Covid Times 2

The street is quiet like it might be Xmas day, Anzac Day or Good Friday – the only three days of the year that the pool is closed. Within the pool confines I can see James, a senior life guard, going about some maintenance business. There are no swimming bodies to save. The extremely annoying and very loud door buzzer to the gym has finally been silenced. No ear piercing instructions from an exuberant aqua aerobics instructor are heard.

I think of Pam, a woman in her seventies with yellow hair, who is a pool regular in the deep end. Daily she bobs about in a brightly coloured bathing cap and is always cheerful. In the water she moves her legs effortlessly, but on land she lumbers with her osteoarthritic ankles. Only a few weeks ago we contemplated the virus, but both agreed it wouldn’t change this – this constancy of the pool. But it has. Out of the pool she wears a colourful kaftan that billows like curtains in a breeze, but she moves like a person in pain. In the pool her face is bright, her aches diminished. Her legs cycle and her hands make small movements as she watches the lap swimmers in the lane beside her, smiling at them if she catches their gaze. She speaks to the life guards and they stand by the pool and talk to her as she loosens her joints. How she must miss this, I think. I wonder what she is doing now with this void.

The children are becoming used to the pool being closed and bicycle on the road. Down the driveway of the now empty businesses careens Tommy. There could be a permanent cricket pitch on our cul de sac now.

A friend sends me a video of a rat gnawing at her laundry drain from within its dark confines. There is a maddening, incessant tapping of teeth on the metal drain that woke her in the night. The rat’s body is twisting and twirling while the teeth are determinedly working on the steel. She boils the kettle and then pours it down the drain to the screams of the rat. She didn’t know what else to do to make him go away. I can’t think what I would have done either. But I wish she hadn’t sent me the video. I can’t erase the image from my mind. She then ran the tap for minutes hoping the body would flush away with the water.

There are 1098 cases of Covid 19 in Australia as I write this and 90 in the State of Western Australia. They are contemplating turning Rottnest island into a quarantine station. The AFL season has been suspended after a weekend of farcical play. They started out with the usual handshakes but by Game 2 were elbow bumping and making hand gestures in the direction of one another instead. Weirdly the game sounded like any other suburban competition being played – the empty stadiums turning amateur the players’ calls. Even American audiences tuned in as there was a scarcity of sport world wide.

Trump keeps calling Covid 19 the “Chinese virus” in a tit for tat with the Chinese who say the virus was brought to China by American soldiers. What is wrong with his mouth? What a ridiculous way to move your lips while you speak. Either way the Chinese restaurants were downed first. Now everyone will hurt as pubs and restaurants are asked to close and soon will be forced to. For a week some attempt to do take away. The streets grow quieter and the traffic less. Children reclaim their suburban streets.

I am naming us the “covidees” – those employed and detained by COVID – run by Covid 19. In a sci-fi way we are all now acolytes of Covid. Things are changing by the day and by the moment. Now there are 231 cases in Western Australia and 2799 Australia wide. I have bookmarked the website. I can be there in a single click. Working was possible only two days ago, but now this has largely stopped too. The vets implore policy makers to be considered “essential” but everything is relative and we become less essential as the enormity of what the country faces marches on.

It is our war time. With no bombs.

Vet clinics are asked to donate their animal ventilators for the human use. They too are running out of gloves and gowns. Rottnest rids itself of tourists and holiday makers and prepares to become a quarantine station for the cruise ship arrivals. The cruise ships sit detentioned, just out of the port – ostracised – patiently waiting to be allowed to dock before unloading their passengers who are now considered highly suspicious persons. No one wants them to set foot on land. And certainly don’t touch anything. Previously, seeing cruise ships I thought of streamers and majesty, felt slightly longing and in awe. I always wondered what it might be like to sleep in a cabin with the ocean as your view. Now they feel infected, awash with fomites and supporting the virus on their surfaces for up to 17 days. Its horn sounds. Pleads with the landlubbers.

The streets get emptier as more people stay home. #stayhome. Nevertheless sirens are heard. At the university fellow covidees are learning how to use distant teaching technologies with names like blackboard. Its name suggests something familiar, nostalgic, but it is no analogue blackboard from your primary school. No chalk dust. No nail on blackboard screeches. No puffs of pink powder. Students will be faceless and voiceless. All icons and emojis. They will be somewhere else, as you will be too. The instructor suggests making your lecture appear as split screen so the students can see your quizzical talking head. “50% more engaging for them” he says, whilst pixelating.

I get a tax bill.

I still get frequent flyer emails and I wonder why these haven’t stopped since there are no planes flying and nowhere we are allowed to go. Do Not Pass Peel.

Our tenant loses his job.

The teenagers still shoot hoops, but I stick my head out the gate and instruct them not to handle each others basket balls. I get a knowing nod. Milly and Tom are playing under the hose in their yard next door like it is any other summer day. The white cockatoos are noisily eating the olives and have had no change to their summer routine. The football goal posts have been erected on the oval despite the fact that no one is playing any sport. Still the council mow the lawns.

The things we can do: puzzles, meditate, walk the dog, look at the sky and see it is the same as before but without the planes, run if we are able, swim in the ocean if we can cross the sand, use technology, watch reruns of comedy, watch documentaries, play the ukulele, make stuff, knit, write, do craft, cook, bake, train the dog, look at the internet, listen to podcasts (but not coronacast), dance in front of your son while he tells you to stop, watch the news, apply a face mask (Elsa!), clean, spring clean again, clean better, watch clouds, stretch, garden, paint a picture, breathe, sleep, try to sleep, worry, look at your bank statement, write a letter, look at the sky, sing (not in front of your son), see the tree and admire her torso as her bark turns golden in the light of dusk.

The things we can’t do: see people who are not in our family unless we are doing something essential, sit close on the driveway with our neighbours, hang out at coffee shops, bars, restaurants, raves (if we ever did?), nightclubs (can’t recall the last time), go to parties (never been a fan away), weddings, funerals, bands (can never see the band for all the people), music festivals (find the grass too hard going), book club ( haven’t finished the book), catch ups, markets, sporting events, community clubs, have a massage, go the the physio, visit the hospital, visit old people, visit prisons, have assemblies, dance close, swipe right (that’s a thing right?), stand close to people we don’t know, dance in front of your son, cough or sneeze on them, touch them or hand them money or have them touch you, hug someone whose dog has died.

Being an introvert makes some of these things easier.

Working allows a respite from thinking about the virus and its impacts. For an hour or two the focus is someone’s dog and their issues. For a moment they seem important and worthy of our time. The person needs us. The dog does too. We can make a difference, with our advice and our medical opinion. The brain slips into something it finds comfort in and something that makes sense. Then we are back again as a “covidee”, finding ourselves down the wormhole of what the modelling suggests. The last time I felt this anxious was when I was a newly paralysed person. I was finally conscious enough to grasp my reality and I began to question if my paralysis was fixed, or whether there was a chance it could worsen. As I lay in ICU, searchingly viewing the square of sky through a window, I began to pick at the idea of an advancing, creeping paralysis through idiopathic spinal necrosis and my depleting function over time. I could move my arms now but what if that changed? I could feel my waist but what if that changed? I could breathe now but for how long? I was adjusting to the thought of being a paraplegic but what if I had to imagine being a quadriplegic? Strangely being a “covidee” makes me think of this again and with a deep sadness I recall that chest tightening feeling of not knowing what the future holds.

Covid Times

not a toilet roll in sight

My neighbour is an anaesthetist and he says the phrase going around the hospital is “we need to avoid going Italian.”

A man sitting in his car by the pool is talking on speaker phone. At first I think he is arguing with someone, but as I get closer I can hear him saying BUY, Buy and then SELL, sell. He is speedo clad and has a gut like something is residing within him. He is making money? Losing it?

There is no toilet paper on shelves and no handwash or sanitisers. I feel slightly contaminated even being in a shop as a child sitting, face-height in a shopping trolley, next to me in a queue coughs towards me. Normally I wouldn’t feel this vulnerable, this on edge. I wince – wondering what virus particles are invading me through my eyeballs.

I am still lecturing and I ask the students to practice some social distancing, but still they are bunched together in a way that makes me uneasy. The phrase “social distancing” dances from lips, a now heavily used term. I am waiting for the Uni to suspend the lectures, since they are all recorded anyway, but there is no call coming.

I touch my face endlessly.

A week ago I was still going to the US in a month, but within a few days the whole trip folded in, pack of cards-like. I sent a query on how the States was going to all my intended practitioners and all responded negatively and warned me to stay away. In the days that followed the travel bans went up and the conference cancelled too. Whilst there was a run on staples like pasta and tinned beans across America and world wide, Los Angeles had people queuing for hand guns.

What doesn’t change is dog walking. It can still be enjoyed as a sole and peaceful outing. The mutt is the same. He sniffs the same. He ambles and scratches and rolls. He kicks the dirt into the air. He, as always, takes no heed of possible infections that lurk on surfaces. In fact he prefers the stinky.

Apparently the virus can live for nine days on surfaces such as door handles. Nine days. It prefers men and even men in their thirties can be badly infected. It kills old people. Some people will require ventilation to survive if they contract the virus. But ventilators, like ICU beds, are of a finite number. Just like face masks and reagents for virus testing.

I wash my hands endlessly. Two rounds of the song Happy Birthday is supposed to be the hand washing length. Making sure each finger piggy backs the others. And don’t neglect your wrists.

On the drive way with the neighbours the conversation is circular, sitting 1.5 metres apart, about the virus and the plans already underway. Some of us can work from home but others are hospital workers and will be front line. All day they have meetings about the future impact despite the fact they are yet to have a confirmed patient. The children still go to school, but for how long and once school does stop how long should it stop for? Children are being taught about hand hygiene like never before, but getting the soap and the sanitiser is not guaranteed.

I still touch my face.

People have now in their vocabulary terms like “herd immunity” and “flattening the curve” – all have become semi-educated on the way a disease spreads and public health. Despite this they panic buy. Public health was a much maligned subject during our vet science degree but governments are seeking the advice of these experts now. No one is yawning when they speak. Everyone is learning some science through necessity and listening to Norman Swan for the low down. But if the science is explored it becomes very, very frightening. The numbers of deaths could far exceed past wars and plagues and the numbers of ventilators required would far exceed the numbers we have. It becomes somewhat hysterical, movie like. I think of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

Already I am using Skype to conduct consults for revisiting clients in my effort to stay away from the animal hospital and to keep my clients from venturing out. It is working fine but imagining doing this for another 18 months is hard. I think my business will suffer but maybe still remain afloat. People will always have animals. Animals will always have mental health issues, just as people do. People will always want to care for them. Maybe my patients will find their lives improved with caregivers at home and at their beck and call. No longer will there be an excuse to not train your dog when he is with you all the time. My separation anxiety clients will fall away as people work from home. Their dogs will love that. My aggression cases will disappear too as people self isolate and their dog’s bubble is no longer pierced. My dog reactivity cases will evaporate as dogs stay home with caregivers who are too afraid to venture out. No one will be bitten because they took their dog to Highway to Hell like they did three weeks ago, as there will be no Highway to Hell like events being staged.

I touch my face.

The museums will fall silent and empty. Dust will gather. Instruments will go out of tune. The pubs will close down. The restaurants will go broke. The survivors will be food stores and manufacturers, chemists and drug suppliers, the medical scientists and the vaccine manufacturers. Shelf packers will work long hours. Online ways of delivering all sorts will become more and more the norm. Cleaners will keep their jobs. I will struggle more with being social as I go out less and less. I may never go to a party again. People with mental health issues will suffer. Hoarders will hoard and we will not be our best selves.

Puppies will go unsocialised and dog behaviour will worsen. Dogs will become more territorial and bark more at strangers who cross their path.

Today I have a man cleaning my oven and he too has had cancellations, but with more people cooking at home eventually more ovens will be blackened and require cleaning too. He can see an up side. He has a small yacht so he can always sail away and live in the middle of the ocean he says. The pool where I swim is closing from 8pm tonight and so for me the swimming will stop too. The bathers will lose their elastic. I was still planning on doing my laps as it seemed a safe thing to keep doing, but the decision is gone now. Stretching may have to suffice. How I will miss the water and the buoyancy to the spirit it provides.

After the oven man leaves I wipe down the door handles. I wash my hands. I touch my face.

As the world turns inwards and stays home how free of us must nature feel. Is she breathing a massive sigh of relief? She expands her lungs and she takes in crisp air. The water will be cleaner, the sky less polluted. Animals come into the cities to romp as the sun goes down. Moss grows with no one to tread on it. What will the grounding of the aeroplanes mean for the clarity of the air we breathe? What will the silencing of the cars on the road mean? Has nature sent us this virus to halt us? Did we need this so we would finally stop our polluting ways, breathe, think about how we are connected and our place in this world? Will so many of us die that the world has a chance to recover somewhat? Will the ocean temperature fall? Without us, of course the natural world would rejoice, the weeds would grow tall, the trees would no longer be logged, the buildings would decay away to dirt and rubble and in a very short time it would be like we were never here in the first place. Maybe this is nature’s plan.