Previous pandemics, the Great Depression and more recent world crises such as 9/11 and the 2008 global financial crisis have had huge ramifications on individual lives and society. So too, COVID-19 will leave its indelible mark on habits and attitudes based on the quality of our individual and collective civic actions that we take to address the social challenges.
COVID-19 is like an x-ray allowing us to clearly see all the broken parts and the serious deficiencies that have existed in our daily lives, our country and our world. The economic and social challenges are deep and broad. The questions are far-reaching: what will the future be? How will life change? What will our new normal be? This is our moment of truth. We can take advantage and focus on the opportunities this crisis presents, tackle the challenges now and invest in changes that will deliver better social outcomes, more meaningful lives and lay the groundwork for generations to come.
Our Pre-Pandemic State of the Nation
Many regard Australia as the best country in the world. I personally feel fortunate to be living in Australia while living through this unprecedented time. Other aspects to be proud of include strong parliamentary democracy, freedom of the press, religion and the right to assemble. We have a spectacular landscape, unique wildlife and liveable cities. We also have a well-educated population. We are a highly desirable destination for tourists, immigrants and refugees. The egalitarian dream? We certainly have managed to bring together people from almost 200 birthplaces to create a harmonious society.
However, looking through the lens of Australian psychologist and social researcher Hugh Mackay’s reflections and social examinations; all has clearly not been so well in Australia. According to Mackay, we are further from egalitarianism than we were 40 years ago. We are showing signs of a disturbing retreat from the values of an open, tolerant society for which we were once famous. Mackay further points out, our growing disenchantment with institutions, our tendency to disengage from the serious social issues that confront us – homelessness, poverty, the plight of asylum seekers, the enduring problem of Indigenous Australians’ health and wellbeing, the problem of growing inequality of income, the fragmentation of families and communities, growing concern about climate change, international terrorism and the threat of global economic disruption.
So, this has been our ‘normal’, pre-COVID 19.
It is not however all bad news! We have witnessed social connectedness on a global and national scale, and innovation and adoption of new technologies at an unprecedented rate. The use of new technologies is also changing the way we deliver social services. We have seen restaurants and the arts sector change their business models, emergence of new Smartphone apps to connect those who need support with volunteers and messages of hope that create community connections. Government is back in our lives, taking charge and advising us. Government and scientists are also talking to each other. The medical profession is currently having a strong influence on health policy. Hopefully, climate scientists will be the next group to influence future policy.
Shaping a post pandemic society: Know thy neighbour
The experience of lockdown has forced many of us into a period of introspection that we may not otherwise have engaged in because of pre-pandemic ‘busy-ness’. It has given us the opportunity to ask questions including what really matters to us? What will be the shape of our lives? Are we heading in the right direction? The questions are necessary, but even more so are the actions to change our attitudes and behaviours that will impact our lives and society.
Individually, we cannot manage the economy. However, we each can have a role in contributing to the miniatures of life which can assist to shape the big picture. The State of our Nation is not just up to our leaders to make things right. When it comes to the character and the values of our society, it really is up to each one of us. We can have a powerful influence on the state of the various communities we belong to. But should we be asking ourselves how much do I extend myself beyond those I know? This pandemic has reminded us of our responsibility to members of our community that we may not know especially the elderly, the isolated, the sick and perhaps even our next-door neighbour.
An important idea is encouraged by Mackay: the state of the nation actually starts in the street where you live in. The street we live in, our immediate neighbourhood is a microcosm of our larger society and is a good place to focus on the kinds of social and community changes we want. You and I have the capacity to affect the changes we want by taking small actions in our neighbourhood. If you don’t already know your neighbour? How about knocking on their door and introducing yourself? How many of your neighbours do you know by name? Are you comfortable to ask your neighbour for a roll of toilet paper?
We simply cannot press restart; we must press reset
A vastly reimagined society post COVID-19 is not only desirable but necessary. Returning to our ‘normal’ is not a viable option. The pandemic has shown us how interconnected and interdependent we are. In this moment, we are one. To go beyond this crisis is not just up to our government. It is equally up to each of us to take responsibility, to extend ourselves to be supportive towards everyone. Each of us are part of a whole and everything we do affects the whole. It is when we respond with compassion. It is compassion that alters our behaviour and in so doing that our attitudes change. Compassion is the antidote to anxiety because it shifts the focus away from us and towards the needs of others. On a social level, compassion is a crucial ingredient in the life of any healthy, functioning community, especially our local neighbourhood.
The health of a society depends on the health of its local neighbourhoods. It is in the neighbourhood we must learn to get on with people we did not choose to live with. They may be different to us. Compassion gives us the capacity to respond with kindness and respect even when we disagree or dislike them. It is someone’s need that becomes the trigger for compassion. It is this, Mackay says, that can transform your apartment block, your street, your neighbourhood and it can transform entire cities and social fabric. It is a powerful idea.
We will need to make a concerted effort on an individual and national level to preserve the values of compassion, mutual respect, responsibility and care for vulnerable members of society. It may be difficult in our present harsh and uncompromising times but there are no easy solutions to satisfy everyone. Each of us can act now to better our own lives and start shaping a better world post COVID-19. I am moved by Arundhati Roy’s words of hope:
Another world is not only possible, she is on her way.
On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.