I want to start by mentioning two things:
That I am writing this near the end of 2020 from Sydney, Australia. Our country has done a truly fantastic job of containing COVID-19. Our initial lockdown in March/April took us to what we call ‘donut days’ – days with 0 local transmissions in our state. When a sudden case of unknown origin on the Northern Beaches hit a few weeks ago and blew out to (at the time of writing) over a hundred cases, selective lockdowns and truly incredible contact tracing & testing has reduced that back to single digits per day, despite it happening over Christmas and New Years, a time when people are in the middle of serious partying.
It’s not over, of course. If we’re unlucky, despite intense restrictions on the size of indoor gatherings over New Years, we may get more clusters. If our so far incredibly effective tracing methods fail there and it came to the worst, we’d likely lock down again, same as we did in March – and same as Melbourne successfully did mid way through the year when they had a runaway hotspot. It’d suck, but I am sure we’d once more be back to gleefully declaring that we’d had “a week of donut days” or the like.
However, despite this being the case, in other parts of the world, more people are dying each day than have died in the entire of Australia from COVID, and while I talk about having gone through a single several-month lockdown in this, I’m only too aware that a lot of people have done it much tougher, and many are still locked down.
What I’m mostly talking about in this post are things related to the social effects I’ve seen in a place where the pandemic has begun to subside in most of the ways people like me notice on a day-to-day basis
So the context is this: immense privilege just living where I am, and where despite our federal government being awful, our state governments & state health departments are getting us through this.
Secondly: When It’s Over.
I’m going to talk about ‘when it’s over’ a bit here. Or even refer to it being ‘largely over’ for us here in Australia. This isn’t true, of course. Vaccines are just starting to roll out around the world, more people are dying now than ever before, and even in Australia it’s going to be many years yet before COVID-19 stops dominating our news cycles, political discourse and even our life decisions.
So, when I talk about it being “over”, what I am referring to is when the risk is low enough that for the most part our lives are going back to the same kind of routines we had before the pandemic.
This is important because, barring current hotspots like Avalon in the north-east of Sydney, this is how things are right now for most Australians.
And yet, at least from what I’ve seen… things are not the same as they were, and I’m not sure how long it will take for them to be so.
In March, for a regular medical procedure I had to trek into the CBD for the first time since lockdown. A friend gave me a lift, as I did not want to risk public transport. Shops were shut, streets were empty and I saw almost nobody without a mask on.
It was a surreal thing to see. Before this I’d only seen empty streets like this in movies – you couldn’t clear out Sydney’s CBD during the day or evening like this if you tried.
Otherwise, having just moved into an apartment on my own for the first time in my life, and having the privilege of an office job I was easily able to start doing from home, my life became more or less the lockdown cliché.
I ordered local organic produce boxes.
I learned to cook things I’d not made before.
I went stir-crazy, scared and unsure just how long this would last or even if somehow this would be the end of civilisation as I knew it (your brain goes to dark places when you see almost nobody for months at a time).
I tried to change up my routine by taking different morning walks around my suburb. I had my breakfasts on my balcony, so at least I wasn’t constantly inside my apartment.
But then the restrictions eased.
I had a friend over to watch movies. We made cocktails, and it was one of the most amazing nights of my life. I nearly cried.
My birthday came shortly there-after, and I had the truly amazing experience of seeing two of my friends at once, to show them one of my favourite recent films.
Perhaps it was because the pressure of organising a party wasn’t there, or perhaps it was just that I hadn’t seen two friends together like that in what felt like an eon, but it sticks in my mind as the best so far of my just over 3-dozen birthdays.
Then more restrictions were eased.
Bars opened up, dotted with gauche signs that made my skin crawl because all I could think of was people in other countries dying en masse.
I finally went to one, on a tinder date, somewhere in the middle of the year.
It felt… off. We may still have been able to go to bars, but the new “CovidSafe” restrictions businesses were required to abide by changed the experience of being in them. Fewer seats meaning far fewer patrons. Checking in and sanitising your hands before being seated. Table service only – no lining up to get the next around.
These are all good things, of course, but… the experience was more the awkwardness of a restaurant, not the laid back feeling I had missed from bars.
And even beyond that, many of my friends are immunocompromised and won’t be going out to bars or gigs again until a good percentage of our population is immunised – enough for them to feel safe in doing what I felt safe enough to do months ago.
That first experience going to a bar post-lockdown sticks in my mind because it was enough to make me not really want to do it again. It’s been more or less safe for us here to see some friends in bars all but a few months of this year, really – and yet I’ve been to a bar a grand total of 4 times since March.
In 2019, I almost used went to that number on a busy week.
As the year was drawing to a close, a friend came over who had been stuck in Melbourne during their second lockdown. As with most of the socialising my friends and I do these days, it was at one of our houses.
We sat on my balcony, drinking gin and catching up, and she said something that got me thinking: “I was looking forward to getting back to Sydney, because I’d get to see all my friends and socialise like normal. But it’s not like that.”
I used to see small groups of friends every weekend, and would catch up with people at bars or cinemas a few times a week after work.
As my friend put it, “You go out to a bar for a bit, then message friends to see who’s out, join up with them, and you keep going until the night’s done. But not now – nobody’s out, so you just see the one or two people you started the night with.”
In the months since it was more or less over, friendships had changed. Everyone had to pick who to spent time with. For those in nesting relationships, that usually meant their partner and, often, another couple they know who lives nearby. Or maybe a BFF.
My social circle went from many dozens I’d catch up with regularly, to seeing really only my closest friends – both in an emotional sense and a geographic one.
When travel feels like an additional risk, the people you can get to see most easily end up being the priority.
As a result, people I really do care about I’ve barely seen this year – the tyranny of distance just got even nastier. Other people I barely knew have become new BFFs, because they were there. They checked in on me when I was in lockdown alone.
I presumed that once things went ‘back to normal’ this would change – I’d start catching up with friends again in a more casual way, but the simple fact is that hasn’t happened.
Friendships have been irrevocably changed from this. I keep thinking of how a certain person didn’t reciprocate my desire to hang out with them earlier this year, and how much that stung. I was not part of their Covid Circle.
Then I think of people who reached out to me and… got the same reaction from me. I didn’t feel close enough to want them in my inner circle. So that sense of hurt I felt, they might well feel the same.
Even when things got slightly safer, those social changes seemed to stick. Instead of this enormous big queer bubble I felt like I lived in, I now live in a tiny one more or less of a combination of luck and my own devising.
When I decided to have a small gathering for drinks in November, and needed to pick 10 people to invite to stay at a nice low number… I realised this was very easy, as I didn’t really feel close to more people than that any more.
What’s missing is the people you liked, but maybe weren’t really close to. Those people you never spoke to outside of the times you happened to run into them at a party a mutual friend had, or because you ran into them at a bar in Newtown.
I haven’t met a single new person this year without intending to. Outside of tinder, there were no parties, so I didn’t make random new acquaintances.
Social circles are smaller, and largely stagnant.
Perhaps, by end of next year, when the bulk of our populace has been vaccinated, things will be more “normal”. Things will return a bit more to the way they used to be. But even then, the social fallout from all this likely won’t.
Social groups will be different. We’ll be more used to smaller cliques, and I’m just not even sure any more that everyone will go back to the way things were before.
After two years of not travelling much outside our suburbs, maybe some of us will be itching to do just that, and become travellers even around our own city in a way we hadn’t been before. Or perhaps we’ll just get used to things as they have been since the pandemic began and… just stick to it.
For a lot of us, the habits formed during this pandemic will result in ongoing changes in how we socialise, see friends and go about our lives, even once it’s over.
I’m just surprised how dramatic and immutable those changes already feel.