COVID-19 Series: #5

Sep 2, 2020

Author: Jananie Pathiraja

Content Warning: This article references eating disorders and homophobia. 

In the event of a great disaster, humans go through five stages of grief. With denial comes the ignorance of the ongoing global change – until it is shoved right under our nose. With anger comes the silent outcry and resistance to social distancing – yes I’m looking at you, Karens of the world rallying for your precious haircuts). With bargaining comes hope, and with depression comes isolation, loneliness and a craving for human closeness and touch that we may have never realised the importance of, until now.

Finally, with acceptance comes the understanding that as it difficult as this disaster may have been, we have given it our own personal best.

For some Swinburne students, the lifestyle upheaval caused by COVID has even served as a blessing in disguise.

Chamath, a Bachelor of Arts student I spoke to, said the extra time he spent with his family has proved invaluable. Growing up as gay in a traditional Asian family has been far from easy for Chamath. Upon breaking the news to his parents? Dishonour! Dishonour on you! Dishonour on your cow! Dishonour on your whole family! (Please tell me you got the Mulan reference?). Naturally, wearing a mask is a heavy burden, especially when you’re afraid that the homophobia will spring from your own parent’s disapproval – sometimes it’s  easier not to say anything. After all, how can you accept not being accepted?

Yet lockdown has allowed Chamath to establish some middle ground between who his family want him to be, and who he actually is. While this middle ground may not be his complete self, it is still a part of him, and has enabled him to get along with his family, without feeling forced to be a whole other person.

“It made me realise my family wasn’t that bad,” he said, telling me that he appreciated this time because, after having surrounded himself with predominantly Western friends for so long, he was able to “reconnect with [his] brown.”

“I reconnected with Sri Lankan cultures, not just family, but the culture that I’m part of that I’ve been pushing away.”

For Ariel, a Science student, her family life has worsened. “Before we were coexisting, and now I’m like, I wanna kill these people,” she said. “It’s like having a favourite song and then hearing the song on repeat everywhere, and you start to hate it. Not ‘cause of anything being wrong with the song, it’s just you’re sick of it.”

Other students, however, have enjoyed the family time they got out of this, despite the distractions they tend to bring. Yes, I am as shocked as you are that their families aren’t completely annoying…maybe it’s just mine and Ariel’s who become the equivalent of nails on a chalkboard given enough time to do so.

Braden Grady, who is studying Secondary Education and Science, has spent  lockdown with his younger sisters, aged two and four months. He told me that at times, they have interfered with peace and quiet, explaining that at one point, his younger sister “found staples, tipped them all over the floor and started playing with them”, requiring Braden to abandon his work in order to remove the sharp objects from the indignant baby.

Though his siblings can be “small and annoying and loud”, in their own cute way of course, Braden has valued the time he has been able to spend with them during such an important, formative stage of their lives. “I can see them and play with them more, there’s been more cuddle time and time for bonding. I’ve had a bit more of a part in them growing up,” he said.

Initially, Braden thought the new distractions in his life would impact his time management – both loud siblings, and “all the extra time I [had to] spend on Netflix.” Lockdown presented a battle between his identities as “procrastinator and perfectionist,” but ultimately, his perfectionist side has actually won out. “My time management has gotten better,” Braden said. “Though I had to adjust to a whole new study schedule, I have not submitted an assignment late, and have kept my work to a high standard.”

Many students, Braden included, have also adjusted to this lifestyle shift by taking up a new hobby or reconnecting with an old one. Personally, I realised that my suburb is its own little community – I made friends with the old cat lady across the street and found out she was a complete badass who brought feminism to New Guinea decades ago.

Braden and Chamath, on the other hand, have allowed their creativity to bloom. Braden took up the flute, and Chamath has been documenting his isolation experience on camera. “Before lockdown, productivity was focused on physical things. Creating something was centred around my uni studies, which closed borders for me,” Chamtah said.

Now, Chamath wakes up, showers, and documents his life on camera. Pre-lockdown, “life was stagnating,” he added. “I had so many plans. Internships, job placements, etcetera. All that changed in 2020, but I’ve made something out of this [lifestyle change] and preserved memories through my disposable camera. After all, this is as much a year of my life as all the others, best not write it off and pretend it never happened.”

Chamath believes that a “new dimension” has been opened during lockdown, without the threat of external distractions. “I just used to make TikToks,” he told me. “Now I’m taking it to the next level.” He finds joy in doing this for himself, minus any pressure of disapproval.

Lockdown has also been a useful time for self-reflection, especially for Hannah*.

She explained to me that “staying home all the time made problems outside life seem surreal and allowed for some mental peace, even with the problems still existing.” Having lost her job amidst the pandemic, she added that “the time to kick back despite the lack of money and income, really makes you question the value of trading money for time. A lack of daily expenses means you no longer count your pennies.”

“It’s like a storm, the winds of change are upon us – if we stay stiff to the change and don’t bend, we will break,” she said. “That being said, we do need to change certain things. People aren’t getting paid as easily, they have to withhold work for payment and then release the work. This shows us how little control we really have in our lives. Being aware of this may be the first step to taking the control back.”

A lot of students have struggled to gain control during lockdown, with some struggling with body-image issues they did not have at the beginning of this crisis. This may have been triggered by the decrease in exercise spurred by lockdown, along with Melbourne’s many gyms closing. However, Ariel’s experience has made me understand that this has also been triggered by a change in our own perceptions. She told me she is keen to get outside again and see “normal bodies”, because the time spent at home with only herself and Netflix for company meant all she witnessed was the media’s portrayal of “sexy”.

Yes, Hollywood may be getting better at their “all body types are beautiful” campaign, but they’re certainly not there yet. Centuries of beauty culture has conditioned us to think we’re not good enough, so, for most of us, going outside and seeing someone we think is beautiful despite their non-conformity to society’s superficial standards can subconsciously reinforce our own positive perception of ourselves. Feeling comfortable in our own skin presents as much a cultural shift as it does an individual one, so for Ariel, who has been stuck at home in her sweatpants watching seemingly perfect Gucci clad supermodels trapped within a glass screen, she needed a reminder that this was not the real world. In the real world, you are beautiful because you are you.

Evidently, social distancing has also led to social isolation, and although we have had more time to catch up with old friends online or over the phone, the lack of physical interaction has nonetheless felt trying for most of us. However, social interaction is multi-dimensional and while we might have lost some of the magic of face-to-face social interaction, it hasn’t all been bad.

Lockdown has been a period of self-growth for many of us, including Chamath. He told me that staying home has forced him to get his “pandemic priorities straight.”

“I’ve saved money and not spent it on unnecessary things like drinks and drugs. I’ve been able to deal with my depression head on, without [these distractions],” he explained.

“There’s no need to get laid all the time, ‘cause I don’t really need it. A lot of things became background noise against the backdrop of ‘I matter more’.”

While everyone has worked through this pandemic at different paces and in slightly different ways, COVID-19 has allowed us to share more than a few undeniable commonalities. Case in point: the complete lifestyle change required in each and every one of us a change in mindsets, time commitments, and in our travel and sense of sociability. While COVID has (thankfully) not been as dramatic as the Black Plague of 1665 (during which Sir Isaac Newton basically invented physics because he was bored – thanks for that, Isaac) the pandemic has definitely shaken up our lives.

No matter what 2020 looks like for you, one thing is clear: it has marked a turning point in our lives. COVID-19 has meant that some of us have reconnected with our families, while others have reduced their vices, found inner peace, and developed a deeper understanding of the world. While we may be glad to go back to normal life, these lessons have the potential to shape our future for the better – depending on how we choose to perceive and view them, of course.

What will life look like for us post-lockdown? Personally, in the short term, I’m excited to go to restaurants with my friends again and eat good food, and hug people! I am definitely going to become a hugger.

While all of us have lost touch with the external, mundane parts of life, most of us have learned their true value. We had to lose these things to realise we loved them. Perhaps we can take this as a call to start taking life by the horns rather than for granted? It is equally important that when we resume classes on-campus, Swinburne does not take us for granted, and introduces measures designed to help students feel safe.

It is also important that we accept the diversity of change that may occur post-lockdown. The integration of the online world into the workforce may result in a better or worse work-life balance. A lot of people who were on a nosedive to ruin their lives, may struggle to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Some people may go straight back to their vices, while others will emerge with a new hobby and solid body of work that they’ve created.

As it does now, this will all serve to demonstrate that change on its own, in the context of a forced lockdown, is never really good or bad. More often than not, it’s entirely up to us what we make of it.

While I can’t say for sure what a post-COVID world will look like, one thing is clear. A lot of people are going to rediscover the world – and when they do, it may just transform their lives for the better.

If you are struggling with your mental health, Wellbeing at Swinburne can help – they  offer free psychological support services for Swinburne students. Please phone (03) 9214 8483 for more information.

If you need a more informal group of friends to support you through this crisis, hop onto Swinburne’s H.squad Instagram @h.squad_swinburne  and take part in the numerous activities they run throughout the semester, designed to alleviate the burden on mental, sexual and nutritional health. 

*This student wishes to remain anonymous.

About Jananie Pathiraja

Jananie Pathiraja, better known as Jan like January, is a student at Swinburne University about to complete her Bachelor of Health Science majoring in Biomedical Science. She is a major health buff and a complete science nerd (yes, chemistry included).

She is a part of several Swinburne initiatives and clubs, including toastmasters, and loves writing for SWINE. This ice-cream biting almost-psychopath is passionate about a career in health and in her spare time is an avid reader (currently devouring the pages of the count of Monte Cristo which she assures us, is a must-read – fair warning, she says this about 90% of the books she reads). You can connect with Jan via her LinkedIn here.