Culture, it seems, has much to explain about how Australia is coping with the Covid pandemic. It has been awe-inspiring to see our wealthy and modern State step up to the plate to try and conquer this virus and keep the balance books of every day Australians in the black. Regardless of one’s political persuasion, or one’s take on possible initial missteps, Australia is showing, at this very moment, its impressive capacity to assist companies and individuals with cash flow, medical supplies, and hospital beds, all the while taking steps within the community to inhibit the growth of this virus.
And yet still, despite its great reach, government cannot solve the more human factor that is at play, this being the increasingly isolationist life of the average Australian. This problem, I’m afraid, is up to the individual to solve. And so, it is perhaps worthwhile to give some consideration of this word, “individual”, and what it means within this culture of ours. The predominantly Anglo-Saxon culture that underlies the history of this country is well entrenched as having an individualistic approach to life. This has contributed to the many great personal freedoms we all enjoy, including that from governmental control. The degree that a country is individualistic or collectivistic exists on a continuum. With America being the most former, and Asian countries perhaps reflecting the latter. Counties like Canada, Sweden, and Australia falling somewhere in between.
This pervasive virus would thrive within a purely individualistic culture. If it could choose where to strike, it would, without much thought, choose densely populated locales, consisting of fiercely individualist people. People that would prefer to do as they please, defy constriction, consider their own needs above those of others, and transact in an unrestricted environment, all the while unknowingly spreading disease person to person. This, thankfully, is not Australia. In fact, it is exactly what people are realizing as untenable for a safe and virus-free nation to thrive. While there will always be some who advocate an unhindered approach to what they believe is nothing but an overblown flu, there are only a few individuals who willingly flout the rules, or just common sense. Most Australians realize the gravity of our situation, and willingly heed the warnings of those in the know. Our individualistic nature does present itself with certain problems, some of which vex us today. We are, quite simply, restricted on a daily basis more than we have been for perhaps one hundred years. Even worse, further restrictions may be put in place at any given point.
In my clinical practice, I have already begun to see the frayed edges of the initial consent and understanding that the public first gave. Teenagers are becoming restless and combative with their families. Some are becoming increasingly depressed and anxious as they are denied the social contact they depend upon for growth and maturation. Individuals who have long struggled with mental health, as well as those who live alone, are becoming increasingly intolerant of isolation, and are becoming restless and depressed. This is made worse by the fact that there is no known date when this virus will end. Isolation, therefore, has become a vaguely defined concept when it comes to the idea of time. Couples feel trapped with their children who roam the kitchen, eat all the snacks, fight their siblings, beg to see friends, and relentlessly shout back. Even I witnessed “peak Melbourne” last week when a three-year old girl walked with her mother past a closed café and nicely requested a “Babyccino”. When explained to her more than several times that this is no longer possible, the youngster demanded her “Babyccino” loudly and repetitively, and then cried all the way down the street. Parents are now struggling to communicate to their children what a virus even is, and why we must avoid it. And who among us can blame them.
And so what to do? Culturally speaking, our nature will not easily change, since it is deeply entrenched. But perhaps at this time, there is something to learn from other cultures who have become used to the rules and regulations imposed by their governments in times of crisis, all of which (or perhaps most of which) are geared toward the wellbeing of the collective. In light of this, perhaps now is the perfect time to do the ironic and consider both sides of the cultural coin: think and behave collectively for the benefit of all our wellbeing, while at the same time improve upon ourselves as individuals given all of this lonely time we now have.
By balancing the “me” that our culture engenders, with the “we” that other cultures value, it might be possible to think outside ourselves when we are most anxious and depressed over our state of affairs. This is not to say that we must ignore our own struggles, but rather to remind ourselves of the value of the collective when thoughts of agitation or tiredness, or even resentment take over. One could find pride and integrity in doing one’s part by staying inside and keeping one’s distance. We do this not just to protect ourselves, but to avoid spreading this insidious and invisible enemy to others. Thoughts of family and friends, strangers we don’t know, these strangers’ own grandparents they are likely to have. All of this must now enter our minds when we pace our homes and make our pasta, ration our toilet paper, and lament the freedoms we lost just a few weeks ago. Shifting our thoughts from “me” to “we” could remind us of our purpose, not just of ourselves, but of this city we love, its people we miss, and this country we cannot wait to explore once more. Perhaps now is the time to get to know our selves, to work on those flaws that have been hidden so well. Those flaws that our partners, our friends, our coworkers and bosses have warned us about. Those flaws that led to our lost friendships and relationships, our temper in the store, our anxiety about flying or driving or loving, or just speaking in front of others without fear. Perhaps now is the time, because we have nothing but time, to discover these flaws, to improve ourselves, to raise our awareness, to read about them, think about them, talk about them, and best of all, at the end of the day, to confront them and change them, once and for all. And when we are finished protecting our herd, we can emerge from our homes a better version of ourselves, before we were kept in a few weeks ago.