We go through life, all of us, thinking that the world around us is stable, fixed and reliable. We believe that if we hop on the Princes Highway we’ll end up in Narooma or Warrnambool, not Coober Pedy or Longreach or Narnia. And then something picks the world up and shakes it, and we realise how many of the things we’ve treated as if they were iron laws of destiny are actually no more than guidelines, or convenient mass delusions, or just fog.
Coronavirus has been, among other things, an acid test of what constitutes reality. The Grand Prix, it turns out, or even the Olympics, is a mere bubble. The basis of civilisation is not literature, agriculture or monumental architecture, but toilet paper.
What we can take from this is that the constraints we’ve always been told hold us back, the boundaries we’ve been told are impassable, are in fact just conventions. When we have to (or when we want to) we can shed enormous chunks of our culture. We can do this without coercion, without central planning, without discussion, simply because some blockage we looked on as a universal eternal assumption has slunk away whistling embarrassedly and left the road clear.
We’ve worked for years to try to fix the problem of people living on the street. It turns out you can put them into hotels. We’ve just done it, without any economist jumping in to point out why it was impossible.
Our prison populations have been climbing for decades because politicians thought they had to be tough on crime. It turns out that you can let a surprising number of those new inmates leave the building without any precautions other than a cake of soap, and nobody grumbles.
Everybody has been pointing out that Newstart was too bloody low for decades, and neither party would listen. We’ve just doubled it without the word ‘surplus’ being mentioned.
We’ve even shut down the AFL. How can anybody say, now, that we can’t make this or that adaptation to climate change?
We’re going to have to give up a lot more sacred cows before this is over. How long can we justify keeping asylum seekers locked up in camps when we need the camps to quarantine ourselves?
We now know that nothing is impossible, and that’s just the start. The entire question of what our economy – what our society – is for is up for grabs.
It turns out that building just enough infrastructure to meet the demand for broadband or Centrelink appointments or intensive care beds or ventilators 96% of the time leaves us facing an existential crisis during the other 4%. (We’ve been taught in the most unfortunate possible way that the NBN is not fit for purpose and that Centrelink is not fit for anything.)
Right now, when lives in the balance outnumber marginal seats, it’s clearer than ever that it’s a good idea to build a bit of redundancy into the system. Efficiency in one situation can, when the wind changes, be downright dangerous.
What we’re experiencing now is more than a wind change – it’s a raging spitstorm. The only reason we’re doing any of these sensible things is that something is trying to kill us. But when we can leave our houses and walk freely again, will we have forgotten everything we’ve just learned? Will we snap back into the old political attitudes and carry on where we left off? Not if you and I can help it. These adaptations make our communities – our society – kinder, fairer and stronger. Who wouldn’t want to live in an altered reality like that?
This article is just one of the ways the Our Community Group is working to support not-for-profits through the COVID-19 crisis, as part of our major campaign to help the not-for-profit sector to survive, re-invent and sustain.
This commentary also appeared as part of a monthly column that's published in 160 rural and regional titles across Australia, from daily newspapers such as the Bendigo Advertiser and the Illwawarra Mercury, to weekly publications such as the Goulburn Post, the Cootamundra Herald and the Jimboomba Times.
We're proud to take a stand on progressive issues, which we're able to do as a social enterprise that's not tied to the purse strings of any government or corporate organisation.
Here's a taste of some other recent commentaries as they've appeared in some of those publications, as well as our own.