This year started in a difficult way for so many—drought, widespread bushfires and heavy rains. We had closely followed news of the bushfires late in 2019 that had directly impacted farming relatives in northern NSW.
Then catastrophic fire conditions on the south coast of NSW directly affected my family on New Year’s Eve.
As is our 20+ year tradition, about 30 Broadbent family members had rented five houses in the one street on the NSW South Coast for two weeks after Christmas. We are a multi-generational multi-family crowd. The locals are used to us descending on their street and the nearby beaches where we surf, swim, walk, explore and build sandcastles each day.
But this year, on New Years’ Eve we got early morning warnings of nearby fires. Some of took shelter on the beach and watched the foreshore burn, and others went to the Evacuation Centre about 15kms away. It was an eerie and difficult time, as the power went out, shops were closed, no phone or internet connections, and the roads out were closed. Then there were no fuel supplies.
We were being encouraged to head back to our city homes—but with roads closed, fires still burning and limited fuel that was a challenge.
What came to the fore in this situation? It was a community of people who did not know one another well but who immediately and pro-actively supported each other. People used buckets to put out grasses still burning, got whatever they could for others, kept an eye out for logs still burning around the local primary school and shared information about where fuel and food was available, and which roads were open. About the only form of communication we had, was person to person.
After a few days, the roads opened for short periods and each family managed to get fuel. We headed home to Melbourne, via very long routes north to Nowra before we could cut across to head south again down the Hume Highway. Instinctively our six carloads split into three groups of two, so that there were always two cars travelling together in case of issues along the way.
We crawled through slow traffic for about 150 kilometres, with burning embers, devasted vegetation and burnt properties on either side, past signs on homes in some of the built-up areas that said ‘bathroom available here’. We were shepherded through by many different types of emergency workers.
When we all got home safely, only then could we see what others were seeing—the broader story across states of which we were a tiny part, and the dramatic rescue of those on the beach at Mallacoota, just a bit further south from our beach village.
What we saw was dedication and care from so many, others who would normally be enjoying the holidays providing so many services to both travellers and locals. We saw big kids and little kids exercise great patience and understanding, and the ability to comfort each other. People cared, raised funds and resolved to go back and support those devastated areas as soon as they were allowed to do so.
One week after we returned to Melbourne, we had a family wedding in Sydney— one for which I had taken one good outfit on holidays, as we were going to head straight there from the NSW south coast. Flying to Sydney was now a much better option.
This wedding was a chance to catch up with the other part of our family, those who lived further north. One of our talented next-generation performers, a classical musician, was to marry his American-born love.
There we heard more about the northern NSW situation, as well as the bare and very dry Monaro plains and Snowy Mountains area. The township where a nephew had just been posted for his next job had been completely destroyed by the fires, but he figured there would still be other good work elsewhere.
What we saw there was a great sense of optimism, and lots of dancing and music (with plenty of professional musicians and other performers amongst the guests). There was a feeling that things would work themselves out – after all it was joyful event shared with families from mid West of the US who had just experienced one of strangest December / January periods of their lives.
Then the rains came and, though too heavy in some places, in others the green shoots were turning those barren paddocks into potentially edible feed for stock and good base for crops.
Many of the family’s performers had very reliable work organised for much of year—one classical musician as a full-time Symphony Orchestra member in Australia, some as music theatre actors in long running musicals and high-profile festival events, and jazz /Latin specialists in sets of booked gigs.
Amongst others close to us, one was starting a new role with a significant promotion and another had been asked to perform in an acting capacity in a role which would likely become available later in the year. And generally other family members were well placed with work commitments and their various blends of responsibilities.
Business was looking good, and the year was starting with a promising pipeline of interesting work.
We then heard from colleagues who work in China, one of whom was on holidays trying to get back with his family. Much was in lockdown in key parts of China, and our colleague in Italy, could not fly back to Hong Kong as he and his family had been in a high-risk area. They quietly moved to Amsterdam and took an Airbnb apartment, to serve out their two weeks of quarantine and then return to Hong Kong. Others returned to Shanghai from holidays but much was in lockdown at that time.
We were now starting to get regular reports from other colleagues around the world about the situation in their countries.
Whichever way you looked, we were definitely transitioning into a very different world.
It was March 13 that I made my last interstate flight—to work with a client in Canberra. The normally packed 6.30am flight to Canberra had about 10% of its usual load. Then each of my return flights were successively cancelled, with only the very last flight back to Melbourne available. Things were clearly moving fast.
On March 15, the Prime Minister declared a lockdown, social distancing and other measures. New Zealand was doing the same. Theatres, performing venues, sports arenas, festivals—all closed or closing down, along with restaurants, cafes and so many other elements that make our cities and towns so vibrant.
One of our sons has been a principal cast member of The Book of Mormon since it started rehearsals in late 2016, and was in Auckland with the show. Then home, without an income and unable to perform his craft and delight audiences for who knows how many months.
The Comedy Festival performer lost her opportunity, and the jazz /Latin musicians are all without gigs. Those about to start in new shows don’t know what the future holds. The classical musicians are stood down. It is rather ironic that for one orchestra, all the musicians were stood down, and only ‘essential staff’ remained. One wonders what is an ‘essential worker’ for an orchestra?
Some family members working in the health sector are part of crisis planning groups, while others have fewer shifts as they work in private hospitals where elective surgery has been put on hold.
Business leaders and owners are working through creative ways to support clients and customers, and working with their employees to ensure they are managing as well as they can.
The education leaders are working with their teaching staff to figure out how to deliver ‘online learning’ to students whose first language is Arabic or Farsi, who might have a mobile phone, but no bandwidth, and whose homes are crowded and not conducive to home study.
But the teachers are working at being really creative. Those who work in more affluent areas are concerned about how many thousands of Microsoft Teams or Zoom calls and conferences their local NBN and bandwidth can really support.
Working from home is often fine too when the kids are at school. But, as a client explained to me, if you are working from home, while needing to supervise twins in Grade 4 and another in Grade 6, it is certainly a challenge.
This is all happening alongside talk of ‘putting the economy into hibernation’ which is a strange concept. It might be fine for those with an assured income, or even those whose income has been reduced by say 20 or 30%. But it doesn’t work well for those who have lost their job, or their business, or who now, need to run down all their savings to keep their business afloat.
Others have found that that because they have been frugal and have some savings, they don’t qualify for JobSeeker payments as they have some money in the bank. One young friend mentioned to me, managing her money carefully now meant she did not qualify for any support, while her friends who spent freely over the past years did qualify.
Walking through the streets of Melbourne on and off over the past two weeks has been a saddening experience. You know that behind every closed shopfront there is a story. I went into one store in the Bourke St Mall to get some essentials and the assistant explained that at 2pm, I was her second customer that day. She expected to be stood down or retrenched in a matter of days.
Meanwhile our hearts went out to all those business owners and their staff that we knew and whose damaged homes and towns we had driven through early in January. They were hoping the Easter holiday period would help them and their businesses recover. But this was not to be.
We are seeing many different people emerging as leaders through the pandemic, as we did in the emergency situations late last year and early in 2020. Perhaps it is a time when people’s real values come to the fore—no matter what they are, the good and not so good.
Values shines through:
We are seeing neighbours supporting each other, and people checking on each other. At the same time, we have seen levels of selfishness or at best thoughtlessness where, say, some thought that travel restrictions did not really apply to them, or they have looked after themselves with various supplies not thinking about others.
Many people are working creatively to keep some part of their business open, to keep their staff employed and have something to come back to. Manufacturers are rethinking what they do and making different products. Restaurateurs are making up meal kits, or making meals for health workers. Cafes are opening up coffee shopfronts to avoid the need for people to crowd into their store. People are discovering that there might be a sense of accomplishment in growing their own food.
Motivation overcomes technophobia:
We all now know how to use Zoom, or MS Teams, or Skype or whatever, and we are figuring out how to get work done in a different environment. We are all learning more about doing business online. We see ministers and priests suddenly embracing technology so they can provide video services to their parishioners.
Generosity is reinforced:
We see out-of-work performers generously sharing their craft with us—even if, as a society we don’t support them the way they support us. After all, who are the first groups to offer their services in an emergency? Right after the first responders are those who offer to organise a concert for free, to raise funds for whatever the cause might be.
Calmness becomes a more valued attribute:
We see those we might not have noticed much, but who have an inner calm, come forward as leaders in a time where their considered ways are very much valued. They are not the panicky type—they just make themselves available, start organising things, and people follow their lead.
Whatever it takes:
Defence and other industries are identifying local suppliers who could repurpose their machinery for work that might have otherwise headed to overseas locations. Governments are fast forwarding some contracts to bring local work forward. Project managers stood down or retrenched are becoming customer centre support managers.
One of our performers who kept his ‘crowd controller/ security’ licence up to date, is now on guard at a retirement village. Another has corralled the other five members of his household into releasing a ‘house band’ (himself, his wife and four daughters) musical performance on Facebook every two days or so. He figures they need the practice and he needs to do some gigs.
What then can we draw from these personal and professional experiences? Perhaps those that will emerge from these restricted times will have some clarity about what they really enjoy doing—as they are not able to do it right now.
We will understand much more about what is really important to us—personally and professionally.
It is a time to reflect on what our strengths are – and where we need to draw more on others. We will likely identify different strengths amongst our colleagues and our teams.
Our resilience or ability to reframe a situation for the ‘here and now’ is critical. We will have much sharper relief regarding our ability to work at changing what we can change and accepting that there are some things we just have to live with—for now at least.
It might help each us of to clarify or rethink what we each see as our sense of purpose—why do we do what we do? What is it that gets us out of bed each morning? What drives and sustains us?
It might be timely to find a quiet corner— if you can, and with the headphones on—to ponder what you are learning about yourself and about others in these extraordinary times. Think about them, write them down, and then at least those reflections are there to help you rethink, reconsider, or reaffirm that sense of purpose.