BY JESSICA MCKIE
The year is 2085 and in a nursing home in the suburbs of Melbourne a youthful, energetic, uniform clad student is gruelling through their 15 hours of school-mandated community service. Across a room of walking frames, white hair (nursing homes of course remain stagnant, unperturbed by the passing of time), the student hears a croak and watches as an arthritic finger lifts to gesture in their direction.
“Back in my day, we had the pandemic you know,” a voice cuts through the confused cacophony of teatime and craft. The student struggles not to groan.
That’s me. The one with the finger, the walker and the white hair. The one hell-bent on sharing a story no doubt heard many times by this poor, innocent local school student. A story retold by parents, family friends, aunts, uncles, grandparents. A story read about in history class, narrated with comments of “Look how they lived!”, “I can’t believe how many people died!” and “Why did America elect him?!”. A story well worth sharing with all people in this new generation because for one year, our whole world was turned upside down.
Topsy, turvy, wrong-way round, inside out and back-to-front.
Living through a pandemic has brought out the best, worst and weirdest sides of humanity. In some ways, people split into Harry Potter-esque groups. Those who bravely name the virus! Conquer the virus! Face this challenge head on with fortitude and strength! They were the Dumbledore’s of this era, offering encouragement and wisdom. The Hermione’s lead our social media productivity competitions of banana bread baking and at home workouts, whilst providing salient updates and reminders to wash our hands. Meanwhile, the Fred and Georges gave it nicknames. Highlights include Ms Rona, the Panny-D, Pandemic at the Disco, The-Virus-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named, the “current climate” and Company Policy. At one point the Dolores Umbridge’s of the group started suggesting it was a 5G conspiracy or ‘just a cold’. The WHO (a.k.a the Minerva McGonagall of medicine) put them all back in their boxes when they launched a global inquiry into Covid-19.
More seriously, there were those who couldn’t discuss details of deaths and infection rates. Who hid slightly from the news to protect their emotional and mental health. Who used this time as a much needed break from their everyday lives. Finally, there were those who had more important concerns – whose lives had been thrust into personal, financial, mental and physical danger as a result of our “new normal”.
Of course, life is more like a box of chocolates than a magical wizarding school. We all flitted between many categories, almost at random. Some days I was Hermione, other days I was 11-year-old Neville Longbottom, struggling not to embody his own unfortunate surname.
This poor young person in the year 2085 may not have read Harry Potter, but hopefully in my old age I am able to pass on some nuggets of insight. Living through a global pandemic has taught me that before anything else, human beings are social creatures. The primal need to connect with someone face-to-face is overwhelming. Society compensated with video-calls, social media, Netflix Parties, online Pub Quizzes, live workout classes and much, much more. My own home felt like a family-friendly Big Brother revival. Suddenly, I found my days revolving around two things. Firstly, “seeing” and speaking to those I don’t immediately live with and secondly, going on my government mandated exercise outside. OH! Fresh air! For the first time in my life I understood why my cat insists on going inside and outside all day every day at unrelenting 10-minute intervals. It is because she can, and the outside world is glorious. I craved spending time outdoors so much I became a runner. Trust me, nobody is more shocked than I.
I would also impart to this youngster of the future (who is no doubt very bored by this point), that coronavirus brought out a level of fear in Australian society that nobody had seen for a very long time. What began as a desperate quest for toilet paper, morphed into people crossing roads to avoid oncoming walkers and turning their heads away from passing strangers. Racial slurs were thrown at those supposedly ‘to blame’ for an uncontrollable virus. I once coughed in a Coles and a fellow shopper looked at me as if I had summoned the anti-Christ.
We were presented with this cruel paradox: Australia had never been more desperate for connection, yet more fearful of those around us.
I felt torn. As a medical student I wanted to learn about this virus, this pandemic, this marvellous global dance of public health messaging, medical ethics and culture. I understood I had to do my bit to ensure Australia’s health system survived. But equally, I so desperately wished to return to a normal routine of ward rounds, clinic, surgery and tutorials. How dare this pandemic ruin my first clinical year! My year of twenty firsts! My planned holiday!
After the initial anger and frustration at what was taken away, I was left with guilt. How could I be so selfish? But it was the wise words of Albus Dumbledore, stored somewhere at the back of my Gen-Z brain, that came to mind: “It does not do well to dwell on dreams and forget to live”. Accepting this ‘new normal’ took time, but after an initial adjustment I settled into my new day to day. After all, this pandemic would likely occupy a year of my life, and I was not about to write it off completely. One thing I had learnt from my first 6 weeks of third year placement, was that life is incredibly short.
Perhaps I would end my somewhat-delirious story to this Year 10 student, now most assuredly regretting their choice of community service, with arguably the most moving lesson from the Panny-D. That no matter the odds, humanity will always find a way to come together, to celebrate achievements, to cherish each other and to love. I hope that when my generation writes history books on this topic that we include photos not just of hospital beds and ventilators, but of people holding newborns up to windows to meet grandparents, of hospital wards applauding recovered patients, of students Zoom-ing one another wearing funny hats and of dogs being so, so, so happy that their humans are home for twice daily walks.
Back in my day we lived through a pandemic. It was weird, scary and confronting. It was also a timely reminder for a generation glued to their phones, that nothing will ever replace being able to spend time with those you love.