Jokes flew around our campsite over the January long weekend of 2020. The front page of the morning newspaper spoke of a virus spreading in China that was thought to be carried from a bat to a human. In Aussie fashion, some of the crowd enjoyed a Corona beer or two and Batman took on a whole new double meaning. Wuhan seemed as far away from our sunny spot at Kennett River as planet Mars.
As horrific images began to emerge of mass deaths in Italy, New York and Spain, a race began between the developed countries: Who could secure enough ventilators? Who could provide enough N95 face masks and PPE for their healthcare workers? And then the big one, who could develop the first effective vaccine?
When the call to qualified immunisation nurses came through halfway through the pandemic, it felt like a call to arms. I leapt at the opportunity to help. The number of vaccines was growing and so too were the number of deaths in Australia and around the world. This coronavirus was winning.
My workplaces became the Sandown and Cranbourne racecourses, where the transformation from race meets to mass vaccinations hub was startling.
On my first day at Sandown, I arrived and parked my car at 6:40am for a 7am start. The morning was brisk, a slight fog was lifting and the distant sound of voices mingled with the voice in my head saying, ‘This is the last place I imagined turning up to for a shift in 2021!’
It felt surreal. Instead of women in hats, heels and high fashion, the escalator to the Ladies Lounge was a sea of blue—nurses in scrubs, masks and safety glasses.
Past racing greats looked out from their portraits on the wall, not at the new trainers and jockeys who would follow in their footsteps, but at health workers in cubicles, each with a small metal table containing hand sanitiser, a sharps bin and educational information in English and selected translations for the anticipated community groups.
At the bar, wine glasses still suspended above, the bronze beer taps bore signs advising pharmacists about what time the opened batches of precious vaccine vials would expire.
Where bookies once stood, nurses were busying themselves with donning and doffing. Where trainers and owners once celebrated, senior staff were attending to the fainthearted.
The mood was subdued and the feeling purposeful and industrious: there was a job to be done, carefully but quickly, because this pandemic was gaining lengths.
A few months on, the race continues, this time to get children vaccinated. The racetrack has transformed again, with child-friendly scenes, virtual glasses and buzzy bees to distract the children while we give their injections.
And then the best distraction for the paediatric population is back—the thunder of horses on the track and jockeys flashing past, as race meets are allowed to return. The riders don’t hear the cheers and squeals of delight from the children or see their anxious parents looking down from the vaccination centre above.
Later, through the roar of V8 engines flying around the track, it becomes more difficult to obtain the required consent from those hard of hearing who have come for their COVID booster dose and annual flu jab.
The finish line
Finally, almost exactly a year after the vaccine race started, with hundreds of thousands of Victorians now vaccinated, the last day of the Cranbourne racecourse mass vaccination hub arrives.
It’s ANZAC eve. Walking out into the autumn air with a colleague, both in our blue scrubs, the fog settling, the sun setting, its golden rays catching the leaves on the poplars surrounding the racecourse, my colleague, who has worked most of her shifts in this place, where the team of nurses, administrators, pharmacists and security have become her daily routine, is feeling sad. This amazing hub, this unique chapter in history that we have been part of, is coming to an end.
As I put my arm around her, I hear horses in the nearby stalls stomping as they are saddled up for the evening’s race meet. At the exit, two elderly women dressed in hats, heels and high fashion enter with their husbands.
The winds of change are blowing. We don’t know which horse will win tonight, but we know one thing for sure—life as we know it is returning, and we—the immunologists, the laboratory scientists, the doctors, and all the nurses around the world who took up arms to insert the precious vaccine, not once or twice, but multiple times, to millions of pandemic punters—have won the race.