The panic on social media is strangely palpable: breathless calls to stay calm, to finally get to that stack of books you’ve been meaning to get to, to learn that language(!), to stay active and hopeful even as we are, 24/7, drenched in the collective alarm that arrives with a pandemic. There are ample amounts of confusion, too, given the initial wobbly messaging from government as the Coronavirus began snaking its way around the globe.
We take these things personally, you see. While #weareallinthistogether, we’re not really, because no one else feels your distinctive, nuanced sense of fear; your loss is singular and abrupt; all of this change is so deeply felt, and lonely. We can still do our favourite class on Zoom, but holy shit, people say, I will never take for granted what I once thought was ordinary. Things like meeting friends for brunch, heading to the gym, not looking terrified as you approach the toilet paper aisle at the supermarket etc.
This is not true, of course. Like the suddenly fervent believer who promises God that they will be better when relief is granted to them, we will move on and quickly forget. We will clutch our old lives like a long-lost toy that causes us to erupt with relief at an ordinary world reinstated. It will feel, for many, like a bad dream that means, for a little while, we have trouble falling asleep.
This is what happens, after all, with every disaster. The recent bushfires that decimated Australia’s nature and animal life, and the homes of so many people, were collectively disturbing. Outrage about climate change blanketed social media. But as humans are prone to doing, we switched gears quickly when our own mortality became the point. Soon we forgot that the air in Sydney was suffocating, that the sky was, daily, a troubling shade of hazy orange, more suited to a post-apocalyptic film than a summer’s day in a modern major city.
For a moment, I wondered if this time, things would be different. We can somewhat comfortably observe disaster from a distance, but when it happens in a way that, literally affects the entire world, the consciousness may shift.
But observing the many responses to this tragedy tells a different story. That whatever state of consciousness you were in as covid19 hit is the one you’ll most likely be inhabiting for its duration. It may be challenged, or tightened, or loosened, but only as individuals are we able to decide if this situation shifts our internal workings and we emerge evolved humans.
The truth is, in many ways, we are all in this together. But as panic shopping, unscrupulous vendors and beachgoers have demonstrated, we’re really not. Many of us know that togetherness is not the reality of how the pandemic will unfold. Many of us understand that while COVID19 does not discriminate against people in its approach, its effects are not universal. That the same class, wealth and systemic issues that underlie global society remain firmly intact, and in fact, may well only be strengthened as the haves fight to maintain their supremacy.
I say this not as a judgment but as a simple, plain old observation. While I saw many leaning into the hope that COVID19, this frightening, indiscriminate disease, would unite us, these moments of connection are fleeting and will not sustain the months-long shutdown that we are currently facing.
I say this also because, while I don’t think I am a complete cynic, I am a realist: we might alter our speech and behaviour in times of strife, but we rarely shift our nature. There is an entire internal architecture built on years of learnt behaviours, embedded beliefs, and a fight-or-flight survival mode that kicks in all too frequently.
This was only confirmed to me when, as I job-searched LinkedIn, a network for professionals (I’m one of those creatives who lost hard-won income in an instant), I happened across people dissecting an incident between a police officer and a woman in hijab in Sydney.
My stomach dropped and I knew that this would immediately become racialised. I knew that if I said this, I would be accused of racialising it myself, the way I would be accused on an ordinary day. And this is because bad behaviour is like manna from heaven for people who harbour bigoted beliefs.
I knew that this woman, whatever her troubles, would never be anything more to many people than a Muslim troublemaker. Sure enough, the comments soon descended into unsparing disgust and unflinching castigation. This woman, whose behaviour of abusing a police officer—spitting on him while claiming she was going to a medical test for COVID19—was undoubtedly troubling and wrong, was already being carted out of the country. Calls for her, and her family, to be deported. When commenters questioned the original poster’s motivation for sharing it, he defended it as work-related; he’s in security. It’s his business. Except, this context was absent from the initial post. Of all places where you want to contextualise how your work relates to a troubling, racialised situation, a professional network is the ideal one to do this.
I wasn’t shocked by the sentiments, but seeing commenters expressing these ideas so freely, with their professional titles on full display, landed heavy in my gut. It confirmed what I already suspected; that the initial feelgood unity that the virus lent social media would not sustain the shutdown and disruption. The true nature must eventually clamber out, blinking against the harsh glare of reality, in turmoil as to how to continue amid uncertainty. We are geared towards survival, and most people survive on what they know: a structure of beliefs, no matter how flimsy its walls. We are running on internal programs and they are not easily reformatted, or even updated, to changing circumstances.
This virus is not changing people, it’s testing them. At the end of it all, most people will still be who they were going in, and dare I say it, possibly in a more heightened version.
I don’t think they have to be, but it takes awareness, and a concerted and consistent effort to go inward and focus on yourself in the best possible ways: using the time we are usually crying out for (admittedly without the side order of stress) to be creative in our response. Yes, read those books. Do the Zoom classes. Understand that you can grow and shift, no matter the circumstances because wherever you go, you take yourself with you. Your rich inner world, your creative mind and your emotional field never desert you. In fact, like the shadow parts that light up under threat, they too become amplified when given attention.
My last three books were works of non-fiction, one of which is yet to be published but which dissects what makes us human. In this book, I explore spirituality and the New Age, the way humans need so many different vehicles to get to the same destination: their version of peace, which may tap into a collective idea, or for some lucky people, an individual one. Before that, I explored womanhood, and ventured through the process of ageing bodies and illness. This is to say, I am well-versed in how humans behave and think, and it is very difficult to get us to change.
This is significant in what we’re now witnessing in the human response to the pandemic. Australians in particular have struggled to adhere to social distancing. Images of packed beaches, busy promenades and clusters of people in parks have flooded media and our Facebook feeds.
I have said this on social media: Covid19 is our focus but this is temporary—the moving parts of our beliefs and anxieties will only be amplified. Consider how quickly people deserted Chinatown in Sydney, and how bystanders refused to provide CPR to a Chinese man who lay dying on the street. Now, a woman in hijab behaves terribly, but rather than show concern for her unhinged response, the bigotry flies out.
There is an opportunity in this tragic moment, and most people will miss it: an opportunity to grow, in emotional intelligence, sensitivity and resilience. To move beyond our instinctive desire to maintain normality, to retain the morning swim because it’s your beach, or to run on the power fumes that come with bigoted hatred.
Amal Awad is a Sydney-based journalist, author, screenwriter and performer. Her next book, In My Past Life I was Cleopatra, is out in August.