My mother turned 90 last month. She lives in Australia, I live in Israel. December 2019 was the last time I was with my mum. It seems ages ago. Much longer than a calendar year. After all, it was B.C. [Before Corona]. The global impact of the pandemic with the on/off lock-downs and rising numbers of illnesses and death has had a drastic effect on my perception of distance and time.
Australia has a funny status in the world. It is always considered too far. The seasons are upside down; a white Christmas Down-under is seeing Santa on a white sandy beach or water skiing in Sydney harbor. The time zones are a full day into the future.
The distance to my mother in Sydney has dramatically increased. The quickest route normally takes 24 hours via Bangkok, but now due to the restrictions, it takes 48 hours via the US.
As the distance between us stretches, I worry that my time with my mother is shrinking. This feeling is compounded by watching too many Zoom funerals over the past months.
So I decided to stop focusing on our mortality, and start focusing on the opportunities — not easy during a pandemic, but I’m determined. I booked my flight to take that monstrous trip to Australia, to spend quality time with my mother.
Arriving at Sydney airport at midnight was nothing short of shocking. Bleary-eyed, there were police, soldiers and medical personnel everywhere. I get a flashback to my first experience of Ben Gurion Airport in 1977 for the gap year that changed my life. The sight of IDF soldiers was confronting for an 18-year old Aussie boy, who had barely seen a gun, let alone a real soldier in the flesh.
Long single files with compliant passengers at 2-meter distancing led us to lines of police questioning, health checks and forms to fill out. Those with coughs or sore throats were escorted to the left, everyone else to the right. We by-passed the arrival area completely. The ritual excitement of family and friends welcoming my anticipated arrival after an exhaustive trip was achingly absent as the tall bronzed Aussie soldiers directed us to the waiting buses. The atmosphere on the bus was solemn, thick with anxiety from all the passengers not knowing where we were going.
Having grown up in Sydney and worked in the tourism industry, I knew my way around. I used my best Aussie accent to casually ask the bus driver where we were being sent to. “Gday mate, which hotel do ya reckon we’re heading for? “ He laughed with a conceited sense of power and said,” Mate, you’re going where I take you. You don’t have a choice and you won’t find out till you arrive”.
The scenes of the army and police everywhere did not faze me but the feeling of being locked up with no choice or freedom reminded me of my Betar youth movement days outside the Russian embassy in Sydney.
“Let my people go!” “Save Nathan Sharansky,” “Free him from prison,” I asked myself is this what a police state looks like? I was not prepared for this, especially not in my hometown where the size of the surf, the cut of the steak at the BBQ, and which is the best rugby team were the major questions on people’s minds.
We arrived at the hotel after midnight and instructed to line up in the street wearing masks and keeping 2 meters apart. Police were standing at the front desks checking everyone into the hotel as other police stood by ready to escort us to our rooms.
It’s funny how preparation and imagination can play on your expectations. Prior to this moment, I imagined that 2 weeks in a cosmopolitan Sydney hotel would be a great time out. Time to meditate, read books, binge-watch Netflix and even eat well. Feeling perfectly healthy with my fresh COVID-19 negative certificate in hand, I felt confident that easy-going Australia would spare me this indignation. How wrong was I?
It was hard to believe the seriousness of the situation. Everyone on my plane was an Australian citizen. No foreigner tourists, no business people, no students and no diplomats. There was no place for friendly or aggressive talk to get out of this situation. And no paying your way out either. You had no choice but to follow the “police state” rules for the next two weeks, whether you liked it or not. Everyone was equal under the Australian corona prevention law. No political bias. No protectzia. No way out.
Imagine 14 days in a small room with no open windows. Your meals are delivered in brown paper bags once a day. Someone knocks on the door three times, you have to wait at least 10 seconds and only then are you permitted to open the door to get your food. Every floor has a guard 24/7. Every morning a nurse calls you to ask if you have symptoms.
No visitors. No room service. No contact with hotel staff. No physical contact with anyone for 14 days. 600 people in quarantine in the one building manned by police, 60 guards, 3 nurses, 1 doctor and a mental health worker around the clock to prevent suicides. It seemed unbearable, unnecessary and extreme. It sounds unbelievable — but I kid you not.
One week into my two-week sentence, I was joined by four other Australian Zionist inmates and friends from childhood. Paul, Michele, Galia and Ondine. Even though we are not permitted any physical contact, we were able to celebrate Michele’s birthday by sending balloons from outside the window.
The ‘solidarity in numbers’ and shared solitary experience helped us cope and pass the time.
How will I handle this? Is it really worth it?
Now imagine looking down on the street from your hotel. Nobody is wearing a mask and there seems to be no socially distancing. Imagine all the restaurants and bars are open. Imagine all the malls, all the offices and all the schools are operating nearly as normal – no capsules, no zoom meetings, no special hours on designated days. Imagine you could go swimming at the beach or pray in your synagogue, church or mosque, attend any wedding or festival. Imagine you could work -out at your gym anytime; visit a museum; go to a concert and play or watch your favorite sport with a group of friends.
Last Wednesday, I sat in my room watching a live rugby football match with 50,000 Australian spectators. Yes, a live contact sport competition! Sydney seems weirdly normal.
How is that possible, when the rest of the world is in such a crisis?
It’s simple. The Australian leaders and its citizens listened and took the medical advice seriously. They created simple, implementable rules, and the people followed them.
The only difference to life pre-corona here is that when you go to a restaurant or do an activity, you are asked to scan a QR code with your phone in that location. This helps the authorities to swiftly contact trace every case in real-time. Not so inconvenient, right?
What a simple defense mechanism to save a country’s economy and social fabric. Not only are there zero cases of COVID-19, but there has also been a significant reduction in cases of the flu.
A simple comparison* of cases of coronavirus between the US, Israel and Australia (per million people) as of Dec 1 shows:
Total cases/million Deaths/million
USA 41,835 826
ISRAEL 36,549 311
AUSTRALIA 1,089 35
When comparing figures of other countries, you can see which leaders have managed their country well… and those who have not.
Imagine if all leaders took the pandemic seriously for the wellbeing of their citizens. That they would listen to their medical experts and rule that everyone is equal under the corona prevention law with no short term political interests.
These days, Australia’s status in the world is not determined by its distance, season or time difference. It’s determined by the way its leaders and compliant citizens understood the severity of the pandemic and have taken the right steps to prevent it, no matter how extreme it seems. In a way, it is not surprising when you consider their greatest cultural export is the Surf Rescue and Lifesaving model which was established over 100 years ago. Today, over 60,000 young volunteers train in preventative and life-saving techniques on their beaches each year.
As the chairman of the Israel Lifesaving Federation, we adopted the Australian model to prevent and save lives on Israel’s beaches. It is clear that the only way to fight the virus and save lives is to enforce a public policy of harm prevention and health promotion.
Australia has done so and is reaping the benefits of living in a safe parallel universe. It is so unfortunate that the rest of the world will be praying for light, hope and joy, and semblances of normality in the lead up to the festive season of Hanuka and Christmas.
So how will I handle this? Is it worth it?
Yes, I will be able to handle being locked up as an Australian “prisoner from Zion” equipped with my survival kit of meditation and guided imagery books.
But the simple truth is, all I have to do is imagine walking along Bondi beach with my mother in the arm, deciding which favorite restaurant she would like to go to.
I will also have the freedom to take my mum to the theatre and truly cherish the moment.
And that is absolutely worth it!