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Community in the face of insecurity



For Victorians this last week has been taxing. It began with rising numbers of COVID-19 infections, moved to the lock-down of housing commission towers enforced by hundreds of police and has continued with the lockdown of the whole Melbourne area for six weeks and exclusion from other States.

Woman stressed wearing mask

The challenge is to find compass bearings in such an unpredictable situation, and so how to respond to the flood of exhortation, complaint and blame that has accompanied it. Although it is notoriously difficult on a storm-tossed deck to take accurate readings, the attempt may encourage us to improve on our initial responses.

It is important first to understand in broad terms the situation in which we find ourselves. To my mind — and this is true not just of Victoria but of the nation — we now live above all in insecurity. In coronavirus we are faced with a microbe that we do not fully understand, which threatens the life and health of those whom it infects, to which there is no antidote nor sure treatment, and to which our responses will affect unpredictably our economic and social life. In the face of this we cannot confidently predict or plan for our future as individuals nor as a society. For the foreseeable future insecurity is our home.

Insecurity takes many forms. Most obviously it expresses itself in anxiety and paralysis in the face of the uncertain choices we must make in everyday life. More subtly and perhaps commonly it leads to denial. The most blatant form of denial is to say that the virus won’t affect me and that I can safely do what I choose without bothering about it. The more common form is to convince ourselves that the situation can be controlled if we only do this or that, and then we can all get on with life as before.

These voices can be heard loudly in the response to the Victorian situation. They shout that the outbreak was clearly someone’s fault, could easily have been avoided and handled better. It was a failure of control. All we need to do is to avoid those mistakes and so get back to business as usual.

The vehemence and certainty with which those judgments are made betray inner insecurity. They silence the small voice that asks whether the armour with which we protect ourselves against the virus is like the Emperor’s new clothes in the fairytale.


'In the face of insecurity we dig, deepening relationships with friends and fellow workers, and the ties that bind us to our wider community. We know that are in it together.'


If not recognised, insecurity tends to isolate us. We look after ourselves and our own and see others as hostile. We look for people to blame, generally people who are different from us. That has been evident in one response to the spike in COVID-19 cases. It was the fault of people who live in suburbs far from our own, whose country of origin or religion is different from our own, who belong to a different age group than our own, and of governments whose political affiliation is not our own. Our unrecognised insecurity makes us want to control such people. 

The alternative approach is to acknowledge our insecurity, to feel compassion for those who suffer from the virus, and to accompany them. In times of lockdown physical accompaniment can be difficult, but we can let our minds dwell on the images of people who translated and cooked for people in the towers, rang them up and saw them as friends. When we act in this way we find in the insecurity of the people to whom we act in solidarity a mirror and healing for own insecurities. To acknowledge our insecurity also leads us from dismissing people to trying to understand them. We might even empathise with government ministers who must make decisions in times of insecurity, uncertain about the situation or the effectiveness of steps they might take to meet it, but realising that people’s lives and livelihoods depend on them.

This approach also makes us put a high value on building community. In the face of insecurity we dig, deepening relationships with friends and fellow workers, and the ties that bind us to our wider community. We know that are in it together.

In this last week we have seen both these attitudes on display. The Victorian government appealed to power embodied in police and army to shut down the towers and to force people to stay inside. By doing so it implicitly guaranteed to provide a security beyond its reach. It also appealed to compassion and generosity, inviting us Victorians to recognise that those locked down are sacrificing themselves for our good, and affirming that we are all in this together.

But the dominance given to the exercise of control by police and army in the images both of the flats and of the new Victorian restrictions makes it more likely to be seen as an implicit guarantee of security. In that case, the appeal to altruism in the face of uncertainty probably won't be heard, much less internalised, and the release from restrictions will again lead to open slather.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street

Main image: Woman stressed wearing mask (engin akyurt/Unsplash)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, COVID-19, Melbourne housing towers, Victoria



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Existing comments

In imagining insecure situations, sailing in an open sea springs to my mind. Not on a huge ocean liner, aka the Ruby Princess (although this scenario has obvious challenges), but in a sailing boat. Even with all the bells and whistles danger lurks everywhere. In Iris Murdoch's "The Sea, The Sea" an ageing theatrical celebrity retires alone to a remote house on the rocks by the sea. His idyll is anything but. In our insecurity we are faced with a choice: retire alone or muck in and help each other.

Pam | 09 July 2020  

Nice one Andrew. What we share with the severely locked down anxious people, their police captors and the politicians is insecurity. It seems much of what we were taught was to find security in this or that institution, relationship or creed. But acknowledging a constant changing universe or just looking around at what is would suggest the only secure way is to embrace insecurity.

Michael D. Breen | 09 July 2020  

Thank you Andrew for a well written piece full of truth. An article in today's Age by Stephen Duckett is also a welcome contribution. In my parish this week I have asked members to stay calm, take deep breaths, get behind the government, advisors and all health workers in their efforts to help the whole community.

Ray Cleary | 09 July 2020  

I found this to be a very helpful article explaining how unrecognised insecurity can feed the blame game. Let us take the more positive option and contribute to the good of all.

Mary O'Shannessy | 09 July 2020  

Insightful. What you said about finding internal compass bearings rang true. Mental health issues have increased dramatically during COVID-19. I think we are in the earlier stages of what might well be a very long drawn out crisis. There is an impalpable fear stalking our streets. It is a time of metaphorical witch hunts. We need to tread with extreme caution here. Fortunately, there are saner heads, like yours, advocating this. The police and army personnel, like those isolated in the towers, will suffer serious, long term psychological damage. Whenever it is over the cost will be immense. We - that includes all of us - will be sorely tested.

Edward Fido | 09 July 2020  

Multiculturalism has much of value to offer any society. If, however, it is characterised by a hotchpotch of beliefs, languages, lifestyles, ambitions and cultural ethics without a unifying cement binding all together as one, multiculturalism may easily become an instrument of conflict and division, driven by misunderstanding and racial vilification. I had not appreciated that language was the cement of society until the Tanzanian government sent Patrick to my department for a year to train as his country's first specialist surgeon in a particular field. Patrick spoke excellent English. He lived near Sydney University in a multicultural domain where English was not the dominant language and much retail advertising and business outlets were in a multitude of non-English languages. Patrick commented that he found it very difficult not understanding these various dialects and commented that Australia was making a big mistake. In Tanzania, he said, there were over 140 different cultures/tribes with their own dialects. It was, however, government policy that all official language from news bulletins to street signs and advertising was Swahili. Everyone spoke Swahili as a necessity. This had dissolved intertribal conflict and misunderstanding, Patrick said, and was a major contributor the societal harmony. If the news bulletins coming out of Melbourne are to be believed, perhaps the lesson to be learned for the future is that if we are to be a genuinely multicultural society devoid of conflict and racial or religious vilification, English has to be implemented as a compulsory language in the public domain.

john frawley | 10 July 2020  

I like Edward's response here. Those who are having to make significant decisions in a fog will be experiencing the loneliness of command, those implementing the decisions at grass roots level will be be conscious of the collateral effects of their well-intentioned actions. There remains the need for all of us to be observant and to raise questions where appropriate, but to avoid criticism that springs from pre-conceived positions.

Ginger Meggs | 10 July 2020  

Language is just one vestige of a separatism which in no way can be considered 'multicultural', as it is in fact separationist, John Frawley. By this I refer to a mindset which divides society into 'us' and 'them'. 'We' then cease to believe what 'they' say. People and communities thus separated from the mainstream of Australian life tend to believe the most amazing conspiracy theories and alternative news. Prominent members of the Muslim community, such as Dr Jamal Rifi, preacher and youth worker Mohamed Hoblos and AFL player Bachar Houli have spoken out against this tendency. We are an inclusive society and English fluency is a sign of inclusion. Of course it is harder for older people and that does make it difficult for them. We have, so far, had enormous success in containing COVID-19 but this is currently threatened by those who don't want to stay with the proven methods of containment. We need to continue with them and to do this we need to get the message out there.

Edward Fido | 14 July 2020  

Having come to this late, I've noticed that Andy's piece is like Schubert's Unfinished Symphony, which ends, if that's the word, on a jarring note. Well into September at the time of my reading it, I note (from Queensland) that our Victorian sisters and brothers are dancing a kind of military two-step: one step forward and two in reverse. Perhaps Covid-19 has been sent to remind us that life is invariably like this, except for the powerful and mighty who incline to think of it in linear mode, with everything having a start, a middle and a finish. This may be eminently true of the young Tanzanian doctor whom John Frawley supervised. To have emerged from his milieu to train in Australia would single him out, not necessarily uncharitably, as exceptional as well as privileged, with access to cultural capital unavailable to his compatriots, including the imposition of Swahili as their first language. I have sometimes encountered these opinions and attitudes within members of my own Indian community. It is a known means of ingratiating oneself with elites in a new environment. Edward strikes the right note in asserting that the powerless don't deserve to be kicked when they're down.

Michael FURTADO | 13 September 2020  

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