Peter Overton on reporting 'the biggest story of my life'

9News presenter, Peter Overton, describes what it has been like bringing coronavirus updates to Australians over the past two months.

Peter Overton on reporting 'the biggest story of my life'

There's a number that has been stuck in my head these past weeks.

It's 86,000 - not a particularly special number on its own - but special for me because it's the size of the crowd at the T20 Women's World Cup Final between Australia and India at the MCG.

Why do I remember this number? Well, exactly a week after those huge crowds cheered on our Aussie world cricket champions on Sunday, March 8, life changed as we know it.

What began as a typical Sunday afternoon unfolded into something we couldn't have ever imagined.

Mid-afternoon I was in the news studio as we were broadcasting the Prime Ministers speech after the historic first meeting of the National Cabinet on Sunday, March 15.

Moments later, I found myself discussing these historic changes with our political editor, Chris Uhlmann.

Among the topics we covered in the PM's announcement -  social distancing, restrictions on the size of gatherings, a six-month time frame before life would 'return to normal', and the start of the Australian health sector emergency response plan.

Suddenly we were now reporting on how these restrictions will impact on every Australian.

Then, as the government went into full COVID-19 mode, so too did our newsrooms.

For me, that meant anchoring our 6pm NSW news bulletin and then broadcasting our national COVID-19 bulletin later each evening.

And those early days whirred by in a blur as coronavirus saturated global news bulletins and gobbled up gallons of newsprint and endless pages on the internet.

The demand for information was reflected in the vast numbers of people staying up late, watching our bulletins, devouring any information they could get on the pandemic.

It's the biggest story of my life and I knew how important it was to cover the virus in a calm, compassionate and measured way.

How did I do that? I focused on two values that are important to me- humanity and information.

That was my mantra and at the front of my mind as I prepared my interviews for each news bulletin.

In the late news each night, I would often interview or cross to over 10 people for our broadcast.

I'm passionate about sharing their stories with our viewers.

Here are just a few stories that have remained with me; the Aussie woman living in lockdown in Mumbai about to deliver her first baby, the young traveller who was unable to get home from Cambodia, to the Aussie chef in New York who was relying on his positivity that this would be all over in a handful of weeks.

I still draw on the advice from the mental health expert about how we talk to our kids about coronavirus.

I feel for the actor whose industry had been decimated for performers as well as for production and staging crews.

I remember the pharmacist, working 96 hours a week, describing how customers would throw items at her because she had run out of medicine.

Then there was the teacher, juggling confusing messages about the safety of school for students and staff, as well as the committed aged care worker who was responsible for our most vulnerable citizens.

NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian speaking about the coronavirus situation on Thursday May 7, 2020.

And of course our leaders.

Leaders who we are now seeing work totally differently, with a level of compromise across party lines as they're united in a common goal.

The Deputy Chief Medical Officer and Premier who were grateful when I asked a simple question – "How are you?".

We expect so much of our leaders in a crisis and that often comes with criticism, but this is uncharted territory for them and us and they are working to the point of absolute exhaustion.

Close to midnight, at the end of my working day, I'd get into the car and head home.

Driving on the empty roads, I kept the radio off and enjoyed the silence as I reflected on the extraordinary people I had the privilege of interviewing that evening.

Now I talk to my children about how they are living through history, as COVID-19 in the year 2020 will be something future generations will study at school.

It's a time I'll certainly never, ever forget. 

Just like I'll never forget that number of 86,000 people. Another milestone in our history that seems like a lifetime ago.

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Perth father's incredible coronavirus survival story

The Quinns Rocks father recounts his horror with coronavirus – a nightmare which began just days into his mining swing in Burkina Faso, West Africa.

Perth father's incredible coronavirus survival story

Stranded thousands of kilometres from home, Gareth Jones fought for every breath.

The Quinns Rocks father recounts his horror with coronavirus – a nightmare which began just days into his mining swing in Burkina Faso, West Africa.

"Each day it was just trying to survive... trying to breathe," Mr Jones told 9News.

His condition deteriorating, the 42-year-old was sent to a major public hospital, which was an exhausting two-hour journey in the back of a car on bumpy roads with oxygen bottles flying around.

"I thought if I can get through this I can get through the hospital, it will be fine. but when we got there it didn't improve," he recalled.

Mr Jones' ordeal was only beginning.

"You could just see the rubbish, there was faeces and people lying everywhere... it was pretty confronting."

Perth dad Gareth Jones coronavirus West Africa

The father-of-four fearing the worst when his oxygen ran out, with no one to help for six hours.

"I just thought I was going to die. I thought this is it...but I just didn't have the energy.

"I couldn't talk, I couldn't talk without coughing I didn't have the energy to ring anyone."

Each day the 42-year-old was told a mercy flight was coming for him but they were repeatedly cancelled.

Perth dad Gareth Jones coronavirus West Africa

His mother here in Perth helping assemble a mammoth operation, which eventually got him to Switzerland. He lost 16kg in 10 days.

"The feeling of relief is just unbelievable... that was the first moment I thought, 'Oh, I'm not going to die'."

Free of the virus and free of quarantine, Mr Jones said he now knows how lucky he is.

"My daughters were pretty emotional so we all had a big long hug," he said.

"It was pretty special."

Perth dad Gareth Jones coronavirus West Africa

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