State of uncertainty in the state of emergency

On the first day of our state of emergency, the national anthem fell silent.

At the local primary school, children line up as they always do on a Monday morning to raise the flag, sing the anthem and recite the school oath.

Instead, a voice crackles over the loudspeaker, telling them to head straight to class. For the foreseeable future, there will be no assemblies, no excursions and no sports carnivals.

There’s not much to indicate a state of emergency at Altona dog beach on Monday.Credit:Jason South

There will be no pizza-making day. No Easter hat parade. No school camp.

Whether school itself should be cancelled remains a matter of conjecture. As one dad remarks: "I’m surprised we’re here."

Around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic is measured in sickness and deaths, in grounded planes, moored cruise ships and closed borders, in tumbling markets and dire economic impacts.

In local neighbourhoods, it’s a crisis upending the mundane details of our day-to-day lives; how and where we work, what the kids can do outside of class, what any of us will do for fun now that so much of Melbourne life has been cancelled.

At the nearby Coles, the barren shelves provide a curious insight into how we are preparing for dull days ahead.

There is plenty of fresh meat, milk and bread still available but the shelves are stripped of tinned beans and hot dogs.

There is a choice of fancy crackers, but no Saladas.

There is expensive breakfast cereal, but no Weet-Bix or Corn Flakes.

Every packet of rice is gone, from long-grain to arborio, and the pasta shelves are picked clean. There is no tea, coffee, no long-life milk.

Molly George enjoys some serious reading time in Carlton Gardens at the Silent Reading Party on Monday.Credit:Chris Hopkins

The toilet rolls have long vanished, along with the baby wipes. Every sanitary pad, winged or not, has taken flight.

There are no altercations between shoppers; just a sense of bemused resignation. When asked when the next delivery was expected, the exhausted young woman stacking shelves shrugs her shoulders. "No idea. Our distribution centre can’t keep up any more."

At the local bookstore, the most-popular selling title over the weekend was Grown Ups by Marian Keyes. The owner of the book shop, Deb Force, describes the book as intelligent chick-lit. “People want escapism and fat books that will keep them going,’’ she explains.

The bookstore is quiet, even for a Monday morning. Force has run the business for more than 20 years and knows she can’t afford to keep on all her staff. She spent the weekend trying to rejig the roster to give a shift to everyone who desperately needs one.

She has also started a “books on bikes” delivery service for customers, particularly older ones, who want to buy books but are worried about exposing themselves to the virus. “You have to be flexible and plan for the worst,’’ she says.

Across the road from the bookstore, the corner cafe is doing a steady trade. On a morning like this, when a warm sun is out, you can forget an emergency is officially upon us.

Rachelle Bingham has decided to keep her kids, Hudson 7 years old and Scarlett, 5, out of school, pre-empting what she believes will be be a statewide closure of schools.Credit:Penny Stephens

Mara Lyon, a first-time mum with a seven-month-old son, says it takes her a while to catch up on the news, even something as all-encompassing as the pandemic. She went to a wedding on Friday and happily reports that the bride and groom kissed as normal and the guests all danced.

She has just learned that a big night out she had planned with her mum – ballet tickets at the State Theatre – won’t go ahead, but pushes aside her disappointment. "That’s OK, we don’t want to catch anything." Her only anxiety is the creeping shortage of baby formula.

Across the table, Monika Lewandowska is bouncing eight-month-old Theo on her knee. Unlike her friend Mara, Monika has been scouring the news about the coronavirus. She thought about cancelling their morning coffee but in the end, couldn’t do without it.

She’s a language teacher and is confused that, amid everything shutting down, all the universities remain open.

“Do you know more than us?’’ she asks. On day one of Victoria’s state of emergency, it feels like no one does.

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