Finding a new normal.
It struck me the other day that this may be one of the first times in human history where an event has so rapidly and so unexpectedly altered lives across the globe – for the present, for the future and, unfortunately for some people, forever. With COVID-19, we’ve all experienced and endured change that nobody expected six months ago. Situations which would have seemed absurd have now become the new normal.
And it is with this new normal that my 10 and 12-year-old daughters, Amelia and Madeleine, find themselves stuck in Australia, more than 5,500 kilometres away from their parents.
I’ll be the first to admit that I hadn’t expected things to end up this way. My wife and I moved to Hong Kong in 2000. We started our first veterinary hospital in 2003, right in the middle of SARS. I remember being interviewed at the time by Bloomberg, and the interviewer asked me: “You’re the only business that we could find that’s opening. Everybody else is shutting shop. What do you know that we don’t know?”. It made me stop and consider but, to be honest, I always had complete faith that Hong Kong would survive, recover, rebuild and prosper. A view which I still hold firmly today.
When the COVID-19 cases started appearing in China recently, I thought it might be similar to SARS. Like many of us (I suppose), I thought that there might be some cases locally, there might be some spread outside the hot-spots, but it would all be over fairly quickly if we just kept our heads down, took sensible precautions, and carried on. Unfortunately, that doesn’t look to be the case. I am certain COVID-19 will be tackled, and I think Hong Kong has done an exemplary job of dealing with the outbreak – something we as citizens often fail to recognise and celebrate. However, I am now coming to realise that this could be a protracted battle.
Before there were a significant number of cases, lockdowns, quarantines and airline suspensions, my daughters (and my wife) went down to Australia to celebrate their grandmother’s 70th birthday. There weren’t any cases to speak of in Australia at the time, and Hong Kong seemed to be over the first “wave” of infections. It was planned to be a quick family trip. At the time, it all seemed perfectly normal.
My wife flew back to Hong Kong on the Sunday evening as planned, and my daughters were to spend a few more days in Australia with their Granny and then come home, as they had on previous trips. In those few days, the global situation changed rapidly. COVID-19 cases in Europe started to spike and there was a big concern about the second wave of cases in Hong Kong. The airlines started changing or cancelling flights. We hesitated about sending them back on the plane when so much was uncertain. And soon enough, we realised that they were pretty much stuck in Australia.
To paint the whole picture, Granny lives in a small seaside town in northern New South Wales surrounded by the bush, and my wife and I both work full time in our veterinary hospitals. At that point, we felt that being stuck in Australia could be a blessing in disguise – especially as all of their schoolwork is now online and they have been told not to go out in groups and play with friends.
As time went on, Australian travel restrictions, both inside and outside the country, have become more strict. Soon, about a week after my wife arrived back in Hong Kong, we realised that we couldn’t get down to them even if we wanted to (at least not without a month’s quarantine there and back). That was unsettling for everyone.
We have managed to adapt (as has everyone during this COVID-19 crisis) and come to terms with a new normal; we have daily calls or videoconferences with them. We’ve started “virtual family outings” – something that would have sounded ludicrous even a month ago. We all get online and do a virtual tour of the Eiffel tower or the Smithsonian museum. Although it took some getting used to, it’s allowing our family to stay as a family, even though we’re in different continents.
The girls have also had to pitch in, helping Granny by cleaning dishes, washing clothes, cooking basic meals and tidying the house. Granny is by herself, and it’s a lot to ask her to look after two young rambunctious children. This has been a fantastic lesson for the girls though, who have lived their whole lives in a house with a helper. They have chores in Hong Kong, but to be honest, half the time it just doesn’t get done. Now in Australia, with no one to pick up after them, they got a bit of a shock. Having dinner or eating from clean plates depends on them helping out, which makes them much more motivated to get their chores done.
Lastly, we’ve reached out to friends. If there can be a silver lining to the cloud, it’s that I’ve spoken to old friends in Australia who (although we are mates for life) I hadn’t spoken to in a long time. And they’ve been the first to tell us that whatever we need, they’re ready to help. It’s times like these that you realise the strength and importance of family bonds and friendships, of being there for each other.
Although we miss them every day, we know our girls are in safe hands and are surrounded by good people. We know that this will be a time none of us ever forget, and we don’t know when it will come to an end, but we do know that it will come to an end. We just need to work together to make the best of it and adapt in the meantime.
I hope you and your family stay safe and stay close during these times of COVID-19, in whatever form that may take.