By Callum Florance
If you told a stranger two years ago that there would soon be restrictions on Australians seeing their family and friends, you could probably understand why they would dismiss you without a second thought. That stranger would walk briskly away from the interaction like you were trying to sell them a new energy supplier in a busy shopping centre. Yet, this is the norm today... and for justifiable reasons.
The Macquarie Dictionary’s notorious ‘Word of the Year’ in 2020 included a special ‘COVID’ category, with the shortlist featuring words like ‘covidiot’, ‘WFH’ and ‘quarantini’. Another word that featured was ‘bubble’, which is defined more in the transnational sense of a ‘border bubble’ and ‘travel bubble’. This is surprising, given that ‘bubble’ is used in a much more on-the-ground and localised way for most Australians. When you are directed to choose just one household from your network of friends and family, the word ‘bubble’ has a big impact on your everyday life.
Alex[i] had just moved into a single-bedroom apartment by herself when the second Victorian lockdown happened. Alex “did not expect to be alone” when she decided to make the move. The eventual introduction of Victoria’s “single bubble” exception was a lifesaver, as “they realised single people might not want to be forever alone”. However, Alex “was [only] allowed to see 1 person”. The restrictions on distance did not seem to help either, as “everyone I knew was out of my 5 [kilometre bubble]!” These were “[a] very depressing few months” for Alex before she could see her family again “with the single bubble”. Alex eventually decided on share house living again: “[t]hankfully [I’m] all good now with a housemate”.
For Australians like Alex, the exceptions matter. This emergency has shifted the way that we think about the implied freedoms of our normal everyday lives... again, for good reason. In the first ACT lockdown, we had to think about the slippery concept of ‘essentiality’ and apply it to our everyday activities. ‘Essentiality’ was – and still is – an ill-defined concept, which now encompasses a range of exceptions to the norm. Non-essential activities were just activities other than most of the normal activities of our everyday home lives before the emergency. Thankfully, the discourse has now shifted from thinking about our personal relationships with a binary ‘essential’ or ‘not essential’ quality to more nuanced exceptions.
Interjurisdictional experimentation is a fantastic and somewhat archaic bonus of a federated nation. During this emergency, other jurisdictions have certainly learned a lot from Victoria’s experience during their second lockdown. While the other States and Territories looked on in horror in 2020, Victoria stopped generally restricting the lives of Victorians and started adding the nuance that the rest of Australia now takes for granted. Two of these nuanced exceptions are for ‘intimate partners’ and ‘single bubble buddies’.
The ‘intimate partners’ exception is the freedom to visit the home of your intimate partner if you do not ordinarily cohabitate during a general ban on visiting other households. Victoria actually introduced this on 2 April 2020, so less than a month after first lockdown. The ‘single buddy bubble’ exception – also known as ‘social bubbles’ or the ‘buddy bubble’ – was introduced in Victoria on 13 September 2020. The ‘single buddy bubble’ exception was created as a response to public mental health concerns for the wellbeing of Victorians who were alone and isolated. These exceptions operated through Victoria’s ‘nomination system’, which provided some level of choice for Victorians who were alone or separated from their partners.
These exceptions are now freely enjoyed in other jurisdictions, including in the ACT. Lee[ii] lives alone and is taking advantage of the ACT’s ‘single buddy bubble’ exception. Lee has “a lovely buddy bubble” with another household, which has clearly made a difference for her lockdown experience. Lee emphasises how “lovely, heart-warming and sanity-saving some fancy wines with pals” can be. Although the exception is “more of a weekend thing” for Lee, the purpose is really for “welfare”.
In a request for more information from the ACT Chief Health Officer on how the ‘intimate partners’ and ‘single buddy bubble’ exclusions operate in the ACT, the ACT Health Directorate responded by pointing out the following “publicly available” information:
· “No more than two people [are] permitted to visit another household, but only under stay at home or... compassionate purposes... Intimate partner visits are allowed... People who live alone can identify one other household that they can visit or receive visits from, with all members of the other household permitted to visit or receive visits [and this rule] includes parents who live alone with their children.”
For those partners who are separated from one another, for those living alone who want to enjoy more than the allowed two hours of exercise with a friend, and for those single parents who are struggling with work and caring responsibilities, these exceptions are a lifesaver. We have come so far from the broad-brush approach at the start of this emergency, where nuanced consideration for mental health (rather than simply physical health) fell through the cracks. Creative solutions to complex social issues can lead to positive outcomes for Australians during this emergency. I hope that we continue to see jurisdictions experimenting with different ways to keep Australians loved and alive.
 ‘The Macquarie dictionary COVID Word of the Year shortlist’, Macquarie Dictionary Blog (Blog Post, 30 November 2020) <https://www.macquariedictionary.com.au/blog/article/760/>.  Ibid.  ACT Chief Health Officer, Public Health (Non-Essential Gatherings) Emergency Direction 2020 (NI2020-202, 31 March 2020), direction A2.  Department of Health (Vic), Parliament of Victoria, 16th Report to Parliament on the State of Emergency: Report under section 198(8A) of the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008 (Report, 1 July 2021), 43, (‘16th Victorian Parliamentary Emergency Report’).  16th Victorian Parliamentary Emergency Report, 63.  16th Victorian Parliamentary Emergency Report, 43; Rachel Clayton, ‘Victoria’s coronavirus restrictions roadmap includes ‘social bubbles’ for people living alone, single parents and households’, ABC News (online, updated 9 September 2020) <https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-09-06/victorian-roadmap-allows-single-household-single-parent-bubbles/12635082>;  See Victorian State Government, Victoria’s roadmap for reopening – How we live in Victoria (Document, 20 November 2020) <https://www.coronavirus.vic.gov.au/sites/default/files/2020-11/Victoria%27s%20roadmap%20for%20reopening%20-%20How%20we%20live%20in%20Victoria%2025%20November%202020.pdf>.