The Tyranny of Distance in the Face of COVID-19

By May 28, 2020 Latest

a five minute read

Image from B Wolff, Unsplash

As a Massachusetts native and true New Englander, it was with a heavy heart that I relocated to Australia twelve years ago: it is a serious undertaking to consider the possibility of life without any proximity to a Dunkin’ Donuts. However, this was back in 2008, when American life in the wake of the GFC had stolen options for everyone; there was also a string of other personal Unfortunate Events — to quote the great Lemony Snickett — that influenced our decision to leave.

These events included: me witnessing a drug deal that ended in shooting, in the quiet pocket of our Boston neighbourhood; a job loss for my husband, who at that stage was the only income earner, as I was on a career break while raising our three children (all under three years old at that stage); and there was the could-have-been-fatal car accident for my husband, when his car was struck from behind by a drunk driver during his 6am commute on the Mass Pike. This resulted in two fractured vertebrae and us losing our health insurance — every American’s worst nightmare. And me, with a two-week-old baby in addition to our two other children, aged one and two — who routinely needed professional medical care for immunisations, colds, coughs: babies are terrifying in that way. At some point during the aftermath of all these events, my Australian husband looked at me wild-eyed and said, ‘Now can we leave?’

The universe, it seemed, had spoken. But even still, my move overseas was certainly not one that I took lightly. There were — and are — so many mixed emotions with such a huge decision, so many factors to consider: one of the most compelling of which is that I am an only child. This means two aging parents, and also a stepfather who I absolutely adore. And here’s me, on the other side of the world, with only a step-sibling down on the ground locally, with whom to share the future potential burdens associated with three aging parents.

My move to Australia did not just create a pivot point in my life; it has defined by life, and my identity. The same is true for my three children, who have grown up as Aussies. Only my husband — the fish returning to his native oxygenated pond — has been relatively unaffected.

I didn’t realise expatriatism could be so dramatic, even when it seems like the right — or in our case, the only — choice to make. Upon reflection (and twelve years in a former penal colony gives one A LOT of time to think), I consider expatriatism a benign form of trauma.

But in my leaving — as sad and dramatic and gut-wrenching as it was — one thing I certainly never gave any thought to (not even for a fleeting moment) was the possibility that I might not be able to return home whenever I wanted, or perhaps needed to. This was part of the ‘God forbid’ clause.

One of the Ts & Cs of our relocation to the antipodes was that financially, we would always make annual visits back to the States a priority. If we all couldn’t afford to go, then I would at least go by myself. If we had a Maslow’s hierarchy of needs pyramid for our family, an annual visit home would sit right alongside food, love, safety and oxygen. Until 2020, we have always managed to fulfil this promise.

Before COVID-19, never did I envision a set of circumstances in which the possibility of travelling home to my native country would not, could not be an option. (Side note: ‘Home’ is always an uncomfortable moniker for expats to use, given the complexities that arise from that label; with each year that passes you move further away, ideologically, from the place that gave you everything associated with your start in life: your family, your neighbourhood, your education, your accent (yes, I used to sound like Mark Wahlberg), your sports teams, your food — in addition to other (and often more nebulous) cultural staples like belonging, patriotism, colloquial language, and sometimes religion.)

I had assumed — wrongfully — that the biggest hurdle I would ever face in returning (aside from the obvious distance) would be the ongoing financial costs of an annual trip to Boston. But in Australia, we wouldn’t be faced with budgeting in preparation for the exorbitant expenses associated with college-educating three children. So the financial barriers of our life in Australia could be surmounted with some forward planning and budgeting — and, yes, I realise that this statement reflects a certain amount of privilege.

But in the case of COVID-19, there is no privilege anymore. At least not in this context: a global health crisis that impedes travel cannot be bypassed, no matter the mode, means or even the money. Like many other airlines, QANTAS has suspended all international flights until at least 31 July. ‘At least’ doesn’t invoke confidence; it evokes more uncertainty.

Travel in the 21st century means there is no possibility of a letter of transit I can illegally purchase at Rick’s Café Américain, or the modern black market equivalent, somewhere on the Dark Web. My passport is temporarily a useless document. I am, quite literally, trapped on the largest island landmass that is Australia. Only way to drive out is into an ocean.

From afar, it appears that the U.S.’s mismanagement of the coronavirus outbreak that began seemingly a lifetime ago is seeing the consequences of delayed action, Federal red tape, top-down mixed messaging, and Trump’s own unique approach to social Darwinism: let it be the most vulnerable who will pay with their lives — those without families or support systems, those without insurance (I was one of those once), and those who are most at-risk due to old age, loneliness, poverty, chronic health conditions or comorbidities. Or some terrible combination of all of the above.

While my parents are generally healthy, they are still in their 70s; COVID-wise, this makes them more vulnerable. As does Boston’s proximity to New York, which is still at the epicentre of the crisis. Massachusetts was until recently third in the country for number of cases — certainly not enviable circumstances under which to be awarded the Bronze medal, especially given Massachusetts’ population size relative to other states.

Given the voracity of this virus, my parent’s situation could change at any moment. From here in the antipodes, all I can do is hope that this does not reach their doors. Because if it does, there is no possibility of mercy dash. The tyranny of distance will prevail.

*mercy dash can be defined as an unplanned or last minute trip, usually to help mitigate circumstances created by an unplanned turn of events.