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Photograph: Marion HillebrandMarion Hillebrand and her cat

What it's like coming out of the world's longest lockdown

As Melbourne prepares to emerge from the world's longest lockdown, we talked to Melburnians about their experiences

Cassidy Knowlton
Written by
Cassidy Knowlton

Melbourne has the unenviable record of being the most locked-down city in the world, spending a whopping 260 days under strict stay-at-home orders. During more than eight and half months staring at our own four walls, we learned and lost and baked and cried and somehow, we coped. As we prepare to reopen our shops, bars, restaurants and homes, we realise we are not the same people we were in March 2020, for better or for worse. 

Michele Cutajar was working as a vision therapist during lockdown, trying to help clients via video calls. "You can imagine trying to do vision exercises online, it wasn’t great," she says. But then personal circumstances meant she had to leave that job. "I’ve got a child with a disability," she says. "Because of that, he had to have surgery over lockdown, and there are fewer personal carers and stuff like that who can come in. He needed 24-hour care." 

Her son is doing much better now, and after a break, Cutajar is now retraining in something completely new. "I’m looking into doing a welding course. I’m looking at getting totally out of that [vision therapy] area and doing something with my hands. I’ve just applied for that, and I'm hoping it will eventuate into a mature-age apprenticeship."

Although she's looking forward to going to a restaurant or bar with friends, she's nervous about opening up when case numbers are so high. "I’m probably a little bit apprehensive, though not so much because of [my son]. I’ve got a daughter as well, who is 15, and I think it’ll be great for her to get back to normality. Mentally it hasn’t been great for me, but ... seeing people feels like a brand-new routine. It feels like having to come up with something all brand new to learn to live life again." 

Jacqui Bennett has also found a new career thanks to the pandemic. The former science teacher left the profession entirely and is now writing textbooks instead of teaching in a classroom. Although she'd been thinking of leaving teaching before the pandemic hit, she says the risks teachers have had to put up with made her more motivated to leave. She says returning to the classroom between lockdowns made her feel unsafe.

"Initially it was very stressful, especially because we weren’t allowed to be vaccinated because I was too young," she says. "I’m so glad I’m not back [in the classroom] right now, which a bunch of teachers are. I think I’d just be super stressed. Especially because last time parents were still sending their kids sick to school, and I felt like it was inevitable I would get Covid."

Not that online learning was a picnic. "It was pretty awful, especially this year because the kids are so over it, they won’t interact," she says, noting most of her students didn't turn on their cameras or respond to her. "I would just be talking to the void, and I'd have to ask if they could hear me because they would never interact." 

She found a new job and was interviewed via Zoom, but she's only met two of her new coworkers in person. She says it's hard to prepare for the new world of a Melbourne that is open, despite Covid cases. "I don’t know how it’s going to look. I don’t know how to prepare for it because I don’t know what to expect."

For some, Covid provided an opportunity to do something they hadn't previously been able to do. Jasmine Flannery recently changed careers from being a team leader for a services provider to becoming a business analyst, a change she credits to working from home and thinking differently about her work. 

"The ability to work from home meant that I actually created a complete change in my life," says Flannery. "It meant that I was exposed to a couple of my close friends while I was working and they were able to see what I was doing at the time. They said, 'you should pursue a different career'. The ability for someone external to see what I was doing and hear what I was doing meant that they had a view into my work life that they would never have normally seen, and that gave them the insight to say, 'we think you can do more than this.'... The ability to work from home and build my learning because I had the extra time created a completely 180-degree career path for me."

A power lifter and roller derby player, Flannery has found it difficult to get by without her normal outlets for physical activity. Although she's looking forward to returning to the gym, dancing, swimming and derby, she says it's important not to think everything will be magically fixed when the state hits its 80 per cent vaccination target. 

"Things opening up is great, things opening up right now is not a great plan. I think the vaccine rollout is critical and the hospital capacity is the critical point. Imagining that when we hit 80 per cent everything is going to be a magical fairyland is unrealistic," she says.

"Until we have a higher rate of vaccination, we’re going to be in and out of a lockdown. It doesn’t feel like that’s a stable circumstance."

Like Cutajar, she thinks readjusting to non-lockdown life will bring its own uncertain challenges. "At the end of the last lockdown I went to a social gathering with a group of friends, and everyone felt fragile. I’m a bit not sure how I feel, everyone’s got this feeling of social fragility."

Osteopathy student Marion Hillebrand agrees. "I am concerned for my immunocompromised family and friends," she says. "A lot of people I have come across have accepted catching Covid might be inevitable and because that doesn’t concern them greatly they are not exercising as much caution social distancing, checking in, sanitising and getting tested. The things we can do to prevent the spread (sanitising, physical distancing, checking in and getting tested) aren’t fun for anyone, but they might help reduce the chance of spreading it to someone it will greatly affect."

Osteopathy has been permitted to stay open but only in limited circumstances, so her workload and ability to get hands-on training has been severely hampered by lockdowns. "My hours have dropped significantly because osteopaths (and other allied health practitioners) are only able to see patients who meet urgency criteria," she explains. "My student mentor hours have dropped from between four and 12 hours a fortnight down to one to two hours." 

"For me, the multiple lockdowns have meant I have missed out on time observing qualified osteopaths treating patients, and this year am also missing out on treating patients myself for my clinical placement." 

She's due to graduate in the middle of next year, and almost half of her degree has taken place in lockdown. "It still feels like graduation can’t possibly be only a semester away!" she says. Although she's enjoyed spending more time with her cats, she's missed seeing her large family during lockdowns, and technology can only go so far to help. "Missing out on birthday celebrations and watching the kids growing up has been really sad for my family. We have regular Zoom calls, but you can’t have one-on-one conversations or hear about what’s happening in people's lives when it’s in a big call. I also really feel for anyone who's had to deal with lockdowns and managing kids and potentially working from home."

Managing a baby at home during lockdown was not what new mum Sarah Stewart thought she'd be doing when she first discovered she was pregnant with baby Delilah. "I got pregnant before we knew the pandemic was actually going to be a thing at the start of March 2020 – terrible timing. As soon as I found out I was pregnant was basically the week that our offices started working from home." 

Delilah was born just after lockdown 2 ended, and throughout her pregnancy Stewart continued to keep a nervous eye on the news. "Before I had the baby, I was really nervous 'cause we had no cases, but we also had no vaccinations. And at that point I had an impending hospital stay, obviously, which is a big thing when there's Covid in hospitals."

As Melbourne prepares to open up and stay open despite high case numbers, Stewart is again apprehensive. "This time, we've got vaccinations, but obviously, kids and especially really little kids can't be vaccinated. So I'm a bit nervous to see how kid things will go. So obviously, we've got childcare lined up for the start of next year. But also you've got your Gymbaroo and your swimming lessons, where parents are meant to be vaccinated, but I guess we'll see how well that's enforced."

Stewart is keen for Delilah to make up for some of the opportunities she's lost while going in and out of lockdown, to see her grandparents and meet other children and learn to swim. But that doesn't mean the right course is easy to know. "I think there's a lot of calculated risks that you've got to take. Because you are protecting somebody in your life who just doesn't have the opportunity to get vaccinated. And as a parent, the thing you are most programmed to do is protect your child," she says. "But that being said, I need social opportunities, she needs social opportunities. So you're really weighing the benefits and the costs with every single decision that you make."

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