Fear & loathing in a time of virus
01 April 2020
ADELAIDE - This morning I went out to undertake a mundane task; that being to purchase a few items from the local supermarket.
Upon arrival at the place, it soon became apparent that it had been looted by persons unknown. Many staples like rice, pasta, sugar and meat had vanished from the shelves. Paper products like toilet rolls and tissues were non-existent.
It struck me that over the last week or two my world had irrevocably changed.
Some of my fellow citizens had surrendered to panic and fear as the potential impact of the coronavirus became more obvious.
They had begun to hoard food and other goods in an effort to assuage their existential fear of an invisible and relentless enemy.
This behaviour was irrational, ignoble and contemptible but the psychology was plain enough.
The weak-willed and fearful are always amongst us.
This small but not insignificant minority does not cope well with even the normal stresses and strains of life, let alone the prospect of a fatal encounter with something they cannot begin to comprehend.
They apparently see their fear and panic buying as a logical response to a situation they are powerless to alter.
They fail to recognise that their behaviour creates the very thing they are most fearful about - a shortage of certain goods.
There are other people, those recently returned to Australia from overseas, who find themselves effectively imprisoned in hotels across the country as they serve out 14 days of involuntary isolation lest they prove to be carriers of the virus.
Most of these people are bearing up well but a minority have expressed displeasure at their fate, complaining bitterly about their accommodation, the restrictions upon their movement and even the quality of the food provided to them.
Many Australians regard their complaints with little sympathy. They know that more than a few of these people embarked upon overseas travel in the face of explicit government warnings that it potentially was dangerous to do so.
These travellers were also warned that the government may not be able to repatriate them home if they got into trouble or became caught up in other countries’ efforts to combat the virus.
Their pleas to be rescued from what, in many cases at least, was a consequence of their own reckless decision-making grates upon the ears of those who decided to stay home.
Of course, the hoarders and whiners are a minority. There remain many people who face the unknown and unknowable future with resoluteness and calm.
Many of these people have confronted life’s vicissitudes in the past and have a confidence and stoicism borne of such experiences.
Being under mortal threat is, in many respects, character building. You have to confront your worst fears and – to survive intact - overcome them.
It seems to me that our parents and grandparents were made of sterner stuff than we. My grandparents endured two world wars and the Great Depression. They had to cope with a wide range of communicable diseases that routinely killed or harmed many people.
They accepted this as a sad inevitability, not a reason for panic or hysteria.
They had to endure shocks and threats that make our current woes look trivial indeed.
Not surprisingly, they put a high value on the stoic acceptance of hardship and regarded a good life as one in which a person triumphed over adversity and became a good citizen in their community.
Accumulation of wealth was not despised but it was a secondary consideration.
Even my generation, who have lived through what economists have called the Great Moderation (roughly 1985 to 2007) and enjoy a level of affluence unimaginable to most of our ancestors, have had to endure several periods of economic hardship, although nothing to compare with the Great Depression.
During my time in Papua New Guinea, I had the privilege to witness humans living their lives in a way that approximated that of my very distant forebears.
The life of a typical PNG villager 50 years ago was still as physically demanding and uncertain as it had been in the pre-colonial era.
Even with the colonial administration’s rudimentary health services beginning to have an impact, sickness and death were constant companions and very few people were likely to survive much beyond 45 years.
Basically, people just became worn out from the constant exertion required to stay alive in what was a tough place to live.
My recollection is that the people were tough and stoic, with a generally clear-eyed view of the world.
They endured privations with a degree of fatalism and, when they could, derived a good deal of pleasure from the simple things in life - a full stomach, a roof over their heads and the love and security of their families and friends.
Villagers tended to have a lively sense of humour. Jokes were made about all sorts of events and misadventures. I suppose that this was a way of keeping a sense of perspective about life’s vagaries.
Naive young kiaps like me, with our over-confident assertiveness, were often the subject of sly jokes which, of course, we never realised, often being rather too full of our own importance and sense of cultural superiority.
It strikes me now that many of my fellow Australians are conspicuously lacking the qualities that allow Papua New Guineans to endure and even thrive whilst living under what most of us would see as very harsh circumstances.
Now, when genuine and potentially severe adversity looms, it is evident that many of us in the so-called developed world are not well prepared to confront the existential threat that is still commonplace in PNG and many other places.
It turns out that affluence, comfortable lives and access to a range of goods, services and technologies unimaginable to our grandparents leaves many of us ill-equipped to cope with any sort of adversity.
Basically, we seem to believe that we are entitled to live a dream life even though this is not the lived experience of most people in the world.
So here we are now, staring into the abyss of imminent death, at least for some of us.
Who the disease takes or spares is, to a significant extent, beyond our control, although it seems that we oldies are prime targets for the grim reaper.
Some might say it was ever thus but, speaking as a geriatric, I find the idea of a premature exit rather discomforting.
While huge amounts of money, knowledge and ingenuity are being devoted to finding ways to successfully overcome our invisible assailant, it seems that this will come too late for many of us.
Already, the terrible scenes in Italy, Spain and the USA speak to the ferocity of its attack.
Belatedly, our government has realised that it has some obligation to do something to help our Pacific neighbours.
Whether what we can do has any practicable effect remains to be seen, but at least we should try. We will be judged harshly if we do nothing to help.
Right now, it seems a good bet that most of us will survive to see what sort of world exists when the disease has run its course.
As the survivors heave a sigh of relief and mourn those who have gone, it might be a good moment to reflect upon how we as individuals and as a society have borne up under the strain of living in dangerous times.
How will we judge ourselves? By what criteria will we do so?
I think we could do worse than judge ourselves against the simple criteria of PNG villagers so long ago.
Did we successfully defend our families and homes even if there were some deaths? Did we preserve our wider community from irrecoverable harm, so that life could go on as before?
Did we behave with compassion towards others, courage in adversity and stoic fortitude if we became ill and so not disgrace ourselves, our families and ancestors?
If we can honestly say that we did these things, then we will be worthy of being remembered for the right reasons, not as the generation that, full of fear and loathing, could think of nothing better to do than hoard toilet paper or complain about the horrors of spending 14 days confined in a luxury hotel room.
Is it only of Australia - and a particular political push that likened "extending childcare to low-income workers to communism" - that we now see "extraordinary measures" ... "thrown the rule book out" and "practical decisions in the best interests of the nation"... thus we are to be cheering?
Is the phrase "three-week whirlwind" but more 'spin'? And for whom, voters or that 'push'?
As Phil Fitzpatrick observed said by MP Chalmers "every facet of Australian life will be tested".
The sad part is of those who pushed at times past and sundry locations with ne'er a whiff of respite let alone reward.
Strange sensation, to be sniffing maybe advance of society that breezes along.
Can we believe that "rule book" was a bluster now blown away?
Has PNG's propensity for policy announcement (and maybe change) blown into Australian airs?
Posted by: Lindsay F Bond | 04 April 2020 at 09:19 AM
Whenever we whine so convincingly of the harsh reality of life, we should perhaps reflect on our own beneficial life.
This became very apparent to me within the last few hours upon receiving word that a friend of mine, with whom I worked in PNG, has passed away due to coronavirus.
It has very much brought the reality of the day home to me.
Stay safe and healthy, olgeta.
Posted by: Ian Ritchie | 02 April 2020 at 09:56 PM
Chris, your prose struck me as encapsulating so much of what I am feeling at this present rather horrifying time. I also appreciated many of the accompanying comments.
I can only second your remarks about the lives of the rural people of PNG with whom I spend most of my 30 years down there or is up there for the Australian readers. It is often their humour through the adversities of their existence which I miss.
Since coming back to Wales I know why some of my Ozzy mates called us ‘Whingeing Poms!’ Indeed I shall never forget being on my emigrant ship still in the English Channel, as Britain calls it, when some of the £10 a family of any number asked in front of me, “Have you got money put away to get back to the UK?”
That was in 1969 when many of my compatriots had been born during or just after WW2. They were heading south with great opportunities before them for work, education and of course what so many wanted a sunny climate to enjoy every summer. Quite frankly I was shocked.
So I too am disgusted with the antics of too many fellow Poms today who mirror similarly as you are seeing among your own kind.
My eldest daughter, who lived in Taskul with me many years ago, and I were talking on the phone during the first week of a quite stringent lockdown for the average British family.
She has had a very dry cough for two weeks but is untested despite her being a nurse albeit in the mental health section of NHS.
By all accounts when she resumes working I am sure she is going to find many new patients unable to mentally cope with the enforced isolation.
“Dad,” she said, “the problem is that for many of the last 20 or 30 years children have been schooled in the laissez faire attitude of the liberals controlling their education."
A few misguided actions I have seen promulgated from elites.
No soccer team for young boys should be allowed to lose by more than 10 goals.
Everyone gets a certificate with a grade. My youngest had to compulsorily have Welsh lessons for a mere five terms. Came the day of her leaving certificate examinations she was prevented from leaving the hall where she had just sat for some other subject. She wrote a few words on her exam papers including the one phrase she had learnt by heart in Welsh that said, ‘I enjoy my holidays!’
Then she claims she buried her head on the desk top and almost slept. She passed albeit with lowest grade possible. This allowed her school and I guess others to provide apparent accurate statistics of compulsory Welsh showing excellent results in secondary schools.
In a tertiary college she and fellow students called their lecturers by his or her Christian (sorry must now say 'first name’). They were allowed to drink soft drinks in class and use their mobiles.
When she held a door open for older people her Cardiff born chums asked her ‘What you doing that for?’
She and I have seen kids in their uniform sitting on buses reserved for elderly or disabled while old folk tried to stagger to seats further back in the bus.
The average bad language on public transport and in the street disgusts me.
Very young girls can obtain a morning after pill without a parent’s permission.
Perhaps I’m miserable old geezer but the behaviour you and I have noted surely shows the dominant theme of today’s generation is, ‘Me-ism’ or self-aggrandisement.
I try to watch the minimum of programs produced by any commercial channel because too many of their advertisements make me cringe.
A car is not for a family to drive from A to B but it’s now supposed to be an experience to achieve your dream…What the hell does that mean?
In the charity I worked for over the past 11 years we were given two containers of coloured bathroom washbasins, toilet pedestals and baths, free of charge, and delivered to our depot.
When we asked why; we were told: ‘Oh people like white these days!’ I believe most of my readers would never believe the assorted items, some brand new that our supporters saved from their council tip when instead they gave it to us to send to Romania.
At my surgery I am asked which doctor I would like to see. I reply, ‘Anyone!’ smiling inwardly at having lived on an island twice the size of the Isle of Man. It had never had a doctor.
The quite modern Taskul dentistry building at one time had a staff of three. Yet they can only extract teeth as in the days of Wild Bill Hickock in Dodge City.
Why? No government has ever connected the place to the nearest electricity supply only 50 meters from the outpatients and inpatient wards that do have some power supply for some irregular hours just like 1970 when I first lived there.
In 1997 one of my grandsons was born by a hurricane lamp in the labour ward. There was no toilet or washing facility in 2008 when I was last there as ‘tank emi bagarap’ but at least some volunteers had dug a unisex long-drop near the wards to stop patients using the overgrown boundaries of the so-called ‘hospital’.
Yes Chris, the stoic people of rural PNG show traits of what should be normal human compassion and willingness to help others despite merely existing as subsistence families.
I heard a pithy saying today which sums up many of their lives: ‘We are born to die!’ I hope that many of PNG’s long suffering villagers can be allowed to escape this latest plague that enshrouds our too often greedy selfish world.
Posted by: Arthur Williams | 02 April 2020 at 07:37 AM
Appreciated, Chris. Yet of your "sickness and death”,
as “constant companions", dare we not say “still”?
In 2005, I flew to Goroka, the sole purpose being to traverse that fabled Highlands Highway to Lae.
Midway back on the left side of the PMV, intent on being less visible in the traveling throng, I was rewarded not only with viewing passing terrain but of a now persistent memory of my whitened-knuckle grip on metal seat framing amidst those passengers’ seemingly nonchalance.
I was transported to Lae, but for most commendable skill of the driver (not to say audacious nerve) and almost improbable avoidance of sundry locations for impact, I would be there “still”.
Sniffed, the word “still” is hardly intoxicating, so how about “stoic”.
Along Big Road, among women and bilums and babes and blokes, societal cohesion there seemed summed up in a manner still awaiting recognition and exposition by writers “indig-genius”.
Sure there might have been some unknowingness, and definitely apparent unconcern.
As to indifference, it seemed more a calm, nonchalant, a whiling more than a willing, so if bold then not the boldness necessarily attendant in Daniel’s description of resoluteness in tribal ‘warring’.
If Daniel seeks consensus in his use of the word “warfare” (more structured than ‘warring’), then to what extent would participants actuate indifference to pain or (should they be in the ascendant) to the pleasure of battle being won.
Posted by: Lindsay F Bond | 01 April 2020 at 09:17 PM
COVID 19 is considered pandemic with every individual suffering from its effect weather social, psychological, economic and spiritual.
Can we call it pandemic in PNG when there is none, but the symptoms of COVID 19 anxiety and generic effects are far greater than the problem itself.
The impact of Coronavirus pandemic and the emergency shut down on a disoriented and confused people created fear, doubt, uncertainty, frustration, anger, hatred etc.
There is a popular conspiracy theory among religious fanatics and fundamentalist Christians that Coronavirus is a punishment from God when people turn away from God.
It all started in China and quickly spread to other countries because they don't believe in God and also burn down churches. It quickly spread to USA and Italy because of the more sinful activities.
Some say it fulfilled the prophetic calls of Revelation and book of Daniel in the OT and the return of Jesus Christ is imminent.
Some say, the COVID 19 virus was created in laboratory by Chinese or CIA as a biological warfare against certain countries.
When the state of emergency was declared by our government, logistics and safety equipment in our hospitals were not in place and we were one week behind the schedule.
Nurses were on strike because they can't deal with patients and lack the essential safety equipment and measures. There is no clear clinical direction and disease controllers are still confused of what sort of mode of health awareness they will carry out.
Apart from a few medical officers most of the COVID 19 response team were non medical officers and they keep on giving misleading information. Health professionals were properly trained to response to such deadly virus with right information.
Poor planning leads into more confusion, fear and anxiety . Such shut down with proper warning adds more social and economic disorder.
There is lost of business especially non-informal sector and SME where cash flow is greatly affected. Villagers and those living in town who feed themselves on rice and wheat suffered greatly.
Settlement who relay on buai sales and mini goods are affected and there is reduction of food supply. Most of us living in town lived a expense life, when prices in trade stores are higher when main shopping centers are closed until recently after pressure from the people.
However, there are some unintended benefits as a result of COVID 19 virus like reduction of water and air pollution in town. Littering, buai market and street sales have reduced, no drunken disorderly and unnecessary shouting etc.
Some settlement people went home and started making gardens. We have learned some good lessons and injected common sense into our brains.
Posted by: Philip Kai Morre | 01 April 2020 at 05:11 PM
Tribal warfare was bad, it is bad and will continue to be bad. But in the olden days young men were instructed to prepare well for battle. 'Never run' they were warned. 'Whoever is bound to die to will die.'
Five hundred arrows were shot one way and the another 500, the other way. And surely one or two found their mark. And there were always people available to bury the dead.
Each time I have gone out to buy food from a service station here I see new faces sell buai for K5 or more in at least three locations where residents from the neighbourhood used to sell theirs.
It seems this is their opportunity to make money from wage-earners who come out from their homes to buy the stuff.
These ordinary people do not care if toilet papers run out. The grass is still growing in the bush. That's where all human ancestors went, didn't they?
And the authorities have recently called on 'people with money' not to buy everything from shops. And not panic unnecessarily.
Why should some people with money fear a tiny virus when they were so determined to become rich at the expense of the people? It is times like this one that the true colours of a person shows.
Posted by: Daniel Kumbon | 01 April 2020 at 04:32 PM
As always, considered, wise and useful.
My father-in-law who lived through the Depression, had boxes full of straightened nails and bits of wire, because "they might come in handy.”
We didn’t really appreciate what people of his generation lived through. However, Chips, I’m old enough to well know the taste of bread and dripping.
Australians do believe that we are a communal people in times of adversity, but I wonder if this was ever universally true.
Certainly pockets of citizens came together to look after their communal interests when necessary, but even during the Depression, groups like the New Guard Movement in Sydney had no affinity whatsoever with the massed unemployed – quite the opposite.
Communal groups usually came together based on a common need or issue, rather than kinship or family factors. If and when that issue passed or the need was met, the groups tended to dissolve
This is the obvious difference between us and traditional PNG society, where one’s accident of birth formed the basis of a widely extended and lifelong structure within which one lived life. That provided the comfort of knowing who one could rely on, and who one would help in adversity.
That seems to me to be a marked difference to our society, where even within a communal group that seems to be self-supporting, the bonds can fracture relatively easily, and one can find oneself up the creek fairly easily.
Maybe the panic buyers and whiners in Australia that Chris describes may be likened to the long-term urban settlement dwellers in PNG who have lost the connection to their ancestral village, and can’t go back to it.
Both groups have little idea about what the future holds, they know the present is pretty well screwed, and they have little structure they can hold onto, or that can do a lot to change how things really work.
They react instinctively to day-to-day pressures in ways that are self-serving, with little thought for the “other”.
At least, in traditional life in PNG, village life can go on fairly well unaffected.
How well will our Australian traditional structures hold up?
Posted by: Jim Moore | 01 April 2020 at 03:28 PM
"Living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see" - Strawberry Fields Forever.
It is a sad state of affairs when the accumulation of immense wealth is considered the benchmark of human achievement.
"A man without ethics is a wild beast loosed upon this world" - Albert Camus.
Posted by: Bernard Corden | 01 April 2020 at 01:38 PM
I can't understand panic buying because it is amazing what you can live on when you have to.
As a kid during World War II in outback Queensland, when ordinary food supplies we not available, we lived on the same food our parents lived on during the Depression - bread and dripping.
And when there was no bread we made our own - sort of that is - it was damper, self raising flour and water mixed to the consistency of putty and cooked in an oven or, if there wasn't one, in an open fire.
And that is what our ancestors droving cattle in outback Australia lived on 200years ago - tea and damper.
Patrolling in remote PNG, we lived on bully beef and rice, and whatever vegetables we could find to mix with it, and we thrived on it.
And I can remember going on patrol with Alan Johnson, and all he ate - breakfast, lunch and dinner - was Sunshine powdered milk. He had patrol boxes full of it, and that was the only food he took with him.
He thrived on that, and he is still thriving, at least up until the last kiap reunion.
So if you are reading this Alan, you are an inspiration to those who think they can't survive happily in these hard times.
Posted by: Chips Mackellar | 01 April 2020 at 11:19 AM
Right on the mark as usual Chris. Shoulder chip-free, unlike some. Slainte.
Posted by: William Dunlop | 01 April 2020 at 10:52 AM
The incumbent Minister for Disease in Australia spent three years with McKinsey and Company and is a devout acolyte of neoliberalism and trickle-down economics.
I wonder what is happening with the $50 billion submarine contract awarded to DCNS during the current pandemic?
It's a lot of hospital beds and ventilators.
Posted by: Bernard Corden | 01 April 2020 at 10:22 AM
Bernard is quite right to point out the apparent about face by neo-liberal conservative governments in places like the UK and Australia. The USA not so inclined to shed it's nasty capitalistic ways.
The sudden changes in Australia are quite remarkable. We now have a conservative government acting like a socialist government.
To me this indicates that they have known all along that the things they have so vehemently opposed in the past are actually beneficial to the general populace. That they opposed them in favour of wealth for a favoured minority exposes their mercenary natures.
They will, no doubt, revert back to their former position when the crisis is over. That is if people let them.
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 01 April 2020 at 08:43 AM
Well crafted and on the mark Chris.
Posted by: Peter Salmon | 01 April 2020 at 08:22 AM
Boris Johnson is imploring people in the UK to stay at home to protect the NHS:
Neoliberal governments have been doing their best to destroy the NHS over the past five decades:
Posted by: Bernard Corden | 01 April 2020 at 07:18 AM