Coronavirus gets personal: crying in the streets as Australian jobs vanish and lives change forever

Michael McGowan
·7-min read

Jazmin Weatherall’s manager walked out of the office at the Sydney cinema where she worked and gathered the staff around. It looked as though she’d been crying.

“She just said, ‘Today’s going to be our last day,’ ” Weatherall says.

The next day her housemate, a florist, brought her home a bunch of flowers. She’d lost her job too.

“There’s also been another florist friend who lost her job, a friend of a friend who was a barber lost his job this week, so did a friend at a wine bar,” she says.

At a bar that weekend – the last before they were closed indefinitely due to the coronavirus outbreak – Weatherall started talking to a security guard.

Related: 'Dying in poverty’: disability pensioners left out of boosted welfare payments fear for future

“He stopped me and was like, ‘How are you doing?’ I thought he was seeing if I was intoxicated but he said, ‘No, really how are you doing?’ I said, ‘To be honest, I lost my job two days ago,’ and he was like, ‘Oh man, I lost my job today too. This is my last shift.’ It was kind of a cute moment. Like, we’re all in this together.”

It was two weeks ago that the prime minister, Scott Morrison, told reporters he would attend a football match the following day. Only a few hours later he had to backtrack. Since then, as the rate of Covid-19 infections accelerated across Australia and the world, life as we knew it has been suspended indefinitely.

The entire arts industry folded in on itself and football codes went into hibernation after a ban on mass gatherings. Airlines slashed travel as border closures came into force. Pubs, cafes and restaurants shut their doors. So too did beauty parlours, auction houses, brothels, churches and casinos.

With all these cascading announcements, the most significant shutdown of Australian society in living memory has brought myriad individual stories of stress, anxiety and anger.

Bruce Roberts, 47, a flight attendant from Daylesford in country Victoria, was also stood down on the same day as Weatherall. His partner, Cory, is also a flight attendant. They face having no income between them.

“It’s placed enormous stress on us, just thinking about how are we going to pay our mortgage, the bills,” Roberts says. “There’s so many of us with so many questions, and right now there really is no surety.”

In three days at least 35,000 workers lost their jobs, 280,000 Australians lodged “intent to claim” benefit forms in a single morning as lines at Centrelink offices across the country snaked around blocks and the government’s MyGov website crashed repeatedly.

Some economists predict Australia could shed more than 1m jobs before the crisis is over, which would push the country’s unemployment rate above 10%. The federal government has effectively doubled welfare payments since the outbreak but there are loud calls for further relief in the way of rent and housing assistance.

Homelessness advocacy group Everybody’s Home has been calling on the government to use empty hotels as emergency accomodation for those facing homelessness, along with rental assistance for people who have lost their job as a result of the crisis and a halt on evictions.

“Right now, we have a hospitality industry facing an extended period with thousands of unoccupied beds, while similar numbers of at-risk individuals are in desperate need of somewhere to sleep,” policy manager for the group Kate Colvin said.

“With modest financial support, the Morrison government could match up supply and demand and help minimise the spread of the coronavirus and the impact it’s having on our communities.

“We recognise there will be many calls for government support at this time, but we urge the government to place society’s most vulnerable at the centre of their attention.”

Lyssa Tredgett was among those in Centrelink line. The 32-year-old had gone into the office of her marketing job early to make her husband, Jason, a birthday card for his 50th the next day.

When she saw two of her bosses in a meeting room she wasn’t initially concerned – the couple had been worried about Jason’s job as a chef but believed that her position would be secure – for a while at least.

It wasn’t.

“My boss came out and asked me for a chat and the minute he said that I knew,” she says. “That was that. I went outside and cried on the road.”

She spent her husband’s birthday applying for “literally hundreds” of jobs, many of which she knows no longer exist. Then three days later Jason was let go too.

I’m sitting here with my jigsaw puzzles and playdough for my kids while I wait to have a breakdown

Lyssa Tredgett

“It’s heartbreaking,” she says. “We have grown up taught to be who you want to be, follow your dreams and grow a career.

“I’m not going to say it was my dream to be a marketing manager at a landscape company but it’s something I chose. That complete removal of choice is so jarring, and you mourn it.”

The couple rent a home in Leichhardt in Sydney’s inner west that costs them $1,740 a fortnight. With two young sons aged three and eight months, they already live on a tight budget. Now, with no income, they have to entirely rethink their way of life. They have been hoping for a government announcement on rent assistance but by Friday that had not happened.

“The worst part about it is I feel shit but I have to get on with my day,” she says. “We don’t have savings. We don’t have a safety net. But I think the real shock is two weeks down the line when the money we have now is gone.

“It’s the same with grief. Somebody dies and two weeks later they fall apart in the supermarket. So not only are we waiting for the worst of the health and economic implications for the country, I’m sitting here with my jigsaw puzzles and playdough for my kids while I wait to have a breakdown.”

After days of failing to access MyGov, Weatherall set an alarm for 2.45am and finally got through.

“I just feel so confused all the time,” she says. “I’m trying not to think about what’s going to happen in the future but I think that is exactly what I feel upset about. It’s too hard for us to comprehend everything that’s happened but I feel like the government should be making it easier and I don’t think that’s what they’re doing.”

In Melbourne, Marlee Jane Ward, a 37-year-old writer and receptionist, posted a screenshot of the documents she’d been asked to provide Centrelink online after she successfully made her claim. It was shared hundreds of times.

The winner of the 2016 Victorian premier’s literary award for writing for young adults, Ward paid the bills with a day job as a receptionist that disappeared last Monday. The work she had as a writer and speaker had already completely dried up.

“There’s absolutely no framework for what the future is going to look like, especially for anyone who works in the arts or a customer-facing position,” she says.

“My job that paid the bills was casual so I had no leave entitlements or redundancy. It’s really revealed how fucking tenuous everything was to begin with.”

Common among all the people Guardian Australia spoke to this week was a recognition that Covid-19 had prompted a dramatic reshaping of modern life which could not quickly be undone.

“I don’t think the world is going to be the same after this,” Ward says. “Maybe, I hope, it will be a little bit fairer for people who don’t have as much. If capitalism can’t last two weeks without completely falling apart maybe it’s time to look for something a bit fucking better.”