After the initial wave of confusion and uncertainty, the shape of the coronavirus response and the foreseeable ‘new normal’ is beginning to assume a clearer form. In A-NZ our working worlds and our wider lives are contracting at speed as we enter an indeterminate period of voluntary or enforced isolation. In such exceptional times we are apt to see the best and worst of human nature; in the behaviour of individuals, families, communities and governments. In Italy where the health system is over-run with demand, we see images of people singing in defiant solidarity from their locked-down balconies and doctors sent from far-flung socialist Cuba to help relieve the human tragedy.
We also see the bizarre images of people fighting over bails of toilet tissue in super-markets and the extraordinary opportunism of Donald Trump trying to do an exclusive deal with a German pharmaceutical company for a vaccine under development: simply gob-smacking until you remember the complex and unprecedented idiocy and greed of the self-serving Trump presidency.
The world, our worlds, are shrinking. As in the context of world war experienced in earlier generations, there is a building sense of siege, sacrifice and struggle – a reminder of our shared humanity and fragility. Our technocratic command of the globe has become less secure. Priorities are shifting. Suddenly, work, money and growth are secondary to survival and the well-being of our loved ones. Locking down the young and strong is of most benefit to the aged and infirm who are at the greatest risk of death. There is a paradox: greater social distance and greater human unity. We need to be apart physically, but it is our social bonds and loyalties that will hold us together emotionally.
The government (as in comparable countries) has found money for extensive emergency subsidies to keep the economy afloat – including payments to beneficiaries who have struggled just below the subsistence threshold in a society of plenty for far too long. People on low incomes are more likely to spend, putting whatever money they receive back into circulation. The boundaries of the possible are in flux. Our personal choices and freedoms are contracting, as they must it seems. We accept, for now, the need for a more authoritarian state and we hope that power rests in informed and steady hands. Containing the rate of infection through physical distance – flattening the exponential curve – is, as they say, a ‘no-brainer’.
For social work practice and education these are tough times too, and the horizon for action will likely change as the rate of infection increases. Home-visiting as we know it – the relational engagement at the heart of child and family practice – may not remain viable in an intensifying environment of self-isolation. Tertiary institutions are scrambling to prioritise on-line teaching and assessment.
Very challenging times are ahead locally and globally. In a perverse way this period of sacrifice and relative seclusion may provide an opportunity to re-think our priorities; how and why we live as we do. The burden of suffering will be greater for those with fewer material resources – for the most part a crisis increases rather than reduces the effect of underlying social inequalities. At times like this the limits of capitalism are exposed – a world order based on commodity production and exploitation has little to offer communities in times of real need when collective values and visions are required.
There will also likely be frustration, anger, loss and heartbreak for many as the pandemic deepens. Supporting people who are struggling in whatever way possible, supporting each other, supporting sanity, reason and compassion is what social workers do. One thing is crystal clear: there will be a growing demand for this in the months ahead.
Also, of course, in time all of this will pass. We will, perhaps, be both sadder and wiser for the experience.
Kia kaha me te korei anake (stay strong and care for each other)
Image credit: Neil Moralee