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  • Ray Monde

Too late to leave. Stay in place. COVID-19.

What the Australian bushfires taught me about making decisions in a time of coronavirus (COVID-19).

I’m one of those people that likes to be prepared. I check the exits on a airplane. I feel under my seat to make sure there’s a life jacket there.

So when the mountains burst into flames behind my house in November 2019, I planned to leave. I love my home at Riverbend, it’s insured, it’s replaceable.

I didn’t want to be one of those people to die with a garden hose in my hand. I would be out of there well before the text message ‘It’s too late to leave, shelter in place’ pinged on my phone.

Artist Ray Monde's house with flames behind it

Evacuate early, don’t wait to be told to leave.

In the evacuation centre in Braidwood, I thought of home. What’s happening now? Where are the fires? Has the fire front passed.

I wanted to see what was happening. I drove around to the river bank opposite to see our house. And this is what I saw. Huge plumes of smoke rising up behind our home. It did nothing to make me feel more at ease.

I slept on the floor of the Braidwood Arts Centre, the walls danced all night to the red and blue flickers of fire trucks driving past.

Keep an eye on changes and be ready to change plans.

Driving home the next morning, all the paddocks and forests along Bombay Road were burnt out. Blackened tree trunks. Scorched earth.

The house was still there. More hosing down the house. Filling the gutters again with water. Walking and walking the paddocks with an eye to the wind and the direction of the flames.

Fires burning around Ray Monde's house

Then, there’s a loud cracking and a low roar. The neighbour’s paddocks are alight, fire blazing through the scrub, crowning through the trees. The only road out is ablaze.  Driving the ute to the river, putting my bags in the canoe, I kept my eyes to the smoke. If I needed to, I would paddle to safety.

Canoe on the Shoalhaven River with luggage in it

My neighbours are looking out for me. After the flames pass, the local Bombay fire shed sends two trucks and a mosquito ute to back burn. A dozer blazes a trail of dirt around our place. I’m flooded with relief and gratitude. While it’s not over, I feel safer, supported, less alone.

What do fires in Australia have to do with the coronavirus?

The fires taught me that in a crisis, you need multiple plans, not just one. You need a Plan A, a Plan B and a Plan C. You need to set thresholds for yourself and act on them, even if they do feel silly at the time.

Plan A: Fly out of the country

When it comes to fighting COVID-19, we put together multiple scenarios. We spoke about flying back to Australia where the health system is more robust, testing is free and widely available.

Flying involves moving through multiple places for infection – taxis, airport lines, 26 hours on a plane. On arrival, it’s a minimum of two weeks in isolation on arrival. We shelved Plan A.

COVID-19 infections in Seattle, courtesy Seattle Times

Plan B: Go to a state with low infections

Our next plan was to move out of Washington State. The first death caused by COVID-19 is in this state and the majority of deaths are also here. If we drove to a state with lower infections, like Montana, Wyoming or West Virginia. The health care system may be less overloaded. The reality of this plan – staying in hotels, eating out, feeling unsettled, significant costs – also made this plan unworkable.

Plan C: Self-isolate, wash hands, eat well, limited forays into the supermarket.

In the end, we decided to shut ourselves at home. We stocked up on good food, things we can cook and eat for days. Bolognese con verdure, beef bourguignon, chorizo stew, carrot and ginger soup.

We work from home. Exercise a lot. Get into the parks and gardens, keeping away from any passers-by. Play music, dance, rediscover silly music we’d forgotten about. We create a sense of occasion – including ‘tinnie time‘ where we have one beer – just one! – at 6pm as the sun is low on the horizon.

We cannot get sick. We cannot get hospitalised. That’s our number one plan. Our second priority is to relax, make the most of the moments.

Collage by Ray Monde showing Dr Li Wenliang with crown of COVID-19

We need one more plan.

But we do need one more plan which we’re working on. What do we do if society breaks down? If supermarkets have no food, if there’s no healthcare available. If there’s no electricity, no heating. What thresholds do we mark as our tipping point and what do we do? I’d rather be prepared and not have to enact the plan, than the alternative.

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