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Out Of Touch: covid stories from WA

Prof Anna Arabindan-Kesson

Prof Anna Arabindan-Kesson was living in the United States when the pandemic struck the world. This period of time was particularly urgent for Americans with mass anti-masker protests, riots, and the important resurrection of the Black Lives Matter movement after the unlawful murder of George Floyd.

Out of Touch documents the unique experiences of Western Australians during the COVID-19 pandemic that hit Australia in early 2020.

Anna Arabindan-Kesson shares her experience of the COVID-19 pandemic. Anna is a professor teaching in the United States. When the pandemic struck the US, socio-political unrest was rampant, leading to mass anti-masker protests, riots, and the important resurrection of the Black Lives Matter movement after the unlawful murder of George Floyd. During this time, Anna and her husband made the decision to move back to their safety net: Western Australia.

Copyright © 2020 Anna Arabindan-Kesson

This story and corresponding images have been licensed to the Centre for Stories and the State Library of Western Australia by the Storyteller. For reproduction and distribution of this story/image please contact the Centre for Stories. 

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I am Anna  Arabindan-Kesson and I’m currently living in Australind in the South West of WA. I decided to go back to university after working as a nurse for several years mostly because I had always wanted to do something in the humanities. I tried out a lot of different areas of nursing and realised it wasn’t something that I wanted to continue with.  By the end of the four years of my Bachelor of Arts I realised that I loved history, looking at the relationship between visual culture and constructions of race, and histories of Empire On a whim I decided to apply to universities in the USA. I applied to ten ten different colleges.  My kind of dream program was at Yale and I got into that.  So my husband and I decided, “OK, so we’re going to America.” And that’s what we did. We arrived in New Haven in Connecticut just before President Obama was elected.  I think for the first six months we felt we were just on a movie set all the time. It wasn’t something I was used to growing up in Auckland and Perth.  On the night of President Obama’s election in 2008 we were at several parties. It was a really jubilant night full of lots of dancing and lots of happiness. It was a good night. We moved from Brooklyn in the USA to the United Kingdom in the middle of 2012. To give you a sense of what Brooklyn was like, the first week we were there someone was murdered down the end of the street. But then, on the other side of the street there were these new restaurants opening every other weekend.  It was just this crazy but incredible space to be in.   We moved from Brooklyn to a village in the middle of Cambridgeshire just outside of London, so it’s just like going from Sex and the City to Midsomer Murders. In 2014 I got a job back in the USA at Temple University in Philadelphia in the Art History Department.  In August 2014 a young black man, Michael Brown Jr. was shot by a policeman Darren Wilson in Ferguson Missouri.  This was really a catalyst for what we now know as the Black Lives Matter movement.  Teaching the students about these histories and the ways that these histories have shaped the creation of art and and visual culture in the USA seemed very urgent – what it said about the meaninglessness and expendability of certain people in society and how futile it felt to even try to work against this.  But in my Department I couldn’t talk to people about this, it didn’t seem like it even mattered there.  

I applied for and got a job at Princeton University. I was hired as a historian of Black diaspora art and Historian of African American Art. Now I could teach what I wanted to teach.  2015 was very different to 2008. That optimism, that hope, was no longer there.  There was a precarity of being a person of colour in the United States that was becoming heightened by 2015 and the vulnerability that was associated, not just with being a person of colour, but with just daily life in the USA.  Just not having health insurance, people were dying because of that. We started to think, “OK, how long can we stay here?”  Despite this being a dream job, how long could we do this for?  I was teaching this great new class on art and colonial medicine in the British Empire.  The most exciting thing was that I had organised this wonderful class trip to London for a week. We were going to leave on March 14th. We started getting these emails, you can’t travel here, you can’t travel there. It got to a week before the trip and Princeton still hadn’t laid down any guidelines about whether we should go or not.  A couple of my colleagues had their class trips cancelled. We had someone from the administration come and speak to my class, “We don’t want to stop you from having your experiences overseas”.  But I was like, “But there’s this virus”.  So I explained to my students, “I can’t take the risk.” 

I made the decision on the Friday.  On the Monday we get to class and suddenly I’m getting told by students that the University is going online for two weeks and it’s closing down.  And of course faculty we’re not told this before students. I’m not saying this to criticize the university but just to highlight how quickly things escalated. My students lost family. They had to look after people with Covid-19. Everyone had to be really careful and not see anyone.  We felt very alone very quickly. You just wouldn’t know what would be happening from one day to the next and I remember that there was one news cycle where some anti maskers stormed a city Capitol Building to protest these restrictions. 

I remember getting a text from my dad. He wasn’t panicking, but he was saying, “It sounds pretty bad over there.  I know you’re thinking about trying to come back to Australia, maybe you should think about coming back earlier.” 

In the middle to end of May we booked our tickets.  In the middle of the night we left on the plane.  All of the stewards were in HazMat suits. We were exhausted, the kids were so exhausted.  We got back and it felt like, “So we’re here.”  When the nurses came and told us we were in the clear, we could leave quarantine, I was skipping up and down in the hotel hallway shouting.   

 Then we went outside and it was just a glorious Perth afternoon.  We walked down to the Quay and saw my brothers for the first time in two years and hugged them and it was just joyous.  We were walking along Elizabeth Quay, my son who is 7 said to me,  “Mama do we have to socially distance here? Can I walk close to people?”  And I said, “No we don’t have to socially distance, not in Perth.” 

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