MUNGO MACCALLUM.-The personal and social problems of isolation.

Communities encourage and enhance the general well-being and co-operation needed to keep society going, the idea of a common wealth.

Suddenly it’s personal. I have been placed in home isolation. I have no visible symptoms of COVID-19.

I have not been overseas for years and as far as I know I have had no close contact with anyone who has. I maintain reasonable hygiene and keep my coughing to myself. I have not been tested for the disease and my doctors tell me there is no immediate need to do so.

But they also say I am among the most vulnerable to infection, and serious infection at that. I am 78, with a compromised immune system and chronic issues over heart and lungs. So I am off to detention.

It will not be complete solitary confinement. I will — indeed, must – attend regular medical appointments and my wife will be allowed to drive me to secluded venues in the open air to indulge in the occasional take-away coffee. And there is always the dogs and the garden, both a great solace.

But the emotional effect is still daunting. I don’t go out socialising much these days, but when I do, the time is precious. And the ban on visitors – friends and particularly relatives – is a major blow. I can and I hope will continue to write, and of course communicate through the internet.

But it will not be the same as face-to-face meetings, and the enforced isolation will go on for weeks – probably months. This regime will apply increasingly to many Australians – potentially a large chunk of the population. And this raises concerns which go beyond those of health, and even the corona-stricken economy.

People are social animals. We tend to herd into groups, into communities. At time this can become dangerous and destructive, when tribalism and ultra-nationalism take hold, but in general the instinct is beneficial – it encourages and enhances the general well-being and co-operation needed to keep society going, the idea of a common wealth.

In recent times this has been eroded by identity politics, and more worryingly by the cult of the individual – the neo-liberalism that contends, in the words of one of its strongest advocates, Margaret Thatcher, “there is no such thing as society.” In other words, the credo is greed is good, grab what you can and hold on to it.

This tendency has already become apparent in Australia, as in the rest of the world: technology has made it easy to disengage from the populace via electronic communication. It is easier to Skype than set up a meeting; it Is easier to text than either.

Those who enjoy such encounters regard them as person to person contact, but they are not: at best two of the five senses are involved and no genuine intimacy is possible. People become disengaged.

It is tempting to see this as the context which has led to panic buying, hoarding, black marketeering, brawling in supermarket over toilet rolls – at least we are only after toilet rolls. The Americans, as is their wont, are stockpiling yet more guns.

This is not seen as selfish and uncaring, but as legitimate protection of the individual against the needs of the community. Stuff you Jack, I’m all right.

And now a significant number of Australians are to be effectively locked away in their homes, instructed to have as little to do with their fellow men, women and children and possible, at times on pain of imprisonment. It is a formula not so much for a divided society as for a fragmented one, a nation of antisocial hermits and alienation.

And if – when – it drags on, a lot of people may learn to enjoy it – after all, the internet has given them a substantial start. Working at home, online education, watching entertainment on television instead of going out, even virtual church services were becoming a trend before coronavirus appeared.

Now anxiety about personal health will add to the misanthropy, and the fear of an impending economic recession or worse may easily induce widespread paranoia, whatever reassurances Scott Morrison and his Team Australia bring to their daily telecasts. Isolation could become not only the easy option but the preferred one.

And when we finally emerge, blinking, into the sunlight, it will be to a very different Australia. This does not mean that everyone will revert to primitive tribalism; as the bushfire emergency showed, for many, perhaps most, Australians the immediate impulse is to help those in need. We are rightly proud of our reputation as a generous people, and however visceral our current fears may be, with any luck we will revert when the crisis is over.

But one of the biggest problems is knowing when that will be. In the beginning Morrison was insisting that it would be temporary, that things would quickly bounce back to normal. Now, more realistically, he is talking about at least six months – and that is only the peak period, the time of isolation, shutdowns and prohibitions.

With recession now seen as inevitable and possibly worse still in the pipeline, there will be a protracted hangover in which a battered public will go through more hardship and the kind of resentment that accompanies it. It will be hard enough for Morrison or anyone else to persuade people to rejoin the optimistic throng he envisages as Team Australia, and doubly difficult if we have become used to staying away from each other in enforced isolation.

We will need serious rehabilitation and therapy – much handshaking, hugging and embracing. We will need not only renewed confidence in the future, especially in the economy, lifeless before COVID-19 and smashed to the floor during it, but reconnection – a social recovery, arguably more important than the kind you can stash away in the bank.

I suspect that Morrison probably knows this – it is why he is putting so much effort on urging us to stick together, to see it through as we have during past disasters, pandemics, wars and depressions. But diagnosing the problem is one thing, treating it another. It will be this, not simply weathering the immediate storm, which will be the real test of ScoMo’s leadership.

Mungo MacCallum is a former senior member of the Canberra Press Gallery.


Mungo MacCallum is a veteran political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy.

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12 Responses to MUNGO MACCALLUM.-The personal and social problems of isolation.

  1. Avatar V Kapoor says:

    I would like to add a lot more, but, I think this will do…..
    Ditto – what Frank said….

  2. Avatar Don Macrae says:

    G’day Mungo. I’m only 76 with no health problems, but like Frank, a long time fan of yours. I was an IT professional but I don’t use social media or skype. However, with friends and family I’ve been experimenting with a program called Zoom, of which you’ve probably heard. It’s becoming the way work meetings are held, but I think it will work for social get togethers with friends. You get to see live pictures of everyone in the ‘meeting’, with the person speaking larger – at least that’s one option. It’s really easy to use. I intend to have coffee with a few friends tomorrow – with each of us in our own homes.

  3. Avatar Evan Hadkins says:

    Stay well Mungo.

    I look forward to your writings.

    If you want text contact, publish an email to reach you at; I suspect you’ll be inundated.

  4. Avatar Anthony Pun says:

    Dear Mr MacCallum, I empathize with your sentiments as a fellow senior citizen, (but a few years younger) particularly to the feeling that all of a sudden, we are “locked” up due to government lock down. Like Mr Knight, I too remembered my “rebellious” youth with the Vietnam War demos and reminisce about Uncle Gough. I suppose as Australians, we are used to roam in the vast country like the kangaroos, and would feel most unhappy being confined in a lock down. Unfortunately, the Coronavirus respects no culture, race, education, politics and wealth; it attacks everyone, young and old. And if we we wish to minimize our mortality rate then we have no choice but to do an effective lock down, an experience endured and conquered by the 50 million lock down citizens of Wuhan & surround.
    I do voluntary lock down along with my grand kids and their greatest past time has been on the internet and iphone, keeping in contact with their mates. However I feel the greatest stuff up with the internet is the NBN or whoever is providing the service, which have a motto “slow and stuttered streaming”. Anyone trying to use it may end up tearing their hairs out and throwing the modem into the bin. The internet has failed Australians in their time of need. We look with envy the human interest stories in Wuhan where 5G together with AI, assisted communications of separated families, between individuals and monitoring of people’s location who had temperature and symptoms – a check to prevent spreading of the disease. With out lame duck system, we can’t even monitor where the chooks were last seen. Great excuse -national security.
    I rest my frustration!

  5. Avatar Bill Legge says:

    Dear Mungo,
    Be of good heart (and lung). I believe we will find safe ways to bridge the social isolation and when this finally passes I hope we find greater value in each other and pleasure in company.
    I am not so pessimistic; I believe (and hope) the pandemic will be the last nail in the coffin of neoliberalism. All the toilet paper in the world will not make an ICU bed, nor will it train a single nurse or doctor.
    You keep writing and I’ll keep reading.
    All the best.

  6. Avatar Geoff Andrews says:

    I remember him from The National Times, was it?

  7. Avatar Joy Mettam says:

    Take care, Mungo. I’m keen to see how this experience gets reflected in your cryptic clues.

  8. Avatar Paul Laris says:

    Thank you Mungo for your warm, sad thoughts. While it is hard to see past the rising clouds of fear and angst, these clouds do have some silver linings. At last it has become ok to speak of fairness, of society as a breathing (maybe wheezing) being. Even Liberals have mentioned the usefulness of a universal basic income. So far we are still bailing out CEOs rather than workers, but things are shifting so fast. Tipping points are like that.
    So glad you are along for the ride!

  9. Avatar David Maxwell Gray says:


    I have long been a fan of yours, since the days of the Nation Review up until the present. Your acerbic wit, your superior command of language, your truly insightful comments upon many public issues, render you always worth reading. But the underlying values your writings have always revealed – your compassion for others; your strong egalitarian principles – have always underpinned your comments. And you always raised a smile upon my face.

    I believe I speak for many others when I say that I wish you the best in these difficult times. May God hold you in the palm of His hand.

  10. Avatar PETER DOYLE says:

    My. Dear. Mungo. I very. Much enjoy your articles. I would be grateful if you would tell us how John Gorton would have handled this crisis. John was a friend of mine & I think of you also. Peace& Merci PETER. DOYLE

  11. Avatar Sandra Noble says:

    I wish you well Mungo.

  12. Avatar Frank Knight says:

    As a fellow 78 year old and borne also on the 21.12.1941, and with the odd health problem, I sympathise. However I am less gregarious: and rather relate to the the well-known little verse: ‘I wish I loved the human race./ I wish I loved it’s silly face,/ And when I’m introduced to one,/I wish I thought ‘What jolly fun!

    I am a long time fan, from Vietnam Marches, when you addressed us on the steps below the Canberra Theatre, through your unique writing style, which combines honesty and humour in a killer mix.

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