Walking through the aisles of Coles, the scene before me seems apocalyptic: shelves ransacked, shoppers wearing masks and gloves, exchanging looks of uncertainty and fear. Despite the social distancing guidelines and advice to stay at home unless absolutely necessary, the supermarket is packed. I can feel the unease radiating from the people around me. Everyone exudes an aura of angst. I do my best to focus on my list.
Just get what you need and get out.
There’s no pasta. I’m limited to the gross organic soy milk, and only two of them. Luckily, I don’t eat meat because there’s literally none left.
I make my way to the checkout, making sure to keep my distance from the person in front of me. I attempt a polite hello to the cashier, but the lump in my throat prevents any more efforts at conversation. I say a silent prayer that there’s enough in my account to pay for it as my boss has informed me that the thirty-seven hours’ worth of pay that I am owed will not come through for at least four weeks.
Rent is due next week.
The thought of having to ask Mum for money makes me grimace with shame, but what other choice do I have? I have no shifts for the foreseeable future. My card is accepted, thank God.
I shove my grocery bags into the boot of my car with shaking hands and slam it closed. The breeze whips my hair about my face as I return the trolley—tears threaten to escape from my eyes. It takes all my will power to hold them back.
Don’t you dare.
I fix my eyes on the ground and make my way back to the car as fast as I can without breaking into a run. I unlock the car and hastily get in. It takes a few attempts to get the key in the ignition. Then, and only then, do I let out a heavy breath as two rebellious teardrops fall from my eyes, leaving a glistening trail in my makeup.
I hastily wipe the tears away, checking for smudged mascara in the rear-view mirror. I let out a slow, shaky breath, attempting to calm my furiously beating heart. It’s been months since I last had a panic attack, thanks to years of hard work and medication for my anxiety disorder—generalised anxiety with a dose of social phobia (irrational fear of strangers, crowds, other people in general) and depression for good measure—yet in this moment I can feel myself slipping back into that mindset, a frightened little girl who just wants to hide from the world.
‘Describe your life before Covid-19.’ My housemate and best friend of almost ten years sits across from me on our tiny little two-seater couch. She’s curled up in the corner with her knees tucked close to her chest.
‘Well, before the pandemic I was working a lot more so I was definitely more financially secure.’ She picks at her fingernails as she speaks. ‘Usually I would have uni, so I would commute up to Melbourne and sometimes I’d have to commute back and rush to work at the bar. So it was always really busy, and I would often be working till late.’
‘How much of that has changed since the pandemic?’
‘Pretty much all of it. I’m not working as much anymore and I can’t go to the gym at all. Which means that I’m not really motivated to do any form of exercise. Although, it’s a little bit more relaxing now, not having to stress about going to work so often and commuting up to Melbourne.’ She gives a half-hearted giggle, the nervous laugh I know so well.
‘You had to go on the JobSeeker payment, didn’t you?’
‘Yeah. I’m not making as much money as I used to, so the payment kind of makes up for what I used to earn, but I don’t want to stay on JobSeeker for a long time.’ For as long as I’ve known her, Mae has always been very self-sufficient and financially independent; I know it bothers her to have to rely on Centrelink for support.
‘Do you feel like you’d be able to cope without the JobSeeker payment?’
Anxiety runs in my family, as does bipolar, diabetes and at least four or five other auto-immune diseases. My mother has high blood pressure and a suspected auto-immune disease. She has been working her usual hours as a cashier at Target since the pandemic began and has had to start working weekends since they made the decision to lay off all of the casual workers. Her mental health has deteriorated as a result, culminating in a breakdown at work after dealing with the new procedures in place to comply with social distancing regulations, confused and sometimes rude customers, as well as concern for her own health—being the first point of contact for patrons.
My grandmother lives alone, half an hour’s drive from the closest family. She is diabetic, has limited mobility and rarely gets a cold without it developing into bronchitis. She usually drives into town every Thursday to get her groceries and ‘do the rounds’, visiting the kids, grandkids and great-grandkids. But since the pandemic the visits have become briefer, fewer and far-between. She’s not the type to say it, but we all know she’s concerned. My aunt even set up Facebook messenger on her phone so that she could meet her newborn great-grandson—at least virtually, anyway. Much to the shock of the rest of us, she’s figured out how to use it.
‘Have you been following the social distancing guidelines?’
‘Yeah, going out in public is so weird now. Like, the other day, I saw my friend’s mum in the supermarket and we went to say hi and moved towards each other and then we were both like ‘oh, actually, better stay away’’ Mae gives that familiar nervous giggle. ‘You just don’t know what to do.’
‘Do you feel like this situation is affecting your mental health at all?’
‘I liked it at first’ she pauses for a moment. ‘I still like it. I like working from home and stuff like that and doing uni from home. But we can’t just have friends over. I miss doing that.’
‘What’s been the hardest part?’
‘I think being stuck at home with my partner sometimes. It’s frustrating when you don’t have your own space to work and we’re both working and studying from home. And not being able to see my mum, actually, that should be top of the list. I miss my mum.’
We also had two babies born in the height of the panic, at the very beginning of the lockdown. I didn’t meet one of them until he was two months old and even then, I was cautious to hold him despite not having been in contact with anyone other than family. I hadn’t even thought about the emotional toll this situation must be taking on new parents. Imagine bringing a child into the world in the middle of a pandemic. I didn’t realise just how terrifying it must be until I visited my cousin—who also suffers from anxiety—and her twelve-week-old son after the restrictions had eased—only the second time I’d ever seen him. She told me how terrified she was when he contracted a cold that his older brother had picked up at day care. Not yet old enough to be vaccinated, he ended up spending the night in hospital. Obviously, it wasn’t Coronavirus. There had only been a handful of cases in Hamilton—only one of which was a resident—but the thought of him being so vulnerable at such a time would be enough to set any mother on edge. Subsequent routine appointments resulted in the doctor being more concerned for Mum rather than baby as her blood pressure was alarmingly high.
‘So how have you been feeling since our last session, Sarah?’ The voice of my psychologist seems slightly less reassuring through my laptop speakers, her face slightly less comforting through the grainy quality of the webcam.
‘A bit flat.’ I sigh. ‘Struggling to get out of bed, can’t find much motivation, you know, the usual.’ I try to play it off with a touch of comedy, but the humour doesn’t reach my eyes.
‘Why do you think that is?’
‘Oh, just the pandemic. I still don’t have any work and apart from studying, there’s not much to keep me occupied. Not that I’m motivated to study at all.’
‘But you’ve been keeping up with your assignments, haven’t you? The last time we spoke you seemed to be managing your studies alright.’
‘Yeah.’ Not even I believe that. ‘I haven’t needed any extensions yet and I haven’t submitted anything late.’ That’s true, but I still feel like I lack the drive and enthusiasm I usually have towards writing.
‘See? I think you’re being a bit hard on yourself. You’re actually doing really well. Remember, this is a pandemic. It’s totally normal to not feel as productive as usual right now. I think we all need reminding of that at the moment.’
‘Yeah,’ I sigh, unconvinced. ‘I guess.’
For many, Coronavirus doesn’t pose much of a physical threat. The thought of contracting the disease itself isn’t so scary. But for my cousins and their newborn babies, my seventy-nine-year-old diabetic grandmother, my mother, uncle and cousin with suspected polymyalgia rheumatica—the outside world looks like a warzone and the enemy is invisible.
It’s not all doom and gloom. In my hometown of Hamilton in Western Victoria, I have seen heart-warming stories of the community coming together: small businesses donating coffee vouchers to healthcare workers, local chefs using their new-found free time to help out in the hospital kitchens, a local dancer giving free (online) hip-hop lessons to the nurses of the district to help them ‘shake off the Covid-19 blues’—even a man going for his daily jog in a gorilla suit just to bring a smile to the residents’ faces.
It is because of things like this that I know we will persevere—as individuals, as communities and as a whole. Until then, it is absolutely fine to be a little selfish, a little more lenient, a little bit kinder to ourselves and others. After all, there’s nothing like a global pandemic to leave you crying in a Coles carpark.