The voice of Shireen, a Business Analyst who lives in Melbourne.

For me, 2019 was a very mixed year.

There was the high of a fantastic holiday in Toronto and New York City. I also had the low of receiving news that my father, who lives in Cape Town, South Africa, had throat cancer. After my holiday, I jumped on a plane and looked after my father for two months, taking him to all his medical appointments to fight this terrible disease. I watched him loose almost 30kgs, to become a man weighing a mere 58kgs.

Chaotic. Reality. Family. My year of 2020.  

It was early 2020 when I started to hear people talk about Coronavirus, and at this time, I didn’t think it was real. I remember thinking that there is no way it would reach Australia. Hearing about the panic buying baffled me – how could we in Australia react this way?

Like many of us in Melbourne, it started to become my reality in March, as we moved quickly into ‘work bubbles’. A few of us from work were due to go away in March and we were debating whether we should continue with the trip. We decided to go but it was so awkward; there was no hugging and we had to keep our distance. We were also worried about explaining the circumstance to work if we were to catch the virus.

In the beginning, no one wanted to be the one that started the spread of COVID. Now, people are more ready to live with the virus, and to a degree more accepting of it. However, you still don’t want to be the spreader!

It became our reality when the first lockdown was announced across Australia. I didn’t know what it all meant. My husband, Rob, is a Tradie and it was challenging to manage the restricted number of people allowed on site. It affected me personally at home, I actually stopped kissing him hello and goodbye, as I was too scared that I would contract the virus.

In 2020, there were many highs and lows – more lows. On a personal level, I missed many family celebrations in Cape Town which, under normal circumstances, I would have attended. I was unable to go celebrate my mum’s 80th birthday, my brother’s 40th birthday as well at my parents 60th wedding anniversary due to the closure of the Australian international border. My Australian friends became my family during this time to fill the void.

For me, the true sadness has been what’s happening in South Africa. COVID spread quickly, with the number of new cases soaring to 26,000 per day at one stage. During this early stage, our immediate family weren’t impacted by the virus, it was friends of friends who had contracted it. So many people lost their jobs, and the government didn’t support the community like Australia. I felt completely helpless but also grateful that Rob and I were working, so we could help our family financially back home.

Christmas in 2020 was as normal as it could be – we ate a meal together with our family friends in Australia. We didn’t accept all social invitations during this time, we chose to stick with smaller circles of friends.  

Anti-social. Blah. Purposeless. My year of 2021.

Rob’s father became ill in South Africa and died on 15 May 2021. Under normal circumstances, we would have been on a plane. Instead, we had to go through a virtual funeral which was very difficult. With sad news, happiness quickly followed. On the same day, about eight hours later, our daughter got married in New York City. We attended their virtual ceremony in her apartment. The bride wore jeans and a white t-shirt. We are yet to meet our son-in-law in person.

Eleven days after my father-in-law died, my brother in-law passed away. Two deaths in two weeks. Then, the Delta variant of the Coronavirus hit South Africa. Family members started to get COVID around February 2021, but the Delta variant was relentless. Three whole families of ours contracted COVID. None were hospitalised however we did lose Rob’s niece’s father-in-law to the virus. I saw a trend that the ones who were hospitalised did not survive, people did not want to go into hospital to be tended to.  Family members who had the virus in 2021 then were vaccinated, contracted the virus (again) from their kids.

The lockdowns in South Africa were not as controlled as ours in Australia, and very different to us – one of the first places closed were the bottle shops. Could you imagine the outrage if bottle shops closed here? At the same time as the lockdowns, there were large protests and riots about the ex-president being jailed, which led to shopping malls being burnt down, shops looted and overall chaos. After this, the numbers of COVID cases increased again. Strangely, the international borders never closed, with inbound flights still running. The controls are very different to Australia.

From May, we started to hear of more friends who had passed away. We couldn’t count them on our fingers and toes anymore. Family members lost both their mum and dad. Death started to consume us, as every day we were hearing about a new death. The impact of COVID was no longer aged based, everyone was catching it – from a 36 year-old to a 65 year-old. My close friend lost her husband, her husband’s brother, her sister’s husband, and her cousin, all within the space of a week. Whole families were being wiped out.

It has been hard. It has felt dark, the sadness often consuming us. We forgot what it was like to truly live.

One day, we decided to look inwards, at our own selves. We started to re-evaluate what was important to us, how we were living our lives and we questioned things – Why are we working? What do we need? What makes us happy?

I feel changed. The fundamental make-up of ‘me’ has changed because of the loss and isolation of the last two years. I feel anti-social. Between lockdowns, I felt excited to catch up with people, but then I would become paralysed with anxiety at the thought of going. Once I was out, I was fine, and I really enjoyed it. There was pressure to get back to the office, but I was nervous to go. I didn’t want to talk to people. On the days that I went in, I put on my headphones and pretended that I was on calls, so that I didn’t have to engage. Entering lockdown after lockdown, one ‘treat day’ in bed often became a few days in bed. Some days I went without showering, without really caring.  

In 2020, we were trying to reach out and connect with each other. In 2021, there is no motivation. Even motivated people are no longer motivated. Yet, on the flipside, I’m so grateful to be safe. There is such a mix of emotions that I feel each day. One minute I feel ok and the next I’m frustrated. I’m frustrated when people are still protesting about whether COVID is real, when I have experienced so much loss.

I’m really struggling to find my purpose right now. And with this, I have started to look at what I can do. It’s the small things that are giving me joy now – listening to people’s stories and doing small things for people is what is helping me get through lockdown six in Melbourne. I am controlling what I do with my time more, I’ve deactivated my Facebook account and stopped watching the news. It’s too much. I am also trying to meditate, sleep better and listen to music. I decided to sign up to give plasma every two weeks. I feel so great going; I get up, wash my hair and make a day of it!

I received an email from Qantas recently informing me that flights may resume in December 2021. This is what I needed. This one email has motivated me so much! The thought of being able to see my daughter in New York City, visit our family in Cape Town including seeing my beautiful father who is amazingly still alive today, has given me hope. We all need hope to keep going.