What on earth did we all talk about before Covid? Every conversation these days starts with the latest update. In every newspaper or TV report there is high drama about the latest figures and the latest advice on crossing borders. It’s the new political weapon and everything is a tragedy and a disaster, as we, the general public, are being broken down by superlatives that have created monumental levels of stress and anxiety.
Personally, and I am well aware I am not the only one, it has got to the point that I no longer listen to the news, as it’s become overwhelming. Friends on Facebook will alert me to any important details just as fast, anyway. I have to admit that the Australian government has done a phenomenal job of containing the spread of Covid, compared with other countries. But at what cost? As state politicians squabble over current border controls and the media compete for the highest number of Covid cases, the crisis lines are running hot. Lifeline has had a record number of calls this year – and please note, this is not a good thing. This is not a competition anyone wants to win.
This current Covid plague – not the first in human history by any stretch of the imagination – has been relatively controlled compared with past plagues and lethal diseases. And one bonus everyone tends to overlook is that it doesn’t come within a million miles of affecting our youth as severely as previous illnesses. In Australia, there is no longer – or very rarely – a single case of polio or diphtheria, meningitis, leprosy or rabies, smallpox or malaria, and little is heard of pneumonia that kills more than one child every minute around the globe. Does anyone ever think about all those diseases that used to wipe our children away without a backward glance? And who has even heard of the bubonic plague that once razed whole cities to the ground? (My spell check didn’t even recognize it!) This new plague is like a nastier form of influenza – a virus that largely affects the old and the physically vulnerable; a Darwinian virus that culls the human race as Nature intended it to. And doesn’t it sometimes feel as if the world has forgotten there may be other diseases and disasters in the world? When did we become so sanitized to death and disease that we appear to dread even the common cold?
OK, before you all jump down my throat, I am not for a minute suggesting that the effects of Covid bear any resemblance to the common cold – although for the lucky ones, it actually isn’t much different. And I certainly don’t mean to detract from the grief of those who have had to watch loved ones die. But those of us in the first world are inclined to forget that we have eliminated a plethora of lethal diseases, or at least blocked them from general circulation, with those wondrous, miraculous vaccines that were largely discovered in the 20th century, along with a modern awareness of hygiene.
So, I come back to those who are vulnerable, not to The Virus itself perhaps, but to isolation and despair; to those who had (or who have developed in recent months) mental health issues. To those who cannot find anyone to whom to reach out because, in the outside world, everyone is in too much of a frenzy about Covid to pay any attention.
Yes, of course, many have got very sick, and many have died from Covid. But what are we doing for the living? For those who have suffered because we have chosen to shut down our world into minuscule boxes, where even the healthiest of us are struggling with anxiety and depression from lack of employment, lack of human contact, or just the simple joy of unlimited fresh air.
I know plenty who have revelled – or at least benefitted – from a less frenetic lifestyle; that this enforced slowing down of society, while it may limit our personal freedoms, has given many of us a chance to breath and recalibrate. But just as many, if not more, seem to be finding the isolation increasingly hard to bear.
All lives should be valued, and the Hippocratic oath, still used today in some shape or form, makes doctors promise to treat the ill to the best of one’s ability, to heal, or at the very least, not to harm the patient. (There is nothing to suggest keeping patients alive at all costs, which is how it is often portrayed.) And yet what of those who are falling through the cracks? As always, it is those least able to advocate for themselves who are struggling: those with mental health issues that require consistent support and empathy from the rest of us, who have become more and more marginalized from society in this ever-shrinking world. It is devastating to know that crisis lines report that they are receiving record numbers of calls, when we pause to consider that one of Lifeline’s mantras is: ‘We will continue to advocate, educate and work to keep people safe until we achieve our vision of an Australia free of suicide.’ The data (prior to Covid?) suggests that ‘nine Australians die every day by suicide. That’s more than double the road toll.’
It would be wonderful to believe in a plan to reduce the number of suicides in Australia. But in the meantime, the number of people on the brink seems to be rising through the roof, which simply highlights the number of lonely and distressed people out there who are seriously struggling to survive this new normal. So what is to be done? Where do we go from here?