up.
At a personal level, in the past few weeks I’ve met up with some family members outdoors when permitted. I was looking forward to more being permitted at some point. And yet hearing the news on Sunday made me realise that it was changing too quickly, and I wasn’t quite ready for it.
It’s something of a return to how life was. It’s a step back to normal. That’s supposed to be a good thing. And yet I’ve got into habits, figured out my work from home routine, safely shrunk my world, and now that comfortable routine feels threatened.
Looking further ahead
In my last post I said I was looking forward to restrictions easing, and to getting back to working in the office. And yet yesterday at work we were talking about being able to spend some time in the office after hitting 80%, and it started to feel too close. I felt the same as with family gatherings: In principle, I want it - but am I really ready for it?
My world has shrunk. I find it a conscious effort to choose to go to places that I would have gone to without a second thought in 2019. It can feel like a bold step to take a train to my office - something I was doing every day.
That then makes discretionary travel like going into the city to visit a museum or concert or theatre production seem almost inconceivable. Looking beyond the city, it’s harder still thinking about organising travel to regional Victoria or further afield - though, like last year, I expect that I will want to do that at some point in November or December. And further down the track I hope for international travel - but will I be ready for it?
But what about all that Covid out there?
There’s been a lot of comparing of our eased restrictions and what was permitted by NSW at the same stage. However, NSW were well past peak before they eased restrictions. We are easing in the face of the highest daily case numbers we’ve seen during the entire pandemic.
Apparently hospitalisation numbers are lower than expected, which is a positive sign. Even before vaccination, I knew that it was possible that I would get a serious case of Covid - I could even die of it - but it didn’t seem likely. I didn’t seek Covid out, but nor was I staying home out of existential dread. Now that I am vaccinated, my risk has been reduced still further.
However, “living with Covid” increases the risk of coming into contact with it. If I am deemed a “close contact”, I will probably be put under stay at home orders stricter than our current lockdown. Even more so if I test positive, no matter how mild the case is post-vaccination. Contracting Covid would also increases the chance of spreading it to family members or friends or work colleagues, some of whom might face greater health consequences than me.
Will that make me less likely to go out to dine or attend events or travel than I was in, say, CovidFree April or in 2019? In principle, I intend to follow the same rule I have throughout: “If it’s permitted, and I think it safe enough, I’ll do it, and I don’t care what others think”. But in the short term it’s more worrying. I’m not necessarily prepared for this new reality. And I will continue to be affected by the possibility of my choices affecting others, as well as by the potential for judgement from others.
I’m reminded of how I felt coming out of the first lockdown. Then, case numbers had been controlled and I didn’t expect to come into contact with Covid. However, I still worried about it: If I did happen to come into contact with it doing something frivolous, how could I justify my actions? And that made me more hesitant doing things like dining out.
This time round, Covid is hopefully a less serious disease, but my chance of coming into contact with it has to be a lot higher. And I don’t know how that will affect me.
I believe many will have experienced some of the things I’ve described. And perhaps many have experienced them worse than me.
During “normal” times, I had to develop my own coping mechanisms for living alone, particularly in winter. I wasn’t just going to sit indoors - I was going to brave the elements and consciously stretch myself. The pandemic (and particularly lockdown measures) challenged those coping mechanisms, but I’ve been able to adjust them and develop new ones.
I have tried to prevent lockdown from shrinking my world too far, and to recover as lockdown eased. I chose to push boundaries, and I will continue to do so.
However, it still affects me. I know that I’m more fragile in some ways, both during lockdown and in the re-opening phases that can be both nervy and exciting. I mostly try to snap myself out of it and conceal it from others, but it’s still there.
I think it’s OK to be eager to get back to real life. And it’s also OK to be nervous about it. Right now, I feel both.
Freedom at midnight, they say - but what will this brave new world look like? And when will I be ready for it? Maybe next year my world will include a return to the Northern Hemisphere. But right now Melbourne City feels a long way away.