Panic-buying, cancelled events, the stock market crashing and a constant stream of news highlighting it all. There is no wonder that we have found ourselves in a state of fear and uncertainty. But while these ‘unprecedented times’ have us taking things day by day, hour by hour, what is going to be the long term effects of putting society on hold?
First, let’s step back for a moment and talk about the culprit here, COVID-19. This is a virus, a coronavirus to be exact. You may have heard it being originally referenced to as a novel coronavirus which is the medical way of saying that it is a new strain that has never been seen before. While we have had coronaviruses before, and we have even seen the global impact with SARS and MERS (both of which are a strain of coronavirus), we have never seen exactly this which is why every precaution is being made.
We now have a name for what we are dealing with and that is COVID-19, along with a World Health Organisation label of pandemic, something which again separates it from SARS. While this sounds pretty full on, the government advice remains to be aware and informed about the situation but not alarmed. I therefore think that at a foundational level, it’s important to understand the difference between this new strain that is causing the concern, vs coronavirus in general.
Often during these times of fear and anxiety it can be easy to get swept up in the media reports and the hearsay that is happening around you, particularly when it comes to the specifics around the virus itself, but from personal experience I find that sitting down and understanding the facts from the experts is the best way to prepare yourself and settle some of those feelings of uncertainty. For more information, I would highly recommend reading the information pages on local and federal government websites rather than taking the information from media reports which tend to only aid in fuelling any anxieties that may be present.
So now we know what it is, let’s look at what is happening.
COVID-19 started in Wuhan China and put the world on edge as we waited for China to let us know exactly how seriously we should be looking at it, and if we should be preparing for another SARS. As a millennial, I was at school in rural NSW when SARS was at its height, so I don’t really recall what impact it had on my everyday life, if any, and I am sure there are many others in my generation who are feeling exactly the same.
On the other hand, I remember quite clearly having just moved to Brisbane and the Swine Flu pandemic being declared. 11–21% of the then global population is reported to have contracted swine flu (H1N1 viral strain) during that time. But again, I don’t recall our society reacting in a way that had any direct impact on our everyday lives.
Fast forward to now and my family in that same rural town that I grew up in are struggling to purchase essential supplies such as toilet paper so I think it’s pretty safe to conclude that things are certainly different now. But exactly how is it different to any previous pandemic, or worldwide crisis?
SARS was in a time that had much less reliance on the internet and the 24/7 media cycle. There was no Facebook. There was no Twitter. Smartphones were non-existent with the iPhone not being released until 2007. So we can only speculate how much impact that being connected has had on spreading the news and igniting fear.
We are now living in a society that values technology and the flexibility that gives to us individuals as well as businesses. One of the things I value about my workplace is it’s flexible work arrangements and ability for me to work from anywhere as long as I have my laptop and an internet connection. I know based on conversations with friends that this remote flexibility is increasingly of importance when millenials are job hunting.
Right now, this perk of my job has become essential for the business to be able to not only make the decision to keep it’s doors open, but to keep their staff at home and put their well-being first. A move that is praised by the millennial that values its employer putting the care of staff first. But it’s not just for staff morale, if employees get sick, who is going to get the work done?
These are the questions that all businesses should be asking themselves right now, and a time when having flexible work arrangements will be seen as essential for productivity and longevity.
But as we settle into a work from home routine, counting our remaining toilet paper rolls to make sure we still have enough and don’t have to join the hordes of people at the supermarket panic buying, I cannot help but think that this situation feels akin to a modern day war time.
Tomorrow, our government will declare a ban on non-essential public gatherings of 500 or more people. Based on this news we have already seen sporting events and music festivals cancelled or postponed. Even QPAC shut its doors this weekend. What we rely on as entertainment is no longer available to us, so what is left but to watch the story unfold from the isolation of your couch.
Worldwide, countries such as Denmark, Poland and the Czech Republic are closing their borders and the travel industry is hurting with many tour companies such as G Adventures and Intrepid cancelling all services through to the end April.
Small businesses are on the front line with uncertain futures as people start to stay indoors and spending habits change.
Disneyland has closed its doors for just the third time with the first time being due to the assassination of JFK in 1963 and the second being the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001.
The Sydney Royal Easter Show has been cancelled for the second time since opening in 1823 due to a public health emergency. The last time was in 1919 due to the Spanish Flu pandemic.
This is a time that we have not seen before in our lifetime and I can’t help but think that we are entering a time that will change the future forever. The times when we have seen these sorts of reactions have been in huge moments that have shaped history and I can guarantee that in time, we will be looking back at this as relevant in changing the course of history.
As a society and a generation that values our freedom we are finding ourselves at the mercy of government advisories. We are at the edge of being a country on lockdown and with what we are seeing in Italy, that is a future that doesn’t seem unlikely anymore.
A simple trip to the grocery store has us repeating the guidelines as we wash our hands with sanitiser, resist touching our face despite the fact that your nose has never been this itchy, and being conscious of social distancing and not getting too close to other people.
And of course once we get to the shops they are rationing supplies with limits placed on rice, pasta, flour, tissues, hand sanitisers and yes, toilet paper.
But while we chuckle at the absurdity of the panic buying, I can’t help but to pause for a moment and wonder how long will this rationing actually last. Will this be a situation when our daily lives are changed based on the limited availability of foods. After the devastation of the bushfires over summer to our agriculture industry, what impact does trade restrictions then pose on top?
The more we look at it, the more relevant our current situation is becoming to the stories of the great depression era just with the flair of technology and constant updates. The 24/7 news cycle doesn’t allow you to switch off and make do with what you have, it feeds the uncertainty and tells you that you need to be doing more.
This attitude brings out the worst in humanity as we hear stories of every man for themselves at the grocery store and it makes me wonder what would happen if this virus really peaked here in Australia. If people are fighting over toilet paper, how will they behave at the hospital when there is not enough staff to help?
Has this attitude been dormant all this time, or it is the fear of being told that the freedom that we have become accustomed to is suddenly not guaranteed. When faced with a situation in which there are no right answers, the best thing that can be done is to show some compassion and kindness. Unfortunately this sentiment doesn’t seem to get ratings, and instead we are unconsciously bombarded with an impending sense of doom as we feel the weight of yet another cancellation, or another aspect of our society that we have taken for granted being taken away and we feel cheated.
We cannot continue this way. The only way through this uncertain situation is to come together and take each new development as a community. To put the needs of others in more vulnerable positions ahead of your own disappointments. And to show some grace to the businesses who have had to make the tough decisions to cancel events or close their doors. They are hurting right now and don’t know what the future has in store. They are going to need our support when this is all over, because it will be and we need to make the decision now about what kind of society is going to emerge.