A child psychiatrist colleague provided me with a moving description of interdependence. She witnesses a dance between parent and child unfold in the same manner, time and again, in her consulting room. A baby is attempting to walk, very unsteadily. Anxiety shows in their face and in their wobbly body. Locking eyes with their parent, the baby’s demeanour changes. Their molecules seem more cohesive, their stance straightens and their face relaxes into delight. Held and sustained by this loving gaze, their steps become surer.
It is not lucky that the parent is watching, but precisely because they are watching, that these successful steps are possible. Seeing this for themselves (and having their role in it affirmed by my colleague), the parents, too, improve in confidence. The reciprocal gaze of their beloved child reveals their own value to them, and their shared joy becomes an experience which can help assuage their inner doubts and vulnerabilities. In short, we are forged in relationship to one another, simultaneously vulnerable and strong.
I have thought about the reality of our interdependence, and our culture’s attempts to avoid it, many times throughout the pandemic. I can hear our denial and disavowal in the language we choose. It is common to hear reference to ‘the vulnerable’ when we talk about covid. This is understandable—some of us, after all, are likely to fare worse when infected, for reasons of age or medical comorbidity. But I have come to believe that to think (and speak) about ‘the vulnerable’ as a group is fraught—partly, because it flattens those being referred to into a single stereotype, one implying a lack of strength, agency and usefulness—and who would want to identify as such? But even more dangerously, to refer to ‘the vulnerable’ implies that some of us are invulnerable.
Through our language, we repeatedly draw distinctions between two (presumably, non-overlapping) groups—‘the vulnerable’ and ‘the resilient’. ‘The vulnerable’, it is generally agreed, must be protected, or at least must take ‘personal responsibility’ to protect themselves. ‘The resilient’ must be afforded their freedoms. It is as though we all do not move from one group to the other and back again, as fluid as our breath.
Culturally, we are in love with the idea of ‘resilience’. My daughter’s primary school lists this word as one of their ideals, in large colourful letters, on posters around the school. In contrast to my own school experience in the 1980s, there is a refreshing engagement I can sense running through the curriculum concerning emotions and states of mind. But it seems some states, like resilience, are venerated, while others, like anxiety, are dragons to be slayed.
‘Wily Coyote never gives up; he’s got a growth mindset’ was my daughter’s response when I showed her the old ‘Road Runner’ cartoons. I am wary of the shadow side of all this talk of ‘resilience’. At eight years old, I worry she is becoming a little too fluent in the language of ‘personal responsibility’. Too much celebrating of individual ‘resilience’ after all, implies that some—‘the vulnerable’—are simply not trying hard enough. It implies that anxiety is always pathological, rather than often a valuable signal.
This is dangerous. Any neurodiverse child struggling in a classroom, anyone with experience of bullying or scapegoating within an institution, any woman who has been overlooked ‘on merit’ within a workplace, or person with a non-western sounding name denied a job interview can help us immediately see the violence with which the word ‘resilient’ can be wielded.
Such framing also paves the way for our own sense of shame when we discover ourselves suddenly in the ‘vulnerable’ group. It is a short trip thereafter from shame to silence and hiding, or alternatively, outright denial. It is a shorter skip still from denial to omnipotence. ‘Resilience’ reigns.
We emerged from a federal election campaign during which the then-Prime Minister boasted that he was busier than the opposition leader when he was infected with covid. We watched a press pack demand to know why more events were not scheduled for the day the covid-recovering opposition leader left isolation. Neither major party addressed the pandemic to a meaningful degree, and on all sides of politics, candidates hosted indoor election night gatherings, full to the gills with unmasked, shouting supporters.
Ninety-six-year-old Queen Elizabeth contracted covid but, it was reported, continued working without pause. Overfilled, short-staffed hospitals are now urged to embrace ‘brave’ solutions. My daughter’s primary school separated the email announcing the new covid cases from the email celebrating the return of whole-school indoor assemblies. ‘The vulnerable’ and ‘the anxious’ are welcome to continue masking, claim ‘the resilient’, nimbly sidestepping the reality that collective refusal to wear masks as ‘source control’ makes shared spaces much less safe for all. There are no plans for improvements in indoor ventilation standards. Wherever vulnerability is, we seem to say, it is not here, not us.
Still, people keep dying. We are accruing disability. Our babies are getting infected. The omnipotent idea of a vaccine and infection-induced ‘wall of immunity’ has not materialised. Increasingly, we are reinfected, by a pathogen of which we have just two years’ understanding.
My father, hospitalised after collapsing at home on day three of his own covid infection (despite having taken the requisite personal responsibility of three vaccine doses), phoned my mother from the emergency department, breathless and frightened. Alarms were sounding on the monitors but he could not summon a nurse. ‘The Clowns!’ he kept gasping. It was not until later that Mum understood this was not merely delirium—due to overcrowding and the need for isolation, he was alone in a single paediatric resuscitation bay with clown decals on the walls. They sent him home at 3am and Mum texted me shortly after—‘worried, bubbling sound in chest, coughing pink foam, he can only breathe sitting up’. Back to ED, Ambulance, I urged, but he refused. He was frightened he would die alone in the room with the clowns.
Over the coming days I felt the contagion of vulnerability spread to engulf us all. Mum, febrile and unwell with covid herself, increasingly exhausted, but afraid to sleep because of the worse state of my father. Our close family friend and her new baby, just home. This friend is without living parents of her own, and the maternal support Mum planned to provide her was now impossible. My usually school-loving daughter, now quiet and uncharacteristically undemanding, began saying she couldn’t go to school because it felt too loud. Trying to hold together the threads of the suffering around me, I accused my physician husband of being distant and unsupportive, until he explained: he simply couldn’t give any more to covid, it has been too much, he saw so many die in January, I have no idea. Here we are. Which of us, do you think, are ‘the vulnerable’?
When the pandemic rolled in, we felt the fear at the level of our skins. We sought to save our individual skins, decontaminate them by vigorous handwashing and sanitiser. In some cases, we doted on our skin, sales of higher end creams and cosmetics soared. This approach was sanctioned by the most senior medical authorities and organisations worldwide—‘it’s your hands’, they explained. Hands touching your nose and mouth; hands touching droplets from coughs and sneezes, which fall on contaminated surfaces. Although frightening enough, this explanation contained an unspoken implication—you need not depend on others. If you keep your skin clean, and yourself far enough from sneezes, with enough discipline, you are not vulnerable.
This framing was wrong. Our vulnerability lay not on our individual skins, but in the collective spaces between us—at the level of our very breath. Covid moves between us when we inhale air that contains an infected other’s breath. It does not require a cough or a sneeze, or even for the infected person to be symptomatic. The infected person may be us, without us knowing it. If the air remains still, the exhaled virus can linger, suspended, for hours, before infecting another one of us. This knowledge, once accepted, forces us to abandon fantasies of individual omnipotence, and grapple with the reality of our interdependence.
It is not just our selves that we need to protect, but our relationships, the precious spaces between us that carry our breath.
The writer is a psychiatrist working in private practice in Melbourne. An earlier piece of her writing about the pandemic was published in The Age in 2021.