Tala Aclan was nine months old when the Victorian state government implemented Stage 4 COVID lockdown measures for the metropolitan area of Melbourne in August 2020. For Tala, settling into home life in Ardeer probably seemed quite normal, but for first-time parents, Alvin and Erica, COVID presented a number of challenges.
Alvin, 31, is a nurse at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. He’s been there almost eight years and in the past year has worked as a clinical nurse educator. He has seen and experienced first-hand the impact of COVID, particularly among the first responders working day and night at the hospital.
‘I remember in February-March, when things started to shut down, there was a lot of anxiety,’ said Alvin. ‘People didn’t know how to feel or how to react. There were varying opinions about the virus. When we started hearing news of all the overseas deaths, we understood this was very serious.
At the hospital we started preparing for the worst, buying ventilators, making more room, and training junior nurses so that they could look after patients with ventilation if needed. I felt the increased stress and anxiety in the staff, and definitely myself, I felt that way.’
During his time in the medical and respiratory wards, Alvin saw a number of COVID patients. He also was in a screening ward. People displaying respiratory symptoms or who were suspected of COVID-19 would go through the screening process, get swabbed and then if tested positive, go to the specialty infectious ward.
‘The virus is very infectious and affected so many people,’ he said. ‘I always looked forward to being home, but I made sure that I came home safe for my family. I would leave my clothes at the front door and then run to the shower. Only after that could I see my family and interact with them.’
Erica, also 31, looked forward to her husband’s return. In her own way, she was adapting to life on maternity leave from a teaching position at Bethany Catholic Primary School in Werribee North and had also been grappling with mental health challenges following Tala’s birth.
‘It’s difficult being by yourself and not seeing another adult or not being able to take a leisurely walk to the shops or playground,’ she said. ‘Sometimes, it'd be a little bit crazy, doing the same thing every single day.’
The COVID restrictions also meant she was unable to call on parents or extended family for support, or ‘to share in the little things'.
‘Our extended families missed out on a lot of milestones for Tala. She started crawling at around eight months and then she started walking not long after 10 months and we were still in isolation during that time. Being so young, missing out on all those things, was disappointing. It wasn't just me. It was our village that also missed out on being able to help influence and raise Tala in their own way.'
Erica juggled feeling isolated and disappointed with wanting ‘to do the right thing’, particularly due to her inside knowledge of the deep impact COVID was having on health workers and those being treated in hospital.
‘I could see how hard my husband was working and the hospital staff too. So when you hear people question COVID and the safety precautions, I was quite passionate about sharing my husband’s story and our experience.’
Throughout the lockdown periods, she posted a number of times on Facebook, trying to help the broader community understand just how important it was to ‘do the right thing for everyone’s sake’.
‘I was trying to help people understand the bigger picture. Health care workers were working really hard. They were trying to save lives in hospital, they were trying to stay safe for themselves and their families. We were experiencing this personally, having a young family, having a husband that's in the front line and understanding this is a lot bigger than what we might think.’
‘What we've been through is really hard and I don't think anyone could take away that it's been a difficult time,’ said Erica, ‘but I also feel really grateful that we’re getting to the other side. We held tight. As we continue to see the news from overseas, I’m praying for those countries that are still in the midst of COVID.’
Alvin says despite experiencing ‘moments of spiritual dryness and desolation’ and a deep yearning for the sacraments, their faith had played a key role in sustaining hope and in giving life and meaning to their relationship and family life.
‘I think the turning point for me was when I realized I missed God, being in his presence, but that I knew deep down, in the height of the stress of the pandemic, God was never away,’ said Alvin. ‘He was always there looking after the three of us and the rest of the world.’
‘Our [Filipino] backgrounds and our families have built a strong foundation for us individually and then together as our own little family. We're lucky that we have those foundations. That's what's got us through the pandemic, for sure.’
Erica added that setting aside quality time for the two of them was important, along with doing little things to help create special moments. ‘We got dressed up for the Brownlow Awards night, for Mother’s Day and for birthday celebrations. I started cooking lots of different things and recording them on Instagram. We also supported the community by ordering food for dinner once a week.’
‘Tala has also provided a focus for us during this time, in wanting to set a good example for her. We watched Mass each Sunday online and set time aside to pray. We’ve been teaching Tala the sign of the cross, and how to say grace before meals. She’s just started saying “Jesus”, which is so beautiful.’
Erica acknowledges that COVID has provided the opportunity for them 'to slow down and take stock of our lives.' She says the experience has brought her and her husband Alvin even closer.
'I am thankful that I can look at my husband as an absolute strength and provider. He's been battling through all of this time, worried about work, being out there on the front line, being tired, wanting to be home and safe, spending time with us.’
Alvin said he too has been trying to find the good in the situation.
‘We have been blessed with a beautiful daughter, we both have the capacity to work, we have loving families on both sides and we are building a new home. Most of all, we're just grateful that God was always there for us throughout the epidemic.’
He added, ‘I’m also grateful to everyone in Victoria who did their part in following the rules, for understanding the situation and for trusting that whatever we needed to do at that time was for the greater good. I want to thank them.’
Erica has since returned to Bethany Catholic Primary School and continues to teach Grades 3 and 4. Alvin has resumed shift work at the Royal Melbourne Hospital and is grateful that he doesn’t have to wear full personal protective equipment every day.