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25 Nov 2020 23:55
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  •   Home > News > International

    A year of living and reporting in the US through COVID, civil unrest and a drama-packed election campaign

    The ABC's Washington bureau chief David Lipson reflects on a year of living and reporting in the US through COVID, civil unrest and a drama-packed election campaign.

    Just over a year ago, I finished a tumultuous posting as the ABC's Indonesia correspondent, marked by mob violence, natural disasters and a bitterly divisive election.

    I headed to the US, with my wife, Heidi, and son, Hugo, to take up the position of bureau chief in Washington.

    We left Indonesia because an air pollution crisis there was affecting Hugo's health.

    It had been really challenging having our first baby and moving straight to Jakarta when he was just six weeks old.

    Work was constant, high pressure and often had an element of danger.

    I covered two tsunamis and an earthquake, terrorist attacks and deadly riots a kilometre or two from our home.

    Jakarta was a tough city to live in due to its traffic and lack of open spaces and playgrounds.

    When we found out we were moving to Washington DC, we thought we'd get a taste of stability.

    The reality couldn't have been further from stable.

    For a while, it was. When we first arrived here in late November, we pushed the pram around in a daze.

    The footpaths were smooth. The gardens were beautiful. The homes and gardens were luxurious. Public transport was easy and cheap. And there were free museums and huge public spaces everywhere.

    Coronavirus shuts the place down

    It was a busy winter.

    My first story was Trump's impeachment.

    The assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani led into the impeachment trial and directly into the primary campaign.

    In early March, my wife Heidi was staying with a friend in Colorado.

    I'd been in LA covering Super Tuesday and was starting to worry about this new virus.

    I convinced her to come home early, so she wouldn't get stuck.

    Then everything changed very quickly. The whole place shut down.

    Our ABC managers encouraged us to return home, but after a lot of discussion we decided to try and hang in until the election and then re-assess.

    But every week or two something would change, and we'd have the whole discussion again.

    Our local supermarket got cleaned out shelf by shelf as panic buying set in. Should we go home?

    Long lines of customers appeared at gun shops. Was mass violence about to break out?

    There were reports of supply lines collapsing. Would we run out of food?

    Flights back to Australia were dwindling. Were we missing our window to get out?

    The ABC Washington team stopped going into the office and into the field to report and worked from home.

    It was super stressful and exhausting for the whole team.

    An apartment downtown, rather than a bigger house in the suburbs, seemed like a good idea when we moved in because we were close to the metro, the museums, public playgrounds and public libraries.

    All of them were snatched away from us in an instant.

    Even the roof and public courtyard of the apartment were closed off.

    Working in a two-bedroom apartment with a toddler was challenging to say the least.

    We spent three months in the apartment, making daily outings with Hugo to keep us all sane.

    We wanted to stay out of public areas so usually hung out in back alleys throughout the city.

    These were the sorts of places, near dumpsters and deserted carparks, that you would never usually take a toddler.

    We would walk for an hour and barely see a car or a person.

    It was totally bizarre.

    Violence erupts on the streets

    Within a week or so of the end of the lockdown, George Floyd was killed and the city erupted in protest.

    I was working around the clock.

    Heidi was at home with Hugo. Helicopters buzzed over our apartment every night.

    At one point, as Heidi was on the phone a military chopper was hovering just outside our living room window on the seventh floor.

    It was so close that one of the soldiers hanging out the door made eye contact with her and gave her a wave through the window.

    Again, totally bizarre.

    Windows across the city had been smashed in.

    Most of the statues and walls had graffiti scrawled across them.

    Then the whole place got boarded up.

    By then it was summer.

    Some of the stranger scenes were unfolding in parks where we'd take Hugo for some air.

    Groups of people would be sitting in circles drinking rose.

    An ambulance would scream by, presumably to pick up another COVID patient.

    Then a line of eight police cars going the other way.

    Then a group of 500 protesters would come in from another road.

    It was like a dream. Nothing made sense.

    Hugo enjoyed the protests and would shout "Yay, song!" to each of the chants about police or 'Black Lives', even the more obscene ones.

    Biggest story of the century, but it's not safe to cover it

    Reporting from the US during the pandemic has been really tough.

    In a country that's had more than 8.9 million infections and 227,000 deaths, our primary concern has been avoiding COVID-19.

    [Hearken Pic Teaser]

    That's been enormously challenging because it's a constantly moving target, in terms of safety and in terms of the story.

    The ABC's advice for both domestic and international staff was not to travel or do traditional reporting, such as 'in-person' interviews, for the first three months.

    It was reassuring that the ABC was looking out for us, but as a journalist, it was agony to watch the biggest story of the century unfolding just up the road in New York and not being able to go there to cover it.

    It's been enormously frustrating trying to report on the election and, in particular, President Donald Trump, while avoiding the virus.

    He is a master showman.

    His rallies are at the centre of everything in his campaign and we're not able to actually go inside.

    But even when you are staying nearby, it's a risk.

    My colleague Kathryn Diss covered Trump's rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, staying outside, wearing a mask and taking every precaution possible and still contracted the virus.

    Thankfully, she's recovered.

    The night Donald Trump confirmed he had COVID-19, we were dealing with our own virus scare.

    I'd worked through the night and when I woke up, after a couple of hours sleep, Hugo was running a fever.

    Obviously, we were worried.

    We couldn't get him in for a COVID test with the paediatrician until the following day.

    I continued to work — another all-nighter, with crosses into 7pm news bulletins all over Australia.

    No sooner had I fallen asleep at home than Hugo, who'd ended up in our bed, threw up everywhere.

    That was two of the COVID symptoms and clearly some kind of virus.

    I sat with him all morning on the couch watching Wiggles and Play School.

    He was limp, and I was really worried.

    We took him to the doctor about 2.30pm.

    He was very brave, but the nasal swab was terrifying for him.

    After another night covering the Trump diagnosis, I woke to him running to me, shouting: "Daddy!"

    It was the best thing I'd ever seen.

    Later, the test came back negative.

    It was just a standard fever that kids get all the time.

    But, like everything in 2020, it was frightening.

    How to report on the election campaign without catching COVID

    We've worked hard to develop safety procedures to enable some travel.

    US bureau staff also did an infectious disease hostile environment course to learn exactly how to protect ourselves.

    Slowly, slowly, we've been able to get out and report from the field again.

    We might be taking the virus seriously, but some Americans aren't.

    During my recent trip in Florida, staying a few kilometres away from a MAGA (Make America Great Again) rally, we were derided for wearing masks.

    A woman told us the pandemic was over.

    Many in our hotel were flouting the hotel policies of mask-wearing.

    I had to stop one guy from getting in my lift because he wasn't wearing one.

    A large group of people on the plane were complaining that they had to wear masks, because they didn't work.

    We've tried to focus on the important issues and the important states that will swing the election.

    Normally, we'd be flying all over the country, but we've had to just choose a few key moments.

    As such, it was nothing like covering a federal election in Australia, where you are travelling with the campaign press, crisscrossing Australia.

    Everything we do is shrouded in concerns about COVID-19.

    We are constantly watching the local infection rates and the rates on the proposed travel destination.

    We've had to constantly re-write rosters and filing plans.

    We've spent many hours planning trips, only to cancel them at the last minute due to high infection rates.

    We've been working from home most of the time.

    When working in the bureau, you're the only one there.

    There's none of the cooperation and camaraderie that normally comes with a newsroom.

    We've also tried to self-isolate for a short time after any exposure event, like a plane trip.

    We stay away from the bureau for 3-5 days and monitor symptoms.

    Then when we get a test and wait for a positive result before we share a car with another member of the team.

    It makes for a lot of confusing moving pieces.

    For Foreign Correspondent, cameraman Niall Lenihan and I went on a two-week road trip through the mid-west in an RV, where we lived and slept throughout the trip to limit our exposure.

    It looked like a lot of fun on camera but was actually exhausting.

    It was so loud, we could barely hear each other or speak on the phone to organise interviews.

    It was too bumpy to read a phone.

    We rarely got back to the caravan parks before 10pm each day.

    But it allowed us to do some good, on-the-ground coverage, safely.

    On election night, I'll be with Donald Trump.

    Again, it will be very different to previous years, due to the pandemic.

    Normally, we'd be crammed in a big hall packed with supporters.

    Who knows what will happen this year, but it won't be that!

    Correspondent Kathryn Diss will be with the Biden camp.

    News Breakfast's Michael Rowland is hosting News Channel coverage from a DC rooftop, chief foreign correspondent Phil Williams will be floating around DC and we've got political journalist Greg Jennett in the bureau.

    It's been a tumultuous year living and reporting in the US and I've witnessed some incredible scenes.

    Watching riot police climb over the fence at the park outside the White House before clearing away peaceful protesters was a scene I'll never forget.

    Then learning Donald Trump was just metres away from me, though just out of sight, with a bible in hand was truly something else.

    But some of the biggest triumphs have been the little things, like finding Play School episodes on YouTube.

    Away from the demands of work, my posting so far has again been based around keeping our boy safe and as happy as possible.

    Looking for more US election news?

    • Read analysis from David Lipson here.
    • For all the latest news from the US election, check out the USA Votes page. ABC News Digital will begin daily live blogs covering all the twists and turns from Monday, November 2.
    • You can watch the rolling coverage of the US election on ABC TV, the News Channel and iviewfrom 6am on Wednesday, November 4.
    • Radio coverage is available on News Radio, local ABC radio and RN or via the ABC Listen app.
    • Sign up for alerts on the ABC News app and Facebook Messenger, or follow ABC News us on social media for more.

    © 2020 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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