GREG BAILEY. Covid-19 and personal liberty.

Apr 15, 2020

It has been many years since Australians experienced a crisis like the present one where all paradigms have been turned upside down. The social implications of the need for physical isolation are immense and the economic costs, both personal and national, are equally significant.

In both cases uncertainty has been drastically heightened and people have now been compelled to think about their own personal liberty in a way foreign to most.

The strictures regarding social distancing–a new verb, no doubt–are not voluntary, but are guaranteed by the power of the state, where previously they had been largely determined by an individual’s personal preferences. Why is this significant? Because it may force a rethink on the part of many individuals about socialization and the nature of society itself. For adults, personal interaction involving physical proximity normally occurs at home, work, shopping and at leisure events predicated on team involvement, and at school for children.

Social media implies a surrogate form of such interaction, but it is quite different from the kind of physical interaction that has now been substantially discouraged, if not banned. It is likely COVID-19 can even be considered a metaphor for the physical manifestation of the practices we’ve adopted over the preceding three decades (enabled by technological innovation coupled with rampant consumerism) that allow us to separate ourselves from one another, e.g., wearing headphones, staring at screens, everyone in the home viewing a different screen so time with family or roommates and a sense of community in general is further eroded. Paradoxically social media is enabling social interaction/communication now at a time when social distancing is so strongly diminishing physical interaction.

Will people now develop a nostalgic remembrance of physical interaction as a defining set of behaviours that did not require constant vigilance of the kind applying even to minimal interaction now? Even when some loosening of the distancing requirements is undertaken, most individuals will still be initially reticent about close contact because of the fear the virus still exists undetected in many places. Interaction in shopping centres, work places and restaurants and cafes will still occur, but probably diminished.

There is also a strong visceral fear of job loss, because jobs do not just provide an income, but a sense of personal identity within a particular kind of socializing process. And that so many people have been laid off temporarily or permanently is a sign of the fragile nature of employment. A recession emerges slowly with some time for people to make decisions about their future employment prospects. But now any conviction of a relatively secure future has been shattered with people at all levels of society experiencing massive job insecurity.

The kind of conceptual individuality–in the sense of personally defined/implied ambition and responsibility–that is often identified with the social side of neo-liberalism, has now been supplemented very much by a physical form of individualism that sees the body in fear of being infected from some unwanted external element. This will be understood as a form of sheer survival, not just as of existence as individuality when embedded in a larger social context.

Even where, as is the case with many elderly people, one’s world is largely defined by a form of insularity delimiting the world substantially within one’s own family, ignoring the events in the external world–usually mediated through the tabloid press and the commercial television infotainments–, this too will now have been jolted because of the limitations of family members being in contact with each other in a physical sense.

What then has happened is a forced rethinking of an individual’s sense of presence in relation to self and other? This of itself may not result in deep speculations about the nature of society now and in the past, except for those few who constantly speculate about this. Yet it will exacerbate a sense of longing for contact with others, where we actually define ourselves in offering a representation of our desired persona in relation to others. This has now been severely limited in the short term, with everyone simply manifesting a fear of contagion of the virus. We are right to ask whether this will result in a strong resurgence in the sense of community when social distancing measures have been strongly reduced and the fear of job loss substantially ameliorated.

At the moment what unites us – in a way that has not been a defining feature for decades – is that we are all in this together, driven there by our concern for our physical well-being. The threat is immediate, not something distant like climate change which will be far worse, but without the immediacy of the virus crisis. The kinds of social stratifications that are largely a product of education, income and personal outlook–and which have been dramatically amplified by the neo-liberal regime–are not respected by the virus (even where people in lower socio-economic groups are being more adversely affected). This establishes a kind of commonality amongst us all, one the government has recognized (though not completely because of its treatment of foreign casual workers) through its large-scale assistance packages and its eschewal of attempts to sow disunity in the population through its partisan economic policies.

From all reports most people recognize the “all-in-it-together” trope in regard to COVID-19, a recognition offering some hope for a more extended commitment to a community based belief in the individual–where the community defines the individual’s values, rather than a social one predicated on individuality within a larger grouping. Many voices have been expressed hoping that the response to the COVID-19 crisis will provide a period of transition leading to a rejuvenated conception of community in the years after the virus recedes.

However, for this to happen and to place communal welfare as a whole above both strident individual ambition and competitive behaviour would require enduring shifts in political attitudes and a recognition by executive government that it rules for those at the bottom as well as those at the top. Despite all the nonsense about neo-liberalism being an economic theory, in its actual workings it has simply sustained a system where those with the wealth and the capacity to keep it are provided government feather-bedding – a form of corporate welfare if you like. This is a theory that has denied the integrity of a community – at a national level – as a whole, resulting in the kind of class based conflicts crass individualism is supposed to suppress on the belief that everyone has an equal capacity to rise within the system.

One way to guarantee that an executive government and a parliamentary legislature governs in a manner predicted on a community wide approach would be to establish a universal basic income, an idea often canvassed in P&I. Such a safety net would acknowledge the value of the individual whilst also functionally acknowledging that there are minimal conditions for a society to function as community. That most Australians have been prepared to observe the rules of social distancing without much authoritarian pressure brought to bear demonstrates still–after a long term decline in the competence of governments to rule for everyone–an acceptance of government leadership in a crisis and the rebuilding of community. Such might be the future expectations of citizens about their government after the crisis has run its course. This indeed would be a new form of society in contrast to that which has been left behind.

Greg Bailey is Honorary Research Fellow in Asian Studies, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, La Trobe University. He acknowledges the help of Charlotte, his eldest daughter, in writing this article.

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