That’s Bondi, baby. My piece for The Guardian

Bondi Beach: how the Australian icon became a coronavirus hotspot

–Bondi is one of NSW’s most famous destinations, drawing 2.6 million visitors a year. Has its popularity made it vulnerable to Covid-19?–

A block from Bondi Beach six female travellers, all aged between 22 and 31, share a two-bedroom flat, each paying $200 a week in rent.

They came to Australia, and settled in Bondi, for the work opportunities, the sun and the freedom.

Last week, two of the women tested positive for Covid-19.

The Sydney beach suburb draws 2.6 million visitors each year, according to Destination New South Wales. It’s a place of contrasts. Sparkling natural bounty and dense urban living. Billionaires and backpackers. Instagrammed bodies and old-timers’ swimming clubs. A place obsessed with health and beauty but now, one of Australia’s Covid-19 hotspots.

Bondi, part of Waverley council area, has taken a heavy hit from the coronavirus, the local council’s 159 cases as of Friday (101 of them in Bondi alone) knocking the sunshine out of the surfside playground.

This week, in response to Waverley’s newfound status as home to both the highest number of Covid-19 cases and the highest number of locally transmitted cases in the state, the government opened a local pop-up testing clinic.

While the advice during the global coronavirus pandemic is to stay home, the reality for some, especially in a place like Bondi, is that crowded living conditions make physical distancing difficult, even for the most prudent.

“I couldn’t believe I was negative, I slept in the same room as two positive girls,” says one of the Argentinian housemates who was given the all-clear, who did not want to be named. “I was staying home, worrying about the virus outside, but it was in my own place.”

Unsure where to turn, she appealed to the authorities for help and her infected housemates – one of whom is suspected to have caught the virus in the house – were moved into quarantine in hotels, paid for by the government.

the others, a sense of gratitude has settled on the flat: they and their sick housemates are safe and isolated, friends are helping with food deliveries and a neighbour has lent them exercise equipment. She has heard of worse, including newly jobless, homeless travellers who cannot get to their home countries, and infected members of shared houses who have stayed put.

They’re like many temporary working visa holders who continue to share cramped homes, some of 12 to 15 people, across the suburb. Since 20 March, hostels, meanwhile, have had to comply with new distancing rules of one person every 4 sq metres. At Noah’s Backpackers, just along from James Packer’s erstwhile beach house, every room, including six-bed dormitories, were made single occupancy.

The landmark building has a view down on to the Bondi Beach that is usually alive with crowded surf and its famous lifeguards. On 21 March, the beach was closed, its entrances hastily fenced off. With no surfers and sunbathers, Bondi Beach has never looked so bare. Now in the spotlight as the centre of Australia’s coronavirus outbreak, the suburb has never felt quite so exposed.

The scene is a far cry from images just over two weeks ago, when crowds from well beyond Sydney’s east took to the sand on a 36C day, flouting social distancing rules and the new 500-person limit on outdoor gatherings. A hot Friday with family-friendly surf is what Bondi does best – but by the next afternoon and in the glare of global media, police were sweeping the beach of sunbathers, forbidding even surfers to enter the water. For the first time, the beach known around the world as an icon of Australia’s natural beauty and symbol of our love of the sea and sun is now associated with something far less glamorous.

When New South Wales chief health Officer Dr Kerry Chant singled out backpackers and their potential to infect the community when outlining the response, she directed public focus towards Bondi’s reputation as a destination for travellers, already in the headlines because of a coronavirus cluster traced to a tropical-themed party at a popular Bondi beachfront bar.

From Noah’s Backpackers, the view is bleak. A few weeks ago, the hostel was bustling with 266 guests. Now, it’s desolate, with manager Dylan Tenbrink closing its doors last Wednesday, saying it was “impossible” to stay open under the new regulations around social distancing as well as media scrutiny. Unfounded rumours of a positive case of the virus in the hostel were unfairly targeting backpackers and the result was fear among both visitors and the community, he says.

“Bondi’s one of the greatest suburbs in the entire world. There’s opportunity, it’s safe, there’s freedom for everybody,” Tenbrink told Guardian Australia in the days before the hostel shut. “Now, people see you walk [out of the hostel] and they shout at you and say it’s an epicentre of disease.”

With a young, international demographic and thousands of daily visitors, Bondi’s infection rate comes as little surprise to local photographer and Aquabumps gallery owner, Eugene Tan. He has photographed Bondi Beach at daybreak for the last 21 years, and the daily surf photos are known worldwide.

“Bondi’s a brand, everybody knows it. You come to Sydney, you come to Bondi. It’s a welcoming place,” he says. It’s that spirit that might have landed Bondi in the situation it’s in today.

“The police cleared the beach on Saturday and then all the bars filled up. It’s a melting pot, which I love, but Bondi gets out of hand easily – we have a lot of travellers and they have a carefree attitude.”

But to point to the backpacker community alone as responsible for local infection rates is to miss the reality of Bondi’s broader community.

The Waverley mayor, Paula Masselos, says it is the kindness of the community and its adaptability that stands it in good stead for the future. “We are all in this together.”

Brand Bondi, after all, reaches well beyond its bay and, to Tan, its pull is stronger than ever. He has been receiving messages from people all over the world telling him how images of Bondi are keeping them sane during lockdown.

“Without the beach,” he says, “you feel a bit lost.”


Stay apart, but for goodness’ sake, stay in touch. My piece for The Guardian

Grandparenting from a distance: how coronavirus challenges the closest bonds

–With children often asymptomatic and older people most vulnerable, the rules are clear: stay at home, stay apart, but stay in touch.–

There’s only been one breach of the new security protocol at Susan and John Slaughter’s home in the Brisbane suburb of Lutwyche.

“Harry, who’s three, popped his head over the stable door in the kitchen,” says his grandmother Susan, 74. “He had a cheeky grin and he knew he was being naughty.”

She’s making light of one of the crueller inconveniences – and starker truths – of the new Covid-19 stasis: safety means separation, especially for older people. Australia’s mortality rate from coronavirus is thankfully one of the lowest in the world so far, but most of the deaths have been people aged 70 and over. Globally, the mortality rate is highest for the 80-plus age group, which now stands above 10%. Children, meanwhile, seem less susceptible to the worst effects but carry the risk of infecting others.

For the grandmother of four and her husband, an 80-year-old psychiatrist, that means a strict new diktat: grandparenting from a distance. With their grandchildren living over the garden fence and their daily lives deeply entwined, familial distancing is no small undertaking.

“The last time we had any physical contact was the 14th of March,” Susan says. “All my time was geared around the children but it’s all changed. They’re not allowed into the house any more and so we see them over the fence and on FaceTime.

“I understand it but it’s hard. It goes against all our ideas of togetherness and contact and the bonds that you make with children. I keep thinking, ‘Why aren’t they here?’”

Susan’s daughter Lizzie is getting used to a new daily juggle of work, childcare and family life without the parental support she and her partner relied upon.

“The hardest thing is that, because we are working, we don’t have the option of taking our children out of school and daycare without the normal help from my parents,” says the medical device specialist, 42. “But letting them spend time together is not worth the risk.”

By erring on the side of caution, they are among the growing number of families without underlying illnesses who pre-empted, and went further than, the warnings of the likes of the Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, who this week told parents: “If you have a grandparent who is unwell, who has one of those chronic conditions, you must not take your children to visit those grandparents. These are very clear messages.”

“Are children at greater risk of transmitting the infection than anybody else? Probably not,” Selvey says. But, as she points out, they are less likely to wash their hands properly and they want more physical contact than others, both factors in Covid-19’s spread. She adds that it’s important to include elderly people in decision-making processes around family distancing.

For grandfather and clinical professor in paediatric infectious diseases at the University of Sydney, David Isaacs, older people need our protection, no matter the age group they are exposed to.

“What evidence there is suggests that older people give it to children, if anything,” he says. “It then spreads within family groups.”

But children are often mildly infected or asymptomatic, and we don’t yet know how likely an asymptomatic person is to spread the disease. Because of that possibility of exposure to the virus, no matter how minimal, Isaacs is unambiguous.

“The actual risk that the children will give it to [grandparents] is probably not that high, but how would you feel if your children gave your parents the virus and then they got desperately sick or died?”

The question, then, becomes how to enforce separation without plunging vulnerable people into a contact void.

Isaacs – whose children have barred visits from his toddler grandson – stresses that this is no time to step away from interaction with elderly people. Now, more than ever, is a time for support – and physical distancing, not social isolation, is key to the health of our older population. Complete separation comes with its own set of complications, their importance often drowned out by the din around the immediate dangers of the virus.

Scientia Prof Henry Brodaty, co-director of UNSW’s Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing, is physically distancing himself from his own grandchildren yet warns that, for some elderly people, the dangers of not seeing their grandchildren might outweigh the alternative.

“One of my patients is very isolated and she’s depressed and she’s bereaved and really the one light in her week is her visit from her grandchildren,” he says.

For now, though, the official word remains. This virus kills. Stay at home, stay apart where necessary – but, also, make sure to stay in touch. And so the new normal for family generations living close is love at a sensible distance.

“It’s certainly made a difference to the house, it’s much tidier and quieter, but I do hear the occasional pierced scream and laughter from next door,” Susan says.

“I’m finding it hard but it’s still new. I don’t think I’ve come to terms with the fact that this isn’t short term – it’s strange to think that there’s a big expanse of time ahead and you don’t know what’s going to happen.” She pauses: “No one really knows.”


Global Sisters

I’m lucky to be writing a series of stories about the powerful sisterhood at Global Sisters, a charity that gives migrant, disenfranchised, homeless or stateless women the chance to run and profit from their own start-up businesses.

These are the people who work harder than I’ll ever need to to even find the doors that I simply pushed open. They don’t give up easily, they understand gratitude and they teach us not to take this safe, nourished and educated life for granted.

As part of the series, I’ve interviewed a Cambodian refugee who ran from Pol Pot and helped her father make steamed dumplings to help survive refugee camp. I’ve spoken with a Hazara rug maker whose community knots sorrow into its woven art. I’ve been bowled over by stories of tiny children and pregnant women escaping – and arriving in Australia – by boat.

Their one common thread is their determination to make good of the bad that went before.