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Why we need to think communally in lockdown



Vaccine comparisons. Mass protests. Interstate sniping. Quarantine complaints. Community scapegoating. The pandemic soundtrack closes around us like an ever-tightening girdle; each new statistic and flash of opinion and political obfuscation turns the screw further. The daily press conferences have become morbid viewing, sound clips looping on endless repeat, channels of doom. As the miasma invades my psyche I realise it’s not the lockdown or even the pandemic causing the greatest distress; it’s the dissent emanating like scattershot from the calamity’s core. Everywhere I look, it seems, there is something ready to flay my already-scorched nerves.

Main image: Woman and dog sitting in sunny window (Malte Mueller/Getty Images)

If the virus hasn’t infected us yet, the discourse around it most certainly will. But inoculating oneself against such dissent is almost impossible, for the antidote to physical isolation — gatherings in the online village square — is itself rife with infection.

Social networks are essential to our collective mental wellbeing, but the social media channels standing in for them at such times as these frequently reinforce the divide. With no liberation from this pandemic in sight, how do we gird ourselves against the mental fatigue and anguish it is wreaking and the mistrust it has sown?

‘You cannot actually be well — have a strong sense of wellbeing — while those around you are unwell. And humans are actually much more sensitive to that than they like to pretend,’ says Professor Ian Hickie, Co-director of Health and Policy at the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre, in a discussion with Geraldine Doogue on ABC RN’s Saturday Extra.

‘Rather than asking “Are you okay?” we need to ask “Are we okay?’’’

It’s a pertinent question posed at a time when community cohesion is rapidly crumbling. The value of collective wellbeing embodied by church, sporting and community groups has been eroded with diminishing membership. As the world is riven by unprecedented upheaval and disconnection, we risk becoming the snake determined to eat its own tail; for who will vouch for us, if we have turned on each other?  

‘[Social connection] has declined with this fierce focus on the individual — “Am I okay inside my own head?” as distinct from “Is the world I’m in, the social world on which I depend… healthy?”’ says Professor Hickie.

When framed this way, the question presents a perspective-shift which can help us mentally expand the protective net from our individualistic selves to the broader society in which we live and the online community inhabited by our cyber selves. Moreover, this quest for collective wellbeing can be beneficial in slotting our own unease into a larger, interconnected puzzle; communal accompaniment soothes our disquiet, somehow.


‘It’s imperative we foster trans-generational villages within our societies. They are not only necessary for effective aged care and child-rearing, but provide coping mechanisms during times of upheaval.’


The despair induced by daily infection and death tallies would be, in normal times, ameliorated to some extent by one’s workaday routine. And the crisis would be borne in togetherness — an impossible response, since the pandemic calls on us to withdraw into ourselves rather than draw together. In addressing this dichotomy, says Professor Hickie, it’s important to establish a toolkit that will help us undertake the adaptations required of us.

‘We need to live each day... authentically. What am I going to do today? I will focus on the news — I need to know what the virus is doing… But I also need to enjoy something, I need to actually achieve something, I need to have some purposeful actions each day.’

Collectively, such quotidian practices become acts of extreme self-care; comfort and healing originate in the most pragmatic of deeds. For many, these antidotes are self-evident: a friend recently told of the walk she’d taken as an alternative to watching NSW’s daily press conference. The foliage in her local park had been delightfully swaddled in bright ‘tree garments’ knitted in an act of guerrilla yarn bombing. Though my friend was alone on her walk, she was the recipient of a gift containing a message of human solidarity.

Similarly, at the outset of the pandemic last year I discovered a brightly painted pebble tucked into the cleft of a branch; ‘keep or hide’, said the message on the stone’s underside. It was a transaction that embodied exchange and implicit value; like cash, who knew how many hands it had passed through?

In the longer term, says Professor Hickie, it’s imperative we foster trans-generational villages within our societies. They are not only necessary for effective aged care and child-rearing, but provide coping mechanisms during times of upheaval. I had a vision of what such a village might look like recently, when the owners of our local convenience store pasted a note in their shop window saying they’d be closed until they are fully vaccinated against COVID. When a photo of the note was posted on our suburb’s Facebook community page, there was an outpouring of gratitude for this immigrant shop-owner family and validation of the vital place they hold in our community.

It was social media at its most positive and powerful: a gathering of community in support of the people underpinning it, a medicinal balm to pandemic-bred fear and discord, and a seed that might be used in the rebuilding of our community once the pandemic is over.



Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney-based journalist. Professor Ian Hickie is the co-host with James O’Loghlin of Minding Your Mind podcast.


Main image: Woman and dog sitting in sunny window (Malte Mueller/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, pandemic, isolation, community, communal wellbeing, lockdown, social media, COVID-19



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Existing comments

I like this article; where's the "thumbs-up" button? It got me thinking (here we go...), particularly the logical extension of "are you okay?" to "are we okay?", then possibly a much more reciprocal investment: "are we going to be okay?" An ethicist recently highlighted the difference interpreted between groups of "the greater good" which may require some suffer so some others don't and "the common good" which is intrinsically all encompassing. Empathy, understanding and compassion are fine sentiments, each amplified if shared in common so both or all parties to the "contract" have a mutual reliance we're all going to come out in one piece. Perhaps "thinking communally" encourages the needy or vulnerable to appreciate that much as they may not be equally empowered financially or socially to contribute to an outcome that their participation and safe emergence is equally valued in the process and result. In many cases the care-giver is equally reliant on the ultimate well-being of their charge. ..hopefully, mutual respect will intervene so this reliance doesn't be taken advantage of. It'd be a pity if there was no communal legacy "seed" to plant after COVID; wonder what the fruit tastes like?

ray | 29 July 2021  

Catherine, Your essay caused me to reflect on my late mother's Stoicism. Her generation lived through World War I, the Great Depression and World War II. She lost her husband to Cancer after just five years of marriage, she raised my brother and I whilst working full time ; not the done thing in those days .She worried quietly when I was sent to Vietnam..She had lost a brother, blown up in France, months short of the end of World War I. She of course was not alone in her generation. I watched with dismay the selfish response of some individuals around Australia last weekend to the "Lock downs" and wondered why this was so. Todays generations have had it easy since the end of World War II. Prosperity became the new normal, as did individualism and a "me first" mentality. We have seen a decline in volunteering, church affiliation and attendance .The hollowing out of membership of political parties and other social institutions, including trade unions. The Neo liberalism of the last few decades has not helped. The Pandemic has arrived as an unwelcome sign that all is not well with nature nor our society. While 'mateship' is to some degree a pious myth, Australians have come to each others' aid in times of disasters, sadly individualism, not community spirit seems to be today's new normal. At 70+ I am on my way out. It is very sad to witness the selfish behavior of a considerable minority of my fellow citizens, who place their 'freedom' over the rights of others .

Gavin O'Brien | 30 July 2021  

Hello Catherine: I skimmed through your article just to get a flavoring of it. My eyes picked up: “Professor Ian Hickie, Co-director of Health and Policy at the University of Sydney’s”, “watching NSW’s daily press conference” and “Catherine Marshall is a Sydney-based journalist”. I decided not to bother reading it unless you make a small change: start off with “Sorry, Melbourne” in bold-type.

Fosco | 30 July 2021  

Forgive me, it might be age, I am in 'the Gavin O'Brien bracket', so I found it a wee bit difficult to decipher your text, Catherine, but I gathered what you and that eminent luminary Prof Hickie were saying is that we need to nurture a cohesive society. Like everyone else, my COVID time has been mixed. I live alone as my wife is in a Dementia Ward and my children and most long term supportive friends are Way Down South in Victoria. However, I do have friends and connections up here North of the Rio Tweed. Strange things happened to me recently and a couple of people in a meditational movement I belong to really went troppo and need to be gently hauled into line. Like many who do need this, they will baulk at it. I guess this is one of the problems you face in creating a cohesive society, what do you do with what seem like congenital anti-social ratbags.

Edward Fido | 30 July 2021  

I tend to agree with FOSCO that we need to deal with the wounds and trauma of the current situation before we can afford the privileged luxury of wallowing in philosophical feel-good notions of "togetherness". It's not the right time to be philosophical when people are still in shock and suffering.
We are all still too angry and have too many questions about why the NSW Premier let the politics of "not following what Labor did in Victoria" cloud her judgment in the early days of the Delta outbreak.
Let's deal with that first.

AURELIUS | 02 August 2021  

"The pandemic soundtrack closes around us like an ever-tightening girdle; each new statistic ... turns the screw further." I read this far before checking the publication date; surely this is old news? Ah, no, my mistake. Old news if you live in Melbourne. Not so much for Sydneysiders. Other than this phase-lag, all depressingly accurate and familiar. Hang in there, I say, and especially watch yourself and your community when you think it's all over. Even if it doesn't actually come back, something destructive lingers in the collective psyche, and can erode it. Thinking a new kind of communally is, I feel, necessary not only *in* lockdown, but post-lockdown also. And probably even more so post-pandemic. 'It ain't over 'til it's over for everyone' should be humankind's mantra - applying not only to pesky virus outbreaks, but perhaps to all ills shared globally by a suffering humanity.

Richard Jupp | 04 August 2021  

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