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One moment, one city, one hope

Where I live in Melbourne, August 5 was like no other mid-winter day I've ever experienced in our amazing, punches-above-its-weight little corner of Victoria, Australia.

Yes, the sky was pretty much the same—a rough patchwork of grey sewn together by watery blue threads, with a signature downpour around lunchtime—and there was the occasional wail of an emergency siren, but everything else was off kilter.

The mothers pushing prams into the wind wore masks with their Kathmandu puffer coats. Many shops and cafes were dark or serving just a few customers. These sights have become the norm during the pandemic but for Melbourne, struggling with hundreds of new COVID-19 cases a day, things were about to take an even more surreal turn.

At 6pm, that happened.

At 6pm on August 5 I paused my day and held a thought. Because of increased lockdown measures which are among the toughest in the world, a bunch of Victorians were heading home from work around that time for the last time.

Hopefully the last time for just six weeks and then back to it.

Melbourne's iconic Flinders Street station in a busy pre-lockdown rush hour.

But some, including many business owners, went home and they won’t be going back to work. It’s gone. Regardless of anyone’s views of how to manage the virus outbreak, right now, that evening and for at least the next six weeks, families are at home working out how to hang onto what little they have left.

It must feel confusing. Sad. Scary. Maddening.

When the first lockdown happened in Melbourne, there was almost a pioneer spirit. Hey kids, let's treat this as an adventure. People went nuts for making sourdough and sweeping everything off the coffee table to do jigsaw puzzles while pledging to buy Australian soap.

Bernard Salt, the 'godfather' of Australian demography, told me during a #Perspectives podcast in May that "two or three months of lockdown in 2020 has as big a social impact on a country as five or six years of war three generations ago."

Even then, in the early days, it was the biggest social behavioural event in the history of civilisation, and Bernard predicted society would become more resourceful because of the looming possibility of a second pandemic.

"I do think the world we will emerge into will be very different to the world that went into lockdown," he said. "I think we've shifted our values to the extent we're becoming less 'me' focused and more about 'us'."

From 6pm on August 5, my thoughts are totally about us. Us Melburnians, taking shelter from an invisible enemy inside our homes, the novelty of creating a new stir fry or catching up with friends on Zoom long gone, replaced by what feels like a communal mourning.

For our beautiful city, usually pulsing at this time of year with huge crowds jostling for a better view at the footy, mothers and daughters having an afternoon at the National Gallery of Victoria, women snapping up a half-price winter coat at a department store winter sale. Full trams, early morning rowers in the mist on the Yarra, a quick pasta at the counter at Pellegrini's.

For now, that's all done.

I’ll remember 6pm on August 5 for a long time after this virus has gone. My businesses keep going strongly and I won’t take it for granted. These times are truly humbling.

If your business or your job just ended and you don’t know if it’s coming back, this must be so tough in so many ways.

This will pass. We will come through this. We will prevail. Businesses will be rebuilt by courageous, driven, determined people. People will pull together and find a way.

Imagine how much more colourful and precious everything will feel. If all goes to plan, Melbourne will be reopening when the spring jasmine is out and the puffers are replaced by sandals. Then we'll be able to take stock, reflect on what it was like to have a front row seat at an unprecedented global event, and how we all are.

And for now, take a breath.

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