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Covid comes home

“There’s a Covid ‘cluster’ at my gym.” Did I really just write that?

I’ve been going to the City Tattersalls gym five mornings a week for more than 20 years. The group of women I exercise with are some of my closest friends. We share joys and sorrows. We pick each other up when we’re down. If one of us is in pain, we slow our run to a walk, to make sure that the injured person still feels happy in our group.

It’s the camaraderie as well as the exercise. Actually, it’s the friendships more than the exercise – but we do love working out together! Yoga, Pump, Zumba, Ballet Barre … you name it, we’ll try it, and generally have a laugh along the way.

We’ve fought for changes in the gym on many occasions. We want it to be a great place because we know it can be – and mostly is. We want people to feel welcome because we’re a nice bunch and the gym has a very different vibe to other inner-city gyms. We aren’t the chiselled bods or pert-arsed crowd that snaps selfies. Our gear doesn’t match, our tights are worn through, and the early morning crowd (at least) has the hairy demeanour of sloths who’ve just crawled out of bed (well, actually, that’s just me).

The beautiful thing is, it doesn’t matter. Nobody is judged for her body, nobody gives a toss. We care much more about whether we’re doing okay. Whether we’re physically well. Whether we’re winning at balancing our mental health. For some of us that’s a struggle (yes, me again) – and the exercise and loving support really helps.

You’d be hard pressed to find another gym whose members are so invested in its success – except maybe, as one newbie said to me recently, in a country town. She hails from the Central West and is used to going to gyms where loads of people miss her when she doesn’t turn up. That’s us. If I’m tempted to skip a day or two, I mostly don’t because it will cause worry and consternation in the group.

It’s an old club in the heart of Sydney’s CBD, so it has its ‘foibles’ (to put it politely). But, then again, it doesn’t matter. We make do with the oddness because we want to. If things were perfect we’d feel out of place. It’s a bit like grandma’s house – old fittings and furnishings, quaint nooks and crannies, walls that need a lick of paint. But, just like grandma’s house, it has a lived-in feel. It’s comfortable. It’s a place where good-hearted people meet, keep fit and chase the stress away.

Covid lockdown earlier this year was hard for everyone and our group was no exception. We chatted on WhatsApp and shared recipes and book recommendations, but we missed each other terribly. (Remember, we usually see each other every weekday.) We fretted about the pandemic, shared horror stories about it from other countries and cities, and tried to keep abreast of what we needed to do to stay safe.

Some of our group live with high-risk, older relatives, so they were anxious about bringing the virus home from their forays out to get food or to exercise in their local parks. When schools returned to normal after lockdown, I was concerned that my teacher partner would bring the virus home to me.

Post-lockdown, when our group returned to the gym, we were skittish (well, I was) and a bit shocked at the changes that had taken place. Our women’s only cocoon of a gym had gone co-ed, combining with the men’s group. But we knuckled under, realising that in the time of Covid we could have lost a lot more than this. We were glad the gym had survived and we were curious to see how the changes would pan out.

One big change, of course, was having to clean everything before and after use, sanitise our hands at every turn and keep our distance from our classmates. But we were doing it (or the people I exercise with were doing it!) and to a fault. One memorable morning, we were humbled to find the CEO scrubbing the gym floor because someone had to do it in order for us and other members to have a safe place to work out.

We have great instructors at City Tatts and they are careful. There is sanitiser everywhere, always. We even have a Covid-safe marshal in a hi vis vest. About three or four weeks ago, I’d finally started to relax back into my exercise routine again and generally felt we were all getting back into the groove. Yes!

Over the months of the pandemic, I thought I would have heard that someone I knew had had a close brush with the virus. Anybody. But no. That never happened. Less than ten people I knew even said they’d had a scratchy throat or a bit of a cough and so had gone to have a test.

Honestly, I never thought I’d be the first.

So, it seemed surreal this week, when news came that there was a Covid outbreak at City Tattersalls gym. Two cases were confirmed. From there it got even stranger. I and several of my gym buddies got letters from NSW Health saying we were casual contacts because we were in the gym on the days someone with Covid had been there. My best buddy’s letter said she was a close contact. None of us could fathom why she had this different designation. It was only later we realised that on one of the at-risk days she’d gone back to the gym for a massage when the rest of our group had headed off to work.

Our WhatsApp group exploded with conversation and fact checking. We confirmed that casual contacts had to monitor for symptoms and get tested immediately if we have a fever, runny nose, cough, sore throat, shortness of breath, loss of smell or loss of taste. We also confirmed that close contacts had to get tested and isolate – hard core.

There have been mixed messages in the media that haven’t helped our little group as we’ve negotiated this threat to us and to the gym we love. Thankfully, we’re mostly a level-headed, resourceful and well-connected bunch, so we’ve done what we needed to stay informed.

We’ve all had tests and they’ve come back negative but we know that doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods yet. It’s a waiting game. The more days that pass without symptoms the more we can breathe a collective sigh of relief.

For the last few days, the media has been calling the outbreak at City Tatts a “cluster” and, using the “c” word like this, we know, is never a good sign. What it means is that they think the virus initially spread at the gym and has now been disseminated to other parts of the CBD and perhaps even further to the Central Coast.

Yesterday, the Health Department added some more dates and detail about which classes were affected – and August 25 popped up in the mix. This was my last morning at the gym, but I was there before the times and classes identified as high risk.

Still, I won’t be feeling completely at ease until the two weeks has passed from this date. Even then it could take a while – given that I really don’t want any of the women I know and care about at my gym to be sick.

If I’ve learned anything from the pandemic’s months of semi-isolation, watching the news and trying to protect the volunteers who work for the South Sydney Herald, it’s that this virus is stealthy. It slips easily between the cracks. When it does, it can be deadly (as we all know only too well now) with 1 million deaths worldwide and counting. Again, today in the paper, they’ve been saying that the effects of the coronavirus can linger and cause chronic damage to your organs and health.

Another thing I’ve learned is that it’s easy to judge people – and a harsh double-think can come quickly into play. Even sensible people are tempted to ask: How could those people go to the gym, then to the shops and then to work and spread the virus? But if you’re asymptomatic, let me tell you, it’s easy as pie.

I go to the gym when I’m well to stay healthy. If the virus was lurking inside me while I was there these last few weeks, I didn’t know it. I did everything I could to keep myself and everyone else physically safe.

As I write this, I’m fretting about my friend who had close contact – but she says she’s in fine fettle so far and enjoying her isolation reading her book on her sun-drenched front porch.

Another friend is terrified, and can’t get past the panic. It’s a spiral. She feels sick with the panic and panicking makes her feel sick. Because she’s feeling sick, she feels sure she’s got the virus and the panic gets worse.

When she asked me, in a text, how I was doing, I tapped out the first part of my reply quickly. It took me a while to type the rest.

“I feel hale and hearty physically, and not too bad emotionally,” I wrote, “except every now and again, when I’m trying to tell someone how I feel, I get teary, and terribly emotionally weary.”

To lighten the mood, I also admitted some bumbling.

“Yesterday, I did my test at the Covid drive-through at Rozelle. They must have thought I was a goose. I put my mask on the wrong way then I couldn’t spell my doctor’s name without Googling (it is a hard, Eastern European name, but still). I think I said the f-word a few times. Just a bit nervous! Oh, well.”

I agreed with my friend that it can be hard to quell your nerves about getting the virus or having the virus, but I also needed to try.

“I have to try to enjoy what I can in case I am already sick or do get sick (or worse).’ I wrote. ‘Little things, like moving an armchair into a ray of sun. Savouring sentences in my book. It sounds a bit motherhood typing it here … but it has made a bit of a difference to my mood.”

With this virus we’re all learners. And, we’re all learning at our own pace, in our own way. Reading about it or watching what’s happening from afar is one thing: it is completely different when it’s happening to you. There are mercies in the madness – but I’d prefer not to be looking for them or thinking about how many people this virus will kill before we find a vaccine. I’d also prefer the virus didn’t take my friends. Or shut down my gym – an old and trusty friend that’s kept me sane.

I’ve spent a lifetime learning to live with loss – but I really don’t want to have to learn to live with it again.


Marjorie Lewis-Jones is managing editor of the South Sydney Herald.

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