The long return home

In the final weeks of February, my housemates and I were stocking supplies in our house for what we assumed would be a shaky few months in Denpasar. Bali has been here before — not in the form of a sudden pandemic but over the last few decades there have been moments like this; the 2002 bombings, the 2017 Mt Agung eruptions. Events that cause the sudden cessation of the seemingly endless flows of tourists coming in and out of the island.

This meant that when the pandemic came, we were there in good company. Advice came quickly from the local neighbourhood. Suddenly our house was filling up with boxes of Indomie (Migoreng), cans of food and gallon drums of water. The things one needs to avoid contact with the outside world. We sat around those nights making our tentative plans to wait patiently but comfortably for the threat of the pandemic to pass. It was just as the preparations were coming to an end that I received the news that the Australian Government had made the call to withdraw all unessential personnel from Indonesia. That was me.

Transporting back home essential supplies on my scooter in Denpasar, Bali.

In one email I lost my job, my new home and was leaving my colleagues and friends to face the pandemic alone.

What started as 2 weeks to prepare and leave the country was shortened again and again. The emails from the government were growing increasingly insistent. I had to return to Australia as soon as possible. I remember sitting on my rooftop, staring out at the sunset over Denpasar wondering if staying was an option. Seeing out the inevitable prolonged unemployment in Indonesia felt like a much more financially palatable option than the expenses of living in Australia. Here my rent was paid until the end of the year and food and utilities were cheap. There I was facing building a life from scratch. Should I stay or should I go?

The local neighbourhood from my rooftop in Denpasar, Bali at sunset

The answer came in the form of an abrupt reminder of both my privilege and vulnerability. To stay was to put my HIV medication supply at risk. My medication was from Australia and I could only get it in person. The thought of medication was never far from my mind because at the time it was well known that Indonesia was running out of it. Across the country stockout issues had been ongoing for months. By March, Bali’s stocks were on the verge of running out. This was the first time that I was confronted with my reliance on HIV medication. I need it to stay healthy, and the pandemic meant that if I stayed in Indonesia there was a risk I would run out. Looking at how long the global travel shut down has gone on — I would have run out. In hindsight, I made the right choice, but at the time it felt like abandonment.

In the days before my flight, HIV medication stock in Bali was so low that my friends were only able to collect their medication 7 tablets at a time. There were now real concerns that the stock would run out completely and people would have to be moved to second and third-line treatments. Over those last few days in Indonesia my modest stockpile of medication was burning a hole in my pocket and my conscience. When giving my goodbyes to a positive friend he confessed was anxious about his coming fate. In response, I impotently offered to give his doctor my supply — a different regime but a safety net if the worst should happen. It was nothing. A drop in the ocean for a country with a conservatively estimated 640000 people living with HIV. 640000 people all facing down the effects of two pandemics, both very much real and ongoing.

Denpasar Airport on the afternoon of my flight home to Australia

At the end of March, I returned home to the kindness and support of friends and family but sadly instead of the reunion we all craved I was thrust into Melbourne’s long lockdown. My return home no longer felt like a homecoming but instead felt like I had gotten somehow stuck at the airport. I was neither here nor there but instead inside what felt like some ZOOM meeting waiting room. This feeling of suspension lifted alongside the lockdown 8 months later. Finally, I could begin to feel like I was coming home. The transition has been rough and difficult, but I am thankful that I have access to so many of the support services available to us in Australia. I looked at the success of our sacrifices with joy, even as I watched the numbers in Indonesia climb and climb and climb. With loved ones on both sides of this horrible divide of contained and unconstrained COVID-19 spread, where do we put our feelings or efforts?

The threat inherent in a global pandemic, and the vulnerability of our lives in the aftermath can leave us with the desire to close ourselves off from the other parts of the world. Proud of our sacrifice, our success, and our strength to rebuild. But I hope that a lot of us who have lived experience with HIV know firsthand the ways in which pandemics hit hardest on the people and places least prepared, and the least supported. We know that the way out of a pandemic is not to retreat into ourselves, but to connect. To lean on the communities that support us and to come together to build new ones. COVID-19 showed us exactly how connected the world now is. Can our idea of communities grow to encompass the size of the world we truly are connected to now? As Australia stares down the end of two pandemics, HIV and COVID-19, how do we ensure that we bring the rest of the world with us — especially those who are caught in the middle of both?

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This was originally published as part of POSLINK Issue 93, Summer 2020. Please check out the original publication for other amazing pieces. Thank you for Living Positive Victoria for the support in writing this piece.

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Beau Newham

Beau Newham is a writer, development worker and queer activist based in Melbourne on Kulin Nation lands.