Sydney – Australians and New Zealanders held dawn Anzac Day vigils from the isolation of their own driveways on Saturday to honor their armed forces, as parades were canceled and ceremonies closed to the public due to the coronavirus.
As the sun rose, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was among those observing vigils at the end of their driveways, while Australia’s leader Scott Morrison attended an official Canberra ceremony forced behind closed doors.
“This year, a new threat faces all nations as the impact of the coronavirus deepens worldwide,” Ardern said from her driveway.
While at the small Canberra service before dawn — which was broadcast live — Morrison compared the disruption to the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1919.
“Our Anzac Day traditions have been interrupted but not for the first time,” Morrison said during the ceremony at the Australian War Memorial.
“There were no city marches or parades for the returning veterans because Australians were battling the Spanish flu pandemic,” he added.
“Though our streets were empty the returning veterans were not forgotten.”
As morning light reached Australia, neighbours held candles outside their homes in Sydney’s southwest, where Vietnam veteran Peter McFarlane led a small suburban service, one of the many taking place around the country.
“I can’t remember the last time I missed a dawn service, so I had to have one here,” the 78-year-old said outside his Ingleburn home.
He said he was “proud as punch” after the whole street turned out to begin Anzac Day, finishing his early morning memorial with a shot of rum.
While official memorials were held behind closed doors, people reached out to the Returned and Services League (RSL) that represents veterans in Australia to ask how best to mark the day.
“People are very, very active,” New South Wales RSL acting President Ray James said, “setting up their driveways with poppies.”
Anzac Day marks the 1915 landing of Australian and New Zealand troops at Gallipoli on the Turkish peninsula in an ill-fated World War I campaign against German-backed Ottoman forces.
Some 10,000 Australian and New Zealand servicemen were killed in the failed military campaign but it shaped the close friendship that binds the two countries.
Marches and memorials traditionally mark the day but were absent as both nations battle to control the spread of COVID-19.
Poppy-print masks, live-streamed memorials, care packages and even digital drinking sessions were easing veterans’ sense of loneliness during a traditional time of camaraderie, James — who served in Vietnam — said.
“We (usually) go away to our various watering holes, pubs or clubs, and we enjoy our mates … you talk about the old times, whilst you were serving and you talk about someone who’s missing this year that was there last year,” he said.
“It’s going to be sad this year because we won’t be able to do that.”
The 71-year-old, who served in the Royal Australian Navy and then the reserves for a combined 46 years, said he would not be missing out on two-up — a traditional game banned for the rest of the year because of the huge sums wagered on the toss of two coins.
“Playing two-up on Skype — social media is really good — and also having a beer or a scotch or two,” he said.
But one group of Australians still got to experience a traditional service, as the 89 crew members at the nation’s Antarctic bases stood shoulder-to-shoulder on the only continent untouched by the virus.
“Our stations are COVID-19 free,” Australian Antarctic Division Director Kim Ellis said from Australia.
“It was really uplifting to be able to look and see my expeditioners and those Australians coming together to celebrate Anzac Day.”