It's January 2020. I was not in any way paying attention to the health of Chinese citizens. I was, instead, planning a trip to a place I'd never ever been. One of our kids moved to the Kimberley nearly two years ago now and this was our big chance to do the outback with a capital O.
In January I was still dreaming of Cape Leveque and the Ord River, of Purnululu and the Mornington Wildlife Sanctuary, driving from Warmun to Darwin. I was also preparing a huge party to celebrate my PhD, what Caitlin Moran said women did while experiencing a midlife crisis. She was, kind of, right in my case, more of a nervous breakthrough.
And all this was joyful at a personal level but the air was solid with smoke and the Prime Minister had hived off to Hawaii with his family, fiddled while Australian burned. By the time January was over, I was also a besotted, proud, smitten grandma. The best news beneath blackened skies.
The months that followed became ever bleaker. More fires, hailstorms, rotten insurance chasers and of course, COVID-19, which coloured our lives. I interviewed Lyndall Strazdins, the director of the Research School of Population Health at ANU. She said things that stay with me nine months later. Mainly it was about the impact of the smoke and the fires but she was prescient about the impacts of COVID.
I wrote at the time that it was normal for people to be worried in times like these "but the constant feeling of being under threat accelerates our anxieties". As Strazdins put it, "The whole population can be affected. They might have been coping OK with holding down jobs, family, volunteering. Now there are groups who are going to be at high risk for tipping into a high level of distress, even if only temporarily."
On Christmas Eve, Strazdins confirmed the views she expressed then.
"That tip over has happened. We have high rates of distress and a huge number of calls to helplines," she says.
If there is any benefit to this chaos it is that governments have been forced to face up to the impact on mental health by spending many millions on mental health support services. As Strazdins says, our mental health is significantly affected by the way we live: "Governments are finally seeing this in action."
Heaven knows how bad it is going to get if all the government financial support disappears in March next year.
Yes, we are lucky in this country. We closed our borders early and, mostly, kept disease at bay. But here we are in December and nearly every state and territory has new COVID contacts. I said then that I was worried about our Commonwealth public servants. God knows how they are doing since they have no right to speak freely, despite a government that mythologises free speech.
It has also failed those who receive what is called welfare, the climate, women at work, particularly those at government work, attacked pay and conditions for most workers, the ABC, destroyed the university sector. In short, great job at closing borders but little else.
This was also the year I devised my weirdest field trip for research. I hung around a public toilet to observe handwashing. God it was a miserable sight.
While interviewing a handwashing expert gave me real insight into what I was doing wrong, at least I was making an attempt. So many I observed didn't. These days, my hands are very well-washed but they are scaly and flaky. I have also learned to count to 20 seconds at the basin. I avoid those hand dryers.
Unfortunately, Australians still aren't doing a great job, even doctors. That interview and 30 separate COVID stories later, I am in full COVID dread. I fear I am too old to get that kind of sick and recover to my full bloom.
Strazdin points out the impact of COVID on domestic violence. Huge spikes in reports to police, the same intransigent number of deaths. And the horrific murder by fire of Hannah Clarke and her three children was before COVID hit. Governments shrug, chuck some small performative amounts of funding and move on. After all, it is only dead women.
In September, we were reminded of how little we do to protect women and children. From the NSW Coroner's Court we heard that John Edwards, who killed his two children, Jennifer and Jack, in 2018. A few months later, their mother Olga took her own life. The inquest heard police records revealed John Edwards had been abusive to four previous partners and to one of his other children. Where are the red flags?
For me, the year began with the birth of the darling baby, the only part of our lives which went to plan (he's a good little sleeper, says grandma). The trip to the Kimberley remains a dream. The PhD happened without the fanfare and the hat tossing. I left my university job of 13 years when it became clear that neither staff nor students were considered by the government (and one education minister after another rejecting grants approved by experts). I got my flu shot as soon as I could, discovered how to wash my hands properly at the age of 63 (don't forget the wrist area) and was once again surprised at the callousness of the federal government.
When will I ever learn?
- Jenna Price is a visiting fellow at the Australian National University and a regular columnist.