Karens, loo paper and iso: How COVID-19 changed Australia

 

The details will differ, but when we think back on the events of 2020, all of us will have at least one big gobsmacking Moment.

For some, it came on the morning of Friday March 13, when the Melbourne Grand Prix was suddenly cancelled. Motoring fans clutching tickets were turned back at the turnstiles, the scarcely-believable news coming at them via megaphone.

For others, the moment came the following Tuesday, when the government updated its Smart Traveller website with a message that could not have been more blunt.

"If you're already overseas and wish to return to Australia, we recommend you do so as soon as possible by commercial means," it stated.

Motoring fans display their displeasure after the eleventh-hour cancellation of the Melbourne Grand Prix, March 13. Picture: AAP Image/Scott Barbour
Motoring fans display their displeasure after the eleventh-hour cancellation of the Melbourne Grand Prix, March 13. Picture: AAP Image/Scott Barbour


These were the sorts of moments when the enormity of what was happening really dawned upon us. The news crept up, in a way: in Sydney, not everyone would have seen a three paragraph report about a "mystery virus" on the world pages on January 19, but it was front page news just three days later.

And the moments kept coming. Schools closing. Shops closing. Borders closing, first international and later state. National icon companies like Qantas standing down thousands of staff. The unthinkable became daily reality.

Perhaps people felt like this at the outbreak of the Second World War: a terrible sense that our worst fears were being realised.

January 19: the “mystery new virus” reported in Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph.
January 19: the “mystery new virus” reported in Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph.

 

January 22: Three days later, coronavirus was front page news.
January 22: Three days later, coronavirus was front page news.


MARCHING OUT OF MELBOURNE

Even as Australia looks to the resumption of life-as-normal in 2021, with loosened restrictions and the promise of vaccines, it will be a changed nation.

Nowhere will this be more apparent than in Melbourne, which took baby-steps out of home confinement on June 1, only to pitch into a much tougher 14-week lockdown starting July 7.

A recent survey by Bastion Insights found nearly one in four Victorians said they were likely to move interstate in the next one to three years. The sentiment was strongest in those aged under 40, who were evenly split between NSW and Queensland as a destination of choice.

The exodus from Melbourne has already begun to show in ABS data, with the Victorian capital losing nearly 8000 people in the June quarter alone.

Pre-COVID forecasts that Melbourne would become Australia's biggest city mid-decade are now unlikely to be realised.

The steady national immigration that underpinned much of Australia's economic growth has gone, with Deloitte Access Economics warning that "the nation's total population in just two years is set to be about 600,000 (six full MCGs) smaller than we'd forecast it to be".

After Australia's first recession since the 1990s, this week's announcement of 3.3 per cent quarterly growth was welcome news - but Access Economics predicts unemployment will stay above 6 per cent until 2024, and interest rates will "stay nailed to the floor for years".

The hastily-cobbled-together JobKeeper program was credited with saving 700,000 jobs, according to the Reserve Bank, but countless Australians were forced to "pivot" (one of 2020's most overused words) into other roles. This was especially the case for employees in tourism, where activity was reduced to zero, and industry losses were estimated at $3 billion per month.

GO HOME, STAY HOME

For those lucky enough to hang on to secure employment, working from home became the norm overnight, but confident mid-year predictions that it was the future of work for everybody look less certain in December, as the drift back to offices continues.

Bastion Insights survey data from late April showed 43 per cent were working from home five days a week; last month it was down to 23 per cent.

Video functionality transformed many aspects of our lives; everything from dating (Bumble reported a 76 per cent increase in in-app video calls), to seeing the doctor.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt revealed there had been 40 million telehealth consultations in Australia in 2020, and they would become a permanent fixture.

"We have skipped a decade and jumped from 2030 to 2020 for the delivery of telehealth for all Australians," he said.

Leaving the house became a potentially controversial act in late March. The government advised self-isolation as cases crept up, and Roy Morgan polling showed some 69 per cent of Australians were complying, but when big crowds of Sydneysiders took to Bondi Beach on Friday March 20, there was an uproar.

Crowds at Sydney’s Bondi Beach on Friday, March 20. Images such as these caused a huge public debate. Picture: AAP Image/John Fotiadis
Crowds at Sydney’s Bondi Beach on Friday, March 20. Images such as these caused a huge public debate. Picture: AAP Image/John Fotiadis


Before long, the beaches were closed off or shut down, as were pubs, restaurants, churches, and in Victoria, schools. Numbers at funerals and weddings were limited, the latter restriction causing a 31 per cent drop in the marriage rate in the first half of the year.

HOW IT HIT US

Professor Patrick McGorry from youth mental health service Orygen said there had been a 25 per cent increase in the number of Australians seeking mental health support this year.

"We've seen an increase in psychotic illnesses, eating disorders and complex mood disorders driven by the stress of the lockdowns," he said. "But people can't get access to care."

He described the most at-risk cohort as the "missing middle" - "people too sick for primary care but not sick enough for the emergency department".

Prof McGorry said the stress-related effects of lockdowns should settle in 2021 as life returned to normal, but people impacted by bigger life upheavals such as job losses would still be at risk. Youth, who were already the most vulnerable group prior to the pandemic, would be the most badly affected, he said.

Orygen executive director Professor Patrick McGorry. Picture: AAP Image/James Ross
Orygen executive director Professor Patrick McGorry. Picture: AAP Image/James Ross

Seniors were not immune from the year's hardships. Research conducted by Seniors Australia shows nearly one in five older Australians report worse physical health at the end of 2020, and one in three report a decline in mental health. These figures were even higher in Victoria: 30 per cent reported worse physical health and 45 per cent said they had poorer mental health.

But the research also found the over-60s were proving more resilient and positive about the future than their younger counterparts.

Associate Professor Christina Bryant from the University of Melbourne said older Australians "may have a more positive outlook towards these experiences as they have learned to cope with many significant events over the years".

"Once people are in their 60s they may no longer be working, so concerns about job loss may not loom for them. And, the 60s tend to be a time of high wellbeing, which will flow into more optimism in general," she said.

'WE WILL STILL GET CLUSTERS'

That sense of hope may need to be sustained for a while yet, with epidemiological experts warning the vaccines are not likely to be a panacea.

Peter Collingnon, Professor of Infectious Diseases from the ANU Medical School, said Australia would not be on top of COVID-19 until the end of 2021.

"I'm still concerned for next winter," he said. "There's no doubt that this virus transmits more readily in winter - not that it can't transmit in summer, it obviously does. We may have five million people vaccinated by next winter, but there's no way we're going to have 25 million people vaccinated before winter starts."

Professor Mary-Louise McLaws from the University of NSW.
Professor Mary-Louise McLaws from the University of NSW.


Professor Mary-Louise McLaws from the University of NSW said the dangers from COVID-19 will be ongoing because some people will refuse immunisation on principle, and others who get the jab will not benefit. (The Pfizer vaccine, which the Australian government hopes to administer from March, has an efficacy rate of 95 per cent - meaning the systems of one in 20 recipients will not elicit the needed response.)

"There will always be a group who will feed the outbreak," Prof McLaws said. "We will still get clusters."

"But even if you do elicit a response, we don't know yet whether that means you're never going to get the disease, or you'll get it but a very mild case, like a cold or something, or whether or not you can transmit that."

COVID-19 would likely be an ongoing problem, Prof McLaws said; one of those illnesses that many of us could get over the course of our lives.

And in that way, life changed for all of us, forever, in 2020.


2020 VISION: THE THINGS WE'LL NEVER FORGET ABOUT COVID-19

COVID VOCAB

Flatten the curve. Practice social distancing. The new normal. Almost overnight, new phrases entered our daily vocabulary as we got to grips with what we had to do. And Aussies being Aussies, we took to shortening key words such as "sanny" (sanitiser) and "iso" (isolation), the latter of which was named the Australian National Dictionary Centre's word of the year.

"ANDREW … ANDREW … KATHARINE"

When Scott Morrison chastised ABC journalist Andrew Probyn during a televised press conference, it quickly became a plaything on social media - but nobody treated it quite as memorably as Jeff Van de Zandt. Picture: @jzandt
When Scott Morrison chastised ABC journalist Andrew Probyn during a televised press conference, it quickly became a plaything on social media - but nobody treated it quite as memorably as Jeff Van de Zandt. Picture: @jzandt


We knew things were getting weird when a DJ put a backing track to the audio of a terse Prime Ministerial press conference in April. They got weirder still when Melbourne art director Jeff Van de Zandt filmed himself lip syncing the PM's words teamed with a fierce fan-dance. The viral clip was a spark of fun during some otherwise dark days, with even Scott Morrison saying he was happy his press conferences provided some entertainment.

TOILET PAPER SHORTAGES

Shoppers fight over toilet rolls in Woolworths Chullora as the coronavirus craziness hits new levels. Picture Twitter
Shoppers fight over toilet rolls in Woolworths Chullora as the coronavirus craziness hits new levels. Picture Twitter

Concerns about lockdowns prompted shoppers to buy up big at supermarkets, with stocks of toilet paper, paper towel and hand sanitiser the first to run low, prompting some ugly scenes of brawling in the aisles. Woolworths CEO Brad Banducci revealed the supermarket chain sold a mind-boggling 39.7 million toilet rolls in a single week in mid-March.

DOUGHNUT DAY

Doughnuts became a cute visual shorthand during the year for a day of zero new cases, with a "double doughnut day" - a day of no new cases and no deaths - the most coveted status of all. Victorians took to the idea with particular gusto, celebrating their first days of zero new cases during the second lockdown by posting pictures of the sweet treats to social media.

SINGING 'HAPPY BIRTHDAY' AT THE SINK

Seeking a way to encourage people to wash their hands thoroughly, health authorities suggested we sing 'Happy birthday' twice through while vigorously scrubbing our hands under the tap.

DREAMBOAT DOCTORS

South Australia’s Chief Public Health Officer Professor Nicola Spurrier. Picture: NCA NewsWire/Roy VanDerVegt
South Australia’s Chief Public Health Officer Professor Nicola Spurrier. Picture: NCA NewsWire/Roy VanDerVegt

 

Australia got to know its health bureaucrats pretty well in 2020, with their every utterance analysed by the social media pack. Given such intense scrutiny, it wasn't too surprising when some fans started expressing their affection for Victoria's Chief Health Officer, Brett Sutton. The mild-mannered professor was dubbed a "silver fox", "the thinking woman's crumpet" and other descriptors we won't go into here. Later in the year, South Australia's Chief Public Health Officer Nicola Spurrier also set hearts a-flutter. Asked Twitter user Carrick Ryun: "If all the ladies (and some men) are allowed to publicly declare their crushes for Brett Sutton, can we start talking about Nicola Spurrier? Or still not cool? Asking for a friend …"

WHAT DO YOU MEME

Memes soared to spectacularly rude new heights in 2020, including this one which took a swipe at Victoria's efforts to control the virus.
Memes soared to spectacularly rude new heights in 2020, including this one which took a swipe at Victoria's efforts to control the virus.


Future doctorates will no doubt be written about how humorous memes were deployed during the pandemic, as both coping mechanism and pointed political statement. A too-good-to-be-true story about dolphins swimming in the canals of Venice unleashed a barrage of memes along the theme of "Nature is healing", while in Australia, Victoria found itself in an unusual position, as the butt of the other states' jokes.

CELEBRITIES DO GOOD!

Jimmy and Jane Barnes’ performances were a treat for fans during Covid lockdowns. Picture: Twitter
Jimmy and Jane Barnes’ performances were a treat for fans during Covid lockdowns. Picture: Twitter

 

Despite the knockout punch COVID-19 gave to the arts, a number of celebrities kept the spark alive with regular performances on social media. Jimmy Barnes cemented his status as one of Australia's living treasures with regular singalongs of classic songs, featuring members of his family and occasional guests including Ian Moss and Diesel.

CELEBRITIES DO BAD!

Gal Gadot’s Imagine celebrity singalong may have been well-intentioned, but was quickly slammed. Picture: You Tube
Gal Gadot’s Imagine celebrity singalong may have been well-intentioned, but was quickly slammed. Picture: You Tube

Celebrities were slammed on social media for some hopelessly out-of-touch contributions during the lockdowns. When Gal Gadot enlisted a gaggle of celebs to croon John Lennon's Imagine on Instagram, the effort was shot down for its oh-so-sincere tone and high cheese factor. And when Ellen DeGeneres wailed about feeling like she was in prison from the comfort of her Santa Barbara mansion, even fans wondered if she had lost connection to the real world completely.

RISE OF THE KARENS

A video of a Bunnings customer arguing with an employee about the store’s mandatory mask policy was widely discussed, and even drew comment from the Prime Minister.
A video of a Bunnings customer arguing with an employee about the store’s mandatory mask policy was widely discussed, and even drew comment from the Prime Minister.

 

Labelling a certain type of entitled woman a "Karen" has been a thing in the US for years, but it took off in Australia in July when video emerged of a woman upbraiding a Bunnings employee for its mask policy. The name was also applied to a Melbourne woman who told a TV reporter how walking the same streets (due to lockdown restrictions) was getting her down. "I've done all of Brighton," she said, in a clip that quickly became meme-fodder.

WHO'S ZOOMING WHO?

Enforced lockdowns and working from home arrangements created an incredible demand for video communication platforms. Houesparty was briefly touted as the next big thing, reportedly signing up 50 million users in a month, but the appeal faded when concerns about hacking and data security emerged. Zoom would conquer. Releasing its third quarter financial results this week, the company revealed revenues of $777.2 million, up 367 per cent year-on-year.

Originally published as Karens, loo paper and iso: How COVID-19 changed Australia


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