A retreating ocean is often the first sign of a tsunami. The water along the shoreline is dragged back dramatically, exposing parts of the shore and seabed that are normally underwater.
It’s helpful to frame the first two years of the pandemic in similar terms to this ocean drawback. Detaching from our own specific circumstances, and our own specific pandemic pain, we have a unique opportunity to actually see the metaphorical seafloor of the world.
Exposed by the pandemic were the often invisible systems that organise our society. These systems are comprised of everything from the expectations of ongoing and unlimited growth via the systems of capitalism and globalisation, to the systems of class, systemic racism and patriarchy, to the more localised systems of government and public service, to the social systems of the nuclear family and individuals, and how our communities, cities, households and green spaces are organised.
Also exposed in the drawback of two pandemic years has been our internal seafloor – that of our own psyches.
We got to see what we are made of, with previously unimaginable circumstances creating a chance to really test ourselves, see where we fracture and where we are strong.
Just like a tsunami, we can expect further devastation to come. But this exposure of our systems could also show us how to rebuild stronger.
So what did we see when the virus exposed what’s underpinning our lives and our very selves? And what will we do with this newfound clarity?
Economics writer George Megalogenis wrote that the “wicked genius” of Covid was to seek out where the holes and gaps were in our open economic model. In his Quarterly Essay titled Exit strategy: politics after the pandemic, Megalogenis identified that the weak points in Australia’s pandemic response were in the areas that the government had privatised.
“Covid says ‘You’ve left me a gap in your safety net – I’ll start killing’,” he told Richard Fidler’s Conversations in 2021.
“Australian privatisation was where the weak points were. The commonwealth contracts everything out in aged care” and “the damage done last year in Victoria was when the virus got out of hotel quarantine – also staffed by contract workers including security guards and cleaners who were under trained, underpaid and unaccountable.”
But at least until Omicron came along in the final weeks of 2021 – apart from a few notable exceptions including the slow vaccine rollout, the privatisation of aged care and hotel quarantine and lack of support for the university sector and the arts – Australia’s government systems turned out to be robust enough to largely protect the population and the economy. Australia suffered a relatively low death and infection rate compared with the rest of the world, due to border closures and a high level of compliance with lockdowns. And the economy was spared the worst, largely due to the Jobkeeper and Jobseeker schemes.
The approach of the federal government (and its NSW counterpart) has changed in response to the rapid emergence of the Omicron variant, stressing the “personal responsibility” of citizens and dramatically changing requirements for testing and isolation – with as yet unknown consequences.
But in the initial waves of infection in 2020, according to the ABS, if “Australia had experienced the same crude case and death rates as three comparable countries – Canada, Sweden and the United Kingdom – there would have been between 680,000 and 2 million cases instead of the 28,500 that did occur, and between 15 and 46 times the number of deaths”.
Still, the pain was not evenly distributed.
While wealthier, white-collar workers were able to work from home (and during lockdown have access to more green spaces and beaches), the brunt of exposure to the virus was found in more working-class jobs such as manufacturing, in insecure work such as food delivery and the gig economy, and in migrant and female-dominated care work, especially in the so-called “LGAs of concern”.
Healthcare staff have been quitting in record numbers – due to illness, stress and burnout – and the majority of them are women. According to the Grattan Institute, women also bore the brunt of the economic and psychological impact of the virus, and their lifetime economic disadvantage will be compounded.
According to a report by Australian Unions, “government responses have not adequately addressed the way the Covid-19 crisis is reproducing and deepening existing structural inequality faced by women, and intensifying work and family pressures. In many ways, government policies have made it worse.”
Then there is the looming “shadow pandemic” of worsening mental health outcomes. During lockdowns, suicide rates were down but self-harm increased, particularly in young people. This does not bode well for a mental health system that was already under pressure.
Two years in, despite this mess at the crossroads of capitalism, gender, class, intergenerational disadvantage, race and work, we have not moved to fix the systems that underpin inequality.
On a more personal level, the pandemic revealed the limitations of the nuclear family – and the need for a “village”. Healthy families need other people around to help – friends, aunts and uncles, teachers, grandparents and neighbours. Part of what was exposed on the seabed was the necessity of communities and personal support systems to stay connected to families, and acknowledgment in a person’s workplace of the whole load an employee might be carrying in their life – not just in their work.
Work bled deeply into domestic life and domestic spaces, much more work fell to women, parents found it impossible to work and supervise schooling at the same time, and many families felt overwhelmed and marooned without access to the village.
And then there’s the even more personal reckoning – a glimpse at our own psyches. Were we resilient? Calm? Kind? Or fearful and fretful?
The great Stoic philosopher Epictetus said: “Circumstances don’t make the man, they only reveal him to himself.”
And so it was here.
The past two years have shown us what we are made of – and provided to us the sort of character test that only usually comes round with world wars and depressions.
While countries such as America are experiencing high levels of public rage and anger, over everything from mask mandates to slow service in restaurants, in Australia the rage hasn’t been as marked, although it has been there in anti-lockdown protests and in our shops.
Australia’s low level of mortality and relatively high level of compliance with lockdown rules – particularly in 2020 – are probably connected. There was the sense of caring for the stranger and not wanting to do something to endanger people in your community. This sense of cohesion bodes well for a healthy society – it’s something hopeful to hang on to.
So what will we do with our newfound clarity? Seeing the truth of one’s own lives laid bare by the pandemic will no doubt prompt some to reorganise.
And there’s a certain amount we can reorganise in our own lives. Maybe you have already started remaking things that were revealed during the pandemic to be broken.
Friendships that were revealed to be too one-sided or unfulfilling may have been jettisoned, marriages and relationships ended, jobs quit, fitness regimes embarked on, cities swapped for the coast or country. Maybe the pandemic accelerated what was always going to happen. Or maybe it gave you a nudge of the carpe diem kind, or maybe the unique pressures of lockdowns broke the back of things that would otherwise have drifted along for decades to come – intact mostly, but never really stress-tested.
Changing these elements that make up our lives – our friends, our partner, our job, family, our health and fitness, the place where we live – seems big. It’s remaking our lives. Swapping Larry for Barry, Bondi for Berry, making sales for making soap, while enormous within the unit of one life, is not grand stuff that alters the course of human history.
What’s needed are systemic shifts that lead to a reorganisation of society that can better absorb large shocks – and to support each other through those shockwaves. It’s ground-up stuff.
The pandemic began in Australia in March 2020 – but for me, it will be forever linked with something that started earlier. November 2019 and the skies were red and full of ash. We all wore masks that summer … just a different sort.
The past two years and the things we’ve seen have given us a taste of the radical planetary reorganisation that will need to occur when the climate crisis really bares its teeth.
Like all painful experiences, once this chapter of the pandemic is over, we will want to forget. With all our lovely distractions back – bars and restaurants and gyms and hairdressers – we can paste over the issues all of us have with our set-ups and our systems. We think a move to the country – our own personal revolution – is change enough. But of course it is not.
We have seen the bottom of the seafloor in all its ugliness, beauty and degradation. Such clarity is a dark gift. The real work is ahead.