Through late December and January, the skies over Sydney were obscured by smoke from the bushfires burning north, south, and west of the city. People were urged to stay indoors as the air quality dropped below Beijing levels. I was living in an inner west suburb on a ridge with a clear view of the central business district—clear, that is, under normal summer conditions. Now only the nearby suburbs were visible through the gray and occasionally orange murk. By February the fires were mostly under control and the air quality greatly improved. In the middle of the month I moved across town to Rosebery, a suburb in the inner south slightly closer to the city.

I had barely unpacked when the coronavirus measures started to take effect. A friend was housebound several hundred kilometers away with a daughter who had just flown in from Berlin and was under compulsory quarantine. State and international borders were about to shut down. One morning I was having breakfast at a café around the corner, the next day it was only serving takeout in plastic containers. The world of sport was changing too; a friend noted with amusement that rugby players were shown sitting a meter and a half apart on the benches before running onto the field to tackle each other. I feel sorry for the sports journalists, reduced in the absence of live action to describing boardroom disputes.

On the ground, lockdown is a strange experience. We are all suspects. Supermarkets limit the numbers inside and monitor handwashing at the door. The police presence has become noticeable. All places of entertainment and most “nonessential” shops are closed. Sydney has lost summer’s intense heat, however, and instead we have sunny and warm autumnal days with the clearest skies anyone has seen for some time. I’ve noticed how quiet it is here in Rosebery now that the nearby airport has stopped using its second runway.

Looking back to the bushfire season, one drastic change becomes apparent: then it was possible for strangers to embrace and comfort each other for their losses, now such moves would be criminal. At Easter our Irish neighbor left a note with some chocolate eggs outside our door. We exchanged pleasantries from either side of the footpath. My companion and I have taken to walking with our friends, discreetly swapping partners and pretending not to be a gathering of more than two.

Published on May 4, 2020