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A plea to Australians, from the epicentre in New York.

As borders close and flights are cancelled and the toll of COVID-19 brings New York to a standstill, the same events are happening on the other side of the world, just in slow motion. I walk the empty streets of Manhattan, peering into shuttered restaurants to the hum of empty subway carts, and I am terrified that the distance between me and my family in Australia is larger than it’s ever been. In the middle of the night I ask myself: What if someone gets sick? How will I get home? 

The US government is threatening to quarantine New York along with New Jersey and Connecticut, and the ability to travel might soon be laden with more bureaucracy and longer delays. Upon arrival in Australia, I would be met with a mandated two-week stay in a lonely hotel room and the travel itself is fraught with risk — to myself and to others. There are over 80,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in New York, and close to 2,000 deaths; there are over 4,000 cases in Australia and more than 20 deaths. To travel now from the pandemic’s epicentre would be highly irresponsible. 

Every time the phone rings at an unusual interval or at an unexpected time, I do the calculations. I think about the six-hour flight to LA, the 14-hour flight to Sydney, the hour’s flight to Brisbane, and the 14-day quarantine restrictions. I hold my breath as I consider the credit I’ll need to cover the airfare. And I pray that if travel is necessary, if the situation is that desperate, then my presence (when I get there) will be a help, and not an added danger. 

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I didn’t take the pandemic seriously, at first. I felt protected and emboldened by my isolation. As a 28-year old, with relatively healthy habits, I’m not at risk of becoming seriously ill, and I have very little contact with people who are — especially people I love. It’s a selfishness I shared with many millennials but as the situation worsens, and the numbers climb, the fear is now unshakeable. 

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New York has become a city of torturous dichotomy. There is a refrigerated truck for transporting dead bodies parked at the hospital two streets away; there are tulips blooming in every park and garden. There are millions of people without jobs; the birds are finally audible in the absence of traffic and car horns and loud Yankee accents. 

Certainly, I am scared of the virus and of the devastation it’s causing in this city I now call home. But more than this, I am terrified of seeing the same trends on Australian news. Because Australia is where the people I love are at risk, and I’m not there. 

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My father, who is recovering from a respiratory infection. My step-mother, who is immuno-compromised. My mother and her partner, who were planning a cycling trip through Italy and who now message me every few hours to make sure I’m not sick. My grandmother, who is pushing 90 and living in a retirement village. My brother, who is 24 and takes risks like any 24-year-old does. My step sister who is in her final year of schooling. I’m claustrophobic and fearful that these people, along with my best friends and old teachers and ex-coworkers and past lovers, will soon start seeing the same upheaval that we’re seeing here. 

This fear isn’t new to anyone living far away from their hometown, separate from the family and friends who are the root, the core, of ourselves. It’s also worse than this for many. For anyone separated from their family by force or necessity, or those who’ve already lost loved ones to this vicious, sweeping killer. 

But as I move around my little apartment, cooking and playing Scrabble and working quietly beside the man I love, I urge everyone in the country I love — that harsh, rugged, joy-filled island on the bottom of the world — to do the same. Since the start, mine has been a selfish perspective. This is no different. Please, Australia: Listen to the warnings. Stay inside. Keep each other safe. All so we can close the distance again, sometime very soon. 

Caitlin Bishop is an Australian writer living in New York City. She has written for WeWork, Mamamia.com.au, and the Gotham Gazette. 

The current situation around COVID-19 might be making you feel scared or uncertain. It’s okay to feel this way, but it’s also important to learn how to manage feelings of anxiety during this time. To download the free PDF: Anxiety & Coronavirus – How to Manage Feelings of Anxiety click here.

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