The Relief of Clear Instructions in the Age of Coronavirus

The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. Sign up to get it by email. This week’s issue is written by Besha Rodell, a columnist with the Australia bureau.

When I stepped off a Qantas flight from Los Angeles to Melbourne this past Tuesday, health officials in protective gear handed me a piece of paper instructing me to self-quarantine for 14 days. Strangely, those instructions came as a relief. At last, someone was giving me definitive guidelines on what to do in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

I have spent the last three weeks traveling in South America, Mexico, the Caribbean and the United States on assignment for Food & Wine and Travel & Leisure magazines as part of a project that was supposed to keep me on the road for four months. The decision to halt that travel was made collectively, between myself and my editors, but until late last week it did not feel like an easy decision. The project is important for the magazines, and it represents a huge chunk of my yearly income. The logistics of getting it done are complex and difficult under the best circumstances. In the middle of last week it was unthinkable that international travel would grind to a halt, and that isolation would become the norm throughout most of the world. There was no easy answer, until there was.

It was a relief to arrive back in Australia, and not just because of that piece of paper with its definitive instructions. I entered the United States three times last week (a result of a very complicated travel schedule), and at three different U.S. airports customs officials never questioned where I’d been or whether I was unwell. Once those procedures were put in place, the day after my last entry to the U.S., they caused hourslong logjams. My journey through customs in Australia was thorough and swift.

But once I was out of the airport, the confusion of everyday life in the time of a pandemic resurfaced. My teenage son’s school principal emailed instructions on what to do if you were keeping your child home for preventive reasons, and a directive to contact the class coordinator if the circumstances were complex. Since I am under quarantine, and my son is sick with a fever and cough, I contacted the coordinator, who in turn resent me the principal’s original email, telling me to follow those instructions. When I told him that the instructions he was sending me told me to contact him, he reiterated that I should follow the principal’s instructions.

My husband recently opened a small business, which is foundering and will likely have to shutter. Should he stay open while he can, or is it irresponsible to be open at all? How do you weigh the personal responsibility to pay your employees and feed your family with the social responsibility of isolation?

Everyone I know has conundrums like these, and definitive answers are impossible to come by. We know we should be washing our hands. We know we should be practicing social distancing. But life is far more complicated than that, and I see many people who want to do the right thing confused about what that thing is.

On our New York Times Australia Facebook page, I wrote that coming back to Australia was like stepping back in time a few days, to the days before restaurants and bars were ordered closed, to a time when people still don’t know whether it’s better to stay home or go out and support the hospitality industry. In American states where school systems have shut down and venues have been ordered closed, those questions have been eliminated.

The responses to my post varied wildly: People questioned why Australian schools and restaurants haven’t shuttered, while others blamed the news media for inflating the problem and causing panic. One commenter posited that because Australia is closing its borders and isolating newly returned travelers, we might avoid a complete shutdown. But as the official tally of new cases in Australia rose from under 200 to over 560 in a five-day period, it seems unlikely that anything but drastic measures will work here or anywhere else.

I am glad for the simplicity of the instructions I received: Stay home, and keep away from other people. What are the coronavirus-related dilemmas you face, and what clear instructions would be useful for you? Let us know at

Here are this week’s stories.

Last week, we wrote about the anxiety over the coronavirus and asked you to share how you were coping. Here’s one reader’s response:

I wake up every morning anxious. I don’t want to talk about my fears; that I have the virus, that I am spreading it each time I see someone, that I shouldn’t have gone to the grocery store on Saturday, that maybe if I hadn’t gone to that event 10 days ago, I’d be fine.

I am retired, age 69 and in good health. I do get bronchitis once a year, and it has turned into pneumonia a few times.

But being socially isolated is strange. I usually have several social events per week; tea with a friend, dinner out with a small group, a knitting circle, plus social dancing every weekend. Social media and phone calls are not replacing my desire for closer face-to-face contact.

I meditate regularly and this practice helps me stay in the present moment. I practice finding something to be grateful for every day. I am breathing in. I am breathing out. I am breathing in. I am breathing out.

In this moment, I feel better.

-Nancy WorthenEnjoying the Australia Letter? Sign up here or forward to a friend.

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