Choose your own apocalypse: COVID and bushfires.

As many others have noted, the coronavirus pandemic is illustrating the peculiarities of our relationships to one another as individuals within a society. Indeed, most historians would argue that communicable diseases initiated the modern state as we know it. In short, there’s death and taxes but the buck stops at plumbing.

I used to live in California, and my friends give an interesting and troubling insight into daily life in the age of the pandemic. Most of my contemporaries have children, all are educated and financially secure, and all have been self isolating to various degrees since about February. I should say, I haven’t lived there for years so I can only make statements on what I see from my friends and in the news.

School goes back in California this month and Governor Newsom has declared that children will return to online learning only. For my contemporaries this means they continue to live in isolation whilst working from home. In some ways our lives are similar – I’m working from home, although I could go into the office and be relatively safe. I would be temperature checked, logged in and there would be a limit on the number of people I could be in a room with. However, in other ways I’m realising that we’re on quite different trajectories.

For us in NSW, schools closed for 6 weeks early on in the pandemic (about March). Despite some local cases, schools have remained open with some restrictions around adults on campus, hand hygiene and group gatherings. Mostly though, school is back to normal.

I can go walk down the street in my local town and see maybe only one or two people wearing a mask. I can go shopping more or less as normal. I can visit friends for a cup of tea. e’d probably sit outside. Many councils are now relaxing rules on outdoor seating so cafes can close their indoor spaces.

In areas where social distancing is not possible, people are asked to wear masks, and almost entirely comply. In short, the government has explained the risk and the conditions under which masks are appropriate, and by and large, most people follow the guidelines. Our local supermarket is sometimes quite busy and has asked all patrons to wear masks. Everyone does. It’s not ‘required’ and no-one will be thrown out of the shop, but so far I’ve not seen anyone without a mask. Other smaller shops, the butcher for instance, have limits on customer numbers. People wait outside until they can go in. It makes sense – you’re just waiting anyway.

Mostly though, people aren’t wearing masks unless they’re asked to (the chemist for instance, asks people to do so, and people do). Aside from a bit less social interaction, our lives are more or less unchanged.

For my friends in California, life seems to me to be more restricted. People appear to be consciously living in ‘bubbles’, children largely remain within their family ‘bubble’ and food/supplies is managed either through online ordering or strategised procurement.

A friend’s online posts on show her hiking in the wilderness with a friend, for miles in solitary wilderness, both of them wearing cloth masks. I wonder if the cloth masks (rather than N95 masks) are to protect others – it seems to be the case, signalling inclusion in a community of likeminded people who care about one another and have a sense of social solidarity. When venturing out of this community, however, they will encounter much larger groups of people who’re not wearing masks – generally poorer people who’re performing essential work (like delivering groceries) and will likely get the virus soon if they haven’t already.

And this is the point: In essence, my friends are waiting in virtual gated communities for the virus to reach some level of herd immunity in the surrounding population. In other words, at a certain point, rumoured to be around Christmas, the virus will reach a tipping point between susceptible and infected in the population at large.

Let me tell you about birds.

Last month a flock of black cockatoos stripped every nut off our huge macadamia tree, screeching and dropping the shells onto the driveway. We’ve always had black cockies in the trees out the back but this is the first time they’ve been hungry enough to have a crack at the tree.

They’re here because we live in a small patch of unburned bush, not more than about 20 square kilometres in size. The fires that ripped through our area on New Year’s Eve and then twice more in the coming weeks were stopped by the river, a natural firebreak, on our northern boundary.

This small oasis of bush, which is now a refuge, groaning with hungry birds and animals, is now considered ‘safe’ – because it’s been effectively back-burned. Screen Shot 2020-08-19 at 10.59.08 am.png

I can’t help thinking of my friends in California, living in small, largely COVID-free havens where people work hard to reduce both their personal risk and the risk to others in their small, likeminded community, waiting for the surrounding population to backburn an ‘asset protection zone’ around them and effectively reduce the risk to zero.

Of course, you can’t account for a random lightning strike.

In Australia, we’re all more or less susceptible to COVID19.  The numbers of cases in Victoria are shocking for us, but they’re actually comparatively small. In NSW for instance (my state) we’ve recorded 3 new cases today, all linked to existing clusters. The numbers are declining daily. We may get to ‘effective elimination’ where we assume the disease is still around, but in very low numbers. There’s an enormous, continuous testing effort, and an elaborate contact tracing and testing program. We are unburned forest. Our ‘asset protection zone’ is the ocean. It’s no surprise that so much focus is on Australia’s borders. New Zealand is in a similar situation.

In a way, California seems more like a tale of two cities – a small, relatively wealthy community of people living amongst a much, much larger service class. This itself isn’t new –  California’s economy is often described as suffering from a form of Dutch disease – there’s a huge discrepancy between the small, high income elite and the much poorer, much larger majority who’re participating solely in a domestic economy (both working and consuming in the service and retail sectors).

Will these ‘two countries’, one ‘letting it rip’, the other ‘waiting it out’ make it to the Christmas herd immunity, with a small non immune population surrounded and protected by a much larger immune population?

In Australia we’re all sitting it out, waiting while the rest of the world ‘burns’, only our borders between the two groups is physical, whereas in California, it’s simply money and fragile networks of separation.

Interesting times.

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