'You need a COVID-19 test' – facing the words you don't want to hear

Driving to get a COVID-19 test feels like I’m on my way to do an illicit drug deal.

I’ve been given instructions to find an underground carpark in the backstreets of North Ryde, a Sydney suburb that’s become pharmaceutical heartland.

Of course, with my symptoms, I knew that any good doctor would recommend testing.


On the car seat beside me is a pathology request form, which I had to email to the clinic beforehand. Typing “covid19” into the email address bar made the knot in my stomach tighten – like a woman condemned, loitering on the court-room steps waiting for her final judgement.

It all happened so fast: a sore throat and runny nose, a slight fever and then a couple of days in bed, aching and tired. It felt no more than a touch of the flu and when I eventually got a hold of my doctor on the phone, at 6pm the night before, I was still hoping to hear the words, “don’t be silly! Of course you don’t need a coronavirus test.”

But of course, with my symptoms, I knew that any good doctor would recommend testing.

And so now I’m on the three-lane highway, with the road ahead engulfed by dark clouds. A sudden downpour of rain begins and I turn the wipers on high.

Squinting through the filmy windscreen, I make a left turn at the demand of my GPS. Soul-less buildings crowd a few dead-end streets. I pull over to double-check the map on the pathology clinic’s website.

A couple of cars ease past me tentatively. No doubt we’re all looking for the same carpark, driving incognito, alone, edgy.

I join the COVID queue and am ushered into the carpark by a man in a mask, gown and gloves. He sweeps his arms like an aircraft marshal to usher me into a car spot. There are barriers around the edge of the carpark covered by thin red material ­­– just like the paper hats I’ve had to don for hospital surgeries to show my penicillin allergy.

I fumble to turn off the radio and find the window control as the collector who waved me in waits calmly outside my door. When I eventually get the window down, he takes my form and tells me it won’t be long.

Through the large window of the building in front of me, I see piles of cardboard boxes. COVID-19 testing kits, I presume.

The collector returns before I know it. He tells me to tilt my head back on the headrest. “This will feel weird, but don’t fight the weirdness,” he says while inserting a long swab inside my right nostril.

Just when I’m sure he’s hit my brain, he deftly removes the swab, bags it, says I’m done and tells me to drive safely. “That’s it?” I think.

Having spent the past 15 hours haunted by the possibility of ventilators and hospitalisation, it’s a limp ending.

I sit in the carpark for a few minutes, in case someone rushes out to say they need to do more tests or get more information.

When no-one does, I edge out of the carpark and head home to no-man’s land ­– the 24-to-36 hours until my results come back.

My health is out of my hands; it is in the hands of someone greater …

Out of nowhere, the rain pours down again – a heavy, brief shower drumming on the roof. In the car, on the highway, I feel small and vulnerable. In front of me, the heaving, grey bulk of cloud still looms.

But the rain stops as suddenly as it started and a surprising gleam of sunlight backlights a section of the sky. The clouds in my eyeline beam luminous and golden, like a Renaissance painting.

I am reminded that, just like the weather, while the fate of my test or even my health is out of my hands, it is in the hands of someone greater ­– those of the artist who sweeps the sky radiant and sends drenching rain to nourish parched earth.

The words of Psalm 46, which have been clinging to my heart through this whole COVID-19 season, surface once again: “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells. God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day.”