Another Plague year

While historiographically speaking I sit more in the “longue durée” than the “defining moment” camp, right now it seems that 14 March 2020 might in future be regarded as the day the world changed.

And that, of course, was because of COVID-19 on which every Facebook, Insta, TikTok, Snapchat, WeChat, WhatsApp pundit has become expert.

What happened?
• Just about every sporting event in the world was suspended for the foreseeable future.
• New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern shut her country’s borders to help maintain its reputation as the last outpost of civilisation.
• Most cruise ships were heading for their nearest ports (if they could get in) and to go no further.
• Airlines slashed flights and prices and tried to make their destinations attractive.
• The tourism industry worldwide took a pounding.
• Australia cemented gold medal status as the globe’s greatest toilet paper hoarder.
• Italians sang from their balconies in a show of national unity rarely seen.
• China sent supplies to assist the overloaded Italian medical system.
• The United States added the United Kingdom to its list of banned source countries.
• “Social distancing” became a dinner party subject, where dinner parties were held.
• Already shaky economies, like Australia’s, began to wobble.
• National leaderships came under severe scrutiny.
• Citizens everywhere began re-examining their lives.

Places around the world began re-examining their futures:


As 14 March began, for example, I faced a possible balancing act. With a Kiwi colleague, I was due to head to Noosa for a Wellness Summit in connection with a project on which I am assisting. The wisdom of that trip was already in doubt, then came Jacinda’s announcement. If my pal came to Australia, he would have to self-isolate for two weeks upon his return and that was not practical.

That was off, then, to create another possibility. On the following weekend Sandi and I were now scheduled to join a cruise ship in Fremantle, and I would lecture on board across to Tasmania. That ship had already been diverted away from its scheduled Asian ports towards Australia and…New Zealand.

I had been asked if I might join the ship in Broome up in the northwest. Originally, I couldn’t because of the Wellness Summit but that now cancelled… I could join the ship in Broome on Monday. So I sent that possibility off to the agent.

Then I went off to dinner with friends (Sandi was in Adelaide) where the virus was front and centre – including a Facetime chat with a friend resident in Italy who was walking around isolated city streets. On the way home, yet another Aussie resident in Italy was radio interviewed about how much her life had changed.

I got home to emails saying that going to Broome was not necessary. In fact, the ship would come into Fremantle and end its voyage there. My services would not be needed, and no new cruises would start for at least thirty days.

My diary was suddenly cleared and I was free, to do…what?


One of my screenplays has just been made “Official Selection” at a competition in Rome. Maybe I could go to a movie and watch how it is really done. But who else would be there, and could I “social distance”?

The same might be said of going out for breakfast, to a bookshop, an antique outlet, a gallery, live music, a play. There’s no sport to go to, or watch on TV, live at least.
On Monday, the college I work with in Sydney will start delivering all classes “remotely”, that is by way of video. The unions have fought this for years, but the virus has forced the issue and with that particular genie having now escaped the bottle, will we ever get it back inside and capped? Very likely not.

Those at dinner focused on the idea of meetings. Most are now to be run remotely – our college ones will be from this week. There are ramifications here. Some cultures do not find that method acceptable, it has to be face-to-face. How will that be navigated? And will students now take the remote instruction as the norm? There have been question marks over lectures for years, this will likely be the tipping point.

There is a potential way of life change here, or maybe a “Back to the Future” moment. We live in Fremantle where the lifestyle is mainly coffee shop, pub, restaurant. That is to say, it is the pretty typically urban public culture that has become almost global. Istanbul is like Fremantle and Sydney, London, New York and all that. The Saudis might be a bit different, say, but that “coffee house” culture has been with us for three hundred years and more.

Damascus Coffee
Perhaps less so from now on. There is a lovely Facebook note reminding knitters, sewers and quilters that “this” is what they have been training for! Activity in solitude. There suddenly seems to be more time for reading, too, if we can afford to buy books in whatever form because in many ways this is the capitalist world’s equivalent of colony collapse.

Jacinda Ardern’s message was reported in one outlet as “Jacinda Shuts Down Queenstown Tourism”. When I asked my New Zealand brother about some of the practicalities concerning the new measures, his reply was shrewd as always: the aim really was to stop people coming in, not to manage them through self-isolation.

Qtown jetboat

That will hammer an already staggering economy. Year-on-year reports already had this summer tourist season as a poor if not dreadful one, and that was before the virus shut the doors completely. Businesses will fail, incomes will disappear, lives will change.
And the same is true in Australia. While the Government spruiks the idea that the virus has eroded the economy, people have for months been whispering the “recession” word, and that was underlined by the stock market route of the past week. There is another tipping point a la 2008.

The Australian economy rests on minerals, tourism and education: iron ore, coal, travel and students. The last two are being smashed by this meeting of economic slowdown and virus. My Perth brother tells me the first two are also slowing noticeably because the two week quarantine period plays havoc with cargo shipping logistics. That is then additionally aided and abetted by the belligerent approach to China adopted by the Government and propagated by a mendicant media. That all helped transform the virus campaign into a racist one focused on the “Chinese disease”.

China warns Australia
As in America, the leadership approach to all this has been found wanting, really. In the education field, for example, some authorities have chosen to be more concerned about the immediate financial hit and implications than about the health and welfare of students, staff and the public. That is simply unsustainable and points to yet another change in public sentiment that will be required once the dust settles on this, if it does settle.
More disruption than settlement is likely in industries across the board. My inbox today carried an impassioned plea for support from the director of a small professional theatre in Sydney. It is threatened already, thanks partly to a mad situation in which not one Australian playwright is being funded by the Australian Arts Council through the next four years.

Then, Tom Hanks’ Gold Coast experience is not helpful. Cast and crew will not travel to Australia (or New Zealand) from anywhere else under the present circumstances. Joint productions across countries will be almost impossible to mobilise – my “Official Selection” screenplay needs such an Australia-France collaboration.


A friend has a feature film all set to drop, but no guarantee of a cinema in which to screen it. My film daughter in the UK (who with her partner is setting up a support service for the self-isolated elderly in their local community) reports that productions there have slowed to a trickle almost overnight – who will fund anything that might not ever see the inside of a theatre, or the faces of an audience for that matter?

Australia China Pacific

And in a totally different realm, how will the international aid and development industry navigate all this? It is the ultimate cross-border, cross cultural operation with funds provided largely by now-under pressure Western economies for work to be conducted in less successful states. As another colleague points out, Australia’s recent and much vaunted aid push into the Pacific (in large part to counterbalance the massive Chinese presence there) will struggle to survive aggressive budget raids to fund the anti-virus campaign.

And even if it does, then operatives on the ground will struggle to reach sites (he tells me that at present in Mongolia, where I worked on a project last year, there are no flights at all in or out of Ulaan Baatar, the capital). How will the work be done?


No wonder, then, that there has been a widespread rediscovery of Daniel Defoe’s almost four hundred years old A Journal of the Plague Year. We need all the lessons learned we can from that piece of history.

There is much more to come.

2 thoughts on “Another Plague year

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