GREG BAILEY. Predictability, Society and the COVID 19 Virus

The economic stimulus must adopt a whole of society approach, focusing on those of lower income, of a kind that it has consistently refused to do. If it does this and, above all, can be seen to be doing it, then Australia may emerge out of this crisis as a better country than it was it went in.

What more can be written about the COVID 19 virus than has already been written? To say the least, the world–at least the Anglo-Saxon and European world–is in a state of absolute panic as uncertainty reigns and the media are flooding us with information about the virus, human-interest stories and images of the accompanying panic, to create the perception we are in a crisis state.

To say this is a Eurocentric reaction would be trite, though virtually all the reporting of this relates to Europe, North America, and even China is seemingly being forgotten now.

Uncertainty creates fear and fear creates panic. Given the advancements in medical science over the last century and the communication of these announcements one might have thought the response to a new type of viral flu could have been more measured, especially given the recent history of SARS and Swine flu. That it has not is because of the uncertainty fuelled both by social media and the mainstream media, half of whose copy seems to be taken up by reporting on the COVID 19 virus from a medical perspective and a host of human interest stories. Have we ever before had an epidemic or a pandemic where the media is able to communicate the official statistics of infections and death hour by hour? Whether these figures are accurate or not is beside the point. It is the impression of an ongoing exponential increase in the disease that most influences the individual perception

Whatever the word crisis means in this context it seems to be defined as a massive drop in personal confidence about the future, a complete overturning of expectations, onto which the spectre of an economic recession, complete with substantially reduced demand and unemployment for the most vulnerable has been imposed.

If this is such a crisis then one might ask what it tells us about community and personal resilience and the bonds that hold society together. One sign of it might be panic buying (and impulsive selling of shares)–though we do not know what percentage of the population have engaged in this–which itself creates a multiplier effect as more people replicate this activity, hardly surprising when prominent political figures tell people not to engage in panic buying. Such behaviour definitely elevates individual ambition–expressed as fear–above any sense of social equity, or, put in other words, places individual gain/survival above any form of ambition designed to privilege society over the individual.

In a sense this represents individualized individualism at its worst. It completely undermines the idea that a democratic society transcends the individual by giving people a vote that will allow them to make considered or unconsidered evaluations on the nature of society and polity as it exists beyond the individual.

To some extent, however, this behaviour can be explained by the effect uncertainty has on individuals in any given society. Anthropologists tell us that one of the functions of culture–understood as a set of rules defining the limits of human behaviour, plus the abstract ethos justifying these rules–is to create a sense of predictability of actions and expectations. That is, it standardizes interactions between individuals and institutions, the basic parameters of which are often enshrined in law.

COVID-19 is a kind of externality impacting strongly on our sense of uncertainty and breaking down any firm expectation of predictability. Yet it is also an internality in the sense that it reaches directly into the sense of bodily worth most of us have experienced, pointing even towards our own non-existence through death. Whilst it certainly does not upset most of the fundamental behavioural parameters of our culture, it arguably intensifies the individual’s search for his/her own meaning because of the voluntary/involuntary restriction on human interaction.

That everybody seems now to be engaged in self/family isolation is likely motivated by self-survival rather than by some feeling for the common good. Admittedly the government is bolstering this social isolation by imposing limits on social gatherings. However, this is not say that the kind of emphasis neoliberalism places on individual initiative and the sanctity of the individual is necessarily being replaced by a cultural shift that translates the individual’s concern away from themselves and immerses it into a large social network.

Though it is still far too early to predict the medium to long-term effects of this virus, and its exposure in the media, on social cohesion and the maintenance of the basic public and private institutions of society, its effects will be remembered long after the serious bush fires of January. They were limited in both space and time and affected only a finite percentage of the population, whereas the COVID-19 virus has no such limits and could affect a much larger percentage of the population. Arguably nobody is immune from it and the fact that most people survive it will not register for many people. Moreover, the fires could be seen, the virus cannot be seen.

What we have done in isolating people has voluntarily defied the fundamental social bonds that define us as social creatures, thus either exacerbating individualism as a dominant cultural theme or rendering it irrelevant. On the other hand that the government has stepped in with potentially two economic packages and a restriction on certain forms of human interaction reinforces the existence of a collective that reaches beyond the individual in acting for a common goal (which may not mean a common good). Thus one overarching institution–the government–purportedly acting beyond the individual has come into play in a manner that might seem inconsistent with the ideological strictures of neo-liberalism.

How will the government exercise its newly applied interventionary powers now that this crisis has enabled it to ultilize them and to bring in the states with the development of a special federal-state national cabinet? It has no real choice but to engage in a stimulus that will reach beyond interest rate cuts, and tax cuts for the wealthy and business people. As such it might be required to adopt a whole of society approach, focusing on those of lower income, of a kind that it has consistently refused to do. If it does this and, above all, can be seen to be doing it, then Australia may emerge out of this crisis as a better country than it was it went in.

Greg Bailey is Honorary Research Fellow in Asian Studies, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, La Trobe University. Formerly Reader in Sanskrit.

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