(A fictional short story inspired by the Australian lockdowns of 2021)
|Statue of Mercury at Pavlovsk Park|
Image by Aleksandrov (Wikimedia Commons)
The television turned itself on because it was time to get up. She lay in bed half-listening to journalists speaking in serious tones about various things, none of it was any more consequential than the faint sound of cars swooshing past on the busy road near her apartment until the voice of one man said sternly “what’s wrong with mandatory vaccinations?” Two men spoke to each other on the television, one was a union leader complaining about “right-wing extremists” hijacking a protest that had happened the day before – he explained that it wasn’t the case that workers were protesting against their own union for not pushing back against a government mandate that all tradies be vaccinated. What had actually happened was professional protestors had turned up and impersonated tradies … even so, the official union position was to support choice. The journalist on the State-run morning show chided the union boss for suggesting that adults should have the right to choose whether or not to be vaccinated.
The conversation was jarring and decidedly odd – surely adults should be free to make decisions regarding their bodies according to their own conscience? Edith had chosen to be vaccinated but she wasn't so haughty as to assume she had the right to tell other people what they must do with their bodies. “Well”, she thought, “everything kinda sucks until the first coffee”. The coffee machine was broken but that didn’t matter so much as she lived minutes from two competing and almost equally excellent cafes. She pulled on jeans and a shirt and stumbled out while tying her hair up in an elastic band. She was about to turn left at the end of her street when she noticed something missing. Where there had been a massive shrine to Mercury there was now … a void. The trees were still there, but the enclosure was gone, the statue was gone, the offerings around the statue were gone. Instead there was a notice board with pictures of missing cats, adverts for music performances that had been cancelled, and a paradoxical poster that read “Pro-Vaccine Mandates, Anti-Fascism”. Off to the side there was a sticker, obviously freshly placed, that read “The Media is the Virus”, and in smaller letters a social media username.
She pulled her phone out and looked up the username. The most recent post by this beacon of hope was a picture with the caption “Woman Moment”. It was a snapshot of a text exchange: “Sir, I need help with this homework”, “Send a pic and I’ll help you.” Then a picture of a young woman with her derriere exposed. This was meant to be humour she supposed, but it looked like naked misogyny – apparently the author of the sticker was not a voice of sanity after all, just a dick. She still hadn’t had that coffee and this day was beginning to feel totally f--ked, so she turned around and got her caffeine shot.
Before she could get it she had to use her State-run app and check in so the government would know at what time she had visited the cafe – her vaccine certificate was synced with the app, so that only vaccinated people could check in. She got two coffees – her brother was holding out on getting vaccinated and couldn’t buy anything as a result. As she grabbed the coffees she had this strange feeling that she was in a world that wasn’t her own. In the world she understood the government didn’t track where people bought coffee; they promoted vaccines as a risk-benefit scenario and explained to citizens what the harms of getting the virus were likely to be compared to getting vaccinated; they assumed adults should be free to make decisions about what medical procedures to consent to; journalists wrote balanced articles, referencing the latest data, explaining how the virus impacted people differently depending on age and co-morbidities, as well as other factors. In the world Edith lived in her teenage brother made a risk assessment and decided that he wouldn’t get vaccinated, and she respected his choice – that was when Edith closed her eyes for a moment and connected with her old self. This new self was not in the same kind of world. This world was …
Her musing was interrupted by raised voices – a policeman had pulled over a car near the cafe and was arguing with the occupants of the vehicle about whether or not the woman in the passenger seat was allowed to be in the car. “She just needs to prove she lives within 5km of you mate, then I’ll let you go”. Edith had the distinct sensation that she needed to avoid police, even though her facemask was on and … too late. A cop was asking her for ID. She pulled it out, he nodded, gave it back to her and asked another person waiting for their coffee. She lived within 5km of the café so it was all good. It was just a spot check. But that jarring sense was hammering itself on her again – this isn’t how life is meant to be.
Somehow she had woken up in a world where sacred shrines were replaced with uninspiring billboards, and so-called anti-fascists supported fascistic vaccine mandates. The government was literally and openly monitoring her movements (in fact everyone’s movements) via a smartphone app, and mandating that certain people must be vaccinated or else lose their employment and their right to buy basic things like food and coffee. All of this was apparently to “keep us safe”, like women in purdah.
Musing thus, she walked home and snuck in a sip of coffee. She was in a side street now so she felt safe removing her mask. She leaned against a wall and had another sip. She pulled out a pack of cigarettes and lit one up, and that is when she heard Mercury’s mocking laugh. She looked across the road and his shrine was still there. People walked their dog on the other side of the street – they weren’t wearing masks. She checked her phone and that stupid app was gone. The statue of Liberty still stood in America, and life was good.