As told by: JoanShielding in: Tasmania, Australia
Recorded: March-April 2022
We had recently moved to Tasmania from New South Wales, and had built a house in Southern Tasmania when the pandemic began.1 Frank, my husband, works remotely from his office, which is based in Sydney. We used to return to Sydney every six months or so, so that he could go into the office and we could visit our friends. Our daughter had started kindergarten at school, and my son was starting to be old enough to take part in activities such as kindergym. We used to go out to restaurants, art galleries, museums, markets, Christmas concerts, and other such events, and see friends often. Our families live overseas, and we would visit each other periodically.
We shielded for the first time in March 2020, as we saw news of a mysterious killer pneumonia coming out of China. Official lockdown started in Tasmania shortly after that, for one month—though we continued to shield for a couple of months after lockdown was officially lifted. The border to Tasmania was shut for a time, and 2021 proved to be a year of living relatively normally. Under the pretense of ‘returning to normal’ and ‘living with COVID’, the borders reopened on December 17, 2021, and we have been shielding ever since.
Our current circumstances #
We have a stand-alone house in a rural area, with almost two acres of land, which includes a garden, a developing orchard, a creek, and a rather steep hill. Happily, we are able to have our groceries delivered from the local supermarket, but for other supplies, such as clothes, toys or homewares, we order online. Due to our rural location, the postal-contractors do not deliver to our door, so we have to drive ten minutes to the (unventilated) post-office to pick up parcels, from staff who now choose to not wear masks. Fortunately, other non-AusPost couriers do deliver to the door, so we try to order from companies who offer this service.
Figure 1. Our portion of the creek which the kids play around in a lot.
Our weekdays consist of Frank working from his study upstairs, and the children and I homeschool in the kitchen, which is basically literacy or numeracy in the mornings until lunchtime. The afternoon is usually occupied with baking, dinner preparation, veggie patch tending, or free play. We occasionally have a playdate with other families who are also shielding. I go into town once a week to visit the post office for parcel collection, and sometimes put an extra errand on the list, such as the pet supply shop, or the hardware shop. On the weekends, we usually potter around the house and garden, or try to go on a nature walk.
Why do we shield? #
Our reasons for shielding have evolved over the past few years. At first it seemed like the apocalypse was underway, and being that we are without family in Australia, it was a major concern that we would catch COVID and be hospitalised with nobody to care for the children. Or, worse, that we would die and the children would be orphaned. We have since been triple vaccinated, and our daughter double vaccinated, but we are doubtful of the efficacy of the vaccines against the new variants. Even if we don’t get seriously ill from it, we would still prefer not to risk getting long COVID. And finally, our son is only three, and is not yet able to have a COVID vaccination. Looking at the rise of paediatric hospitalisations with the emergence of Omicron, plus the possibility of him developing MSIS [Multisystem inflammatory syndrome], or heart problems, or early onset diabetes. It makes complete sense for us to protect him as much as possible.
Shielding for us used to be about not getting sick, and not accidentally making other people sick. Now, it is purely about keeping ourselves safe, particularly as most people don’t seem to be concerned about COVID or catching it now.
The children and their experience #
The most significant change to our lives so far has been the decision to homeschool our daughter, who is six. She had started to enjoy school at the end of last year, and has been missing her friends and the teacher she was scheduled to have this year. I have certainly had some anxiety surrounding the decision, but can only conclude that this is the best path for the moment.
We have been speaking to the children about the situation. Mostly to our daughter, who is six and remembers what life was like before. We have always tried to be as truthful as possible about everything to her (including the truth about Santa and Saint Nicholas, which culminated in her yelling that Santa was dead at some kids who still believed…). So, whatever questions she has about COVID, we attempt to answer as factually as possible. For example, we answer that we don’t know how sick we’d get if we caught it, that it might have some bad long term effects, and that her younger brother isn’t vaccinated yet. She mostly refers to it as ‘the germs’ and asks if they are still around. We tell her yes, and that we don’t know when they’ll be gone, but that we are still waiting for a better vaccine.
The children are both fairly reliable in wearing their masks during play-dates, and our daughter has (sadly?) really taken social distancing on board. We did an experiment of putting a plain surgical mask on a small wooden statue that we own, and filled a spray bottle with food colouring and did some spraying experiments using a second mask, no mask and so on, to explain droplet transmission. This helped to convince them that it was worth wearing a mask. Additionally, there is a Swiss cheese graphic doing the rounds, so we showed her this, to explain how her vaccine, distancing and masking all help to stop transmission.
I don’t think that our son, who is only three, understands much of what is going on. A former friend made several remarks that we are making our children anxious, by getting them to wear masks and socially distance, but I don’t think that they are anxious at all. I think that our daughter is mirroring us, and finds the whole thing to be an annoyance. When the mask mandates were still in place, she would often and loudly point out people who were not wearing their masks properly and declare that they’d probably ‘get the germs’. Our son is just doing what he is told at this point.
Relationships with family and friends #
We have had some changing dynamics in our relationships with other people. My brother and I are barely speaking, as he declared early on that he wouldn’t be getting vaccinated, and has caught COVID two or three times. Our close friends were perhaps taking COVID more seriously than the general population, but most have conceded that we will all catch it eventually and have bought the tale of omicron being milder, and just seemed to have stopped trying. And by ceasing to try, I mean:no masks on their kids in shops, which they go to frequently; going to events where there are likely to be a number of people; parties and barbecues, and so on. This is a recent thing, so I suppose we are still trying to muddle our way through who is safe, and who is not. We try to make plans with people, but if there is a spike in cases, or an outbreak at someone’s school, these plans tend to get cancelled.
In terms of meeting much safer people, I did join a local home education group on social media, and saw a post from someone asking about vaccinations for her son, and also safe playdates. So, I got in touch with her, and now there are four families in our little group. We don’t know each other well, but they seem like decent people.
Navigating the topic in conversation, I do it gently, in the same way that one attempts to learn about someone else’s politics. We went to the neighbours’ place for a barbecue, perhaps last October, and I started going on about this insane antivax dad from school, who actually wanted to catch COVID for the ‘natural immunity’. About ten minutes later, the neighbour bailed me up in the kitchen and basically told me that everyone is entitled to their opinion, but that I shouldn’t express mine. We don’t really speak anymore.
How shielding has changed us #
A first we found shielding frustrating and kind of claustrophobic, but over time we have settled into a new routine. We used to be very social, and saw friends most weekends. But since we have lost that easy ability to see people, we have instead been achieving a lot of things around the house and the garden. We are finding that we are enjoying not having to do the school run, and are spending more quality time with the children, who seem to be more settled than ever before.
Figure 2. Some preserves and wine that we now have time to make.
We have always been fairly politically engaged. I suppose that even if a government that we didn’t favour was in power, we had a certain amount of trust that they weren’t actively trying to maim us. But, watching the various protections fall away, along with the misinformation being peddled about the severity of COVID, plus the erasure of long COVID, it has really brought to the forefront how disposable people (or ‘human capital’) are when it comes to keeping the wealthy happy and secure.
Our current political engagement around COVID does tie in with topics that we were engaged with before. Actually, COVID has brought these issues to the forefront, for example: the gig-economy and the casualisation of the workforce, the lack of any real social support for disabled and otherwise vulnerable people, unstable and lack of affordable housing, social inequality, and the lack of funding to public medical systems. As I see it, anybody who falls into any of these categories has fared worse during the pandemic than the more privileged. Perhaps it’s a conspiratorial notion, but it certainly seems that once the wealthy realised that they were not going to be badly affected—either because the markets stayed relatively stable, or because they could buy their way out of ill-health—the protections that could have been there were taken away, or were never enforced.
How we see the future #
The future feels bleak at this point. We don’t know what life is going to look like for our children as they get older. It’s hard not to imagine that we are keeping them in some kind of cult-like situation of worrying about COVID, when everyone else just seems to have gone back to pre-pandemic life. Frank’s parents are in France, and mine are in England. It feels doubtful that we will get to see them anytime soon. As they are all in their late 60s and early 70s, it’s hard to estimate how much time we actually have left for this.
One of Frank’s wishes is that governments come to their senses and reintroduce simple measures, such as mask wearing and contact tracing. I would like to see a change in the way that buildings are ventilated. And of course, we have high hopes of a better vaccine, one that doesn’t wane in efficacy, becoming available.
Figure 3. A ‘bingo card’ that I made in the spur of the moment, just after the borders opened, while we were listening to a press conference by the [Tasmania] State Premier, Peter Gutwein, and his chief health officer, Dr Mark Veitch. We’d been listening to the conferences regularly, but stopped when the premier started saying that school was the safest place for the children.
Overall, we are in ever renewed bafflement about how COVID has been handled. If politicians hadn’t dragged their feet initially, maybe the whole situation could have been avoided? We will forever remain in disbelief that the WHO [World Health Organization] recommended against mask wearing for so long. The total disregard that the powers-that-be have shown toward advice and forecasts from scientists and the medical community is frightening. Frightening, because if this hasn’t pushed policy makers into action to protect people—with millions dying across the world—I don’t know what it will take for anyone to start taking climate change seriously.
Names in this story have been changed to protect people’s privacy. ↩︎