Let’s take this chance to rebuild our solidarity - Op Ed. Herald-Sun


Herald Sun, 30 March 2020

A century ago, the Spanish Flu hit Australia. Quarantine measures were only partially effective, so in 1919, authorities turned to social distancing. Public gatherings were cancelled. Masks were distributed. Schools were closed. People stayed home when they could. One analysis of the response found that it prevented 22 percent of Australians from catching the potentially deadly disease. In the end, 15,000 Australians died. It was a huge toll, but smaller than you might expect from a disease that claimed over 50 million lives globally.

Social distancing measures work, but they are especially tough on those with fewer social connections. In a recent survey on social connections, Nick Terrell and I found that Australians report having only about half as many close friends as they did in the mid-1980s. We are also less likely to know our neighbours. Remarkably, half of all Australians report feeling lonely at least once a week.

Social capital is the idea that the bonds of trust and reciprocity that bind us together have inherent value. Those with stronger social networks tend to be healthier, to do better in business, and to report being happier with their lives. Yet over the past generation, Australians have become disconnected. We are less likely to attend church, less likely to join clubs, less likely to be part of a union, and less active in politics.

Sometimes, a crisis can build social capital. We have seen this at times of war, and at moments when communities put aside their differences to battle bushfires or fight floods. But disasters can also be emotionally scarring. As Lifeline warns, ‘The stress caused following a natural disaster can lead to “burnout” and physical, mental and emotional exhaustion.’

As society moves into social distancing mode, we’re used to hearing the standard public health messages. Wash your hands for 20 seconds (the time it takes to sing the chorus to the Bee Gees ‘Stayin’ Alive’). Say g’day with an elbow bump or a funky shoe tap. In conversation, maintain the personal distances of a sheep farmer rather than a swing dancer. If you must sneeze, sneeze like Dracula: pull up your cape until your nose is in the crook of your elbow.

But there’s also plenty we can be doing to look after the health of our community. As US sociologist Eric Klinenberg puts it, ‘Although only a fraction of us are old, sick or fragile, nearly all of us love and care for someone who is.’ Take a moment to check in on friends, neighbours and family members who may be feeling scared or isolated. Perhaps you can help them with shopping, or improve their confidence with using the internet. Or maybe you can just take a few minutes to swap stories.

In the community sector, large festivals and mass events are being postponed, but many organisations need additional help – especially those dealing with vulnerable clients. If you find yourself with a bit more time on your hands, check out volunteer.com.au or govolunteer.com.au for a vast array of options, including plenty of ways you can volunteer online. What better time to get into the volunteering habit?

Around the world, the need for connection has emerged amidst the shutdown. Wuhan residents took to shouting out their windows ‘Wuhan jiayou!’ (‘Stay strong Wuhan’). Italians regaled their neighbours by singing Volare’ from their balconies. As cognitive psychologists have shown, unwanted constraints sometimes breed creative masterpieces. Who knows what new community ties will emerge from this crisis?

Coronavirus may have disrupted your favourite exercise regimen, but consider this a chance to find a new sport. Trade the yoga class for a hilly walk with a friend. Swap the gym session for an outdoors workout circuit with a mate (you’ll find plenty of ideas online). Replace your spin class with a mountain bike ride. As a marathon runner, I’m rueing the cancellation of upcoming races, but appreciating the fact that I can still hit the trails.

Above all, this is a time to be kind to one another. Society isn’t just a collection of isolated individuals – we’re a community connected by strong bonds. The coming weeks will determine whether we choose to allow this crisis to fray our connections, or treat it as an opportunity to build deeper ties with one another. It will determine whether we hunker down and ignore the most vulnerable, or whether we reach out and look after those who are suffering the most through this period.

We’re hearing daily what local, state and federal authorities are doing to fight coronavirus. The response needs to be faster, clearer and bolder, and many of us – myself included – have suggested ways that the government can do better. But there’s also a lot that we can do as connected individuals and members of grassroots organisations. Looking after our physical health shouldn’t come at the expense of our mental wellbeing. In an era of social distancing, we can build social solidarity.

Andrew Leigh is the Shadow Assistant Minister for Charities, and author (with Nick Terrell) of the forthcoming Reconnected: A Community Builder’s Handbook.


Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.