opinion

"Today I found my friend crying outside the chemist. And I couldn't touch her."

Today I found my friend crying outside the chemist.

It was early. I was walking the dog and my partner needed medicine. He has a neck pain that’s been flattening him. The world might be gripped by the crisis of our times but people still get neck pain.

We’re not meant to be going outside much, but unit-dwellers without gardens go for walks. We give everyone a wide berth. We fret about people patting our dogs. We smile closed-mouthed smiles at those we pass and sometimes, inexplicably, hold our breath.

So I met my friend outside the chemist. She was in active wear, no make-up. Usually my friend has a huge smile and eyeliner for days, but these are quarantine times, and she was crying.

She couldn’t get her Ventolin. She has two kids, and she’s not the only one in her family with asthma. The chemist doesn’t have any. None of the chemists anywhere near us have any, because frightened people have bought it all. The tired and busy pharmacist was not particularly sympathetic. My friend was standing outside, social distancing, waiting for her prescription for her asthma preventer to be filled. And freaking out.

Your Covid-19 questions, answered. Post continues below.

The thing is, as my friend cried, we just stood there. On this early morning street outside the chemist, next to the speedily printed paper signs that tell you not to come inside if you have a cough, we just stood there. Two metres apart, as is advised. My friend crying. Me holding a dog lead, saying, “I’m so sorry.”

Two weeks ago, I would have hugged my friend. It would have been my unquestioned instinct. But I knew not to do that. So did she. The space between us was filled only with empathy and an awkward understanding that we mustn’t touch. I don’t know where she’s been, after all. She doesn’t know where I have been.

It’s one of the many things that’s changed in us, in just a few short weeks.

Don’t touch me.

No kisses hello, no hugs goodbye. No reassuring hands on hands.

Cringing as the man behind the counter in the shop takes your card instead of just letting you tap.

Taking in a small intake of breath as someone’s sleeve brushes yours in the sparse supermarket aisles.

And this is all over the world, the suspension of human touch. Imagine that, if last year someone had told you that in 2020, people were going to stop touching each other, en masse, at the exact same time.

This is just how peculiar it is to live in our world at this exact moment. It’s nothing we could ever have imagined.

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We can’t get the things we want when we want them. We can’t go to the places we want to go when we want to. We can’t see who we want to see when we want to see them. Everything is an ever-diminishing Plan B.

Being so very discombobulated makes it hard to distinguish between Big Problems and Small Problems.

But we must. Not least because maintaining some sort of perspective in this apocalyptic moment is going to help us survive it.

My friend not being able to get the medication that keeps her family safe? Big Problem.

Me not being able to show comfort to her in the way I would like to? Small Problem.

One million Australians losing their jobs in the same week? Big Problem.

Not being able to socialise with our friends at the places many of them used to work? Small Problem.

Listen to the latest episode of Mamamia Out Loud, all about that feeling we’re all feeling… Post continues below. 

Health care workers having to isolate from their families because their job puts them at risk daily? Big Problem.

Me being driven to distraction by too much enclosed-space proximity to my family? Small Problem.

Small problems feel like big problems at the moment, and the big problems are too enormous to consider.

But it’s this distinction, this constant shuffling of priorities, that we’re asking of our leaders daily. Hourly.

Who gets to be tested? Who doesn’t?

Do we choose fewer job losses, even if it means a faster viral spread?

Do we keep the workforce working by putting some members (teachers, child-care workers) at considerable risk?

They’re the decisions we’re all talking about. And loss of human touch is small in the face of all of that.

But connection is not. It’s when we feel connected that we care about each other’s well-being. That we stay home. That we listen. That we leave that mythical packet of toilet paper on the shelf for someone else because we already have one in the cupboard.

And that there is Ventolin for my friend’s family.

It’s overwhelming, really. And we’ve never needed a hug more.

But what humans are proving in this moment is that we’ve worked out how to connect way beyond our physical bodies.

I spoke about my friend on our podcast Mamamia Out Loud yesterday, and last night I received many messages from people wanting to offer her Ventolin, or tell her where they knew she could find some.

We’re calling each other again, sometimes even on phones. We’re gathering in small virtual groups to sing, or study, or train, or stretch, and telling each other, over and over, that not one of us is alone.

We thought we already lived online but we didn’t. We do now.

Turns out, there are many, many ways to touch each other. And only one of them spreads this insidious virus.

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