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

Mar 24, 2020

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.

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