I pulled open my first Christmas cracker of the season last week. With another person. At a real-life Christmas party! Slipping on the paper crown and reading out the cheesy joke (What athlete is warmest in winter? A long jumper!) as my mates boogied to the original Mariah Carey Christmas album and decorated gingerbread Christmas trees with icing guns on a sultry, frangipani-scented summer evening, it felt like a real turning point.
When Australia went into lockdown in March, I was hopeful it wouldn’t last for long. It has been nearly a year now since Australia closed its borders to the world, and we’re still not virus-free yet. But while plenty of mistakes were made in the process of containing the coronavirus in Australia, we’re one of the world’s success stories, with less than 60 active cases across the country at the time of writing. Not bad for a nation of 25 million.
I’m lucky to hail from northern New South Wales (NSW), which has so far avoided infection clusters and prolonged lockdowns. Even during the worst of it, there were silver linings, such as being able to go for my morning run in Byron Bay without having to dodge a hundred tourists. With all state borders now open (albeit with some restrictions) after being closed for most of the year, and an easing of restrictions around the country allowing sporting events, restaurants, and pubs to operate at full or higher capacities, it’s starting to feel a lot more like life BC (Before Coronavirus) – in my neighbourhood at least.
That’s not to say 2020 hasn’t been a tough year for many Australians. The prolonged absence of international visitors, for example, has devastated our tourism industry alone. But no matter how badly our lives have been impacted, we know it could have been a lot worse. As reports from the front lines of the pandemic in the US, the UK, and other countries that have grappled to contain the virus were beamed into our living rooms every evening throughout 2020, it felt like we were watching a horror movie. Not a real-life tragedy unfolding on our own planet.
With the festive season effectively cancelled for many countries this year, I feel somewhat guilty to be gearing up for a pretty typical Christmas Day in coastal Australia: a day on the beach with friends, family, and an Esky full of mangoes, prawns, and booze. Around the country, many other Australian residents are also due to celebrate Christmas much the same way they always have. But just weeks after Melbourne emerged from one of Australia’s longest and most restrictive lockdown orders, a coronavirus outbreak in Sydney this week has reminded us that we’re not out of the woods yet. With 21 Sydney beaches now closed until further notice, and a quarter of a million residents urged to stay home for at least the next few days, many Sydneysiders are now scrambling to salvage their festive plans.
In northern NSW we’re monitoring the situation in Sydney closely, but I’m cautiously optimistic that on Friday, I’ll still be gathering with my loved ones as planned. With Australia’s coronavirus vaccination programme not due to be rolled out until March 2021, however, vigilance will be key to avoiding further flare-ups. Outside Sydney’s Northern Beaches (where masks are currently recommended indoors) that means maintaining a 1.5m distance from people from other households, abiding by check-in procedures at hospitality venues, and carrying a mask in Melbourne (and wearing it on public transport). At least.
But while Australia isn’t quite corona-free this Christmas, I have to admit – I’ve never been more grateful to be spending it here.
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