Tears and anguish as Melbourne sinks further into lockdown

Melbourne (AFP)

When Katherine Reed heard Melbourne’s virus-inflicted lockdown would be tightened and extend for six more weeks, she began to cry.

The 32-year-old lives alone and has been working at home since March, when the southern hemisphere summer turned to autumn.

The Flinders Street Station in Melbourne was nearly deserted on August 3, 2020 after new lockdown measures to fight the spread of the novel coronavirus
The Flinders Street Station in Melbourne was nearly deserted on August 3, 2020 after new lockdown measures to fight the spread of the novel coronavirus William WEST AFP

Like millions of others living in Australia’s second city she now faces at least another six weeks of winter isolation.

“I understand the increased lockdown,” she said, lamenting “cruel and misguided” rules that allow partners, but not friends, to visit.

From the start of this world-enveloping pandemic, experts had warned there would be bad times and good, setbacks and advances in bringing the virus to heel.

But that has not made the new stop-start existence any less strange or any less difficult to bear.

Australia had appeared to have the virus in hand, but a few clusters quickly turned into hundreds of cases a day, forcing the country’s most restrictive lockdown yet.

On Monday, as curfews loomed and authorities ordered non-essential businesses to close, book store manager Bill Morton witnessed his normally “vibrant, lovely” patch of the city transform into a “ghost town”.

Melbourne’s tram bells seem to ring out louder and longer, a reminder that the streets are nearly deserted of the city’s almost five million residents.

“People are pretty demoralised,” Morton told AFP.

“Pretty well everything is closed around here. So it’s a very strange, quite eerie atmosphere.”

During the day, the few masked walkers out for an hour-long window for exercise cautiously manoeuvred around each other, conscious of social distancing rules.

The feted theatres, live music venues and buzzing restaurants of Australia’s premier cultural hub have fallen silent, with their staff and owners facing more months of uncertainty.

– ‘Years to recover’ –

From Wednesday evening offices and most businesses will be closed, and a complex set of rules will dictate when people can leave home and where they can go.

Bar owner Andrew Park has stayed afloat so far during the pandemic by scaling back to cocktail deliveries, but he is now more worried than ever.

“Foot traffic will be completely gone,” he told AFP, predicting that a curfew after 8 pm will see customers cocoon, even if food and drink purchases are still allowed in the daytime.

“My fear is people will just altogether stop ordering from local, small businesses.”

Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews warned it could take the state, which includes Melbourne, “years to recover”.

Maggie May, who owns a gift shop with her husband, had adapted during an earlier lockdown.

She sold items online for the first time, a challenging but ultimately positive learning experience.

“You’re constantly trying to pep yourself up (because) if you sink into an anxiety hole then nothing is going to get done and at the end of the day you’re just going to get more anxious,” she told AFP.

The country’s hardest-hit state has recorded almost 12,000 of the roughly 18,000 cases in Australia and more than half of the 221 fatalities from COVID-19.

Morton said the book store had seen revenue drop to around 25 percent of pre-pandemic levels, leaving the 50-year-old business heavily reliant on government support schemes and rent deferrals.

“We can hang in for the time being but operating at the reduced revenue that we are, we can’t do it indefinitely,” he said.

“I think there’s a lot of concern for a lot of the businesses around here, whether they’ll be able to see it through,” adding that many had already closed down permanently.

“This virus, this pandemic is taking a heavy toll”, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Monday, acknowledging that many in Victoria will have “reached breaking point”.

The best people in Melbourne can now hope for is that case numbers are brought under control and, in six weeks’ time, they can cautiously celebrate a reopening in spring.

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