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.