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Nothing doing: notes from Victoria, the state of limbo where we’ve given up counting the days

·9 min read
<span>Photograph: James Ross/AAP</span>
Photograph: James Ross/AAP

Whatever you do, don’t count them any more. It’s not lockdown 6.0 or 7.0, or six and a half. In Victoria, you’re either in lockdown, or you’re in part lockdown, or you’re not in lockdown, which is never.

Nobody wants to talk about this state in lockdown any more, especially Victorians. Most of us are done with spit polishing the giant chips on our shoulders, done with the martyrdom. Because we’ve done this, all of this, before. This is scary, but it’s also boring.

There are some marked differences to last year. Safe to say NSW gets it now. To quote Melbourne’s lockdown hero, the 1800 Lasagne guy, when he sent his heart-adorned Hang in There Sydney posters to paste up around the city: “fuck the rivalry”.

Those with the most to lose are certainly not talking about it. What’s there to say? They’re delivering the food, fronting the supermarkets behind Perspex screens and prepping the wards. And some just, aren’t. Some are just refusing to go back.

We all know by now that our capital city has smashed the world record no one wants: over two hundred and something days of lockdown. Is there a ticker? Why not? Put it next to the Nylex clock.

Related: In lockdown my new goal is giving up. But will I be able to achieve it? | Justine Toh

That many days of nothing means it’s almost impossible to remember the In Between. The book launch at the top of a car park on that balmy night in March when the city heaved again. The house party with people once again standing drunk in a kitchen. The IRL tutorial. The nursing home Easter egg hunt that didn’t take place behind glass. A gig at the Tote. That garage sale. These things did happen in the last 18 months – Christmas happened – but try telling our brains that.

There’s the absence of everything, yes, but then there’s also the stuff that’s happened in lockdown. Big stuff. A cancer diagnosis. A marriage split. Babies born who now speak in whole sentences. Weddings cancelled, twice. Families who have now spent well over a year grieving loved ones who have died, while their outer orbit has yet to properly process that they’re dead.

Growing groups of women take to the icy cold bay in droves, freezing their bones just to feel something

Right now, it feels like none of it really, actually, happened. And it feels like whatever this is will never, really, actually end. Apparently the latest word for it is languishing. We are languishing. We ask each other how we are and the uniform response is … fine. We’re fine.

In “the regions”, a quite frankly creepy term, we slide in and out of various stages of lockdown. Regionals congratulate themselves for not living in the city, don’t post photos of the sea on socials, and definitely don’t tell their Melbourne-based family that they’ve booked a weekend away in a different part of the regions. We feel lucky by comparison. Until we remember we haven’t seen the inside of another person’s home in months.

So far, we said for the last little while, they’ve contained it to Shep. Shepparton is the gold standard when it comes to warding this thing off. Yes the whole community rallied, but one day, if they’re smart enough, health authorities will study the way Indigenous community-controlled organisations managed to get the message out, the way the Rumbalara service, with one eye on Wilcannia, doled out around 1000 tests between a Saturday and Wednesday, the way they made community feel safe when the government so spectacularly failed to.

“And, again, Shepparton has shown us the way,” the CHO says, pointing to the 30% uptick in vaccination. So Shep comes out of lockdown, and Ballarat goes down in the same breath. Meanwhile, V Line routes disappear off the timetable as staff fight an outbreak, and the city seems even further away. Today, the police will shut down public transport to the CBD entirely to deter anti-lockdown protesters. Buses will be bypassed, trams will be stopped and the trains will go nowhere near Flinders St.

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In Melbourne, once again everyone’s been bouncing around inside their allotted 5km sphere of reference. Today we’ll be gifted an extra five. Of course, we well know by now that lockdown looks different depending on which side of the river you’re on, or more accurately, who signs your paycheck.

In the north and west, where over 85% of cases are currently concentrated, the tier 1 sites are closing in: supermarkets, GP clinics, chemists. Pop-ups are taking on new meaning – less temporary cafes, more vaccination tents and mental health clinics. A cafe, a bottle-o and a cake shop band together to offer special Saturday night deliveries. Local Muslim community groups support hundreds of people who’ve been isolating, families who already lost many of their elderly last year, and this time the food packs are actually halal.

In the south, growing groups of women take to the icy cold bay in droves, washing their children off, freezing their bones just to feel something. Footage of a synagogue in Ripponlea surrounded by police is aired on the nightly news and Balaclava and surrounds brace themselves for new waves of antisemitic abuse.

An email from restaurant Vue de Monde thanks patrons for their support and announces new delivery suburbs: “For an extra touch of indulgence right at home, add on a traditional caviar course to your At Home dining. Pairs beautifully with a Champagne.”

A woman who lives alone sends a text in the night: “… the days are just so long.”

All over, the kids are wilting. Lots of cameras in class stay off. One wears a halo filter for something different and tells his friend he’s going to heaven. “It’d be better than here,” says the kid. The kid is nine.

The mood lifts after a surprise presser announces picnic permissions. Yes, we’re back at picnics on golf courses. Still, genuine euphoria kicks in. We study the fine print: “Up to five adults plus dependants from two households will be able to gather outdoors if all adults present have received both doses of a Covid-19 vaccine.” Then we study the BoM: “16, showers, high winds.” Genuine laughter kicks in.

People post photos from their pasts on socials. Lots of sweaty gigs. A pash. WhatsApp groups have stopped pinging. Texts go unanswered. The news is driving people offline. Afghanistan happened, sometime after the day the sea caught fire. Nobody Zooms socially any more. Nobody. 8pm is now a perfectly acceptable time to go to bed.

None of these feelings are unique to Victoria, not any more. Except when we realise that our diary in September 2021 looks almost exactly the same as 2020: that is, empty. We certainly don’t book ahead any more. The second cancellation of Rising, a festival marked as a beacon of hope that had sold over 100,000 tickets, was maybe the moment that finally stopped us looking ahead.

Last year on grand final day, people spontaneously donned their team guernseys and walked to the empty G. This year, watching two Melbourne rivals play it out in Perth will be indescribably hard.

The technical definition of languishing is “failing to make progress or be successful”. Right now, Victorians are the embodiment of this in every sense of the stupid word. We inhabited the definition entirely on 1 September, the day Daniel Andrews called the press conference that would mark the end of Covid zero. “We will not see these case numbers go down,” he said. And we didn’t quite hear him properly.

Last year Victoria worshipped at the altar of Covid zero. We celebrated every zero day, doughnut days we called them, often by eating as many of them as possible, interchanging with bagels. A month ago, the VicHealth website celebrated our last zero new cases day. We’d even driven Delta back, a feat gold standard Gladys couldn’t pull off. Two days later we went back into lockdown for the last time. And now, the premier was telling us, we would toil under the same conditions, to strive for a result that would be nowhere near as definitive as a doughnut.

So now, we’ve all stopped trying to game it out. When you forget what you were doing halfway to the dishwasher, trying to unpick any of this is pretty much impossible.

There are some things Victorians do remember. We remember the virus that ripped through our aged care homes, before the bountiful supplies of AZ that now expire on the shelves. We remember the virus that every other state seemed impervious to for so long, the virus the prime minister called the “Victorian wave”.

This is not that virus, we know that much. But there’s also a growing sense that all those days, all that time, all that collective effort was squandered. Pissed against the wall, the angriest of us might say. That the threat was underestimated by those who hadn’t lived through what we had. And that our dead didn’t quite count. The anger is fleeting, and it passes, but it feels not unlike the spitting stuff of those anti-lockdown rallies, anger that can energise us, and scare us, and an anger we may well nurse.

Still, September 2021 might seem like a mirror image of September 2020, except this time there’s a new, extra, notable, essential, reason to leave the house: a vaccination appointment.

For nearly all of us there’s at least one family member who has to be convinced. But for most, this essential reason to leave the house is a note of hope. As is the distant knowledge of what it finally feels like to emerge from days like this. Assuring friends in Sydney that no matter how foggy your brain gets, the first time you sit inside a cafe, the first time you buy a movie ticket, the first time you hug whoever it is that you’re longing for right now … that’ll be a feeling that you’ll actually never forget.

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