Here in Tasmania foreboding and wariness is permeating everywhere. Terms like self-isolation and social-distancing have effortlessly slid into everyday conversations. Our local supermarket has had its fair share of panic shopping. The Woolworths' carpark in town is full every day when I drive past. As the grim-faced shoppers manoeuvre crammed trolleys to their vehicles, they show no sign that they're in the least bit satiated by their bounty. Some stores have taken to hiring security guards to ensure things don't get out of hand.
After agonising for several days we’ve pulled our daughter out of school and there is an increasing clamour for all schools to be closed. It’s her final year of high school and she’s none too happy, but she gets the uncertainty of this strange new reality. Although Tasmania’s positive coronavirus count is still in double figures, a fraction of the national 4,000; new cases are emerging every day, and that dreaded curve seems to have a mind all of its own.
Virtually every aspect of Tasmania's society has been decimated. Traditionally the poor cousin of mainland Australia, unemployment looks set to treble, if not quadruple. Hospitality and tourism, easily the island's major earners have been obliterated. All the island's tourist attractions are closed. Even our famed National Parks are barring visitors. Tourism contributed AUD$3 billion dollars to our economy last year; and for an island with a population of just 500,000, this virus could well spell an economic death knell for a prolonged period.
Across Australia, hundreds of thousands of workers have lost their jobs. Two million people have contacted Centrelink, the governments welfare agency, seeking financial assistance. That was last week, and who knows what grim statistics this week will bring. One major retail chain has closed for at least four weeks and 10,000 people are suddenly unemployed. All our sporting codes have suspended their seasons.
Thus far, 18 people have succumbed to the virus in Australia. But it's early days and no-one really knows what's in store. We are being urged to stay at home, to do our bit to flatten the curve. Some of the advice from our prime minister Scott Morrison has been contradictory. Hairdressers can operate, but not beauty salons. After Morrison's missteps during last summer's bushfires, many are sceptical about his ability to respond to this pandemic in a competent and timely manner.
Around this part of rural Tasmania, there are still signs of ordinary everyday activities. Fully loaded logging trucks defiantly barrelling through the main street of the town. Couriers zipping around making their deliveries. Backpackers and seasonal pickers busily harvesting what’s said to be an excellent season of apples. Motorists stopping to forage for blackberries on the roadsides.
It feels safer at home. I’m making sourdough bread again. I bought a 12.5kg bag of flour last weekend, and it should see us through for a fair while. If worst comes to worst, we have probably enough spuds still in the ground to last well into winter. Like my anxiety, my survivalist mentality come and goes. Some days are better than others. We are being told that there will be no shortages of food, that Australia produces three times as much food as it needs. But vegetables prices already are up. It’s difficult not to experience some gnawing uncertainty and something approximating panic. It’s like some kind of waiting game. The problem is the lack of any certainty, and the absence of any obvious finish line.
Panic buying aside, it's difficult to accurately gauge the public response to this pandemic. There have been examples of nonchalance and brazen indifference to the social distance rule. Just the other day, droves of beach goers in Melbourne had to be directed to leave St Kilda Beach. Last week it was the blasé patronage on Sydney beaches at Bondi and Manly that generated much dismay and disbelief.
But, even more catastrophically, last week 2,647 passengers were allowed to disembark from a cruise ship in Sydney. Inexplicably, no one was screened for the coronavirus. More than 200 of these passengers have now tested positive and this number is rising daily.
There are also many positive stories; landlords waiving rents and banks allowing a moratorium on mortgage repayments. Social security benefits have been doubled for a six-month period. And our federal government is set to announce another significant stimulus package.
There are no plans yet for a total lockdown. That will depend on the number of new positive cases in the coming days. We are being urged to remain at home unless they have essential business to attend to. It all comes back to the trajectory of the curve. This vast continent is watching and waiting, and holding its collective breath.