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From healthcare staff to cleaners, counsellors and childcare workers, the story of the coronavirus front line is one of anxiety, diligence and largely invisible labour. By Anna Krien.

24 hours on Melbourne’s lockdown front line

Northcote GP Tamsin Franklin, who has set up a walk-through Covid-19 testing clinic in the car park of her suburban Melbourne practice.
Credit: Jason South / Fairfax Photos

The day opens with a roller door, the rattling of metal, the expanding shape of sunlight. The clothes Sean* was arrested in three-and-a-half years ago are snug. “You go inside like a stick,” he says, “and come out like a 44-gallon barrel.” Julie, his case manager, is in the car park, waiting for him. She’s wearing a face shield and a mask, and has one for him. He gets in the back of the car, sitting behind the empty passenger seat, and she hands him a mobile phone, food vouchers and some Kmart gift cards. She drives him to a blond brick motel in Footscray.

“I had a lot of plans,” Sean says. “Good plans, too. Not going to touch drugs. Get a job. Get married.” Being let out of prison into one of the world’s strictest lockdowns wasn’t quite what he’d been imagining – but in a way it’s helped him keep his head down. A couple of times he’s had to walk to another motel because there’s been a positive case of Covid-19. Everyone kicked out – families, international students, some people who were sleeping rough before the pandemic began, a few other former prisoners like him, people with nowhere else to go, packing their bags so the motel can be deep cleaned.

“We clean everything that is a touchpoint, then clean with a degreaser and again with chemicals, vacuum, then we fog the place,” says Jack, a forensic cleaner. He specialises in homicides, meth labs, suicides, hoarders. And now Covid-19. Between each job, he cleans the inside of his van; when he comes home, his five-year-old has to wait. “No coming near me until I’m clean.”

 

Hui and her kindergarten’s parent committee have been keeping an eye on the books since January, trying to work out how many deep cleans they can afford before folding. A single clean would cost $6000. “I’d say two cleans and then we’re finished,” she says. At the gate, she and her staff police the permits that allow essential workers and permitted workers to use the centre during lockdown. It’s a role none of them wants.

Sometimes a parent without a permit turns up pleading with them to let their child attend. Other times, a parent’s permit appears questionable. “But what can you say if the permit doesn’t feel right?” says Shelly, a kinder aide. “In front of the kid? We have families making an enormous effort not to come in, families who have no choice or are struggling … Well, we take them. But it is hard to not feel insulted. That our health, our families’ health, doesn’t matter to them.”

On a bus, Rashmi, a childcare worker, pushes her elbow into the Next Stop button. Her colleague’s father died from Covid-19 in a nursing home two weeks ago. “She did not know he was sick until he was dead,” Rashmi says. She is nervous – her eight-year-old son is a severe asthmatic. “I know this is a respiratory virus.” But she has to hold on to her job. So, her son goes to school, she goes to work, and their risk of contact increases. She tries not to touch anything as she disembarks, although in five minutes she will be touching everything from snot to dirty nappies.

Most bus drivers don’t open the front doors anymore, trying to keep some distance from the few passengers who are still riding. “It’s sad,” says Cath, a bus driver. “The city is empty. Everyday there’s more ‘For Rent’ signs.” Still, the drivers turn up, she says, every day, to drive through a ghost town. One, maybe two passengers. Sometimes more. Mostly older people, doing their shopping. Cath sends pictures of the top end of town, Collins Street. Prada and Gucci have emptied their shops. “They don’t trust us.”

 

Abdul is nervous. Until recently, the company he works for was rotating cleaners between schools. A couple of the schools have since been found to have positive cases. Abdul talks in that quiet, on-the-job way – right now he’s cleaning a handle. A desk. A peg. His wife and child are in faraway Nepal. His sister was hospitalised there two days ago with the virus. He worries as he cleans.

In class, Josh scans the faces of his primary-school students on his screen, fingers crossed that the kids he’s worried about will show up.

One day a week, he goes into school, looking after the children of essential workers as well as teaching his own class online. The cleaners are there all day, moving in whenever a room is exited, or a toilet is used.

Sofia has cleaned schools for 10 years and, so far, she still does. “There was five of us cleaning, now two.” She keeps her distance from the schoolchildren. “I feel so lonely,” she says. She cries on the phone. “I feel like we don’t matter.”

 

There is something about day 10, says Singh, a nurse. Covid-19 patients go downhill really fast. Sometimes coughing up blood. “People are always saying when you come onto your shift, ‘Be careful, they’re on day 10.’

“We’ve had to look after our own,” she says. “That’s been confronting. One nurse had to be intubated.” To date, more than 3000 Victorian healthcare workers have been infected with Covid-19 in this second wave. The state government estimates between 70 and 80 per cent of them caught the virus at work.

Personal protective equipment is a choreography – it’s all about the order of steps and constant hand hygiene. “We’re trained for this,” says Rebecca, an infectious diseases nurse. “We know our PPE.” But still she got the virus. A man in a spacesuit picked her up from her share house and she sat in the back of the van, trying not to vomit as he drove her to a hotel to quarantine. She caught glimpses of the other drivers on the road, how they reacted seeing the driver in his spacesuit and swivelled to look at her.

“My sister came straight away. I remember her looking at me through the window at the hotel unit. I could see her mind turning, the cogs, ‘Is this the last time I am going to see her?’ ”

It took Rebecca six weeks to get back to work.

 

Sophie, a lawyer, is trying to find her clients. With the custody centre closed, people are being held in police stations across Melbourne. She calls around, tracking them down so she can prepare their cases for remote hearings and bail applications. A 19-year-old boy was arrested for petty shop theft. “It was difficult to get instructions from him.” She thinks the police may have been holding the phone up to the slot of his cell, muffling his voice almost beyond comprehension.

 

“It’s good for the kids to see this,” says Greg. “For them to see that life isn’t just beer and skittles.” A Qantas pilot, Greg’s been grounded for months. He is working at Woolies now. “You name it; I’m on checkout, meet and greet, stacking, collecting groceries for online orders.” Sometimes parents whose kids go to the same school as Greg’s recognise him in the aisle. “If they don’t know me well, they give me a sympathetic, awkward look.” He chuckles. “It’s funny, I’ve done well in the flying world, got my captaincy and everything, and my wife’s always been ‘ho-hum’. Now, I’ve never seen her more proud of me.”

Joy, a Lifeline counsellor, says it’s her callers that have inspired her during lockdown. “So many are keen to acknowledge that they understand why this is happening, why we’re doing this. One woman said to me it’s like Mother Nature saying, ‘Go to your room.’ ” But people are hurting. In the background of the calls, Joy hears babies screaming, kids fighting. “Some people are scared of hurting their children.”

Families in quarantine have called too, she says.

Parents with small children in a hotel room for 14 days. “One mother told me she’d begged to take their kids into the hotel courtyard, but they weren’t allowed,” says Joy. People not allowed to go to funerals, who, before the five-kilometre radius ruling, stood outside crematoriums instead. People not allowed to be with loved ones when they die. “The inability to control anything, I think this is one of the hardest things,” Joy says.

Volunteers are doing more shifts as the call centre is spread across a building. Masks are on as they talk. “Everyone is putting their hands up for more shifts.”

And the calls keep coming in.

Calls and web chats to Kids Helpline from Victorians have spiked. As have the duty-of-care notifications the counsellors have felt compelled to issue to child protection, emergency services and the like. “Kids are not getting a break or respite from problems at home,” says Leo, the counsellor manager at Kids Helpline. Calls are no longer just coming in after school: it’s all day long.

“I started turning up, knocking on their front doors to take them for a walk,” says Jobe, a re-engagement teacher and outreach worker. “Some of the kids are not getting outside at all. No one is encouraging them to move.” These families are already isolated, he says. One mother has just had a baby, a difficult birth. She is in her room with the baby and the other kids are just having it out. Fighting, watching telly, using the computer.

Lots of support services have stopped.

Chris, a disability carer who works in a residential house, says the anxiety is tremendous for his residents. The day centres that gave structure to their weeks have been shut and the five housemates – with a range of needs, including severe physical disabilities, epilepsy, acquired brain injury, cerebral palsy – are locked in. “And they don’t always get along,” says Chris.

One resident keeps ramming the doors with her wheelchair. Another would scream and lose control when carers showed up in blue surgical masks. Chris says, “We realised we were reminding him of hospitals, where he had experienced a lot of trauma.”

They wear different masks now.

Haziq reads a news story about a nursing-home carer overseas who died from Covid-19. “Same age as me, same sector,” he says. “We have no power, no one will make us permanent.” He has been a casual for a decade. His wife, also a nursing-home carer, has worked night shifts this year, looking after  150 residents with only one other carer and two nurses.

“I think we should be pressing criminal charges,” says Penny, an emergency nurse. “We’ve seen aged-care patients with bedsores so bad they’ve gone to the bone.”

In the waiting room for emergency, every second seat has been crossed out. Plastic sheeting has transformed the ward into a rabbit warren. Everyone has a spotter when they “don and doff” their PPE.

One hospital is storing its PPE in shipping containers in the car park.

Yue, an interpreter, stands outside the room of a Covid-19 patient and looks through the glass. Over the phone, she interprets for them.

“No one can have visitors,” says Mick, a doctor. “The less foot traffic the better. But that means a 20-year-old about to start his first-round of chemo has no one to sit with him. There’s exemptions – children and the imminently dying – but otherwise you’re on your own.”

“You wear a spacesuit,” says Dave, a critical care nurse. “The air inside the Covid ward can’t escape so you come and go via an antechamber. They’re all alone. We bring in a computer on a stick so family can talk to them. Can you imagine that? Not being able to see your dying mother? When we think it is imminent, they’re allowed to nominate two people to come in for an hour.

“But if they don’t die within that hour,” he says, “the hour is still up.”

Even when Covid-19 patients are dead, their bodies cannot be touched. “We wrap them in two body bags and cover the bag with Covid stickers,” says Rebecca, the infectious diseases nurse. Her voice cracks. “We’re the last people to see them before zipping it up.”

Buddy, a doctor at an Aboriginal health clinic, says that “the worst two weeks were in March”. While people were protesting against the cancellation of the Australian Grand Prix, his clinic was looking at Italy, where an age limit on who gets to go to hospital had been set and people with too many comorbidities were not being picked up. “We had to game the worst-case scenario. We triaged every patient on our books twice – for physical risks and mental risks – and set up palliative care plans.

“It was horrible. These are people we know, people we care about.”

 

At first, Rosa and Eeya had no idea why they were fired. They had three days to leave the apartment they lived in, next door to the elderly woman they were caring for. The woman’s family found out Rosa had been caring for another woman on her day off. “They had a man follow me,” she says. “He saw me taking the other woman to the chemist. They didn’t want us to work for anyone else, in case we caught the virus.” Rosa and Eeya said they understood. “But we need the money.” Both are here on student visas and last year Eeya was diagnosed with blood cancer.

A stem cell transplant is expensive.

“The women we’re speaking to are living with constant adrenalin at the moment,” says Lydia, a domestic violence counsellor. “We have to establish if it is safe for them to talk. We set up code words, ask questions that they only have to say yes or no to.”

“Suicide, attempted and successful,” says Leah, an emergency doctor, telling me what she is seeing a lot of. Elderly people are presenting, too, often with nothing wrong. “We think they’re lonely.”

“Don’t weaponise suicide,” says a mental health worker on Facebook. And it’s true, the data isn’t there – suicide rates in Victoria aren’t up. But self-harm rates are.

“Young people were already struggling,” says Dr Patrick McGorry of the youth mental health service Orygen. And just like before Covid-19, they’re being turned away from emergency departments. There is nowhere for them – or their parents – to go. “Parents are sleeping outside the bedroom door of their teenagers because they’re petrified of them self-harming.”

McGorry recounts the story of a mother who had camped outside her son’s room only to find his bed empty in the middle of the night. “They found him on the train tracks, waiting for a train.” Twice the boy had been turned away from the hospital emergency department.

“I’m not blaming them,” McGorry says. “It’s not the place to go. It’s just the only place.”

 

It’s approaching curfew.

Dave, a critical care nurse, gets undressed on his front porch, putting his shoes in a plastic bag before going inside. His partner is in healthcare, too. She has worked 34 days straight. “I go straight to the bathroom,” he says, “have a scorching shower and put my clothes on boiling wash.”

Helen, a sexual assault counsellor, is waiting for the train to go home after another 10-hour day. The train is cancelled. “I am not going to make it home in time to go for a run.” She starts exercising. Jogging up and down the escalators. Weightlifting her handbag.

“We already had an 11pm curfew,” says Nguyen, who works at a crisis accommodation centre. “So now we’ve shifted it to 8pm to be in line with the rest of Melbourne.” Rough sleepers can’t come in for meals anymore, but the centre has set up a small window to pass out packaged food. “We can’t talk for long. It all feels very clinical. None of us got into this job to be far away from the people that need us.”

“The only people on the streets at night now are essential workers, Uber drivers or people in stolen cars,” says Rhys, a policeman. “The curfew is tricky. It means things happen that wouldn’t in normal circumstances. We had a man at 1am buying food without wearing a mask and it’s zero tolerance, we had to speak to him and instantly he started swinging at us. His food went everywhere.” He was deaf.

Rhys used his iPad to write out a message to the man, and they both typed their way towards an understanding. “I went and bought him some more food. It doesn’t feel right, pulling people over, putting the blue lights on.”

Adam, a doctor, was driving home from hospital about 2am when a message on the digital screen of his car radio caught his eye. “Curfew’s on,” read the unspooling message from his local radio station. “Are you too good for home?”

“It weighs on me at night,” says Mick, an emergency doctor. “It’s not unreasonable to want to be with someone when they’re suffering or dying, and I’m saying no. I do it and I do it every day.”

I can hear Rhys smile over the phone when I ask him about the empty streets, if other creatures have grown bolder in our absence. “The foxes,” he says. “They are all over Lygon Street. They’re beautiful.”

Rebecca, the infectious diseases nurse, says hospital staff will do what they can to make people comfortable at the end.

“His wife asked us to play music for him,” she says of one man, positive for Covid-19. It was during “Amazing Grace” that he took his last sip of air.

“Were you definitely with him?” the man’s wife kept asking Rebecca after he passed away. “She wanted to know if I was with him, that he didn’t die alone.

“I was with him,” says Rebecca.

 

* All names have been changed.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 5, 2020 as "24 hours on Melbourne’s lockdown front line".

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Anna Krien is a Melbourne writer and journalist. Her most recent book is the novel Act of Grace.