Looking, and Looking Away
In a time of pandemic, there are obvious advantages to living in a wealthy democracy; one that is fantastically remote and has only sea-borders.
As I look at a global infection-spread map, I see huge blobs of red obscuring east Asia, Europe and north America like blood splatters or perhaps the lethal residue of a sneeze. When I look at Australia, I see a couple of small red dots that indicate our giant continent has nothing more than a mild case of acne.
These might be the objective data used by epidemiologists, but they are blind to human behaviour. Living in a remote corner of a remote continent, surrounded by excellent health care and abundant food supplies, one thing about Australians has become abundantly clear: those who are safest are making the most noise.
This is not to say the situation is anything less than grave. It is not as grave as Italy, or Spain, or the US, but it has the potential to become so.
It is to say that brawling in supermarket aisles, hoarding petrol and passing on wildly exaggerated social media rumours that are their own form of contagion, are all symptoms of an anxious populace looking for people to blame and ways to lash out.
There are people who’ve got it plenty worse than us. We have close relatives in Rome living in total lockdown and having to present a realistic and somehow not terrifying view of the world to their young children. I do not envy them their task. But it is not necessary to look overseas to find evidence of the full horror of this situation: here in Australia, the vulnerable will get it in the neck, like they always do in affluent, complacent societies. If Australians are good at portraying themselves as relaxed, funny and brave, that’s just because we’ve hidden the suffering underclasses from your view. We’re actually quite prickly about being reminded that we enjoy our ascendency at the expense of others.
Vast swathes of Australia’s interior are home to Aboriginal communities where lifetime health outcomes are atrocious for a wealthy country: a morbid combination of developing world illnesses like tuberculosis and gastro-enteritis, with first world problems like diabetes (four times as prevalent as for white Australians), alcoholism and heart disease (three times as prevalent). Across the board, Aboriginal life expectancy is ten years lower than for white Australians. Health services for Aboriginal people are under-funded. Communications are poor and government responsiveness to communities is slow to non-existent. Examine those factors in the context of a pandemic and you have a disaster waiting to happen.
The Australian Federal Government has set up a National Indigenous Advisory Group to fast-track an emergency response plan for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to the spread of COVID-19. This is a good thing: I pray that it works effectively.
There is, however, no co-ordinated Federal plan to care for immigration detainees. We have made ourselves world leaders in vilifying those who’ve sought our sanctuary under the Refugees Convention. Trump himself has talked admiringly of our callousness. So it is little wonder that the enforcer-in-chief of much of this cruelty, our Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, has not said a word in public about the fate of detained asylum seekers, despite having contracted COVID19 himself. The point is being made repeatedly by advocates – these detainees are people who have committed no crime, but who are locked up for an indeterminate period in the hands of private companies, not the government, and who have no way of self-isolating because their confinement is inherently collective. The potential for mass casualties in such circumstances is very high. It should be a priority to release these people into the community where they can safely isolate themselves.
But there’s no time for that. We’re busy freaking out about toilet paper shortages.
And herein lies the fulcrum: the point at which we can choose our behaviour and to a large extent, our level of calm over what might be a very long haul. We’re preoccupied with what we’ve lost, with what’s under threat. We need to turn our minds to what remains dependable, and to re-learn all over again how to cherish these things.
What do I mean by this? I am essentially stuck in a medium-sized house with my large family. We are driving each other nuts, but there’s something beautiful about it. As our older girls are coming into their late teens, they are less and less willing to hang around at home with their uncool parents and their very vocal smaller siblings. Now they have to, and they’re responding by cooking, making things and filling the house with laughter. For al that we may chafe against one another, there is an underlying sense that we are together for the duration and we will keep each other happy.
The other constant, and I understand my own enormous privilege in saying this, is the presence of the ocean. Down at the end of the road, it goes through its perpetual cycles: offshore winds, onshores, long rolling swells and flat days. Chop and calm, the seabirds and the relentless exchange of tides. In changing constantly, it is one of the few things that never changes. We are all surfing much more than we normally do – in adverse conditions some days – and for longer periods. There is a sense that when you step off the beach and into the water, some sort of natural order has been reinstated. The ocean doesn’t care. For humans, it is the elemental substrate of self-isolation, because it causes all communication to cease and it erases every trace of our presence.
The garden seems to occupy a similar role: it goes through its cycles in utter ignorance of what assails the human world. We are coming into autumn now: the leaves are falling, the fruit is finishing on most of the trees. The days are shorter and the rainfall is gradually increasing. The chickens strut around the place, harassing the dog and dragging the vegetable garden onto the lawn in their search for…I don’t know what. Whatever it is that chickens are always searching for. My personal fixation is the chillies: I’m pickling them, and there’s plenty of plump green ones on the plants, but it’s been a cool summer and we’re running out of sunshine for them to ripen. This, in the scale of things, is a delightfully small problem. We’ll eat them green.
By cherishing the small things, the unchanging rhythms of the natural world and our own deep loves, we free ourselves from the urge to lash out. We can get our losses and our worries into perspective. Then, and only then, we can open ourselves up to worrying for others – those people we have made invisible as we gorge on our own good fortune.
© Jock Serong, March 2020
Jock Serong’s piece about the Australian Wildfires at CulturMag here: „Blackened and Bewildered.“ His new novel The Burning Island will bei published by Text, Melbourne, in September 2020. He is the author of Quota, winner of the 2015 Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fiction – translated into German as Fischzug, published by Polar Verlag; The Rules of Backyard Cricket, shortlisted for the 2017 Victorian Premier’s Award for Fiction, finalist of the 2017 MWA Edgar Awards for Best Paperback Original, and finalist of the 2017 INDIES Adult Mystery Book of the Year; On the Java Ridge, shortlisted for the 2018 Indie Awards, and recently, Preservation. His books at Text Publishing, Melbourne, here.