When Australia’s lockdown rules were first announced, my parents were overseas in Mexico.
The quickly evolving coronavirus situation meant they had about 48 hours to work out how to: get back into the US before borders shut down; organize a flight home as thousands of other Australians were doing the same; and negotiate their way through the streets, taxis and airports of San Francisco, which was then a global epicenter of the virus, without getting sick.
Because the new restrictions demanded two weeks’ quarantine from all international arrivals, this change in plans also meant my parents now had to make a significant and unprecedented sacrifice; they needed to cancel our family’s Passover Seder.
My mum puts a great deal of energy into trying to spare my Buba (her mum) stressful details when it comes to her health, like the very high chance that she, a 65-year-old cancer survivor with heart disease, could be incubating deadly microbes within her chest cavities by the time she returned home from the US.
But this time, Mum had to give Buba a call.
She phoned from San Francisco airport and relayed the circumstances to Buba as calmly as she could. Mum pointed out that she and Dad had to quarantine during Passover and that they were doing their best to protect themselves. But, she explained, there was a chance they would become infected.
The conversation went something like this:
Mum: So there is a risk things will not be ok and we may become seriously sick.
Buba (her hysteria so high, that when combined with her thickly accented English, her words were almost incoherent): But what about the fish? I’ve already paid for gefilte fish for 30 people for the seder! I can’t waste all of that!
I recently read a piece about two Jewish matriarchs who survived the Holocaust and the Spanish flu epidemic. They offered some advice to those in later generations, who have led much less panic-stricken lives than they, about how to survive a time of crisis, like a global pandemic.
Get your priorities straight. Focus on what’s truly important in life, they said.
I wondered: did Buba take a different lesson from her life of hardship?
When Dad returned home from Mexico, he immediately bunkered down in what he labelled the ‘central command of the Zajac family’s coronavirus response’, and wrote a detailed spreadsheet of our family’s infection risk.
He worked out every contact that every person in the entire family could have with another person in the next two weeks and then calculated their ‘personal COVID-19 risk’. Everyone got a rating out of 10 and a low, medium or high descriptor next to their name and was told to stay at home as much as possible.
Dad, had not lived through a time of war, like Buba, but had—as a child of two Jews who survived Dachau, Bergen Belsen, Buchenwald and Theresienstadt concentration camps—been immersed from birth, in the fine-art of Jewish panic.
Unlike Buba, Dad’s way to deal with a time of crisis was through what he called a ‘reasonable amount of planning’. Others might call it obsessional, apocalyptic preparation. This is a man with a medical degree, a maths degree and a PhD in genetics, who would describe someone who had only four types of insurance coverage as ‘playing with fire’.
When Dad sat down to make his spreadsheet outlining the risks of all our immediate family, Buba, of course, needed to be figured into the equations (most Jews I spoke to interpreted the government’s use of the term ‘’immediate family’ to mean themselves and their closest 25 relatives).
Since phase one restrictions had been put in place—telling everyone to only leave the house if absolutely necessary—Buba, an 86-year-old with bad hypertension, continued to: get her hair done weekly, meet friends to play Kaluki (the latest craze in the 80-plus Jewish card-gaming community, all of whom had maintained extremely active social lives during lockdown), go on daily shopping trips she deemed ‘essential’, and very regularly take taxis and trams.
The immovable object that was Dad’s cold, hard logic had met the unstoppable force of Buba’s warped psychology.
Next to Buba’s name on the spreadsheet, Dad simply put ‘NOT COMPLYING—VERY HIGH RISK’.
In this crisis, we have been told there are two factors competing against each other that need to be weighed in calculating what the outcome for our communal future may be—public health and economics.
But what isn’t often talked about is a third factor—a variable which seems to turn any rules of logic on their head: human behavior.
The other day, I was talking to Peter Curson, a professor of population and health about the way we respond to public health emergencies of this kind. Peter says that governments and the medical fraternity generally see risk as ‘purely mathematical’, but ‘for ordinary people, our concept of risk, and our reactions of fear, panic or hysteria are much more emotional and difficult to quantify’. In his most recent piece on the topic, Peter writes that ‘pandemics have an important human dimension and are as much psycho-social events as they are epidemiological ones’.
You’d think that people like Buba, who’ve lived through life-threatening wartime crises and extreme rationing, would be good at letting little things—like the $15 lockdown delivery charge from Woolworths—roll off her back. But, as Mum found out—after receiving 30 ‘urgent’ texts from Buba in the hour after she received her grocery bill urging Mum to get on the phone immediately to ‘bargain them down’—psychologies of trauma, and psychologies in general, don’t necessarily work that way.
Sometimes, a history of trauma doesn’t actually give you a great toolkit for being logical in the face of crisis. Rather, it incites a profound fear that everything could be taken from you at any time—your family, your provisions, your traditions—causing you to cling to all of them as tightly as humanly possible. The sheer terror of losing loved ones gets channeled into needing to see them (including at your Passover seder) no matter the cost. The anxiety from a traumatic past evolves into an irrational inability to let go of the small freedoms of daily life.
And it spans generations. You might be surprised to hear that, three days before Dad was bunkered down in his coronavirus-proof cave, strategizing with Mum about ‘how to survive a plague’, they were traipsing around the streets of Mexico eating street food and telling us there was no chance the virus would affect the resort town where they were staying (it has since been reported that the part of Mexico where they were staying may be ‘the next New York’).
Turns out, even men of science are susceptible to the weaknesses of psychological baggage.
Not everyone has a history of trauma, but all of us have deep etchings in our brains from being raised a certain way or doing things the same way over and over again, which determine our responses to stress and changed circumstances—responses some might call quirky, and others might call pathological.
For me and my sister, who grew up being told it was highly likely our fellow citizens could turn against us at any time, and we’d have to hide in our attic until the roundups passed, it’s hard right now not to want to take all the toilet paper we can find and horde it in our pantries.
Others, with different emotional baggage, will respond differently.
Perhaps their inability to face their mortality means that, despite phase three restrictions, they’ve organised a 30-person bike ride and lunch with their ‘older men wear lycra’ riding group at my neighbourhood park. Or their deep need for control has led to them to undertake random drive-bys at local childcare centres yelling out the window to the parents dropping their kids off that they ‘have blood on their hands!’ (you know, for example).
These glitches in human response exist in all of us and, during this time, all of them are exacerbated.
But there are signs that this crisis may bring out the best in us illogical humans, too.
Hospital staff are working night after night to keep patients alive despite the risk to their own lives. People are playing beautiful music on their balconies to entertain their neighbours just for the sake of it. Scientists are ignoring intellectual property laws to share research to try to find a vaccine in the shortest time possible.
And I can’t help but smile at the daily text messages from Buba to tell me how much she is looking forward to hugging me, even if it’s followed with the melodramatic disclaimer, ‘if I ever get to see you again’.
So hopefully, in the end, the good of human behaviour will outweigh the bad.
And, for my family’s sake, as the reality of the virus sinks in, hopefully Buba’s common sense will begin to outweigh her irrational anxiety.
But I’m not holding my breath.
Last night, Dad called Buba to tell her that Mum had a high fever and a bad cough—the most common coronavirus symptoms. She’d gone into a clinic for a test, but they’d have to wait 48 hours to get the result. Mum was currently in coronavirus self-isolation in their apartment, bracing for the worst.
When she heard this news, Buba gasped, and then, forgetting to release the breath, shouted down the phone, ‘But I just made her three containers of matzo ball soup! Who’s going to pick them up?’.
Bec Zajac is a journalist and radio producer. On Twitter she’s @beczaj