Five lives, five very different pandemic journeys


For university students, just embarking on their life journey, COVID proved a massive reset in some surprising ways.

An abrupt return

For me, COVID was a year of milestones, I got two for the price of one.

In January 2020, I left the familiar universe of my family home and moved 17,600 km away to Madrid, a city exploding with international students just like me. We partied together, whirling around various restaurants, bars, cinemas, apartments and art galleries in a kaleidoscopic mirage of new experiences. That's me on the right in the photo above, exploring Toledo.

Then, on March 11, Donald Trump announced a ban on travel to the United States from Europe in response to the rising number of coronavirus infections. My time in Madrid ended a day later. Suddenly, I was whisked away on another flight and unloaded back onto my family's front doorstep in Shalvey, NSW. I was home, but COVID-19 had changed the way that I felt attached to home. I had loved living independently, however briefly, in Madrid, surrounded by anonymous city-goers. So, I moved out again, this time to Sydney's Inner West.

With the money I had saved for exchange, I had no need to work. The government rolled out the JobSeeker supplement and I used that to pay rent. The next six months from April to September represented the most free time I had had since leaving high school four years earlier. While COVID-19 was a challenge for many, and certainly it was difficult to be confined to my new home, it was also a chance to use that extra time to devote to my writing.

I spent hours in the café next to my house, drafting and redrafting the first piece I wanted to publish. I returned to my family home as a visitor, instead of an occupant, and noticed I felt a pang of nostalgia when I remembered all the time I had spent here.

My family sat around the table and laughed at my jokes, ate with me, turned the lights off when we went to bed. Those things felt more important now than ever. COVID-19 might not have changed the routines I was familiar with, but it made me realise how precious they were.

In December, the same month the United Kingdom became the first Western nation to authorise a COVID-19 vaccine, I published my first creative non-fiction story.

It was a milestone made possible by COVID-19.

Since then, writing has become second nature. I typically use the conversations I have with friends and family to share my ideas, get feedback and try to slow down, since life has almost returned to normal. In this year of COVID, I'm grateful to the community around me, for helping me make the most of an unexpected opportunity. — NADIA HIRST

From Kahanamoku to North Head

I have never spent a summer in Sydney.

Growing up privileged, with relatives all over the world, I spent every school holiday travelling from one part of the globe to another. My parents have always wanted what was best for me and I've been exploring the world since I was three months old. At five, I flew without parental supervision; I've ziplined the Swiss alps, camped on Volcan Irazú in Costa Rica and been to Disneyland more times than I can remember. I love travelling to new places, going to galleries, eating exotic dishes and I revel in random historical facts about the places I visit.

In January 2020, I had a life plan all set and ready to go. I'd probably do my student exchange in Paris, become an au pair in Sicily, go backpacking across South America, work in Tokyo for a while and then settle down in southern Germany. As for Sydney, I had contemplated possibly moving back if I ever had kids but then flashbacks of the vapid shallow girls from my high school days who only dreamed of becoming trophy wives intruded and always made me backtrack.

Did I want my kids to go through the toxic private school culture in Sydney? Did I want to become some North Shore housewife, driving an SUV to her kids' soccer games every Saturday and reminiscing about my high school days with other mothers who had similar upbringings to mine?

This was a vision I detested. I swore to myself as soon as I graduated uni, I was off to discover better things and live out my dreams like Meryl Streep's character in Mamma Mia.

When first reports of a novel coronavirus emerged, before Australia shut its international borders, I was in Hawaii living my best life, sipping on mocha Frappuccinos while sunbaking on the white sands of Kahanamoku Beach. I was away from the bushfire fiasco, all the while looking out for any sign of Scott Morrison, who was doing the same thing as me.

As infection numbers rose, China had imposed a martial law lockdown, but that was happening in Asia. Not Australia. Surely, we weren't going to be affected by it?

A week after I flew back to Sydney, everything changed: we went into lockdown; I joined the bulk-buying frenzy; university cancelled face-to-face classes and reconvened online; my boyfriend broke up with me, and suddenly I lost any social contact with the outside world.

My perfect, privileged life was going to shit but as my friend Lucy says, the worst events in life are just blessings in disguise. And boy was she correct. As lockdown went on, I began to count my lucky stars, that of all the places I might have been, I got stranded in Sydney, my home of 18 years. I went on long walks with my friends to North Head where we'd watch the sunsets, had late night chats with my mates on the rocks of Diamond Bay and I improved my baking and sewing skills.

It seemed like the whole world had finally paused. After a lifetime of always racing to the next great place, I finally understood what Ferris Bueller meant all those years ago. Life does move pretty fast, and if you don't stop and look around once in a while, you miss it.

I had never spent a summer in Sydney, until this year. I'm glad I finally did. — YURI NAGATA

My mask, my year

In the wake of COVID-19, changes in my community can be subtle, they can be huge.

The past year saw a lot of firsts for me. I knew Australian society was not accustomed to mask-wearing. I remember when I wore one to school in Year 10, many people stared at me as if I had a lethal disease, when in fact I had just caught a flu virus and did not want to spread the germs. This was 2015, when I first arrived in Sydney from Hong Kong

Fast forward to March 2020: I am masked again, walking home from the train station when two teenage boys shout "you have coronavirus!". Even as the pandemic was declared, masks were not a common sight in Sydney. Getting yelled at on the street by strangers, this was a first for me.

Then came the start of lockdown, which was not bad (for me). Like many people, I got into baking. I felt lucky that I lived with my grandparents and brother, that, along with video calling my friends occasionally, was enough social interaction for me.

The idea of staying home all day even sounded exciting at first. I think it was because I anticipated the "end" of it in the not too distant future. Little did I know! It dragged on, with very little change. Although social restrictions eased, most friends still hesitated in organising gatherings and many restaurants required pre-paid bookings. There was absolutely no room for spontaneity!

Hostility, isolation, disconnection.

I wish I could say the pandemic did not affect me much, but it was one of the worst years of my life. Delayed hangouts, struggles with employment; time flying by and months wasted. My year-long exchange program was cancelled. A journey I had looked forward to so much, vaporised by the virus.

I think the only positive outcome was my grades significantly improved, and ironically, I did not get sick at all (because of my mask-wearing obsession) when I would normally catch a cold twice a year.

My 2020 lesson is that things never go as planned and the key to happiness is to not expect too much. Already this year I have started an internship and reconnected with long lost friends, I even became a UNSW society executive. Life is starting to look a little easier. On that note, my intuition tells me: 2021 is going to be my year, with or without a mask. — ANNABELLE CHEUNG

How I saved Australia

COVID gave us a new shared set of habits: washing our hands religiously, working from home, checking in with a QR code, online shopping to death and passing time on TikTok. They are for everyone. But I've also picked up three surprising individual habits.

Saving the economy: I go out and spend far more than I used to. Not necessarily a healthy habit. I'm not really that economically informed, but "boosting the economy" has really changed the way I live. I almost feel like I'm single-handedly keeping the Australian economy alive, one pub schnitty at a time. Instead of having to justify my purchases to myself, I now have a selfless reason to make all the random purchases that I want. Obviously, I'm keeping these places afloat.

Staying out: I go out and I stay out. Perhaps it was the three-month fast from social interaction a year ago that supercharged my social engagement capacity. During lockdown, I found myself moaning to a friend about missing the boat, that at 21, my days of youthful shenanigans had come and gone. Fortunately, lockdown was brief and my supercharged social tank was ready to go, so, as it seems, were my friends. Don't get me wrong, I'm not talking about clubbing, I'm talking about 1am Bay Walks.

Reading on the train: Even though I love seeing people, and social things fuel my tank — it turns out I also kind of hate people. Specifically, on trains. Before COVID, the commute to uni would create a one-hour hangover of grumpiness as I recovered from sharing a carriage with hundreds of equally fed-up commuters. But now, with the hustle and bustle of commuting significantly depleted (perhaps permanently), I'm loving my 40-minute trip to uni. Having an entire row of seats to oneself, lends itself to reading a book peacefully. If I'm lucky, no other commuter will even disrupt my peripheral vision!

Though QR codes and TikTok may come and go, I think my three new habits might be with me for good. — EMILY ANDERSON

In training (for the next one)

When the lockdown started I saw two main lines of thought paraded on social media. The first was that people should use this time to work on something, like themselves, developing a skill or a new talent; and the second line of thought was that you didn't need to do this, that this time was for you and you could take a break from the pressures of everyday life.

Now I wasn't as passionate about either viewpoint as others I'd seen online but when I tried to do something, anything, I just couldn't. It's a sad realisation that even with all that time to get something done, I didn't. I could easily blame the Australian school system, trained as I am to only deliver when a deadline is put in front of me. The other possibility is that I may be lazy.

I tried to plan it all out. I dyed my hair peroxide blonde. I had a schedule to practise guitar a few hours a day, to read more and to add exercise, in any way, shape or form that I could think of.

I found while I could focus for a few hours, each day the monotony of lockdown sucked me into a passive vortex of streaming services, social media and drunken re-watching of my favourite South Park episodes.(The way they satirise the 2008 global financial crisis in "Margaritaville" is still genius.)

South Park Margaritaville Best

To be clear, I got more done than I would have in pre-pandemic life, but considering the wealth of free time I had, that's not something I'm particularly proud of.

As my job re-opened, I experienced a strong sense of sadness for an opportunity missed. My lack of productivity had left me as untalented, unfit and as poorly read as I was before the lockdown. The world gave me all that free time to improve myself and I shunned it. What was I thinking?

If there's a silver lining to all this, it is that I know myself a bit better now. In spending all that time doing nothing, I thought a lot about how to organise myself better to achieve tasks that aren't framed by a deadline. For me, 2020 was a trial run. So, when the next pandemic envelops us, (and the scientists say it is when, not if), I'll be ready.


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