The coronavirus is the closest thing to a worldwide shared experience since World War II. Very few areas of the world aren’t being affected in some way by the virus and by COVID-19, the respiratory illness it causes. The Rockford Register Star is reaching out to Rock River Valley natives throughout the world to discover how their lives have changed.
Theresa Winters, a 1999 graduate of Hononegah High School, is a community manager at a Hub Australia branch. Hub Australia is the largest Australian-owned coworking community. She also runs her own digital media company, The Plus ONes, which publicizes the best events and experiences in Sydney and Melbourne.
How did you end up in Australia and in that profession? My jobs have always involved people, events, and writing. When I moved to Sydney, I took the advice of a friend. She’d spent years telling me I’d be the perfect fit as a community manager at a coworking space. And she was right.
How long have you lived there? I moved to Wellington, New Zealand, in 2008 for what was supposed to be one year. I found out I could get a second Working Holiday Visa, which Americans are eligible for if they’re under 35, so it was an easy choice to stay longer. Not quite ready to go back to the U.S., I moved to Melbourne, Australia, on a year-long WHV. That turned into six years in Melbourne and over three years in Sydney. I’m now a proud dual citizen.
When did the coronavirus begin affecting your life? The first moment I realized things were going to drastically change was when a trip to New Zealand got canceled. I’d been planning a girls’ weekend with some Kiwi friends, but on March 14 it was announced that non-residents wouldn’t be allowed to land in New Zealand starting the following week, the exact date I was supposed to fly over. Luckily, Air New Zealand gave everyone credit, so I’ll still be going. I just don’t know when.
And of course, Australia was one of the first countries in the world to freak out about toilet paper.
What is life like for you now? While the vast majority of Australians are working from home, because my office provides space for essential services, I’m still working 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day.
You’re allowed to go into the office if you can’t work from home, which is not clearly defined. Several people in the coworking space are coming in seemingly just to get away from their children. I walk to work, so I don’t have to take public transport. It’s all still running, albeit virtually empty. That’s because all non-essential travel is banned, aside from going to the supermarkets, pharmacies and the doctor.
We’re still allowed outside for exercise — and there’s no ban on how long — but you can’t be with more than one other person in public unless you live together. Schools and day cares are shut, but we’re luckily still allowed to get takeaway food, which many restaurants are doing for the first time. Bars are allowed to deliver cocktails now, which I keep meaning to try during a virtual happy hour with friends.
A lot of regulations differ depending on where you live. There’s been a lot of confusion over whether you can visit your partner — the word Aussies use for anyone they’re seriously dating — as regulations varied by state. In Victoria, a teenager got fined for learning to drive, while in New South Wales, that’s considered OK. We’re not required to wear masks.
Some of the states and territories, like Tasmania — the island on the bottom of Australia — have completely shut their borders. We’re very lucky that we’re an island nation and, of course, that we have free health care.
The roll-out on a federal and state level has not been nearly as good as New Zealand. We’re all quite envious of Jacinda Ardern’s stellar leadership, as I’m sure all Americans are.
How long is your government saying this is likely to last? Our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, known as "ScoMo" here, is saying we’ll be heavily restricted for at least another month. The government is being fairly vague about everything so they won’t have to shut things down again, like what we’ve seen happen in Singapore. ScoMo’s primary focus seems to be on the economy. Australia hasn’t had a recession in 20 years. For now, we have to work on flattening the curve. It seems to be going down quite quickly due to the travel bans and social distancing in place.
What do you miss doing on a daily basis that you never thought you'd miss? Before this happened, I didn’t realize how often I touch people. Only being able to touch my partner is not enough for this huge extrovert. The second we’re allowed to be closer than 1.5 meters, some big bear hugs and sloppy cheek kisses are coming the way of all of my friends and most of my acquaintances, let’s face it.
Are there any positives? Because exercising is the only way to see a friend face-to-face, I’ve been catching up with pals via long walks. Two hours strolling around the Botanical Gardens, with the harbour and Opera House in the background, makes me wonder why I haven’t been doing this more frequently. We live in an incredibly beautiful city, and it’s made me appreciate all our green spaces even more.
Being the event organizer I am, I’ve thrown myself in the world of virtual events. Every other Sunday I host virtual brunch for friends in Melbourne and Sydney. My goal is to learn how to make hollandaise sauce by the end of this.
Through my media companies, I just threw a five-hour-long party via the HouseParty app for people across Australia. I’m also involved in a group for "interested and interesting" people around the globe where we organize lunchtime lectures on hot topics like the presidential election.
One main highlight so far: I managed to arrange a get-together with a close group of friends from Hononegah. We’re scattered all over — from Georgia to Colorado, Minnesota to California — so it was wonderful to be able to spend almost two hours catching up.
Have you lost anyone close to COVID-19? Australia has only had 63 deaths as of today, April 16, so I’m lucky that no one I know here has been affected. My friends and family stateside are all making sure to socially distance, which — knock on wood — hopefully means I won’t have to experience the tragedy so many are going through.
How do you think life might change when this is over? Let’s focus on the positives! For the first time in history, everyone in the world has suddenly realized that no, they don’t need to commute three hours a day; and yes, while it’s not the best, it’s still entirely possible to work from home. We’ll see a lot of benefits for working mothers in particular as they bear the brunt of child care. They’ll be able to stay home with sick kids and still pop onto that 11 a.m. Zoom team meeting.
The digital growth will also provide long-term benefits to those with learning or physical disabilities, who’ve been asking for decades to have professors tape lectures and for conferences to offer streaming. Now that we have e-visits to doctors and therapists in place, I don’t see that going away any time soon. We’ll also see people doing more e-learning. Just last week, I attended a virtual sauerkraut-making class taught in Melbourne.
On a personal level, I’ve been doing virtual games nights with different friends around the globe. We keep joking how it took a global pandemic to get us to do something as simple as a Google Hangout. Now that we’re collectively getting used to all these different ways of connecting, I’m sure we’ll keep doing it long into the future.
Alex Gary is a freelance correspondent