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Imagining life after COVID-19



To think of life after COVID-19 is daunting. The changes that it has brought to our daily lives have been vertiginous. Our awareness of its potential harm is still limited. We are only beginning to catch sight of the grim beast that slouches towards us threatening death and devastation in coming months.

Crowds at a park (Getty images/Orbon Alija)

Nevertheless, with so much rebuilding of society that will need to be done and so many opportunities that will present themselves for shaping a better society, we do need to think beyond the present.

Some possibilities are evident even in the disruption caused by our response to the threat. One of the most surprising features of that response has been flexibility, even in the face of visceral convictions. It is seen particularly in the abandonment of the economic ideology accepted by both major parties.

This equates the national good with economic growth. It centralises the freedom of competitive individuals in a free and minimally regulated market. Governments’ role is to support the market by balancing their lean books, privatising community assets, and bullying individuals who cannot compete in society. 

This view of the world is deeply held. Yet within a week or two the government has been persuaded to go heavily into debt, to prop up no-longer competitive businesses, to consider nationalising them if necessary, to give money to people who are unemployed and make it easier to for people suddenly employed to access benefits, and to listen to experts other than party-line economists in framing policy. All these measures effectively subordinate the economy to the health of the community. Though the change is explicable and commendable, I find surprising the lack of resistance to the betrayal of such a deeply rooted ideology.

These and such other such changes to conventional wisdom, such as the encouragement to work from home, will create a demand for broader change.


'When reflecting on the society that we wish to build after coronavirus, we need to go beyond rebuilding the priorities and the ways of working that were there before. They were clearly inadequate.'


This will be resisted because of an abiding conflict between different priorities given to the economy and to the wider culture. This difference finds expression in the way that the individuals and community are valued, and to the relationship between the local and the global.   

The regnant neoliberal construction makes economic growth the mark of a good society, and free competition by individuals and corporations central to that goal. Individuals’ value lies in their contribution to economic activity.

Critics of this emphasis on the determinative priority of economic activity insisted that all human beings have a personal value that does not depend on their virtue or their participation in the economy. They are persons, not individuals. These critics emphasise, too, how important are the varied and deep relationships that enable persons to grow within communities. This interlocking set of relationships gives all people a responsibility to contribute to the larger community, and especially to its most vulnerable members. From this perspective the goal of government is to promote the growth of all persons in society, especially the most vulnerable. Economic growth is important but subservient to that goal. It must respect the other relationships that make a good world.

The second important relationship is between the universal and the local. Where economic growth led by individual freedom is the goal, the ideal world is seen as a single market in which competitive individuals and corporations should be able to compete freely, cooperate freely, sell freely and profit freely. From this perspective the local becomes essentially a brand name devised to sell the same goods to different regions.

Critics of this view emphasise the overriding importance of local relationships central to personal identity. These flow into broader relationships in groups based on culture, religion, political views, interests and so on. They reach out further to the relationships that make up nations and a world in which respect for persons and trust between communities dominates.

Seen from this perspective, the response to the COVID-19 crisis has shown how corrosive to good society the current ideology of governments has been. The response has accepted that economic development is a means to deeper goals of society, that people are more than competitive individuals, and that the good order, and now the survival, of societies depends on trust and cooperation between persons and their communities.    

When reflecting on the society that we wish to build after coronavirus, we need to go beyond rebuilding the priorities and the ways of working that were there before. They were clearly inadequate. The challenge will be to resist the pressure to return to business as usual, and to incorporate into our thinking about the economy and our shaping of society what we have learned of the importance of cooperation, communication, trust and generosity — in a word, love.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street

Main image: Crowds at a park (Getty images/Orbon Alija)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, COVID-19, neoliberalism



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Existing comments

"The response has accepted that economic development is a means to deeper goals . . ." A noble wish, or a reality? Fear of recession, hoarding and black market selling, widely reported abuse by shoppers of supermarket staff all suggest we have some way to go to achieve the spiritual renewal and perspective needed for "shaping a better society." John Paul II's vision of a "civilisation of love" is more than a secular task and comes at a cost: the active renunciation of selfishness and its replacement by an ethic and practice of sharing and service, where the values and virtues Andrew identifies are operative norms of relating - at home and abroad.

John RD | 26 March 2020  

I am currently reading Stuart Macintyre's book on Australia's Boldest Experiment. Post-war Reconstruction was built on visions of doing things differently at the national, regional and local level. The hope of removing inequities was high in the list of planning principles. COVID-19 will be a catalyst for change at the societal level just as the Second World War was. For a while at least we will ponder our public and private lives.

Bruce Pennay | 26 March 2020  

So governments have been acting against the best interests of many of their citizens. Sure. But the changes you are suggesting, Andrew, are needed right now to manage a viral community. Unhampered competition and global greed will just increase the horror of the virus. But there are now emerging wonderful examples of collaboration, assistance at the local level, empathy and inventiveness from ordinary people which will ease the danger and the threat. In times of danger the reptilian brain kicks in, in full competitive, combative mode. It takes a heart change, as you suggest, to go deeper than the default response of fighting for number one. Somehow we need to trust that sharing can be seen as sufficiently life-giving that it is worth practising. Somehow, too, if we can lessen the anxiety with some kind of leadership clarity and reassurance, there will be more equipoise.

Michael D. Breen | 26 March 2020  

Momentous events, such as this pandemic, change us. We are brought to the realisation that strength lies in humility, even as the humility has been wrought by difficult circumstances. We are brought to the realisation that we are at our best when we love. Abuse happens when we are afraid and this is a situation when fear is prevalent. Overwhelmingly, though, I've seen people be kind to each other. We have exchanged phone numbers with our neighbours and talked about helping each other should the need arise. I've always known about my instinct to protect my vulnerable loved ones and now I'm living it. Thanks be to God.

Pam | 26 March 2020  

God is love. The more of it we bring into our lives in these troubled times , the better off we will be.

john frawley | 26 March 2020  

Thank you Andrew for another inspiring and thought-provoking article. It is indeed an opportunity to develop a new vision. The obscene pseudo-music of the poker machines has ceased; so-called professional sportspeople are not being paid ten times as much as a nurse or paramedic; we have been presented with stark evidence of the results of the hollowing out of Australian manufacturing capacity in the form of our near-total dependence one one foreign country for the most basic of our needs. Let us hope that we will indeed use this time to re-assess where we are going as a country.

Peter Downie | 26 March 2020  

This kind of inflammatory language "We are only beginning to catch sight of the grim beast that slouches towards us threatening death and devastation in coming months." is disgraceful and far from helpful!!!~

Christina Betar | 26 March 2020  

I think we are all familiar with the idea of privatising gains and socialising losses, the method that has been used endlessly over the last 100 years to improve profits and protect companies and money men from taking a hit just like the rest of us. I hate to say it but I suspect that's what the outcome will be unless something extraordinary happens. Trump's posturing over the last few weeks (back to normal by Easter etc) is all about reverting as quickly as possible to the "norm" before people have the chance to insist on a new way of doing things. I'm intrigued by the willingness of Governments to close down just about everything, but haven't touched the stock market: why is it still operating? I suspect that that would have been too much for the money men whom Governments listen to and I think that may be a truer indication of what will happen at the end of this. Back to normal!

ErikH | 26 March 2020  


JeremyB | 26 March 2020  

This may be one of the most important articles in my news feeds all year. It puts the right and the left of politics in perspective. It shows how forty years of neoliberalism is ending without a fight because socialism is the only way to cope with such a massive disruption as covid-19. It shows the shallowness of 'left-wing' Clinton's winning slogan in the US all those years ago "Its the economy. stupid." The economy was always only for the greedy, the individual; now we know its the very fabric of society and the way it values nature that really counts.

Malthus Anderson | 26 March 2020  

Further to my post above, perhaps Eureka Street could publish American spiritual writer Brendan McManus SJ 's "Ten Tips from Ignatius for These Times" - the author brings to bear principles of Ignatian spirituality very relevant to how we respond to the COVID- 19 crisis.

John RD | 26 March 2020  

A borrowing from Yeats in the opening paragraph lends a foreboding mood to the article.

Rae | 26 March 2020  

Will Australians become better people as a result of COVID-19? Did they become better people as a result of the Great Depression? Is COVID-19 comparable in sear and intensity to the Great Depression? Yet, the bettering of homo sapiens, their becoming kinder and gentler in the Progressive narrative of the perfectibility of mankind, is problematic. Normative Christian thought is that the return of Christ will be in a time of global fear and trouble. Yet Jesus asked whether, upon his return, the Son of Man will find any faith. Fear and trouble is what returns people to faith. What is inimical to faith is manmade utopia, the apparent clear evidence that God is unnecessary because people can be good on their own. Manmade utopia is the only way that the Devil can claim victory, and the only way that the Parousia can be as unexpected and unwelcome an intrusion as a thief in the night. Given the overwhelmingly atheistic (in all but name) nature of Australian culture, if Australians become good as a result of COVID-19, it will be as good atheists in all but name, and fodder for a Parousia that is like a thief in the night.

roy chen yee | 26 March 2020  

I'd imagine that supply and logistics planning will look closer to home for lower risk options, even if there's a price premium. The "Going Global" catch-cry of the early 2000's rewarded buyers and sellers and boosted some "3rd World" economies; trade flourished with increased consumerism...the same model that had a weak link which has become increasingly evident when international supply fell over due to localized lock downs. So if we abandon our cheap imports for security of supply we may also return those fragile economic booms in Asia to internal consumers - perhaps they have the numbers, perhaps not. Its certainly evident that the most democratic countries are turning to nationalist and socialist activities to protect their own with little sympathy for the neighbors.

ray | 26 March 2020  

Reading the news over the last few years, with various horrific events occurring, such as the paedophilia crisis; global warming and the bushfire crisis and now Coronavirus; one could be forgiven for thinking we live in apocalyptic times. The earliest traditional commentators on the Book of Revelation believed it to be metaphorical: the horrific events of the Last Days are always occurring somewhere in the here and now. Peter Doherty and Norman Swan have pointed out how we can reduce the spread of COV-19. The Republic of Singapore has done it. Their words and that country's example should be followed. This is practical, achievable stuff. As far as achieving a moral revolution to redeem society, I hope we can. The Christian foundations of Western Society have been gradually eroded over the centuries. 'How to get society together again?' We are badly in need of a spiritual revolution which encompasses all humanity. Something which is practiced, not preached. Can it happen? It's up to all of us. Prayer and action are the keys. We do need Divine Assistance. Humankind without God is always lost. Sorry to sound apocalyptic, but it's true.

Edward Fido | 26 March 2020  

"A grim beast, slouching towards us?" No, an invisible speck of nature spreading throughout the world, making us lift our eyes above our petty concerns and see that we are all inextricably connected to the planetary systems and to one another. We are witnessing a great outpouring of love and compassion across borders and yes, going viral.

Rose Marie Crowe | 27 March 2020  

No apology for your apocalyptic take on the current state of the world necessary, Edward. Placing our present situation in an eschatological context while we go about our more restricted days doing what good we can might help allay counterproductive panic. I'm reminded the nun in her convent, who, when asked what she'd do if it were announced the world would end in half an hour, replied: "I'd go on sweeping the corridors."

John RD | 27 March 2020  

I am intrigued by the image of the 'grim beast that slouches towards us threatening death and devastation in coming months'. The grim reaper or the Sphinx slouching toward Jerusalem with Jesus notably absent from the scene. Jeane Dixon claimed that Armageddon would take place in 2020 and Jesus would return to defeat the unholy Trinity of the Antichrist, Satan and the False prophet between 2020 and 2037. As the countless predictions of the past 1500 years have turned out to be figments of the imagination, in all probability Dixon's will as well. As we rocket towards lock down, soaring supermarket prices, unease about a vaccine, time involved in human trials, it would be easy to be pessimistic about the future. The more salient question is are the Bishops in their impenetrable robes, infinite sagacity and sumptuous lifestyles, going to accuse us of mortal sins by missing the sacraments? Will they trade the Roller for a Corolla? Will they release us from those monthly debits as the cash dries up? Will a new edict issue from Rome that the "faithful" must dial in to confess? Attend mass on line? Watch the Bishops weekly DVD to remain in a state of Grace?

Francis Armstrong | 27 March 2020  

John RD: “"I'd go on sweeping the corridors."” Australia could do with a St Andre Bessette.

roy chen yee | 27 March 2020  

Another good article Andrew. That so many Catholics have bought into neo liberalism is sad. Catholic social justice was our root value system. ??

Steve Carey | 27 March 2020  

In the last week I too have been wondering whether this shared crisis could signal a true change in this government. To an attitude of caring for all, instead of only very targeted appeals to those most likely to vote for it? To an apparent shedding of the neoliberal straightjacket clothing all its policies for the last 10 years? In favour of a new, enlightened and all-in approach to the idea of a government supporting (all) its people in difficult times? And above all an end to that so-effective "Divide and Rule" operating strategy embodied in the 3-word slogan “leaners and lifters”? A strategy that drove the deliberate scapegoating of people we were taught “to love to hate” throughout this government’s history? Would COVID-19 signal an end to all this? Well, the apparent answer was in todays' news: https://www.msn.com/en-au/news/australia/robodebt-government-admits-it-will-be-forced-to-refund-dollar550m-under-botched-scheme/ar-BB11LJfU?li=AAgfYrC&ocid=mailsignout . And, even if the scheme is thoroughly discredited, apparently Centrelink were still calling people as late as this Tuesday in pursuit of Robodebt surplus-remedies! Perhaps that’s why the phone and computer systems crashed this week? Ah, ministers Stuart Robert, Anne Ruston and Christian Porter (and presumably others) – you restore my faith in the Neoliberal Party of Australia!

PaulM | 27 March 2020  

These are indeed strange and terrible times, Francis Armstrong. I was never an devotee of the late Jean Dixon, and, with what I believe, would expect her to be a false prophet. As I attempted to say in my post, I believe that the sort of events described in the Book of Revelation are metaphorical and are always occurring somewhere in the world. I think it is best seeing the current COV-19 epidemic as a test on two levels. One is purely practical: to prevent the virus spreading further. I think our government is doing a reasonable job here. It is the sheer panic and the actions it precipitates I fear. These are not something just psychological, but also the result of a deep spiritual malaise which affects us all. The bishops will be judged by what they do in their office, but so shall we. When all places of worship are closed and normal services cancelled we are left with the core of what religion is about. That will never fail us. We are a bit like Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego here. It is an ordeal. Make no mistake about that. They came through. Pray God we all shall.

Edward Fido | 28 March 2020  

Fr Andrew, you really must be careful of what you wish for, and you need to read history much more carefully. The triumph of the last 200 years has been the phenomenal success of the interactive duo of (relatively) free markets and liberal democracy, with the interaction including governments safeguarding society against market failures both preventively and reactively where prevention fails. The government`s role also includes ensuring a fair distribution of the rewards of the market. History show only too well that a light and democratic government hand is always referable, but where the optimal balance in society should be in all these variables is a matter of opinion and the ballot box. In the post-Covid19 world there will need to be major policy resettings, if only because of the great recession/depression we will see, accompanied by outrageously unsustainable national debt. But some lessons I take away from the current situation include: the poor must be looked after better; this needs to include a decent liveable wage whether received through the welfare system or employment or a mixture; all people must be have decent affordable housing; the health service must be fit for purpose. In financially difficult time these goals can only be achieved though rapid investment and economic (re)-growth, but now with a greater share of the outcomes going to the poorer 50% at the expense of the top 10%. But it really is at base the capitalist economy, stupid!

Eugene | 29 March 2020  

Andy, I don't know how you do it in the face of the usual handful of nay-sayers - some of them with a history of claiming they never get a hearing on this site - and all too ready to cite Revelation and the Return of the Beast as a cypher for CV-19 and a sign of Armageddon awaiting us around the next spooky corner. This kind of apocalyptic fear-mongering is what they've been awaiting for years. So I too asked a nun, who attends Mass with me and who reads your column avidly, what she thought of the allusion to a nun with a broom-stick. 'Come off it', she said! 'Probably a flight of fevered imaginative fancy', she added. 'If one looked again the nun in question would have disappeared into thin air, which is why I think so many religious women were burned at the stake for being witches. Tell whoever it was that we outsourced those unhygienic practices to vacuum cleaners light years ago; otherwise we'd be fighting much more than the coronavirus at this unfortunate time', she concluded with a shrug, adding 'I suppose they must be allowed to have a stool to be miserable upon.'

Michael Furtado | 31 March 2020  

The point of my reference to the nun is quite the opposite of the construction placed on it by Michael Furtado's friend. Perhaps its significance - namely, trust and confidence in God's providence - was lost in the telling (mine or Michael's) or by the blinkers of an ideological grid placed over its reading. The God in whom the nun I mention placed her trust is the one revealed and given in the person of Jesus, who calmed the storm and allayed the fear of the apostles - and who promised to be with us always. I would also say that none of the contributors, "the usual handful of nay-sayers," charged with "fear-mongering" here display evidence of anything of an extremism that belongs more properly to polemical caricature than fair and constructive discussion.

John RD | 31 March 2020  

'Mack', from Calcutta, speaks for me. Right now, survival is seen as the common ground of all humans by those humans themselves. In that situation, the absurdity of life interpretations as being conflictual is recognized as nonsensical. We realise that getting on with the business of sheer survival, of living, of protecting all that civilization means starting with life itself, mocks our grounds of alienation and reveals our hostilities as simply anti-human. So what's the alternative? Love. Of everyone by everyone. Of all creation by all creation. Actually the rest of creation has no problem with this, only us! So our inspired women and men will continue to “see visions and dream dreams”, but will invite, not compel; will offer, not seduce; will present, not impose; will gift, not thrust their insights and thrills on anyone, leaving everyone free to accept or deny or delay, with no signing or submitting or suborning. This is the great lesson of Covid 19. The last thing needed is to ‘carry on as before’ when it is finally defeated. Let's love one another, whatever our differences. Pray especially that religious folk don’t return to square one. If your god isn’t love, it is madness!

Michael Furtado | 01 April 2020  

The common desire for survival in a time of crisis does not eclipse the distinctively human need to make sense of our experience. Articulated "life interpretations", though they may be different, are not necessarily "conflictual", but, where they, discernment is called for as to what conduces most to the common good. By all means, as Michael Furtado urges, let us strive to "love" and subscribe to the golden rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do to you," but let us also realistically acknowledge that one's moral and religious understandings, or lack of them, of their nature seek expression and play a decisive role in the process of discernment and determination of what "love" demands in action.

John RD | 02 April 2020  

Michael Furtado is a bit far fetched when he accuses unnamed posters here of an intellectual broomstick ride about the relevance of the Book of Revelation to the COVID-19 pandemic. I think I clearly stated I hold that Book to be metaphorical with valuable lessons for us today. Pope Francis took a similar tack at his audience last Wednesday. He said: 'There is a decisive maturity when we realize that our worst enemy is hidden in our heart. The noblest battle is against the inner deceptions that generate our sins.' He went on to discuss the Sermon on the Mount focussing on the Sixth Beatitude: 'Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God' (Matt. 5:8). He stated: 'The inner purification implies the recognition of that part of the heart which is under the influence of evil, in order to learn the art of always allowing oneself to be taught and led by the Holy Spirit. And so, through this part of the heart, we come to see God.' He did not suggest that this was easy. He also did not talk about 'love' in general terms but showed a clear pathway to repentance and real change in these dire times.

Edward Fido | 02 April 2020  

“…. I find surprising the lack of resistance to the betrayal of such a deeply rooted ideology.” There is no ‘betrayal’, only an engineering solution. This problem is almost sui generis as war, earthquakes, volcanoes and that asteroid that must be about due will do the same. An economy works when live human bodies with open wallets, one after the other, are able physically to abut against other live, human bodies with open palms, one after the other. When that cannot happen, doctors, dentists, surgeons and anaesthetists, for example, hitherto thought un-unemployable, go out of business, as do those on the speaker circuit who make their living by charging thousands of dollars to tell a dinner crowd about, say, lifting rather than leaning. Nature (or an Act of God) has stopped the participants in many of the multitude of markets that make up The Market from getting together (assuming that the government hasn’t overreacted). Until The Transcending Force permits business as usual to resume, the government has little choice but to place buyers and sellers on market-hibernation support.

roy chen yee | 04 April 2020  

There are things we cannot change. You are still you, I am me. But we have the incentive, time and circumstances to say to ourselves 'Here is my chance to help my planet evolve, so let’s do it!' The cynics will say: 'Da capo!' Chardin called that endpoint The Omega Point. Start by thinking small: What am I good at? Being a parent? A student? Business-person? Office worker? Teacher? Tradesman? Unemployed? Retired? We are habitual. We're comfortable. And our comfort zone needs offending! So, change something! We'll find it liberating! It'll free us of hitherto unnoticed and undoubtedly crippling compulsions. Then carry on as we were but differently. If one's a parent maybe discuss it with the kids. Look next at society. Who demands that we do something we actually think is not sound? Let’s meet this person, and talk about it. Greta Thunberg, a pre-teenager, did it. Why can't we? How to care for the marginalized and not just myself. Politics and religion throw up leaders, like Trump, who are unequal to today's challenges. Can I speak up for what's right and important? Andy invites us to envisage a new world order of justice & peace. What a challenge!

Michael Furtado | 09 April 2020  

The events, starting this evening, that many Christians celebrate over the coming days are a reminder and celebration of God's initiative in restoring a creation flawed by sin; and an incentive for gratitude and collaboration with God and one another in renewal: personal, societal and environmental.

John RD | 09 April 2020  

Jesus was always counselling those who had eyes to see and ears to hear to be aware of what was happening during his short ministry on earth. His times were not unlike our own except for modern technology and its consequences. He counselled against wilful spiritual blindness which prevented some from seeing what was happening. The world during COVID-19 is radically different to what it was before. Things will never be the same again. There are various agendas about what we should do. Some of these, like caring for the environment and less fortunate members of our society, are absolutely necessary. I think the most important thing necessary for things to really change is for enough people to change spiritually. Who would've thought the shattered remnant of Jesus' followers would go on to establish a major World Religion? Religion already exists. There is no need to found another one. Quite superfluous. I am talking about a real inner change in members of all religions. This requires both the existence of Grace and the ability amongst people to discern it. I think the means is already here: it is up to enough people to take it up and follow it diligently.

Edward Fido | 21 April 2020  

The gospel readings of Mass in recent days about Jesus's conversation with Nicodemus indicate the source of the renewal emphasised in Edward Fido's post (21/4).

John RD | 23 April 2020  

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