Postcards from the pandemic: losing a business and a life purpose

Gay Alcorn

Postcards from the pandemic is a new series that looks at how everyday Australians are coping with immense changes coronavirus has brought to their lives.

Kristy Busuttil is a strong person. A Commonwealth gold medallist in the Korean martial art of taekwondo, compact and super-fit, a black belt since she was 14 years old.

She’s a vulnerable person, too. On Monday 23 March, after further restrictions were announced that would ban businesses like hers, she closed Jeongsin Taekwondo, the club she opened 15 years ago. “This is an extremely hard message to write and I had been hoping it would never come,” she wrote on her Facebook page. “I am so sorry.”

Today, she sits barefoot on a chair in her empty studio, a shopfront in a modest strip in Maidstone in inner Melbourne. It’s a long grey room with mirrors along one side, the roof a little saggy, the paint a little worn. Korean characters are framed on the wall to recognise fives aspects of the martial way: respect, discipline, spirit, humility and honour.

Busuttil, 36, is married with three children. She is dealing with urgent practical challenges, and more emotional ones.

“Financially – sorry, I’m going to get upset – I’ve still got a lease. I’ve got water, electricity, I’ve got insurance. I’ve got everything to pay. But I’ve got no income, because we can’t run classes because nobody’s allowed to come near each other any more.”

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She estimates her outgoing costs are about $4,000 a month, including $2,000 to lease the studio. She hasn’t asked the landlord for a discount, because “she would say she’s probably in the same boat”. She spent the morning trying to apply through Centrelink for what she might be entitled to. She and her husband, Matt, are working out if their mortgage can be frozen.

The emotional challenges are more complex, the downside of the hope and passion built into many small businesses. Busuttil grew up in Melbourne’s western suburbs, the child of parents who ran a cleaning business.

The local newspaper called the then Kristy Johnson the “golden girl”, with a suite of state and national championships, and a gold and bronze medal in taekwondo at the Commonwealth Games in 2006.

She retired from competition, setting up her club in the western suburbs because that’s where she came from. She wanted a local, family-friendly place, and now has 170 students, aged three to 63.

“I wasn’t here for the elite, because I don’t offer that whole sparring side of it really ... Parents and kids can come down and train together. I’ve got a lot of kids on the [autism] spectrum … A lot of people [who are] gay, lesbian, transgender as well. Everybody just feels comfortable.”

Before coronavirus upended everything, each day Busuttil would deliver Logan, eight, to school and Scarlet, four, to kinder, then look after 18-month-old Owen before doing the school pickup. Her parents, Gary and Christine Johnson, would then mind the kids two afternoons a week and Matt would do evening shifts so she could open the club from 4.30pm to 8.30pm.

Now she is home-schooling the older two. They do maths, writing and art, and she gets them into the garden. It’s going well, she says, but her voice wavers. “My son, we recently found out, is on the spectrum. Trying to keep some normality for him is really important, because otherwise he will have meltdowns.”

Her dad Gary Johnson, 65, has been in isolation at his home in Point Cook for weeks. “We had to lock him up straightaway because he’s got no spleen. He’s immunocompromised anyway. He has a rare blood disorder, so he has to have an injection for that. He’s also had a quadruple bypass. He’s had a kidney transplant. He’s diabetic, has high blood pressure. He has the works. If he goes out and catches this, that would be the end of him, and we know that that’s for sure.” Christine, 61, has been FaceTiming her grandchildren. “The kids keep asking when Nanna and Pa will come see them.”

Busuttil hopes she can hang on for six months and reopen, even if it’s gradual with social distancing rules in place. For now, Matt, who works for a health information company, is working from home, so there is some money coming in.

Most nights, Busuttil still drives to the club in the dark. She has set up a tripod at the back of the room and, dressed in her martial arts uniform – the white dobok – she conducts Facebook classes for her students, just basic, foundational moves. She isn’t charging for them for now, but says if this goes on for months, she will need to ask for something, perhaps less than half of her normal fee. She needs to be here, anyway.

“This is my life,” she says. “If I’m not here, if I’m not training, I’m a mess. I suffer from anxiety and depression which I’m open about with my students. [Teaching] gives me some sort of outlet, some sort of purpose to my life.

“When you go from working and being focused on a goal and a dream, then all of a sudden it’s taken away from you, it’s very scary.”

We’d like to hear your story about how you are managing during this crisis. Email: postcards@theguardian.com