opinion

What happened to the kind Australians who pulled together during the bushfires?

Remember January, Australia?

Remember those terrifying days of fires that wouldn’t be extinguished, of misplaced people, of homes lost, lives lost, choking thick air lowered over everywhere and everyone?

Remember what happened? The mass emptying of wallets. The food drives. Volunteers working until they fell. Donation trucks on the highways. Kids knitting tiny gloves for koalas.

Remember that great exhale of “This is who we are”? We are kind. We are generous. We help a mate. This is us.

Well, we’re scared again, now. Terrified of something just as rampant, just as deadly as a mega-fire, but insidious, invisible.

Yet those days of “us” not “me” feel far away.

Today, a supermarket employee is in hospital after being stabbed in a Mornington Peninsula Woolworths car park where they were collecting trolleys.

At another Woolworths, this time in Melbourne, a worker was assaulted by a man with a stick.

And our feeds are clogged with viral videos of brawls at the checkout, arguments in the toilet-paper aisles and the news that now we have to make special space for the elderly and vulnerable to shop, because supermarkets are apparently too crowded and dangerous any other time.

Is there anything less neighbourly than hoarding soap and disinfectant, so you have lots of it, but next-door have none?

Is there anything that says, “Screw you, I’m alright,” more loudly than stealing hand-sanitiser from public stations at hospitals, offices and schools?

And is there anything more contagious than the panic that comes from seeing that kind of selfishness all around you? Because even if you weren’t going to start grabbing all the Dettol wipes, if everyone else is doing it, resisting seems negligent.

Watch: Mamamia’s Claire Murphy breaks down your most asked questions about COVID-19. Post continues below. 

Video by Mamamia

Be Kind and Wash Your Hands, urges a stylised Instagram meme that’s been widely shared over the past few weeks. Problem is, in Australia in March 2020, it’s almost impossible to do both of those things. There’s no soap to be found.

So what does ‘be kind’ mean in a pandemic?

In 2020, Kindness has become a bland, commodified hashtag. #bekind #choosekind #kindcomments #kindnessmatters

Kind people are my kinda people. Being kind is cool.

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It’s wallpaper. Beige wallpaper. And it’s also incredibly hard to choose kind when you are scared. Almost impossible.

Who would possibly choose kind over the adrenalin rush of panic that hits when something many of us have never seen – like empty supermarket shelves – becomes a stark reality? Not an image on your feed posted from a war-torn country far away, not a scene from the zombie apocalypse show you’ve been bingeing for months. But in your local almost-empty supermarket, where you’re used to only unlimited choice and overflowing shelves.

Who would possibly choose kind when they think that their government is not doing enough, not acting with the urgency this moment requires? How can we give our leaders the benefit of the doubt when they’ve let us down so badly before? How do you keep calm and carry on when you don’t trust the people who are supposed to be keeping us safe?

How do you choose kind in the face of the man coughing beside you on public transport? When you’re looking at the woman who took four giant packs of loo roll and gave two to her daughter to get around the supermarket’s limit? And when no-one at your doctors’ office is answering the phone?

How do you choose kind when you’re focused on whether that scratch at the back of your throat might turn into a death sentence? When you’re worried about how you’ll feed your family if you lose your job? About how you’ll do your job with the kids home from school? When you’re gripped with worry about your elderly parents and grandparents, your sister-in-law who’s halfway through chemo, your friend’s daughter who has that auto-immune problem, your kid with asthma and only a few weeks’ supply of Ventolin in the cupboard?

It’s the most anxious moment we’ve lived through as a generation, and we thought we’d been through a lot of anxious moments lately.

Listen to Mamamia’s daily news podcast, The Quicky, about what life is really like in COVID-19 lockdown. Post continues below.

But it truly is essential that we try. Because what choice do we have?

That as well as losing our freedom, our health, our peace of mind, we also lose each other?

In so many ways, we have never been better set up for the hyper-insular world of isolation. Our homes are equipped with every kind of entertainment device, we can watch, listen and read anything we want to at any moment, plenty of us can work from home. Food can be at the door in moments (for now), without anyone talking to anyone, touching anyone, eyeballing anyone.

But in other ways, it’s the most dangerous. We only need a tiny push further into our bubbles to lock ourselves into them completely. It feels safe to judge the world without interacting with it, even when we’re not in the grip of a pandemic. Our rates of loneliness and anxiety have never been higher. Our views of the world never narrower, viewed only through the prism of our phones.

So how do we exercise empathy as the world around us shrinks out of necessity?

Well, of course, we’ve already started.

Woolworths have partnered with Meals On Wheels to deliver essentials to the needy, and have announced the first hour of daily trading will be a ‘quiet’ shopping hour for the elderly and vulnerable.

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Toilet rolls have become a love language all of their own, and the sharing of them an act of kindness.

We can pass notes under a more vulnerable neighbour’s door to check if they need anything you can leave for them.

Buying a gift voucher for that local business you worry won’t survive being starved of foot traffic.

Prepare, but don’t stockpile. Your hands being clean are not enough. We need everyone to have clean hands to get through this.

Don’t stigmatise the victims of the virus. They did not choose it.

Be respectful of the healthcare workers, the supermarket staff, the teachers, the hospitality workers. Everyone’s as scared as each other, but not everyone has the option of staying behind closed doors.

But most of all, the kindest thing we can do for each other is to keep each other safe – stay away from each other but stay connected.

For the bushfires, we gathered. We stuffed boxes, we attended concerts, we #spentwiththem.

Coronavirus needs us to stay apart, but to never lose sight of each other.

So the question to be asked is: We are in an unprecedented crisis. Do we want to make things better, or worse?

We’re still the same people we were in January. We all know the answer.

What are people around you doing to help each other out? 

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Featured image: Instagram @foodbanknswact

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