We desperately need to avoid a COVID-19 catastrophe. The good news is, we can.
Besides washing our hands and not touching our faces, we need to take seriously the guidelines for social distancing.
Those two words have come with a lot of confusion (it seems last weekend many Sydneysiders thought it meant hitting the beach with a few hundred new best mates).
To show why the rules are so important, I spent last week trying to do it seriously – and to show how many people you can come into contact with even while armed with sanitiser and a determination not to touch anyone.
Last Monday, I started recording how many people I had contact with, and how many each of those people had gone near.
There were some parameters – they needed to have touched or been in close physical proximity to them.
In other words, close enough to pass on a deadly virus.
The odds were stacked against me.
There are five of us at my place, and two of those have partners.
It’s a big place, but seven people are regularly sharing the space.
Day one I didn’t leave the house, or really the couch if I’m being honest. I did some washing, went for a run.
I was doing well until one housemate invited a friend for dinner – the friend had worked all day at a cafe.
I had woken up thinking my social distancing number would hit five. When I went to bed it was already 25 (potentially more).
Fine, I’ll go to the country, I thought.
Just me, two mates and a whole heap of non-coronavirus-infected surfaces.
Tuesday last week they picked me up.
One had been with five people, the other with one – that took the tally to 33.
It wasn’t going well.
But the clean air proved good for my building anxiety and good for my number.
Include the fix-the-gas guy who visited briefly, and I stayed on 34.
On the way back to Melbourne on Friday, I met my parents for lunch in a small town cafe.
They were about to travel home to Tasmania before the border controls, and depending on how this all goes, I might not see them for a while.
So lunch was a risk I was willing to take (and eat).
Our waitress told me she had served roughly 75 people before us.
Chuck in the 13 people my three family members came in close contact with on that day, and the four people my housemates saw, and I hit 129.
I started to feel a bit embarrassed. Taking social distancing seriously was harder than I thought.
My hand sanitiser started to make squelching noises. It was running out and so, too, was my confidence.
On Saturday my housemates went to their partners’ places and came back having made contact with six people – for all I know, bringing a fresh wave of coronavirus with them. Great.
The hand sanitiser was running low. The risky numbers were rising.
On Sunday I caught public transport to Sunbury to buy a PlayStation, as rumours of lockdown continued to circulate among my friends.
Once the bottle was refilled, I applied my hand sanitiser liberally.
I met two people, and their newborn baby, and headed back to my house.
I hoped I wasn’t carrying it.
‘Corona and a baby won’t be fun,’ I thought.
Then I went for a walk with a mate. Before seeing me she had served more than 100 people at Bunnings.
We didn’t hug, we tried not to touch at all, to embrace the new no-contact world instead.
But like an extrovert pretending to fit in a hermit’s shell, I made some mistakes.
I got too excited. Too close.
Her housemate invited me up for dinner and – never one to turn down a free meal – I accepted, and thus my number grew to 238.
I had one more day.
But my housemates had seen some friends (though they answered my slightly-too-high-pitched questioning with reassurances they had all stayed 1.5 metres away) and I finished the week on 251.
I wondered what the point was.
Then I read this fact in the The New York Times: If everyone in the world stood 1.5 metres away from each other for two weeks, the hell we’re all going through would be over.
And I realised: Social distancing isn’t just going about our normal life and bumping elbows instead of kissing cheeks.
For this to work, we actually need to stay at home.
I’ve wanted to scream. Because this, here and now in Australia, has only just started.
And if we don’t act immediately, it could go on for months.
“We know what will happen if we don’t take this seriously,” said Paul Komesaroff, professor of medicine and director, Centre for Ethics at Monash University.
“We’ve seen in China and in Italy where one thing leads to another.
“So many people became ill simultaneously, the system is overwhelmed. In some cases, people are left to die.
“You can’t even have funerals. People are locked down in their homes.”
We need to start thinking about social distancing as an act of care, he said.
“Normally, you would give someone a hug, but as a gesture of warmth and loyalty you have to keep physically away from them,” Professor Komesaroff said.
Instead of risking it for a biscuit, don’t go over to your friend’s for dinner, skip the lunch date – and please, for all of us, avoid hanging out at the beach.
Find other stuff to do. Make a list. Now.
Join Houseparty. Drink a beer with friends over video call. Panic-buy a PlayStation (but have it delivered). Re-arrange your bookshelf. Actually read the books.
Do what I did and get your housemate to cut you a mullet. (Edit from the boss: Hmm, maybe don’t copy Cait on that one if you have work meetings via Skype).
And don’t forget to call your mates. Ring Gran, text mum and dad, FaceTime Karen.
“We need to maintain a physical distance from each other without losing the important connection we have. That enables society to function as it does,” Professor Komesaroff said.
“It might even bring us close together.”
Cait Kelly is a reporter at The New Daily who promises that when the crisis is over, the mullet will be, too