On kindness, on ignorance: A frightful passage

CNZ RCWT 2020 Writing Fellow Michalia Arathimos began 2020 in Melbourne Australia where the threat of bushfires would shortly be replaced by the threat of the Covid-19 pandemic. In this essay, she recounts her whanau’s decision to return to Aotearoa New Zealand several months earlier than planned and the harrowing journey that followed.

On kindness, on ignorance: A frightful passage

For my dear friend, Airini Beautrais, and Keith and Margie. 

The first whispers about Coronavirus to reach myself and my whānau in Australia came out of China in December last year. They reached us but we paid them no mind; we were busy making decisions about survival in the midst of the Australian bushfires.

In a popular YouTube video, comedian Julie Nolke plays her future self, post-Coronavirus, and her pre-Coronavirus self. Her pre-Coronavirus self mentions the fires:

‘I think those are going to be the defining feature of 2020,’ her pre-Coronavirus self says.
‘Yeah, you’d think,’ her post-Coronavirus self responds.
‘Oh no?’
‘Not even a little bit… Your definition of a pretty big deal is going to change.’

Our definition was about to change, too.

We were having a bad end to a bad year. Last year a confluence of appalling events visited themselves upon us in quick succession. My partner and I are both New Zealanders. We had lived in Australia for the past seven years, with our two boys, who are four and nine. In 2018 we bought a house in the bush outside of Melbourne. Then, unexpectedly, my partner’s contract ended. The remote working situation he had set up fell through, and he ended up commuting to Melbourne three hours a day, and not seeing me or the children on weekdays at all. All of this was not ideal, then the worst thing that happened. Our eldest son got sick.

He had streptococcal, which we only found out later, which caused a transient kidney infection. We didn’t know it was temporary. When we ended up in hospital, we only knew that he was very weak, and that his kidneys were leaking blood. We spent nine months checking his kidney function, and making sure that he didn’t h ave a more serious illness. At one point he was a few haemoglobin points from a blood transfusion. He recovered, but now he catches everything. We consider him to be immuno-compromised.

As New Zealanders, the basics of bushfire safety were foreign to us, but we did our best to read up on everything. Our house was in what is considered the highest risk category for bushfires. On Code Red days in Australia, you evacuate without any fire even being near you. On such days, the risk is so great that any warning message would not reach you in time. We decided to leave early even on lesser fire danger days. We had an extensive emergency kit and a detailed plan.

New Years found us on a camping trip on the coast near Melbourne. We were surrounded by our seasoned Australian friends, but as the bushfires took hold a sort of underlying tension was palpable at the campsite. One of our friends was a mother to a teenager who was being evacuated from East Gippsland. She was glued to her phone, waiting to hear that the girl had made it out safely. (She had). Our Australian friends had all dealt with such threats before. It was only when dry lightning began to strike the bush around us that I saw some of them tense up, studying the sky. That morning, a bushranger came around and suggested everyone relocate for the day. It was 42 degrees. My partner and I and our kids went to the nearest town, only going back when the high-risk day was over.

Back at home, having cut our trip short, certain words were entering our shared vocabularies: death toll, state of emergency, catastrophe, mass extinction, state of disaster.

Melbourne, where my partner worked, was cloaked in smoke, not from a particular fire—just from all of them. The air quality became visibly compromised, and people began to invest in masks, and the hardware stores sold out. Which seems laughable now. We made uneasy jokes about how it all seemed so very apocalyptic. My whānau’s safety plan now included the steps to follow if my partner was in Melbourne and I was at home in the bush with the kids: where to go if communication was cut, how to find us if we couldn’t get out.

In the 1920s an American physiologist called Walter Cannon first coined the phrase ‘fight-or-flight’. He said that in response to a perceived threat to our survival, the body helps to mobilise its own resources to deal with the circumstances. Jeffrey A. Gray, after Cannon, added to this description the notion of ‘freezing’. Such responses to threats begin in the amygdala, that instinctive part of the brain which is a part of the limbic system.

My partner and I began to consider ‘flight’.

My system was already on high alert. I had been the parent at home during my son’s illness, the one to manage the hospital appointments and the blood tests, awaiting the medical results. During this time a close friend who had dealt with her own child’s health problems described the space inhabited by the sick child’s parent as a space where time itself is different. ‘You’re in a different world to everyone else,’ she said. ‘You’re outside of time.’

She was right: as I waited for test results, in my son’s room at the hospital, in the wee hours of the morning, the seconds would slow down, till the clock seemed to tick unnaturally slowly, both my enemy and my potential saviour. When would they come and tell me that my child would be alright? I know that I was in a state of hypervigilance. I know because I, an anarcha-feminist patriarchy-hating hippy, dug out my Greek Orthodox christening cross, put on my most conservative clothes, and went to church.

My child got better. It was a bad year. But my definition of a bad year was about to change.

My partner and I were intending to return. We had always meant to come home. At the beginning of this year I found I had won two writing awards, both in Aotearoa. If I wanted to take these up I would have to come back this year. We made plans to move permanently in July, 2020.

The fires were still burning and I was still checking the Victoria fire App first thing every morning, when Coronavirus began to shut down countries worldwide. There were whispers out of China, then shouts out of Italy. We began to research masks again. By mid-March, a work colleague in Italy was writing devastating essays about what she was living through. I messaged her.

‘Australia is still two weeks behind us,’ she wrote. ‘You have time to prepare and, if you can, avoid human contact…’

a child sitting in a supermarket trolley in an empty supermarket
An empty supermarket in small-town Australia.

Galvanised, I tried to do a stock-up shop. But the supermarket in my small town had begun to empty of supplies. I drove to a different town to buy soap, bags of flour, and rice. Individually and collectively, we entered the psychological stage known as ‘fight’. Illustrating humanity’s darkest impulses, women brawled over toilet paper at Woolworth’s. Commentators have pointed out that this is the first time this generation of First-Worlders has faced material shortages. A man called Mark Hanna spoke about the lack of groceries in the States in the New York Times, on March 13th: ‘The heebie-jeebies got to me yesterday,’ he said, ‘–what if New York is quarantined?’

Oh, honey.

A diary entry in the same journal I am still writing in now, on the 10th of February reads: ‘I need to put the time in on this manuscript…’ Clearly, in February, my priority was still writing. Then: some scribbled-on pages, filled with practical lists. Then: abruptly, on April the 4th, 2020: ‘I am in another country.’

In mid-March, my partner and I pulled our kids out of school and kindergarten. Added to the anxiety that we all shared at this time, we had an added anxiety: what if we were trapped in the wrong country? Our wider whānau were all in Aotearoa. What if we couldn’t get back? We had older relatives who were living alone. Along with our concern about them, we knew that our immuno-supressed nine-year-old wouldn’t deal with the virus well. The Australian government appeared to be doing nothing. My usually calm, collected partner woke at three am one morning, and created a graph. It allowed us to track Italy’s Coronavirus numbers alongside Australia’s. At this time, the numbers were identical.

But somehow we entered ‘freeze’. We had a house full of supplies. We had a hospital close by. Australia couldn’t get that bad, we reasoned. We would stay where we were, and sit out the storm.

Then I spoke to my grandmother, who is eighty-eight, a survivor of war and famine, and a migrant. I asked her on the phone what she thought about the pandemic. I don’t think my grandmother has ever in my life admitted that things are harder now.

‘You told me about the village, Yiayia, and how you only had a little flour and olive oil to eat. And you went through the war, and the journey on the ship. But you were alright.’

Without hesitation, she said:

‘Oh no, darling. This is much worse.’

Her reasoning was that the virus had spread to most countries. To hear her say that this was worse than anything she had been through gave me a shot of pure adrenalin. My partner and I decided on ‘flight’.

We thought Victoria would limit travel. We also knew Aotearoa would close its borders, and that it would be increasingly difficult to fly home. I thought we should pack up our family home and leave in a week; my partner said we should leave in three days. He was right, and we did.

We got rid of most of the things we owned. A woman from a local organisation came and took our food. She said indigenous communities in Australia had already been hit by privileged people (that was us) bulk buying; that they were already short of food. We sold our car, put some furniture in the shed, reduced everything else we owned to five suitcases, and found someone to live in our house.

At three am on the 22nd of March, we rose in our now empty house, saying goodbye to the national park out front where we’d often seen kangaroos, taking a last look at the Australia goldfields. We took our kids and our disinfectant wipes and masks and gloves and ended up at Melbourne airport, only to find that our flight home had been cancelled, and we hadn’t been notified.

Freeze, fight, flight.

Screenshot of a text message saying "Family, we are at the airport and our flight has been cancelled with no communication. We need to find a flight home we urgently."

screenshot of a second text message saying "please if you can someone find us a flight."

Now begins the part of this story where we were really in a freeze-fight-flight response. And it would not let up, not for many weeks, not until I am writing this now.

Our airline was Virgin Airlines, and they weren’t answering their phones. The call-centre in the Philippines was shut down because of Coronavirus. We were at the airport with our tired family, with our immuno-compromised boy, in the middle of a global pandemic. We had no house in Australia anymore. Melbourne airport was a ghost town, peopled by worried travellers. There were few people manning any desks, and few flights listed on the screens. We tried to call Air New Zealand, but we couldn’t get through. We began messaging family and friends to see if they could get us a flight from within Aotearoa. Thankfully, we found a flight, later on the same day.

two adults and two children with face masks on
The writer and whānau – masked up and ready.

We settled to wait on some conjoined plastic chairs, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with an older couple. My kids’ masks kept coming off. We bribed them not to touch anything with chocolate, but it didn’t really work. My four-year-old was noisy and I looked at the older woman next to us for assurance, doing that thing we all do when travelling with young kids: kids, right? Hoping that they wouldn’t mind. But the couple responded with a weird numbness. Anyway, we got to chatting. We chatted for some time before I asked her where they were coming from.

The woman gave me the most haunted look. She said that they had finally managed to get off a cruise ship, and were on their way home to Los Angeles.

The Australian government’s decision to let cruise ships dock in Australia at that stage has been harshly critiqued, and for good reason. I typed out on my phone screen what the couple had just said, and showed my partner: They just got off a cruise ship.

I said something bright and banal, and then we led our children away from them. I experienced a moment of unadulterated rage at these people for not letting us know.

A week later, in Aotearoa, we got sick.

A note here on the kindness of others: The reason we decided to leave was not, in fact, only the graph and my Yiayia’s comment. I asked a Facebook group I am a part of, the Brilliant and Amazing Writer’s and Mothers group, what they would do in my situation. Most of them said: ‘Come home.’ Then a close friend, also a mother and writer, offered me her parents’ farmhouse to quarantine in when we got back. Her offer and her parents’ generosity were a deciding factor in us leaving Australia.

We arrived in Wellington on the 22nd of March, hired a vehicle, and drove to the farmhouse. I hadn’t seen my friend’s parents for years, but they let me and my family stay in their house. My friend had done two weeks’ worth of shopping for us.

Twenty-four hours later, Aotearoa’s lockdown was announced. We couldn’t stay in the farmhouse; my friend’s family needed it for their children who were coming home. But we were quarantining and we didn’t want to put anyone at risk. In this time, my partner’s mother had a stroke, and ended up at the hospital, where only one person was allowed in at a time. We couldn’t go to her. She would be there for several days, but she would ultimately be alright. But we didn’t know where to go.

Then my friend offered us her house and her car, and went to stay with her parents, uprooting both her kids as well.

She knows how grateful I am, I hope.

And then, in her cosy writer’s house with everything seemingly settling down, whatever illness we had took hold. My eldest child, who’d had the kidney infection, was the worst affected. My partner and my youngest had coughs, which they would have for weeks. We had no fevers, no lack of smell or taste. The kids eventually developed rashes. I had weird blisters on my toes. My eldest child began to cough violently. Then he began to have trouble breathing.

A couple of days in, we made a trip to emergency. There my son had an unsuccessful Coronavirus test. It was one in the morning and he panicked and fought it, and had to be held down for forty-five minutes. We were told it probably wasn’t an accurate test, but to wait for the results.

The next day, my son’s breathing worsened, and we called an ambulance. The paramedics arrived in full PPE, and only one of them could come in. We all wore masks. Our son’s oxygen saturation was at a borderline level. We said he’d been tested for Coronavirus, that he had no history of asthma or anaphylaxes. ‘Thank you for coming to work today,’ I kept saying, as we coughed and the woman tightened her mask. She told us to stay home, if we could.

A woman in a mask and a child on a bed
The writer and her son ill and in quarantine.

We coached our son in his breathing until the wee hours, steaming his air passages over a basin of hot water, and putting him in the shower. For a few nights his breathing would worsen at night and my partner and I would tense and wait to see if we would need to go to the hospital, or not. We were meant to quarantine him within our house; I broke the rules and held him at night.

A few days later, I got sicker.

Our story is complicated by us having had four negative Coronavirus tests amongst our family. During this time we researched the effectiveness of the tests. Some studies of the nasal swab test say it’s almost 60% effective. Some say it’s only that effective during the worst of the sickness: for the five to seven days that the illness is most apparent, and then the effectiveness lessens everyday. During the last conversation I had with a Coronavirus nurse at the hospital she said their tests were at best 50% effective, and that it didn’t really work on kids. There is a lot of conflicting research.

Also, our son has a cat allergy, and my friend who lent us her house has cats. One doctor we spoke to thought the shortness of breath my son experienced may have been a bad cold mixed with a reaction to the cat hair left in the environment (my friend took her cats with her). But my son has handled cats since with no problems. He also has no history of asthma, but since this virus has developed occasional asthma-like symptoms.

When he was struggling to breathe, we asked him to describe what it felt like.

‘It’s like I’m breathing in a long, slow breath, but I can only take in about 70% of the air,’ he said.

When I had the same symptoms, I discovered this was completely accurate. I was my son’s main point of contact; the only one allowed to see him lest he infect the rest of the family. I wore gloves which I changed frequently, and masks, and I wiped down the surfaces around his room and cleaned the bathroom he was using. I washed my hands so much my skin cracked. When I got sick, we all gave up these measures. We obviously all had it. I could hardly walk down the stairs, went to bed for days, and had dizziness and shortness of breath. A friend asked me what the shortness of breath was like; if it couldn’t possibly be a panic attack? ‘No,’ I told her. ‘It’s like I was trying to breathe but the oxygen couldn’t get into my lungs.’ I also have no history of asthma. The shortness of breath passed after a few days.

Having turned up in a community we knew few people in, and having been given a house and car, our dependence now grew. Miraculously, support began to appear. A sister’s friend brought us groceries for weeks and weeks. A friend of family brought us a heater, material to make masks with, and medication. Old friends we hadn’t seen for years brought us groceries and checked on us everyday to see if we needed anything. Our friend’s parents brought us firewood.

We have behaved as though we have had Coronavirus. When everyone went back to school we waited, getting clearance from a doctor before sending the kids into school. My eldest coughed for a solid nine weeks, and was severely fatigued. When I tried to go for a run I found my aerobic fitness had decreased hugely. We want to get an antibodies test, but they are not readily available here. Whatever we had was not like any cold I’ve had before. Today it is thirteen weeks since we arrived in Aotearoa, and I have only just now seen my grandmother.

I don’t know if the older couple at the airport gave us Coronavirus; it could have been anything we touched in transit, anyone we sat beside. And it could have not been the virus. We had negative tests, after all.

After you experience the freeze-fight-flight response, your body apparently returns to normal after about twenty minutes. So if you experience such a feeling for a prolonged period, say nine weeks, or say, a year, how long would it take to return to a feeling of normality? My diary on the 11th of June, 2020 reads: ‘Again, the question: ‘what do you really want?’ To write my novel…’ From this I gather that I have finally descended from the mad anxiety of this strange passage, perhaps at a slower pace than the rest of Aotearoa, but at last.

When we could go out again, I went to a cafe. The cafe owner said that Jacinda Ardern and government had overreacted, that Coronavirus was just the same as the flu.

He said we would all suffer economically, that lockdown was a giant mistake, that thousands of old people die of the flu each year anyway.

He said that Coronavirus wasn’t that bad.

He was a white man, probably in his sixties, and he didn’t seem all that healthy. I looked at him and thought of my son struggling to breathe as the paramedic assessed him.

I thought: ‘You wouldn’t survive this. This thing would drop you in a second.’

I wanted to scream, but I didn’t. I smiled, got my coffee, and went home to my whānau.

I’m another country from the one I lived in at the start of this year, earlier than planned and rather unexpectedly. My definition of a big deal has changed. The ignorance of narratives like the one the cafe owner put forward would make me feel desolate, if it wasn’t for the overwhelming support gifted us by our friends, and by people we don’t even know. If it wasn’t for the incredible kindness of others.

image of two children standing in front of a lake


This essay was originally published on the Verb Wellington website. We are grateful to Michalia and Verb for allowing us to reproduce it here.