In the collective

Normally there’s plenty to write about. When you’re a working man, you’re always busy, even if it’s dull. You go to and from work, you interact with people around the place, you witness and observe and engage. There are the trials and tribulations, and the occasional angst, in the office, and outside it, you’re just as busy. You catch up with friends for a drink or a meal, you go see a movie or watch sport. Life is in constant motion, even if much of it is repetitive. There’s ample opportunity, all the same, for things to happen.

In isolation pretty much none of that happens. Life is simpler, almost as simple as it gets. Everything is in small movements, and any engagement is at arm’s length. The usual subjects for discussion pretty well dry up, and all that’s left is a commentary of the event itself – C-19 – and politics around us. Describing life in lockdown gets lame pretty quickly, and what’s left are random thoughts on books and memories and the thoughts that return to you. That’s not for everyone, but here it is.

It has been interesting to observe how parts of the world have re-awakened when human civilisation is in lockdown. The recovery of air quality and the drastic drop in pollution is well documented and welcome. But then there are those stories of wildlife venturing out of their safe habitats to venture into the deserted streets of man. It gives you an insight into how quickly the earth would return to its primal ways should man magically disappear. It’s a heartwarming glimpse because this is the natural world we’ve sought to dominate. It remains in place, and we become conscious of it again. Like most, I reckon, it makes me faintly wistful, and regretful for the time soon in the future the natural world will retreat again once we reclaim the environment.

Many of our thoughts in times like this are like those animals coming out of hiding. We find ourselves dwelling on things forgotten, and reflecting on what our life means and where we go to from here – because, surely, we must come out of this better people? That’s the hope all of us cling to, though I’m fearful that once life returns to ‘normal’ then these thoughts, like the pigs and ducks and goats, will head back to safe oblivion.

I discussed some of this yesterday on a long walk with Cheeseboy. It’s the first time I’ve seen him since his birthday, six weeks ago. He called me early and suggested we rendezvous for a take-away coffee. In normal life, we would catch up and sit at the French cafe where we’d have a couple of coffees and a pastry and chew the fat. This time we arrived at another cafe with perhaps half a dozen others lurking in the street outside it. Both of us had brought our dogs. Once we had our coffee we set off for a walk.

In the end, we walked for about 75 minutes. It was a cool but fine and sunny day. We made our way to the beach, where it seems much of Hampton had the same idea as us – walking their dogs and jogging and doing exercises, though, strictly speaking, the beach was banned. We walked along the concrete pathway at the back of it, discussing our work from home experiences and his renovations, how business has adapted, and how it means little will be the same afterwards.

As always, talk gravitated to the moral impact of this pandemic. What I mean by that is how it has reduced us to basics, and how refreshing that has been. We spoke as a couple of healthy males in an affluent suburb, walking our dogs on the beach. For us, there is an impact, but most of it is to lifestyle alone. It hasn’t affected our health, and though I’m on reduced days, the financial toll is much less for us than many thousands of others. In a sense, the impact on us is mostly theoretical. It isn’t for others.

There are hard times ahead and challenging decisions, yet both of us agreed this is an opportunity to remake society. Much will have been destroyed through this pandemic, and a lot of it will never be rebuilt. In the reconstruction work to come, there’s the chance to build in a different way. A lot of that will come out of necessity, much as a community devasted by a cyclone will rebuild their homes to be resistant to it next time. We can do that, but we can also take the time to re-imagine the form society takes in this new future.

To that end, we’ve broken ground in responding to the urgent demands the virus has made of us. We’ve broken open the war chest to share among us, against all previous ideological dictates. Business has been forced to adapt and reconfigure to ride out the economic storm. They’ve learnt to do business better, and those that survive will be stronger for it. As people, we’ve re-engaged with each other, albeit remotely. The constraints on meeting and socialising in the usual way have reinforced the importance of the people around us. We need each other, whether we’re friends or strangers. With time on our hands, we have returned to simpler joys, and the lucky become more intimate with their family. All of us, I think, see through the shallow entitlement of conspicuous consumption that gripped us before.

You don’t need me to tell you that it’s been a bizarre year. That’s particularly true in Australia. The new year brought with it diabolical and devastating bushfires. It was oppressive emotionally, and even physically, in the tainted air that we breathed. It was a terrible thing, but we saw the best of society at that time. We pulled together and supported each other. We were selfless and authentic.

How strange and disappointing it was then when the first signs of C-19 hit our shores and seemingly everyone rushed to the stores to hoard toilet paper and pasta and tinned tomatoes, and so on. I couldn’t comprehend it at first, and then I was forced to the stores myself lest I miss out. How had we gone from the generosity of the summer bushfires to the selfishness of this? I had a theory that these were different parts of Australia, but maybe it was that I wanted to believe that: the decent and the deplorable. There may be some truth to that at the edges, but if there was a Venn diagram then likely there’s a decent overlap.

I still don’t quite understand, but it seems to me that panic set in. Someone said something, something was on TV or in the paper, whatever it was it sparked a mad rush, much like the old fashioned runs on the bank. For a while, it seemed every man for himself. I could hardly stomach my disappointment – and disdain.

But now, on the other side of it, generosity of spirit has blossomed again. It’s the cliche of our times but it’s true, we’re all in this together. All but a minority have embraced that ethos. There seems a collective understanding: these are unprecedented times, but if we band together and do the right thing then we’ll get out of it okay. And in this, we’re looking at each other, like a team.

I hope we don’t forget these things. I accept that humankind is capricious and the herd mentality is strong, but it can be used for good. With the sun streaming down both Cheeseboy and I could agree on that. We were optimistic – but there’s still a long way to go.

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