Panic vs The Commons Covid 19
Supermarkets and stock-markets in the last ten days have demonstrated the human capacity for panic, with an outcome exceeding the damage sought to be avoided. Supermarket shelves are empty, not because of corona virus, but because of panic buying with no immediate cause and effect from the virus; while the stock market has plummeted as individual investment choices have increasingly been driven by the behaviour of others.
“Don’t panic, don’t panic” cried corporal Jones of Dad’s Army as he ran around in an uncontrolled and irrationally manic state.
All human beings experience a rush of adrenalin when faced with an emergency, but whether this adrenalin morphs into uncontrolled panic, or a heightened capacity to respond with reason, is a test of individual and shared character. The shared response matters as much, if not more, than individual response, because. as the present crisis demonstrates, we are as dependent, if not more dependent, on what we share, than on what we control individually.
For centuries human society was blessed with “commons”, the ideal what was shared equitably was beneficial to all. Ordinary people pastured their flock on ground that was common to the community. However, as resources became stretched the temptation to exploit before others did the same, became too great; with the desolate outcome that the provision was lost for all. Medieval toilet-roll shelves became bare! This situation is alive and well in the 21st century. As natural resources dwindle, especially in industries such as fishing, the temptation to exploit becomes too great, with the loss of the industry.
That human beings are no less dependent upon ‘commons’ in the 21st century receives far too little attention, because we have been culturally conditioned, by increasingly right-wing governments, to accept privatisation as the solve-all of every situation. Transport, health, education, natural assets, care of the aged, childcare, the prison system etc, all are perceived to be delivered more cost effectively if privatised. Whether that is true is one matter, but whether they are delivered equitably, fairly, and with best social practice outcomes, is quite another. Society is conditioned to assume private or personal self-interest serves everyone best. This proves to be a falsehood when calamity strikes. In the face of the bushfire crisis people trusted their neighbours, the local fire brigade and the community to pull together. In the face of the corona virus the world needs to pull together, but national self-interest often gets in the way. At community level the same can occur when action to slow the spread of the virus potentially hurts some business interests more than others. Mercifully we have experienced great generosity and self-sacrifice as many businesses have put the interest of the community above their own. What is deemed best to slow the virus is obviously detrimental to a wide range of interests.
But the situation it is even more problematic. In the bushfires, strength and consolation was achieved through contact with one another, drawing strength from each other. Strong advice in the face of the current threat is the reverse, isolation, everyone by themselves, if not for themselves. It is somewhat counter-intuitive to believe the best thing we can do for one another, as well as for ourselves, is to stay apart. For this to work there must be the highest possible level communication and the highest-level of trust in that communication. While it is said Australia is in front of the pack economically to deal with the crisis, in this vital area of trusted communication, at least at a political level, we are way back in the pack.
The communications highway must be one of the most important commons we all share. It must be equally available to all without fear or favour. Its capacity to fulfil its task is as much dependent upon the trust that can be placed in it, as much as the content it delivers. In our present crisis the highway’s capacity to fulfil its role and mitigate the tendency to panic, has been severely compromised by indulgent and inadequate leadership. The problem is most serious in the US, which is led by a president whose word is simply not believable. When trust in leadership is at the lowest ebb, information is not only confusing, it is counter-productive, as Trump’s address to the US nation demonstrated. Apparently, his intention was to calm nerves, especially on the stock-market, only to find that as soon as he had finished the market plummeted.
What about Australia? Who is to be believed when they speak? According to recent polls only about one third of Australians have confidence in the Prime Minister. His problems are accentuated by a cabinet in which many seem completely incapable of telling the truth, while others seem only capable of uttering incomprehensible nonsense.
Social isolation is clearly an absolute necessity, however for it to work in the longer term it is going to require a lot more thought than simply advocating its necessity. Those who have contracted the virus are being asked to isolate for 14 days until they become clear, and hopefully immune to further contagion. The rest of the community, particularly the elderly and vulnerable, face the prospect of several months’ isolation, if they are to successfully ward off the possibility/probability of infection.
As the government has wisely appointed a former chief federal police officer, Andrew Colvin, to head the aftermath of the bushfires, I would advocate for a similar person to become the regular spokesperson to guide the community through what will probably be a long autumn and winter of self isolation for many people. No one in government should be tasked with this responsibility. It needs to be someone in the medical field who is trusted. Dr Fiona Stanley comes immediately to mind, as does the current Australian of the year, Dr James Muecke. While this is not their field of expertise, they could be briefed relatively easily, daily if necessary. Their chief asset being trust in the wider community, an asset the nation badly needs right now.