In the heat of summer, overshadowed by a horrific bushfire season, Australia’s first case of COVID-19 was detected in Melbourne in January 2020.
On 16 March, a state of emergency was declared in Victoria and by 25 March, Australians were forbidden to leave the country as we all shut our doors for a national lockdown. For Melburnians, it was the start of more than six months living under the nation’s toughest community restrictions, in what would become one of the world’s longest lockdowns.
Suddenly, we were consumed with ‘flattening the curve’ and took to scrutinising line charts and bar graphs on the nightly news. We began flicking around words such as asymptomatic and super-spreader while debating the merits of eradication and herd immunity.
The Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics were cancelled, only to be replaced by the COVID Olympics – a grim tally board of infected cases and deaths that nobody wanted to lead. The cancellations began rolling in; conferences, plays, protests, sporting events and even Anzac Day.
We’ve loved and hated the language of lockdown. On the dark side, state governments were convening ‘war cabinets’, the use of the word ‘unprecedented’ was unprecedented and we lamented the ‘COVIDkilos’ accumulated from mainlining junk food while consuming epic amounts of Netflix.
On the bright side, we were WFH (working from home), drinking ‘quarantinis’ at virtual happy hours and Zooming in our pyjamas and ugg boots, although our conversations were signed off not with a cheery, ‘See ya!’ but a heartfelt, and rather earnest ‘Stay safe’.
Our children learned to say ‘epidemiology’ – though no-one can still yet spell it – and could find the Chinese city of Wuhan on world maps. We shook our heads when we heard someone had been intubated, as opposed to simply being on a ventilator, and learned more about the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic than the three generations before us. We were able to quote the complex eligibility requirements of the JobKeeper and JobSeeker government welfare programs, and bandied about our discontent with contact tracing, the reproductive rate, viral shedding and the flaws of PPE (personal protective equipment).
It’s been surprising to learn just how many of us tuned in at 11am every day to listen to Victorian Premier Dan Andrews reporting the daily number of new infections and, more sombrely, the number of new deaths. It didn’t matter if you were in the #StandWithDan or #DictatorDan camp, you couldn’t miss the man who stepped up to the press podium every day for 120 days in a row to deliver the regulations that ruled our lives.
Whether you wore your mask properly, hung your nose out or simply dangled it from your ear, an entire cottage industry in mask production boomed. It was a delight to see the city’s fashion-conscious coordinate it with their leisurewear, though, this being Melbourne, black was the overriding colour preference.
The photography for this book was undertaken early in the first lockdown in March 2020, when masks weren’t compulsory and the restrictions were, in hindsight, positively lenient. The stories, however, were recorded throughout the year, and reflect the public policies of that moment – such as the heady days when kids did (or didn’t) go to school, when we could still get a haircut and try on shoes in a shop.
Other portraits were captured at the time when our beaches were closed, when we couldn’t travel more than 5km from our houses, when home-brand pasta became hot property and toilet paper a black-market commodity.
As metropolitan Melbourne spent 123 days encircled by a ‘ring of steel’ with police checkpoints on the main roads out of town, we became acquainted with something mostly unheard of in Australia – curfew.
Those of us confined to our homes were prevented from stepping past the front door between 8pm and 5am the next day.
We mourned the loss of our former lives – the overseas holidays, the music festivals, the footy crowds, the communal dining tables and the salt and pepper shakers that once sat on each of those tables. Many of us missed our pay cheques, while others lived under the constant threat of losing them. We struggled to keep small businesses afloat from the kitchen table with kids underfoot or, conversely, to survive the solitude of working from home alone.
The crushing mental health effects of this pandemic ricocheted through our communities – fear, uncertainty, anxiety and loneliness took their toll. Tempers frayed and relationships ruptured. We either felt too crowded or too isolated – sometimes both at the same time.
More than anything, we mourned the loss of loved ones. Goodbyes were impossible, funerals were missed, and many found themselves alone in their time of grief.
Life’s biggest moments were put on hold – weddings delayed, christenings cancelled, birthday parties skipped or celebrated awkwardly via a lagging live video feed. We were separated like never before from our families living overseas, interstate, on the other side of town and, in some cases, at the other end of the street.
So, we reached out and found new ways to connect. Social media groaned beneath the volume of photos snapped while cuddling our pandemic puppies, exposing our grey roots and quarantine beards, and humble bragging about the countless misshapen loaves of sourdough and banana bread we baked enthusiastically after curfew.
In lockdown, our bins went out more than we did, accompanied by householders dressed in outfits more suited to the opera than dragging out the packaging from our online shopping binges. And we queued in our cars to have medicos rummage up our nostrils with brain-scraping cotton buds.
Music may have been the social glue that bound us during corona. Remember Italians listening to opera from their balconies? Here in Australia, we heard My Sharona reworked to My Corona, Barnsey and family’s daily dose of musicality, and politicians crooned Happy Birthday while washing their hands in an off-key sign-off from the nightly news.
Meanwhile, Ben Lee’s unofficial COVID anthem, We’re All In This Together, started to pall as we watched anyone north of the border cavorting, mask free, on beaches and in bars. As the two of us explored the isolation and frustration experienced in our little neighbourhood during this global pandemic, we discovered hope and humour, as well as the innate and unstoppable human need for togetherness.
Wherever you are, we hope you found it too.
Together Apart is a coffee table book about life in lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic in Melbourne.
Every book purchased includes a free $500 gift certificate towards a portrait experience and artwork with The Melbourne Portrait Studio.
Together Apart: Life in Lockdown is available online and at selected bookstores.
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