If the darkest hour is truly just before the dawn, then Melbourne and Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews awoke on Monday in a black and uncertain place.
After a near 16-week lockdown it appeared the fragile bonds of a shared community effort to tackle the coronavirus were about to break – the chafing was starting to cut.
The Premier had on Sunday asked for patience and one more day to check test results from an outbreak in the northern suburbs before committing to a reopening.
The news prompted an emotional 24 hours for Victorians and once again no small amount of vitriol from opponents of the lockdown, who characterised the delay as a bridge too far for business and the community.
Many of the loudest voices would perhaps have been more convincing if they hadn’t burnt their own bridges months ago – with the urging from the cheap seats now basically reduced to: ‘Get on with it’.
At a 3.15pm media conference the Premier did just that – but armed with science and data in his back pocket.
In a voice shaking with emotion Mr Andrews revealed that not only had there been no new COVID cases or deaths in Victoria, but that all 4000 tests from the northern suburbs were negative.
He spoke hurriedly through a prepared statement, possibly fearful that even more of his poker face would slip if time was taken to savour the moment and the room where the media has assembled every day since the crisis began.
With retail and hospitality set to reopen on Wednesday, Mr Andrews was asked if it was time to “get back on the beers”, a meme-worthy phrase he shared months ago when nerves were less fraught.
“I don’t know [if] I will be drinking a beer tonight – I might go a little higher on the shelf,” Mr Andrews offered in a revealing moment of stress-releasing humour, before launching into more grim urgings that the coronavirus threat would remain for many months to come.
He later posted his favourite drop to Twitter.
For the most part the Premier played it straight though, his media conferences having become akin to a daily bloodsport for many Victorians.
It’s been a high wire act for Mr Andrews, and not always successful.
Once the hotel quarantine program failures led to the second wave, Mr Andrews made the call to own the daily briefings – appearing to take a cue from fictional West Wing presidential candidate Arnold Vinick who, when dogged by a nuclear meltdown scandal, chooses to stay in his media briefing until every reporter’s question is answered.
That strategy may have worked on TV, but for Mr Andrews and the provincial media contingent, it appeared that no one knew when to stop asking or answering questions.
This led to needless confusion and frustration as the public got theatre, but not the clarity or calm that they so badly needed.
Indeed, at times Melbourne has appeared a chill-free zone, as people fretted daily about lost time with loved ones, their bottom line on business or jobs, and the undeniably fresh hell of being restricted to within five kilometres of home.
“It has been a very difficult year and Victorians have given a lot,” Mr Andrews conceded.
Why it’s emotional today is because people have given a lot. People have done amazing things.”
“Fundamentally, this belongs to every single Victorian, every single Victorian who has followed the rules, stayed the course, worked with me and my team, to bring this second wave to an end,” Mr Andrews said.
It’s a noble ideal, but the Premier and all Victorians now have work to do – not only repairing the economic damage, but also the fault lines that have become apparent in the community.
Many of these have long been suspected but became more stark in the past 111 days.
Some revolve around politics and were made worse by sniping from the federal government that appeared to have more to do with diversions around aged care and elections in other states than anything to do with Victorians.
But the political fractures only go part of the way to explaining the emotional toll that isolation and uncertainty has wrought on the state.
Haves and have nots, property owners and renters, full-time workers and those in the gig economy, regional dwellers and city folk, help for the homeless – many differences and inequalities have been highlighted.
Ask any Victorian – either for or against lockdown – about the bin fire that has been their social media feed these past few months.
There have been few, if any, fence sitters.
Some will tell you about the influencers and socialites who welcomed lockdowns when they were restricted to public housing tenants back in July, but were not so keen on supporting the measures when it ultimately affected them.
Most obvious were the anti-lockdown types who it soon became obvious could usually buy their way out of inconvenience.
Some became unhinged when restrictions on travel were applied equally to those stuck in apartments and those who had a holiday house or two to spare.
Young people were asked to rein in their social life and some found the challenge too much, seeking comfort in fringe conspiracy groups and protests that elevated stupidity, not individual freedoms.
Equally, business people who felt they were taking the lion’s share of the pain and spoke out have indicated they felt victimised and abused by lockdown supporters.
Regional Victorians also have stories to tell about city people who turned up in their communities having inappropriately fled lockdown, while minority communities with language difficulties became the focus of racist dogwhistles when fresh outbreaks prevented reopening.
And all of this before Victorians even got around to discussing whether Richmond’s third AFL flag in four years is a good or a bad thing!
As the football coaches are fond of saying, it has been a journey.
The state government and Mr Andrews have been smart to take another leaf out of the AFL handbook and deal with process, not emotion, when tackling the pandemic.
The Premier may have reached for the top shelf on Monday night, but he’ll be having to start from the bottom and work up if he’s to leave the darkness behind and rebuild Victoria’s confidence, trust and community.