As I write these lines, I am located at a strange intersection between time and space. I live in a city that, from afar, looks like a ‘success story’ in times of pandemic. Following a wave of cases last winter, Melbourne went into lockdown for a second, harsh time, for a about three months that felt like a day or a year – depending on one’s perspective.
I recall those days, and I find myself writing that, after the lockdown, ‘we reduced the number of casualties and people infected to zero’, and feeling as if I had been conscripted and thrown into a battle with five million Melburnians against the ‘invisible enemy’ that we all know well by now. I write triumphally, with a distinct sense of agency (we ‘chose to stay’!) – even if I (like everyone else) was also following orders and, emotionally, was captive of my own terror at the possibility that the images of death and desolation that happen afar, would happen here. We chose to fight like everyone else, but we were also compelled and forced by the circumstances. The flipside of this story is well known as well. Of all tolls, the emotional side is perhaps the hardest to quantify and the most difficult to express.
During those days I experienced the ambivalence that, it seems, is familiar to many. On one hand, I was eagerly hoping that the lockdown would actually work. I was impatiently waiting for the regular conferences by Victoria’s Premier Dan Andrews (‘Dictator Dan’, as conservative critics called him) announcing daily figures or any change to our quarantine routine – mask on everywhere, movements confined to five kms radius, only one hour of exercise allowed, and so forth. On the other hand, during those days I settled into a routine that mechanically drove me to our home office desk every day. I was privileged to have Sabbatical semester at about that time. I didn’t have the chance to go overseas as I had planned, but I didn’t have to teach… so the time of lockdown became a time of writing, new projects, meetings/conferences from afar and so forth. I did this whilst recovering regular sleep, cooking every day, and enjoying aspects of domestic life that I had neglected for some time. Having heard some accounts from friends and colleagues, it seems this weird mix of dread and productivity, fear and rest, noise and quiet was not too unusual. Time of catastrophe has been, over an over, a time of ambivalence (in fact, I am still grappling with this ambivalence…)
The winter lockdown’s aftermath was the expected dearth of cases and the eventual, slow, haphazard arrival at a very unusual (by global standards) situation of being able to live without the virus. The harsh measures led to the desired outcome: From November on there was no community transmission and not even a trace of COVID-19 in our waters. Little by little, we began settling into the routine of a lucky city in a lucky country that so many marvelled at from afar. But this routine did not come without a price. In addition to the toll associated with the personal sacrifices made to that end, a troubled narrative emerged where the ‘enemy virus’ was, once again, outside, foreign, belonged elsewhere. Like those enemies that, throughout past and present, we have defined and know all too well – the others who don’t belong. The enemy began having faces in the people who could return to Australia and carry the virus with them. The mistakes made with the quarantine program established to keep the virus at the gate and detect COVID-19 in international travellers had been largely responsible for the deadly wave that shocked Melbourne last year, so there was a strong hesitance to embrace visitors and guests. On top of the expenses that anyone (Australian or not) should pay for quarantining, there is the often-prohibitive price hike of the flights, their unavailability, and the possibility that they change at last minute. Thousands of Australians remain stranded overseas without being able to come home. International students – who provide a significant part of Australian university budgets – can’t come either. Forget about ‘non-essential’ outside traveling either, as the rules governing who can leave are also fraught.
For some, then, we are meant to wait out the Pandemic in an artificial paradise: No one else can come in, and nobody can leave either (with a range of exceptions that go from the very reasonable to the questionable, at authorities’ discretion…). This feeling has now hampered efforts to vaccinate the population, as many Australians (and authorities) feel there is no rush, since we can afford it. It doesn’t matter that we isolate ourselves in the process, with all the problems this causes. Thousands of people don’t know when they will see their loved ones again, if they will be able to assist them in case they need their presence, or even if they will be able to come back home.
I give you this background, and I start thinking about how the reality of my teaching practice during the COVID-19 pandemic has been shaped by this complex environment. I feel trepidation and, honestly, a dreadful feeling when I think about those first weeks last year, when the pandemic arrived and we had to negotiate well-known restrictions, the preservation of our own self and well-being and, then, that of our students and colleagues. The shock our communities of learning and research experienced shaped our initial responses – we had to go in emergency mode, that distinct ‘fight or flight’ sense that we commented last year in these conference panels.
We had to be there for our students, but also for ourselves. We had to strike a balance, somehow, between very different imperatives, create presents and tomorrows that had become absent, give ourselves a sense of continuity and known future when what prevailed, in all fairness, was uncertainty. We manufactured new teaching routines out of thin air, replaced physical coexistence with virtual engagement and online learning, and grappled with so many important topics relevant for our respective courses (especially in sociolegal studies).
Here in Melbourne I did that, we did that, students did that, universities did that. We adapted – kind of. We muddled through and continued persisting, hoping that the thing lasted weeks, months, and then just hoping that it lasted and wouldn’t become indefinite. Teaching in those conditions could no longer be pegged to usual formats or tropes. The cultivation of a critical imagination, challenging narratives, discovering theory, or any other pedagogic endeavour had to grapple with these overwhelming transformations unfolding and, again, with the inner world of everyone involved in the teaching and learning communities where we carry out our work (and effect our sense of mission).
At the same time, as the catastrophe became the new normal, as it began trickling in with all its facets – here and elsewhere – we could (we should!) open new windows to interrogate, question, raise points, provoke, alert, discuss, discuss. We could start processing the shared pain whilst delving into the inequalities hidden behind that common sense of tragedy. We needed to bring back to the visible realm what had become invisible for days or weeks. We needed to rehearse the social and the political in our classrooms and create a renewed sense of ethos that could capture the need for empathy and compassion with longstanding claims of justice. This meant something for each of you, wherever you are located, whatever your experience was. For some, this happened in harsh conditions, teaching in classrooms and holding meetings on campus, negotiating health risks for ourselves, colleagues and students on a daily basis. For others, this took place in the virtual space, sorting out the frustrations of new and old technologies.
We need to be there for our students. We need to be there for our colleagues. We can’t lose sense of ourselves in the process.
What does all this mean in these (still) uncertain days?
I ask myself this question, once again, this morning before our meeting, reading the news about the possibility of new restrictions being announced any time to contain a new Coronavirus outbreak in Melbourne. The feeling of malaise, of unease has returned. I am writing with my fingers crossed, once again trying to create some emotional room for reflecting and make sense of this ordeal. What awaits, we keep asking? What and how? We live in a world where COVID-19 is still wrecking the lives of thousands of people, every day. Where many of those victims remain uncounted and, thus, not even acknowledged. That’s the case in India, in Brazil, in my beloved homeland Venezuela, and in many other places and countries across the world.
The pandemic is not over, and we are far from being done processing it.
When I wake up so early it reminds me of the times studying Law in Caracas, getting ready to go to Uni in a bubble of silence, right before the shaking buses and roaring cars took over Cafetal boulevard, right before the city reminded you she was alive and hadn't gone anywhere. However, this time at least, I won’t hear any engines or voices that replace the silent void. I will be facing, again, the eery quiet of a city on the verge of lockdown. And I will be wishing, once again, for these times of ongoing catastrophe to be over, and soon.
Raul Sanchez Urribarri (PhD, LLM) is a Senior Lecturer in Crime, Justice and Legal Studies at the Department of Social Inquiry, La Trobe University (Melbourne, Australia). He is a member of the Board of Directors at the Consortium for Undergraduate Law and Justice Programs (CULJP) since 2018. He can be reached at: R.email@example.com