The Covid-19 pandemic has brought with it devastating health and social consequences. But it has also delivered an opportunity to learn valuable moral lessons that could benefit all of humanity. By Stephanie Dowrick.

Covid-19 life lessons

A young girl writes with chalk on the driveway of her Gold Coast home during the Covid-19 lockdown.
A young girl writes with chalk on the driveway of her Gold Coast home during the Covid-19 lockdown.
Credit: AAP Image / Dave Hunt

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” And the “times” self-evidently are far from over. Nonetheless, having now made our cautious way through chapter one of the still-unfolding Coronavirus Saga, there are insights to be celebrated and learnt from. And maybe not just learnt from. Arguably there are changes that we can insist on for the long term, particularly while “normal” is up for debate and the pushback is gathering speed to put exploitative interests ahead of what we can legitimately call our common interests or common good.

First though, let’s acknowledge the anguish of those who have lost or are losing livelihoods and – far worse – those who have lost loved ones directly or indirectly because of Covid-19 here in Australia or overseas. There are also those whose family or intimate relationships have shattered under the pressure of too much or too little proximity. And there are many – perhaps millions – whose already precarious place in the economy has become more tenuous still. With those losses come some pretty fundamental fears: “How will I manage?” “Am I safe?” “What will my future look like?” “Who can I trust?” “Does my life matter?”

There’s sweet irony in the fact that it’s isolation that has shown us how much we need one another, not just for distraction, entertainment or utility, but for vital wellbeing. Does my life matter? Do others’ lives matter to me? 

This need for the giving and receiving of thoughtful concern correctly shatters the illusion that any one of us survives solo. To get through a time of uncertainty and significant fear, we’ve had to know that we can count on others’ interest, openness, generosity and willing selflessness. That was true during the catastrophic summer bushfires. It’s been true in all the years of sustained droughts, floods and turbulent social and environmental disasters. It’s certainly true as we regroup. And, frankly, we will honour the losses of life and security only when we can carry forward that same depth of interest and inclusion with conviction about its value. 

In all these accumulating crises, people have spoken about how vital community is, how they’ve been sustained by giving help as well as receiving it. This reflects ancient calls to inclusion: “This above all, love one another.” “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And warning us off from justifying harm, these words from 1st-century Rabbi Hillel: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to another. That is the whole law. All the rest is commentary.”

Our ethical as well as emotional maturity depends upon a willingness to notice how our choices affect other people – and to choose accordingly. Through unremarkable, precious acts of reciprocity we express our power to affect others positively: My life matters and so does yours. This is what lets us live with self-respect and dignity. If we take that away or retreat into belligerent self-interest, we rob our fellow human beings of their most fundamental rights to a safe existence. We also diminish our own humanity.

From the ancient indigenous spiritual traditions of the world, and overtly here in Australia, we also learn that our care for the only “mother” we all share – Mother Earth – is inseparable from our care for one another. This emphasis has stark political as well as moral consequences. Where any of us draw lines around those whose lives are protected or indulged and those whose wellbeing is disregarded or trashed, it will inevitably mirror how we see this physical universe. Is it a place to plunder and exploit? Or is it a place to cherish and protect – not least for generations to come? 

Another question jumps out: Who should decide? 

In these Covid-19 months, we’ve glimpsed what it means when people are valued more than a partisan view of that construct we call the economy. We’ve also glimpsed how much more trustworthy political decisions are when they are made on the basis of analysis and evidence rather than blatantly self-serving ideology. Fleetingly, we’ve added up to something more than cogs in an economic machine. Perspective is everything here. Speaking to his infinitely spacious idea of “God”, poet Rainer Maria Rilke put it like this: “How you look depends on where we are; from a boat, you are a shore, from the shore a boat.”

Looking into this time of change, we can see how willingly and co-operatively the vast majority of Australians gave up some freedoms in order to keep one another safe. Thinking about others, we benefited ourselves. Despite distancing, we’ve smiled at, helped, appreciated and been appreciated by strangers. We’ve rediscovered intimacy, both our great need for it and creative ways to find and express it. We have discovered how delightful it is to breathe cleaner air, to make do with less, to draw strength and pleasure from our confined physical as well as social environments. Not least, we’re reassured that for the moment at least, many without work or the prospect of work are being taken better care of with our tax dollars, rather than being humiliated by calculated impoverishment. These things shape our consciousness. They influence our emotional and spiritual health. They are elemental to life. And to a vision of life in which more of us could not merely survive but flourish.

But all that’s positive is also precarious. No one could have predicted that the political parties willing to expend a decade’s worth of energy disparaging the Labor Party for effectively keeping this country safe through the global financial crisis would now themselves be opting to stimulate the economy on an unprecedented scale. No one, either, could have predicted that a government that has openly pilloried experts as “elites” would now be dependent upon epidemiologists, medical doctors and health and mental health specialists.

However, this is the same government that’s long demanded “resilience” from those enduring massive hardship – but no matching courage from those whose lavish tax arrangements are questioned. It’s also the same government that’s been ruthless in its climate science silencing to protect mining interests rather than planet and people. It’s a government that, like its predecessors, continues to punitively underfund universities, scientific and medical research, the national broadcasters (ABC, SBS, NITV) and all of the arts on which the unfolding of a more positive national identity depends. It’s also a government that vehemently refused doctors the right to determine the medical needs of long-imprisoned asylum seekers. And it’s a government that has no human rights charter and regards the idea of a wellbeing budget as risible.

So, if any more co-operative, inclusive changes are to be anything but cynically and briefly expedient, so-called ordinary people will need to draw on their most positive experiences of community to envision and articulate what we will continue to want and need. Should we fail, should the new normal function much like the old, then our sense of ourselves as a nation – as well as our individual wellbeing and health – will be under far greater strain than anything caused by the coronavirus.

It is measurably unhealthy to live in a society where the demands of a grossly entitled few are encouraged to dominate, and where some groups – including First Nations – are routinely disrespected. Such blatant inequities harm everyone, but not equally. It’s no coincidence that the nations that have done best in this global pandemic are those where ideals of community – care, co-operation, inclusion – can still mean something. The results in the nations that are brutally unequal, such as the United States, Brazil and Russia, shriek of social injustices as well as health inequities. In the US, former president Barack Obama said of Covid-19, “A disease like this just spotlights the underlying inequalities and extra burdens that black communities have historically had to deal with in this country.” The current explosion of race despair in the US only reveals the perils and consequences of constant, indefensible injustice.

In Australia, the burden of disease falls disproportionately on the poor and especially on Indigenous communities. In the Northern Territory, children suffer from diseases of poverty that rob them of good health in childhood and markedly shorten their life expectancy. But in one of the brightest of all our national Covid-19 outcomes, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have largely escaped infection. Patricia Turner, chief executive of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, has confirmed this is the result of unprecedented co-operation by the government with her own and other health and community organisations. She is also adamant that Indigenous communities will not be returning to the usual paternalism from governments that have hindered their progress for centuries.

Clearly Covid-19 has done the world few favours. For many it has been an unmitigated disaster. But what it has done is to rip away any illusions that “health” can be protected or even exist in a moral and social vacuum. The increasingly urgent consequences of global warming haven’t gone away. Learning the lessons of community may well be the most essential home schooling of all.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 6, 2020 as "Testing positives".

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