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Friendship and Ignatius Loyola in isolation

  • 30 July 2020
Ordinarily the last two days of July would for me be occasions of celebration. July 30 is the International Day of Friendship and July 31 is the feast day of Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. This July, in Victoria, at least, it is hard to summon energy to celebrate. We are in a time of endurance.

In the beginning everything was new and seemingly distant: the news of the virus, the extraordinarily ruthless lockdown of a province in China to limit its spread, the first cases in Australia in quarantine and then in the community, the first experience of isolation, limitation of public gatherings, social distancing, working and studying from home, and widespread unemployment. Each experience, however unwelcome, was new. It was accompanied by some satisfaction that our privations were endured for the good of the whole community, and by the unexpressed hope that life might soon return to normal.

The second lockdown, occurring in midwinter, marks an unwanted return to a stale world with an alarming rise in infection. The response has included the introduction of compulsory mask wearing. The masks, which make it difficult to read faces and to communicate, widen the distance between people. They enact the privileging of immunity over community, and conduce to self-preoccupation. The public mood is more sour, reflected in the media hunt for people to blame, as the personal costs of the COVID-19 and the response to it are more deeply felt.

People now realise that life may not return to where it was before, and that the new normal may continue to include social distancing, wearing masks in public spaces, and restricted and unpredictable access to travel, with all the consequences for employment and income in these conditions. Even after a vaccine becomes available we may still have to live with the virus and its successors.

This bleak vision of a possible future suggests that the responsibility of governments to keep people safe and to encourage an economic growth that benefits all will be difficult to discharge. It suggests, too, that the challenge we all face to live decently and hopefully in the time of coronavirus with all its strictures will be equally exacting. Both the threat of the virus and the restrictions necessary to meet it weigh heavily on the lightness that is an essential part of ordinary human living.

The International Day of Friendship and the feast of St Ignatius Loyola offer