Tuesday, 18 May 2021

Swimming to Sanity in Melbourne’s Lockdown

The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. Sign up to get it by email. This week’s issue is written by Yan Zhuang, a new reporter with the Australia bureau.

As Melbourne fights its way out of one of the longest and strictest coronavirus lockdowns in the world, outdoor pools have been one of the few facilities allowed to reopen.

The week that my local pool opened, the weather was miserable with temperatures below the 60s, but every time slot was still booked full days in advance. Even in its second week of operation, the only available time was 6 a.m. — which is how I ended up stifling my yawn as we filed into the center with the sky still dark.

I’m pretty apathetic toward pools — why bother, when we’re surrounded by some of the best beaches in the world? But they’re embedded in my childhood. Upon moving to Australia from China, my parents diligently signed me up for lessons at the local pool to make sure I fit in with the other kids. Primary and high school were marked by yearly swimming carnivals, during which I usually sat as far away from the action as possible and caught up on homework.

Still, I jumped on this opportunity, eager for something to break up the monotony of lockdown life. It felt like an adventure to venture outside the four walls of my house and the well-trodden path to the supermarket that my world has narrowed down to in the past few months.

Precautions were in place. When booking, I had to confirm that I didn’t have any coronavirus symptoms. Each swimmer’s temperature was taken upon entering the center. We couldn’t use the change rooms or showers. We had 50 minutes to swim, after which the center staff would spend 10 minutes sanitizing the pool.

The scent of chlorine hit my nose as I slipped into the bath-warm water. I had to stop halfway through my first lap to take a breather — apparently the daily walks I’ve been taking haven’t been as effective at keeping me fit as I’d hoped. My lane-mate and I commiserated over how out of shape we were although she still managed two laps for every one that I swam.

Like many, my roommate far prefers the beach to the pool. When I mentioned where I was going, she commented: “The warm water — body temperature — reminds you of what other bodily fluids are circulating in there.”

She’s not wrong. It’s a far cry from the bracing chill and crashing waves of the beaches that backdrop Australian life. The sanitized stillness of the pool is a poor substitute for sinking your feet into soft sand as wind stings your eyes and feeling like you’re standing at the edge of the world.

It feels like a partial freedom, like so many things in Melbourne these days. Even with the weekend’s easing of restrictions, our lives are still limited. We’re now able to travel 25 kilometers from home instead of just 5 kilometers. Up to 10 people from two households can now meet outdoors. But for people like my roommate and I, whose friends mostly come from households of one or two, this doesn’t make much of a difference.

Police drones will still hover in our skies this weekend to ensure no one is holding big celebrations for the AFL grand final (Victoria’s Super Bowl). I still jump at every notification on my phone, fearing and anticipating news of another outbreak that would send restrictions crashing back down.

And yet, as the water closes around me, it’s easy to forget about all that for a moment and just concentrate propelling myself forward, lungs burning and muscles aching.

I find myself marking our progress out of lockdown by cataloging the reintroduction of mundane activities as a series of “firsts,” a chain of bright archipelagos rising out of a dark sea. Seeing a friend in person for the first time after months of video chat. Stepping foot outside my suburb again and reveling in the change of scenery. Getting a haircut for the first time since January.

And going for a swim as the sky floods with pink and orange light.

Now for our stories of the week:

Australia and New Zealand

Jacinda Ardern, Hero to Liberals Abroad, Is Validated at Home. New Zealand’s prime minister and her party are coasting to victory in national elections, though it is unclear how far she will push her progressive promises.

Chasing Illicit Money, Global Officials Circle a Puerto Rican Firm. Tax enforcers from five nations are investigating Euro Pacific Bank, which operates in a U.S. territory criticized in the past for its lax financial regulation.

U.S. Imposes Sanctions on Qaeda Financier Who Trades in Gems. The action shows that the U.S. government remains concerned about how extremist groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State continue to creatively raise and distribute money around the world.

A Childhood Favorite Reimagined. Harissa and lamb, pork and fennel, and vegan mushroom with leeks and farro make sophisticated fillings for the humble Australian sausage roll.

Around the Times

In Calmer Debate, Biden and Trump Differ Sharply on Virus, Immigration and Climate. In a more restrained appearance, President Trump told Joseph R. Biden Jr., ‘You didn’t get it done’ in Washington. Mr. Biden accused the president of heartlessness for separating migrant families and inflaming racial tensions.

Pope Francis, in Shift for Church, Voices Support for Same-Sex Civil Unions. The comments, shown in a new documentary, are the strongest yet from a pontificate that has taken a more tolerant and inclusive tone.

As the Coronavirus Surges, a New Culprit Emerges: Pandemic Fatigue. Exhaustion and impatience are creating new risks as cases soar in parts of the world. “They have had enough,” one U.S. mayor said of her residents.

Sacha Baron Cohen: This Time He’s Serious. Reviving his Borat character and playing the political activist Abbie Hoffman, the actor feels he “had to ring the alarm bell and say that democracy is in peril this year.”

… And Over to You

In last week’s newsletter, we asked readers for their reactions to the daily news conferences from Victoria Premier Dan Andrews. We received a flood of responses. Here’s a small sample:

Locked in our homes 22 hours a day with Netflix binges over, with all our books read twice, gardens now cleared places where weeds are afraid to pop up, we have reluctantly watched most of them. Andrews’ press calls have been robotic, mesmerizing, ritualistic and predictable — until Sky News Commentator Peta Credlin (previous Prime Minister’s chief of staff) started turning the screws on Dan during his daily monologues.

Watching him then grow red in the face, his expression turn to anger and his brilliant non-answers and deflections in self-defense have started to become entertainment. We are more horrified by the thought of having him as Premier for another two years than catching COVID.

— Susan Salopayevs

Whether or not you agree with him, it’s comforting to see a leader take the heat and deliver the real news every morning.

It’s almost masochistic to watch him throw himself to the wolves (journalists) whose jobs it is, of course, to catch him out (and for some, to frustrate and irritate to get a reaction).

Sometimes he delivers, but most times he reacts like a school principal or an over-involved father and maintains his temper while explaining himself as clearly as he can.

I don’t always agree with him, but appreciate his ability to put himself out there every day to a sometimes angry mob and explain his work and decisions.

Amanda Spagnolo

I am from the left side of politics, and before all our lives changed forever, I was moderately impressed by Dan Andrews’ performance as Premier. However, I am not impressed by the way he has handled this crisis. He has relied far too much on policing and public shaming. He has belittled the mental health impacts of the lockdown. He has also failed to acknowledge the starkly unequal effects of the lockdown, in terms of class, race and gender.

But what has really appalled and shocked me is the cult like following around Andrews, a cult that he has actively encouraged. Melbourne is now bitterly divided. And criticism of any aspect of the lockdown is seen as treasonous. Families and friendships have split asunder over this issue.

Dan Andrews, like Fidel Castro, is now clearly addicted to his daily press conferences. When will he ever shut up, and delegate some of his responsibilities? Hopefully Melbourne can heal after the trauma of one of the longest and strictest lockdowns in the world. But I am not sure if the cruelty and racism that were so casually displayed will ever be forgotten.

— Fia Clendinnen

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