The other day I sent a brief note to social researcher Hugh Mackay describing the current zeitgeist as ‘entering the surreal, through the portal of the unprecedented’. Everything feels slightly out of whack, weird, disjointed, fragmented. It’s as if someone has come along and pulled the plug on the normative order. The disruptions to everyday life are glaringly evident, symbolised most alarmingly by empty supermarket shelves and the prospect of a worldwide depression. The stop-go, this-way-that-way policy shifts by governments around the world – ours included – have only added to our collective state of high anxiety. Beneath the choreographed political calm is a terror of the unknown – a combination of bogey man meets the grim reaper. You can smell the fear.
Hey, I’m fearful too. I don’t know about you, but I’m having the most awful nightmares, the latest of me being chased around an enclosed room by a huge creature looking like a cross between a cockroach and pangolin – the alleged originator of the deadly virus.
Contrary to instincts
I’m exhausted by tiredness. That’s OK. But it’s the anticipated boredom of ‘social distancing’ that really concerns me at this point. I think I can self-isolate – although I’m not exactly sure what that means – but the prospect of avoiding my usual haunts, or not being able to hug my friends is troubling. It feels like an assault on the senses. As Sydney Morning Herald columnist Ross Giddens points out, ‘social distancing is contrary to all our instincts as social animals’.
In the midst of all the dire warnings about COVID-19 and Norman Swan’s prediction of a 12 to 18 month pandemic, we will have to come to terms with a collapsing global economy. There’s no doubt that millions will lose their jobs, that countless companies will go to the wall, and that the supply chains will disappear as fast as profit margins. To be sure, greenhouse gas emissions may plummet and we might even see blue skies in once polluted cities, but the pain and suffering will be widespread, and severe. Those on the economic margins will of course experience the worst impacts.
What’s different about this crisis though, especially when compared to the global financial crisis (GFC), is that even with the injection of huge sums of cash into the economy – via ‘quantitative easing’ etc – if people can’t or won’t go to work, and if spendthrift consumers decide not to consume, then the entire edifice of this system is under threat. Make no mistake, there’s no foreseeable end point to this gargantuan crisis.
Stimulus package for the heart, mind and soul
So perhaps what we need – as much as any fabled economic stimulus – is a stimulus package for the heart, mind and soul: a narrative that can help pluck us from the depths of despair into some other state of being. We could start by listening more attentively to what First Nations people are saying about the central importance of kinship, custodianship and obligation in the playbook of life. We might also consider reinvesting in social connections and casting aside the rampant individualism and consumerism that underpins neoliberalism.
The fact is, we’ll need each other more than ever in order to get through this crisis – and other crises to come. We’ll need to consider the plight of our neighbours, friends and acquaintances, as well as reaching out to those on the edges of society. If we have the capacity, we’ll have to respond to practical demands as well as attend to the emotional and spiritual needs of others. This crisis will require us to reaffirm the idea of society itself, and the bonds and attachments necessary to get us through what’s unfolding.
As the weeks and months roll on, we’ll become more reliant on the internet to connect with others. New networks will emerge as we seek to gain support from others. We have to remember that prior to this crisis, our society was already in considerable trouble, with epidemics of loneliness and anxiety scarring the social landscape. We now face a complex overlay of disconnections, enhanced by calls for social distancing. There’s little doubt in my mind that this will lead to more anxiety and depression across Australia which will further stretch medical services.
It’s interesting, how governments are responding to this crisis. Whatever happened to the neoliberal mantra of small government? How come the free market can’t solve this crisis? All of a sudden, guaranteed wages and handouts to the poor are being thrown around by the most rabid of free market administrations. It takes a worldwide epidemic to get an increase in Newstart! Only a few weeks ago, Morrison et al were insisting that the way to get off welfare was to get a job.
And then there’s the matter of the government’s relationship to science. When it comes to COVID-19 scientific opinion is God, but apparently not so much when it comes to the climate emergency. Instead, we’ve been given trickery, lies and deceit. The climate criminals are now in charge of this crisis.
Keep safe, keep well, connect, connect, connect, and help rebuild our sense of society and the power of the commons!