BEST OF 2021: Is COVID-19 creating divide between city and country?

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Auburn Street in Goulburn

People from Victoria and metropolitan NSW will arrive in Goulburn and other regional areas under a cloud of suspicion about carrying the COVID-19 virus long after lockdown ends. Photo: Darryl Fernance.

Year in Review: Region Media is revisiting some of the best Opinion articles of 2021. Here’s what got you talking, got you angry and got you thinking in 2021. Today, John Thistleton looks at the divisions COVID-19 has created.

My wife, Franki, and I left Goulburn four years ago. The best part of two of those years has been spent locked down in Melbourne, which holds a world record for long, strict lockdowns.

Franki and I swap numbers that we hear each day: the number of cases in NSW and Victoria, vaccine doses, and days in and out of lockdown. Violent protests, an earthquake and football finals are our latest distractions.

Our second lockdown in 2020 was a shock. People back in Goulburn and across NSW were on social media telling their Victorian neighbours to keep out. One confronting post came with a photograph of armed vigilantes on the top of a ridge as if guarding the border against virulent Victorians.

I realised that driving a car along Auburn Street in Goulburn with Victorian number plates would invite trouble. Imagine parking outside a pub or club? You would be flat out being served a beer or a cup of coffee.

READ ALSO Goulburn must keep control of its growth

Even today, people from metropolitan areas are viewed warily in case they’re carrying the COVID-19 virus.

Can you blame people for being cautious? Even fearful?

We’ve all heard of people with travel exemptions coming into regional towns on the flimsiest excuse, with no thought of how an outbreak would overwhelm health workers. This raises the question of when restrictions ease, how comfortable will Goulburn people be when Sydneysiders resume scrambling for a place to live away from congested suburbs, or to visit their Airbnbs?

A dirty scar on the treed slopes of Eastgrove reminds us that rampant development is continuing full-throttle around Goulburn. Twenty eight residential lots apparently were sold on the Eastgrove site even before the swift axing of trees. It was all within a legal planning framework, according to Goulburn Mulwaree Council. In the main street, a gaudy yellow and red sign has appalled the community.

A swathe of land cleared from beneath Rocky Hill, Goulburn, to make way for residential lots. Photo: Heather West.

Elsewhere, most of the available building blocks in new subdivisions have ‘under-offer’ or ‘sold’ labels across them. In the surrounding countryside, neighbours of properties offered for sale hope any new arrivals from Sydney develop an affinity for their new patch of bushland, rather than reserving it for weekend trailbike riding.

Demographers say 30,000 people left Sydney in 2020. The trend has been ongoing for the past decade, but the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the exodus.

Greater Melbourne had a net loss of 26,000 people in 2020. From both cities, people are heading for the regions to places such as Goulburn, or further to Queensland.

As well as the wide open spaces, clean air and lack of congestion, people crave the calm that comes from rural communities. A sense of belonging tops a list of strengths for Goulburn Mulwaree in the 2021 Australian Liveability Census.

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The natural environment is another attribute.

Underlining the census findings are friends in Goulburn who look forward to catching up with one another, albeit socially distanced, at Victoria Park. They value open green spaces.

But none of us can escape the COVID-19 pandemic. Some readers will relate to the cold experience of watching the final chapter of a loved one’s passing via video because they were excluded from funeral services.

Also, some parents in Goulburn are separated from their children who are living interstate and overseas, and they are counting down the days when Australia’s borders reopen for international flights.

FaceTime and Zoom calls are no substitute for the warmth of holding the people we love.

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