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'I have COVID and I can't stop thinking about the people I may have given it to.'

Last night I lay awake thinking about all the people I may have killed.

The woman ahead of me in the line at the supermarket. She turned to me and asked if I’d tried the chocolate milk she was buying. We were both masked, but we were certainly not standing far enough apart.  

"It’s for my granddaughter," she said. She didn’t look old. Not old old, with her ash bob and her geometric-patterned sundress. "She’s very fussy. But it says plant-based. She’s a vegan." Above the mask, a tiny, twinkly eye roll, but one with love. 

The queue was long. It’s summer and town is full of holidaymakers. I hadn’t tried the chocolate milk, but I approved her thoughtful choice.

"Are you local?" she asked. And I got to say yes because I am, now.

"Me too," she said. "Have you seen there’s hardly any bread left? The tourists have cleaned us out!"

She wasn’t angry about it, there was an approving, optimistic lilt in her voice. After all, life had returned. Tills were ringing. 

How old was that woman? 

Did I give her COVID? If I did, is she sweating and aching in her bed now, like I am? Or is she worse? 

I had a coffee in a cafe garden, with my sister-in-law. I didn’t go inside, but we dropped our masks, ate scones and jam and cream and talked about how she believed this year is going be big for her. She’s finally got the means to follow a tightly held dream, study something new, change direction. 

As always, I ran out of cream and jam before I ran out of scone, because I like to cut my cake into bits, pile on the sticky goodness, and eat it with my fingers, licking them clean between each bite. I always leave some scone rubble on the plate. For the waitstaff to clean up, I suppose.

Did I give my sister-in-law COVID? What about the teenager who scraped the unwanted crumbs from my dish?  

What about the family at the table behind us? The older couple who were sitting with their young-adult children, debating whether or not it was lunch time? A burger seems excessive, the Dad was arguing. A milkshake not enough, the daughter countered.  

Are they isolating now, that family? Their holiday cut short, perhaps holed-up in an Airbnb a local woman will go in to clean when they leave? Or did they drive home with scratchy throats, vowing to stay home and test, just as soon as they’d stopped for supplies at Woolies on the way? 

What about my friend, who I saw on New Year’s Day? Our families met outside, as we all know to do. The weather was spectacular, a glorious, golden day in a mostly washed-out summer. We swam in a river, sat on a blanket, shared Tupperware containers of quietly sweating food. It was every bit as magical as swimming in a river on an Australian summer day sounds.  

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My friend is not invincible, health-wise. She, like millions more, carries invisible, silent liabilities that have always made "It’s just a bad cold" a statement of meaningless fiction. 

I know that my friend now has COVID. I know that, just a few streets away from my isolated house, she sits in her own, coughs racking her body, monitoring feverish young children, calling whichever health professionals will answer at this time of year. Fearing what’s ahead with a heavy, awful dread. 

Did I give my friend COVID? Or did she give it to me? Or did our children give it to each other and pass it around between us?

Or did none of that happen? Are our dual infections a pure, ugly, local coincidence? 

This is living with COVID. Going about your 'lives as normal', showering invisible bullets, never quite knowing whether any were a direct hit. 

I am sick. Today I feel worse than yesterday. My head is full of fuzz and ache, interrupted by the occasional stabbing pain. My back hurts, in a way that makes me think my lungs are sore. I want to lie down, but the godforsaken internet is full of missives to sit up, lie on your front, maybe your side, definitely not your back. So I am sitting up. I am exhausted, but I can’t sleep. Whenever I lie down, my heart races and I just keep thinking about the people I may have killed. So I am writing it down, instead. Getting it out of my feverish head. 

Image: Supplied. 

I am sick, but I am fine. Lucky. Privileged. That’s not just a platitude, something you have to say before you complain in 2022, or in 2021, or in 2020. It’s actually how I feel. And a verified fact. Because I do not have silent health liabilities. I am on "holidays", and getting paid to be so. I have three doses of vaccine in me, fighting this virus with fire. I am in a house with enough rooms that I can try to stay away from the healthy ones, for now. I have food in the house, and medicine in the cabinet. I have a partner who’s being sensible and keeping his distance, but not so sensible that he’s not coming in to check on me with cool water and hot drinks. I have a dog who’s refusing to leave my side. I have friends who last night doorstep-delivered our fresh fruit and vegetables, along with a surprise home-made cake, fresh flowers and jam. Soon, someone is dropping off some milk, because we’re out.

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Right now, my children are healthy, their main issue the disappointment of a cancelled trip away with friends and the challenge of entertaining themselves inside the confines of our four walls for at least seven days. They’re busying themselves nagging for new apps, choosing movies to fight over, and eating things mum wouldn’t let them eat if she wasn’t in hiding in the bedroom. We are all well-practised at isolation by now, but this kind is more stringent, more urgent, and even the dog must not be walked. 

In what might be the most pandemic statement ever, my son says he wants to get COVID so that he can cuddle me. 

I don’t want him to get COVID, though, as much as I would love a hug. He is underweight, and whenever he gets a cough, it tends to stick to his lungs for months. I’m not a doctor, but that doesn’t sound ideal. My daughter has asthma. Also not ideal. 

More people to lie awake worrying about. 

Holly and Billy. Image: Supplied. 

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But of course, with the invisible bullets flying around, they might both already have it. We wouldn’t know and we won’t know, because there are no tests, anywhere, and we used our last ones the day I got sick, and the responsible drive-through ones we took that day won’t be back for a week, rendering them entirely irrelevant. 

But you know that script. It’s playing out everywhere. It’s in your house, and your elderly mum’s and your sister’s and your girlfriend’s and their aunties'.  

After months and months of staying away from each other so this wouldn’t happen, it happened anyway. 

And everyone is furious about it.

I’m not, today. Maybe I feel too sick to be angry. But also, as I lie awake ticking off names, the other script that plays is: how was this ever not going to happen? What is so extraordinary about us, in Australia, that we might entirely avoid something that no other nation on earth has? 

Australia has dodged the worst of this pandemic for two years. The measures taken to do it were controversial, punitive and, probably, prudent. And while it continues to be breathtakingly evident that our time advantage is of no use whatsoever when it hasn’t been used to prepare and plan for the inevitable at a national level, it is at least a small relief that our massive case-load is of a variant that, so far, is proving not to be the worst. And that is has hit us after more than 90 per cent of our population is vaccinated, rather than before. 

Still. 

Easy for me to say. Because even from inside this pounding head, I am, as I say, a lucky one. 

It is likely that for me, the worst of this will pass. Not such an easy assumption to make for my friend. Nor for the elder woman with the vegan chocolate milk in the supermarket queue. Nor for the exhausted women who swabbed my family on day one, wearing kilos of PPE in blinding heat, feeling the angry brunt of a frightened, frustrated people. People who wanted this to be over so badly, like me, they believed it when we were told it was so, and went out into the world, brandishing our RATs, meeting outside, doing the right thing. 

I hope I can stop this spinning anxiety about the invisible bullets. I hope, as my partner tells me, I am being ridiculous, overly dramatic. 

But also, it’s an important reminder. This isn’t about me. It never was. 

"Stay safe" is such an easy, meaningless platitude. But it’s all we have. 

Please, stay safe.

Feature Image: Supplied.

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