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It’s weird to know I’ve been living through a major part of modern history, and I’ve been coping through memes and Tiktok videos.
— Sophie, 23, Cairns, 4 May 2020
A multitude of clichés have been spawned by Covid-19 as we try to capture its impact on our cultural, economic and social worlds. We recognise its unequal impact across society, we realise that essential workers are true heroes, and we reclassify bedrooms and kitchen tables as workspaces.
‘The dining table has become my desk: laptop stand, keyboard, mouse …’ writes Julia Mitchelmore of Centennial Park, ‘Adaptation is the theme of our lives now spent in this too-expensive, bathroom-through-the-bedroom, 25m-squared apartment which we chose for its proximity to the offices we no longer attend.’
For the Library, Covid-19 presents the important challenge of recording the experiences of Australians across the span of the pandemic. While social media, newspapers, websites, ephemera and blogs all document its impact, what is often missed are the personal stories of people living on the frontline.
During the 2019 centenary commemorations for the Spanish flu, it was noted how few private records had survived. While the similarities with how the current pandemic has been managed are striking — social distancing, lockdowns, masks, the closure of public facilities including the State Library — little has survived to document experiences of individuals.
‘But I intend to find a way to preserve [my writing] project in some form,’ writes Mike Betts of Albury, ‘so that future generations of my family can see what I experienced during the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020. I just wish my grandparents had done the same during the Spanish flu in 1919.’
On 4 May 2020 the Library launched The Diary Files, an online diary developed by our DX Lab to which all Australians are invited to contribute. The site provides a template, with a 300-word limit, and lets people add as many entries as they like. So far there more than 1000.
Like the photographs tagged through the Library’s Instagram project #NSWathome, contributions to The Diary Files are intended to be preserved permanently.
For many people, the beginning of the lockdown was a period of severe anxiety, with catastrophic job losses and industry collapses compounded by the uncertainty of the progress of the pandemic.
‘The fear of getting Covid-19 was very real and in the first few weeks,’ writes Stella of Ashfield. ‘Upon waking in the morning I would try to remind myself that I am not in fact in a nightmare but this is real life. Forced isolation, no freedom, no planning for the future, dreams on hold and as of 8 May, no job. I was laid off the day before Easter Friday. I felt shattered as it gave me purpose and also had colleagues I loved working with.’
But Stella found a silver lining in her isolation:
Life in the slow lane is so rewarding. No one overtaking you, no plans, no dramas … my worst fear was to be trapped in my 50 square metre, cold, dungeony shoebox apartment in the Inner West. Now I fear going back to the usual. Afterall, I have realised I was trapped inside with my favourite people in the world, and I have really enjoyed being with them.
Debbie of Mt Druitt also records the positives:
The longer ‘this virus’ goes on, the more I am tired of it and wish it would end … I’m especially thankful for family and friends and that I live in Australia — we are so fortunate. I’m especially thankful for time to stop, be still, enjoy new things but also enjoy more of what I already had but didn’t fully appreciate.
For some, like Ashfield’s Sandeep Kushmar Mishra, Covid-19 has been particularly tough. ‘When I came to Australia in 2017 with dream to earn my fortune and to change my 30 years history of misery, misfortune and failure,’ he writes, ‘I was more hopeful than ever before … I haven’t seen [my family] for almost 3 years … I am working in food industry where almost 200 hundred people work without any social distancing … when I GO TO JOB IT FEEL LIKE I’M GOING ON A BATTLEFIELD AND MIGHT NOT RETURN BACK.’
Schoolchildren have been some of the most assiduous diarists, often encouraged by their teachers. Kaitlyn, in year 11, described these ‘interesting times’ as a ‘living a history lesson’.
Meanwhile, reviews of distance learning have been mixed. ‘Online learning was so hard,’ writes 12-year-old Paris. ‘My school didn’t end up doing Zoom calls, and my parents were working full time so I had no one to assist me. I was receiving 35 emails a day ... having new things posted on Compass 24/7 ... and things on Google classroom posted and expected to be handed in by the next day were so hard.’
Some turned, inevitably, to social media, like Bella, also 12, who writes that her ‘screen time hasn’t been so high ever before. I had a little routine going on when I didn’t have online school, TikTok then Netflix next to Instagram, now to facetiming friends for a while and then the cycle would just keep going.’
I have learnt many things from this experience,’ writes Sophie, who is 13. ‘One of them is to not to take things for granted … Because out of nowhere a virus might appear.’
For a 15-year-old student incarcerated at Cobham Youth Justice Centre in western Sydney, Zoom was a challenge. Not only did he feel his family was too old to use it, he didn’t think it would help his case when he couldn’t go to court because of Covid-19. ‘I think I have a better chance of getting out when I am in front of the Judge,’ he writes on The Diary Files. But he sees contributing to the site as a huge achievement: ‘I never been able to read or write it only took me 2 month to read and write … I learnt how to read and write in lock up and now I love to write.’
Teachers both welcomed and worried about the eventual return to the classroom. ‘The atmosphere in the staffroom is tense,’ writes Monica of Croydon. ‘People dance around each other awkwardly to keep distance … and recoil from one another when they both reach for the fridge door at the same time. “No, you go ahead – make yourself a coffee first.” Oh God, they’ve picked up the milk bottle. How am I going to sanitise it without offending them? Maybe I’ll just have a black coffee, or none at all.’
For an anonymous writer, in early May, there was anxiety about returning to a job as a school careers counsellor, working with frightened children when they were frightened themselves. There was also personal frustration: ‘My partner and I are now planning our wedding for a third time, after being affected by both the bushfires and Covid-19 …’
While The Diary Files offer a fascinating snapshot of pandemic life, it’s not definitive. Many voices are missing, and we’re trying to fill the gaps with other means of collecting such as recording oral histories and harvesting social media.
The contributing writers from across Australia connect with each other through common experiences and attitudes. Ambivalence about the pandemic is pervasive: many feel guilty for thriving, for enjoying the sudden reduction in pace of contemporary life, the feeling that the treadmill had slowed. Others miss the connections and intimacy.
‘The first three weeks of this were great. Plenty of time to write and think about my place in the world,’ writes 23 year-old James. But, ultimately, he concludes like many Diary Files contributors, ‘I’m ready to go back to the way it was. I’ve learnt a lot about myself. And I’ve learnt the outside world is a source of energy for even the most introverted of us.’
Richard Neville, Mitchell Librarian & Director, Engagement
This story first appeared in SL magazine spring 2020.