“How long will toilet paper last if you freeze it?”
Someone asked this question on Twitter at the start of the first lockdown in Melbourne last year. He/she was either attempting to protect their stock-piled toilet paper or were being frugal about the last few rolls left because they had been caught with their pants down, while many others had gone off at first light to buy all the toilet paper they did not need. Around this time the Guardian Weekly dedicated six pages to discussing about this obsession with toilet paper and debated the reasons why this was happening entirely centred around the habits of customers in the UK.
The obsession with toilet paper continued through the second ‘lockdown’ in Melbourne, which was not only harsher but excruciatingly bleak, stretching through the long, wet, dreary winter months. Messages over prime-time TV attempted to calm those with excess time and money and urged them to leave the toilet rolls alone and conserve their energy for the Aussie Football and rugby matches. Well, the matches did start with creative strategies adopted to protect the players by squeezing them into tight isolations and quarantines for the sake of the mental health of a nation that needed a sport to stay afloat and build its resilience ‘fed’ on daily doses of footie.
The lockdowns forced people (including yours truly) to mourn the loss of a leisurely avocado on toast with Meredith’s goat cheese on a Saturday morning in a neighbourhood café. Many insisted that they needed to jog beyond the 5 kilometers range allowed for mental and physical fitness reasons, even though they had not exercised at all previously. Others stopped by at the hardware chain store without wearing masks with the express purpose of upholding their human rights by shouting at the poor store managers who had a hard time dodging aerosols spewing out of the mouths of the rights-aware people.
To better understand what motivates human beings, Maslow proposed the theory to organise human needs into a hierarchy. This ranges from concrete needs such as food and water to abstract concepts such as self-fulfillment and actualisation. According to him, when a need at a lower level was attained, the next level need on the hierarchy would become the focus of human attention. This meant that those with a shelter over their heads and two square meals a day could level their attention on psychological and self-esteem needs, which would eventually lead them to self-awareness, creativity, time, and mental space to pursue matters of a higher-order leading to the pathway of enlightenment. The woman who claimed the human right not to wear a mask in a hardware shop was attempting that higher level of self-awareness, obviously.
Cricketers in Australia and India continued their matches through the second wave of Corona that swept through India in May this year. We are in a bubble, and we will not be affected, they announced. We need to do this to keep the sanity of the hundreds of cricket buffs in both countries who have gone through so much, they argued. That is until a few players got Covid. Being sportsmen, thankfully, the cricketers were fast-tracked to return to Australian shores and got a bonus of enjoying the shores in the Maldives on the way as part of their quarantine routine.
Nearly 20 months into a global catastrophe, and as we sail through one more lockdown in Melbourne (the sixth), masks have become part of our lives except for when we eat or sleep (although it may remain an option for possessive mask-wearers), our children are growing up unlettered and unfettered. At the same time, we juggle our work, home, social, and family obligations. Each state has adapted to the ‘new normal’ depending on its politics and priorities, from ‘stay at home’ orders to nighttime curfews for dealing with covid cases of the Delta kind. Anything to avoid the word ‘lockdown.’
The ambition to keep the country Covid free has forced the authorities to make decisions coming back to haunt them. Australia has remained steadfastly slow in rolling out vaccines from the outset, despite the smorgasbord of vaccines available globally — due in part to its zero covid status contributing to a ‘measured’ approach’ of introducing vaccines. The long-abandoned strategy of 1A, 1B, 2A, 2B that the government adopted initially to reach the aged and the most vulnerable has been outwitted by mixed messaging on the locally produced Astra Zeneca, causing widespread vaccine lethargy. This has been compounded by the arrival of a virus variant bearing the name of a Greek alphabet.
In a bid to keep case numbers nil, thousands of Australian citizens and permanent residents have not been allowed to return home, those who do manage to squeeze into the country are placed on a fourteen-day quarantine in hotels even if they are vaccinated and have tested negative more than once, the virus leaks out regularly from the Q hotels, and for over one and half years, the country has stopped its own people from leaving except for a few compelling reasons one of them being — ‘you may be allowed to go only if someone is dead or dying on the other end.’ If the purpose is to say goodbye, maybe doing it on Skype will save everyone trouble, including the Home Affairs, which processes these ‘unreasonable’ requests. At this rate, the proposal to build purpose-built quarantine for Covid may be too exaggerated if not too belated.
Australia shut its borders and watched the rest of the first world being ravaged with complacency last year. This year the country’s borders are still shut as we watch the populations in the first world, in fact, most of the world, moving around freely.
All this has however not stopped a few wealthy and famous ones flying in and out of Australia, including the famous ‘Katie’ from reality TV who did a mask-less Instagram video to grab attention and proclaim her freedom from oppression. She not only got the attention she deserved but also was escorted to the airport and put on the first flight back to the UK along with a fat paycheque which she would have anyway got if she had continued regaling the Australian audiences with her shenanigans.
Among efforts to fast-track vaccination after the arrival of Delta, especially among migrant communities who make up the bulk of essential workers and casual labourers, attempts at improving non-English communication has accompanied breaking the ‘COVAX’ queue to procure Pfizer doses from Poland meant for the under-vaccinated developing countries in Africa and Asia where the virus is moving through the population.
Covid has exposed the beneath-the-surface divide between the rich and the poor, the first world and the third. When developed countries have vaccinated enough of their populations to find a pathway to enjoy the rights and freedoms, a booster dose would follow to keep those populations even safer. Meanwhile, the under-developed, under-vaccinated populations in large swathes of the world deprived of a vaccine developed for the common good of everyone on this globe will continue to languish and depend on the largesse of the select few.
While the first world indulges on a surfeit of vaccines and toilet rolls, the third world is foraging to protect its citizens.
Meanwhile, I continue to wear my mask as a fashion accessory, keep my distance from all parts of my family and instinctively veer away in a totally tangential direction when I see someone walking towards me. I do not plan to leave the country unless I can become a contortionist filling in the most creative excuses in my request for an exemption knowing full well that I may receive a knockback not once but several times.
Until then, I will work on my patience and count the toilet rolls in the supermarket.