Observations from our family holiday in COVID-ravaged NSW. And it's not all bad.
The very same day the NZ Government announced that NZ Citizens could fly back from Australia from January 17th and self-isolate at home upon return, we booked our return flights from Wellington to Sydney to spend Christmas with the family and friends we had missed so dearly.
You can probably guess what happened next. After we touched down on Australian soil four days before Christmas, that date was postponed until March. March! Talk about a crash course in 'living with uncertainty.'
While we were mentally distracted trying to figure out how to get back to NZ (and trying not to panic), something else was happening around us - Omicron cases were skyrocketing. Like, skyrocketing. When we left NZ, there were 2,500 daily cases in NSW. ‘That won’t impact us,’ we said. ‘We’ll be mostly on the Central Coast, away from Sydney,’ we proclaimed. Wrong, again. It was everywhere. And it spread so fast if you blinked, you’d miss it. Within weeks of our arrival, there were over 80,000 new cases per day in NSW.
All of a sudden COVID-19 went from some distant virus to something so intricately intertwined with our lives. My mum began to get alerts on her phone for every XYZ supermarket she entered. My friend’s brother went down with it. Then a different friend’s sister caught it. Then some of our best friends got COVID-19. Then my cousins. No longer was it just strangers on the telly with the virus but rather people we knew and loved.
This is what’s coming, NZ, and this is what I observed.
I'll be honest, when we first arrived in Australia, testing was a nightmare. Rapid antigen tests (RATs) were as rare as hen's teeth, selling like hot cakes in the supermarkets and pharmacies. The lines to get PCR tests were hours long. This part was tricky. If you were pinged or had symptoms or, like us, were legally required to get a test (we were international travellers), you had to be prepared to carve out hours of your day to line up to get your test. And then wait for days in self-isolation to get your results. It's not an ideal situation for anyone - the economy suffers, mental health suffers. It is a big mental load to carry if you can't get tested and therefore don't know if you have it.
One thing became super important very early on - rapid antigen tests (RATs).
The RATs gave people more freedom - more ability to go to work, catch up with friends, and simply carry on with life without spreading Omicron around.
In NZ's attempts to 'get prepared', I hope Jacinda and co have taken notes from Australia. We will need RATs, and lots of them.
2. The virus
Obviously, I'm no medical expert but this is what I observed: most people who get Omicron can fully recover at home. The kind people of NSW have shown us that, while some people with the virus get hit harder than others, most people infected with Omicron won’t need hospitalisation (and we need to leave the hospitals alone for the ones who do). That was certainly the case for my family and friends. For my friend’s sister, it was no more than a scratchy throat. Others were bedridden for days. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason as to why some people are almost asymptomatic and some feel like they have the full-blown flu (just like there is no rhyme or reason to most things) but the reality is, most of us won't need a hospital bed.
Again, I'm no expert, but I'll share my cousin’s great analogy (which makes a lot of sense to me). Imagine you’re caught in the middle of a war, there are guns firing from every direction. Your commander tells you to walk across the battlefield to get something on the other side. How do you get there in the safest way possible? In this instance, a bulletproof vest sure would help. Or in the case of living in a virus outbreak, a vaccination. My cousin so brilliantly said, 'people with the vaccination are walking down that street with a bulletproof vest. And while the vest won’t stop me from getting shot, I’m going to be a hell of a lot better off when a bullet does come my way'.
Long story short: from what I observed, the vaccination won’t necessarily stop the contraction of the Omicron variant but it does help you get across the battlefield without a bullet penetrating your vital organs.
And to extend the analogy further, even though I have chosen to wear a bulletproof vest, I appreciate that not everyone wants to make that same choice, and so it is (and wouldn't the world be a different place if we simply accepted each other's differences. Anyway, I digress.).
4. Life with COVID-19 in the community
Family and friends will all have different levels of comfort and there is no 'right way' to live in an outbreak. I observed people naturally falling into one of three camps.
Camp one: The ‘I don’t want it’ people. These people are laying low, mostly at home or connected to small bubbles of people. They know the daily case number, the hospitalisation numbers, and, rightly so, it scares the sh*t out of them. Camp one is a valid and legitimate place to be for some – especially those with an underlying health issue or an important surgery or event coming up.
Camp two: The ‘if we get, we get it’ people. These people don’t want to spread Omicron and are doing their best to avoid getting it, but they also don’t want to be bound to the hermit-like life of the past two years either. These are the people out living, but living with consideration – eating out with friends but socially distanced from other groups, going to shops but wearing masks, using RATs before large catch-ups.
Camp three: The ‘whatever’ people. Yes, there are and always will be people who don’t give two hoots about the pandemic. Let them be.
While in Australia, we dipped our toes into camp one when our pre-departure test was looming. ‘Sorry guys, you can’t talk with those other kids,’ we’d found ourselves saying to our own children. ‘Don’t touch that handle’. ‘Stay close to mum and dad’. I think my husband may have even said, ‘hold your breath when you walk past other people.’
We all have different health needs and capacities for risk and, while I fully respect the people who want to or need to ride the Omicron wave out in camp one (as I said, it's a valid place for some), that heightened state of anxiety is not where I want to be long-term (and this is from someone with blood cancer who is considered 'vulnerable').
We spent most of our holiday in camp two and here's what that looked like in reality :
- We avoided busy shops and busy indoor places and, instead, got out into nature – bush walks, beach swims, fresh air. Commonsense tells us that we're better off (on all levels) being outdoors compared to enclosed spaces with poor ventilation. And, obviously, if we did need to go to the shops, we did the usual mask and sanitize sequence (which NZ is already very well versed in).
- Mostly we caught up with the same groups of people but when we did want to see a different friend, we met outside - in a park or a walk.
- When we had a large gathering with our friends, we all got rapid antigen tests (RATS) before we met.
- When we had a sleepover with my pregnant cousin, we got a RAT test before we arrived (and we would do the same for anyone who is vulnerable or immune-compromised).
- And, finally, I stopped checking the ‘daily case numbers’ and instead focused on living.
I'd like to hone on this last point. It seems insignificant but it was/is the golden ticket to living well through all of this. It was the difference between having a holiday wrapped in panic and a holiday full of fun and magic (and we did have a holiday full of fun and magic in the end). I had to keep coming back to the present moment - the moment right in front of me. When I got stuck in my head (‘how will we get back?’, ‘what about school?’, ‘Omicron is everywhere’), I became short with the kids or I'd panic or I’d snap at my husband. But when I allowed myself to be truly present (diving in the ocean with my 11-year-old or having a cuppa with my parents or laughing with a mate) there was absolutely nothing wrong. Despite the carnage that surrounded me, those moments of presence were real and pure and fun and full of joy - just how life should be. Because when you think about it, most of the time, in those present moments, there is actually nothing to fear. All is well.
That’s where you’ll find me when Omicron does eventually blast through NZ - in camp two, bringing myself back to the present moment again and again. From there, we can calmly modify our way of being and peacefully live side by side with COVID. We’ll just need lots of mindfulness, commonsense, time in nature, respect for others' choices, and lots of RATs.
Lara Charles is an Australian writer and mama living in Aotearoa, New Zealand, with her husband and four children. Lara writes at the intersection of spirituality and modern life. Her work has been featured on New Zealand’s most prominent media platform, Stuff, as well as spiritual platforms such as Tiny Buddha and Elephant Journal.
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