In the heart of suburban Darwin outside a stretch of two-storey brick flats, there is a gathering each evening that I’ve wanted to infiltrate for years.
Every night a group of people – mostly older, mostly men – sit at a greying plastic picnic table under a faded green umbrella enjoying a drink and each other’s company.
Sometimes there are just two of them, quietly watching the street as it settles into sunset; occasionally there’s a small scrum of seniors all talking and laughing at once.
I pass them on my daily walk, but I am always too busy fielding endless questions from my two-year-old son and wrangling our disobedient mutt to stop. I am also far too shy to invite myself over, although I always wave or call out hello, and remain incurably curious about this happy little collection of neighbours.
But in this strange new COVID-19 world, their jovial get-togethers are outlawed.
Forbidden. The cops could turn up at any moment and break up this gentle party. We’re no longer worried about gangs of youths, instead it’s gangs of oldies who invoke concern. Which is outrageous, but also, it isn’t.
Of course, it’s for their own good that they stay home. And for our good that we do, too. No one wants to accidentally be patient zero for any group of vulnerable people in our community.
But how do those who live alone – particularly older people who may not have the skills or technology to drive up the profits of Zoom like the rest of us – manage this new world?
While I might envy their solitude as my son asks “what are you doing?” for the nine millionth time in an hour, deep down under all the toddler mess in my house I know I am fortunate to have him and my husband at home with me.
But that’s the thing about living in the Territory. So many of us aren’t from here and are living far from our extended families, and so we work to build solid friendship groups and those people become our families.
For most of us it’s not too difficult to swallow not seeing our actual relatives for a stretch of time – we’re so far away, we do it frequently – but distancing from our Territory families, the ones we’ve worked so hard to create, the ones who are just around the corner, or even next door, feels like a much bigger hit.
I suspect that is the case with the little gathering in my street – that these people are “family”, and now that they are unable to meet, I worry for them. Their evening get-togethers are likely a key ingredient in their wellbeing. With whom do they now share their concerns or how do they take a break from them? How do they get by without discussing this odd place where haircuts are deemed necessary and cruise ships are on the verge of extinction? With whom do they discuss the good old days when you could eat a meal in a café and take a stroll with more than one friend?
There’s no doubt we’re all feeling our way blind across a difficult and constantly shifting landscape, but perhaps the lesson unfolding is about what is actually essential and the value of those things.
Family and friends are the obvious priorities, but what about the bigger picture?
How can we ever again justify the low pay of cleaners, child care educators, supermarket employees, delivery drivers and many others who we now know are essential for the bare bones of society to operate?
How can we not fall at the feet of teachers who take on not a handful of students, as many reluctant home-schooling parents are now, but a whole classroom full of them, in a profession that is often not given the respect or pay it deserves?
How do we return benefit payments to half their amount when the government has acknowledged more is needed in a crisis? Isn’t not having work a crisis?
How do we start charging parents for child care again when the idea that it will help people, particularly women, stay in the workforce still applies outside a pandemic?
How can we deny funding to the arts when it’s become so joylessly obvious that without live music or exhibitions or plays or festivals, we lose not just entertainment but also our sense of community? It doesn’t take long in isolation before even the background noise of a bad cover band doing Blister in the Sun at the pub is appealing.
And now we’ve all experienced some degree of isolation, how can we ever again ignore those who experience it daily – the ailing or the elderly or those who live in our remote areas.
If anything good comes of COVID-19, it will be that it has amplified what is essential and forced us to think more deeply about what is important, from bigger picture issues like equitable pay, down to the personal, like joining in a nightly neighbourhood gathering in your street.
Will these ideals last? These things often don’t. The crisis will end and as we all begin to thaw out, the hopes we had for something better on the other side will melt away.
But maybe, hopefully, if we put plans in place now while we have time and are riled up, some of it will stick and we will emerge a better society with a greater appreciation for what is essential.
Because the one thing that’s truly essential is that we learn from this.
I walked past those flats in my street shortly after the government announced the two-person-only gathering rule. Two men sat an arm-span apart, a border collie between them. I swallowed my shyness, stopped and, from a socially appropriate distance, I asked if they needed anything.
“We’re right, we can get to the shops for what we need,” one man called back.
Then: “Do you want to come in for a beer or a wine?”
The invitation I’d been waiting for all these years and I finally wasn’t so busy – yet the new rules determined I had to decline.
But once the world returns to normal, I know where I’ll be going to celebrate.
Kylie Stevenson is a Walkley Award-winning freelance journalist based in Darwin