As well-worn paths of daily life disappear, it can feel like a familiar world is crumbling around us. Everything is in flux and nothing is certain.
Yet the coronavirus reveals fundamental truths about the human condition that can help us find our feet and point us towards a fairer future.
The virus makes no distinction between rich and poor, between citizen and foreigner, between man and woman. The virus takes no heed of skin colour, educational qualification or postcode.
Of course, it’s easier to self-isolate in a mansion than in an overcrowded apartment. A hefty bank balance is a better cushion against an economic shutdown than a maxed-out credit card. And the elderly are at much greater risk of dying from the virus than the young.
Yet in the end, the virus confirms our basic equality.
As Camus wrote in The Plague, we are all assured “of the inerrable equality of death”. This may not be the type of equality we want, and we may stave death off as long as possible, but we have little choice in the manner of our passing or the manner of our birth.
This should remind us that our luck — good or bad — is undeserved. Almost 30 years of continuous growth has accustomed many Australians to relative economic security.
But as the contemporary manifestation of Camus’ plague pushes our economy over a cliff, everyone is getting a taste of the precariousness that already characterises many lives.
If you’re experiencing homelessness, the pandemic spreads one more level of risk on layers of personal crisis. For a disability pensioner spending more than half her income on rent, anxiety about how to pay the power bill is a familiar state of mind. Not knowing when the next job will turn up is nothing new for a casual worker in the gig economy.
If insecurity is new and unwelcome in our lives, then we can assume that its pervasive presence was never welcome in the lives of others. It should give us pause to consider the levels of inequality and disadvantage that we allowed to build up during Australia’s long boom.
The virus has also helped us identify common needs. Food and shelter, obviously, but also love, care, companionship, cultural expression, pleasure, meaningful activity and a sense of belonging.
We cannot achieve any of these things on our own. We might think of ourselves as rugged individuals, charting our own course, and deserving what we accumulate through personal effort. But as philosopher Elizabeth Anderson notes, even a superstar like Michael Jordan can only throw baskets if someone keeps the court clean. We are all in this game together.
The government’s massive stimulus package is a collective act of mutual support intended to bridge the current crisis. Cooperation, care and solidarity are our most important aids in crossing safely. We should not abandon them when we reach the other side.
The pandemic also alerts us to our common flaws. The prime minister has declared that panic-buying is “un-Australian”. The evidence from supermarkets across the country contradicts him. The shoppers anxiously loading up their trolleys are just as Australian as Scott Morrison.
The pandemic has made us afraid — for good reason — and panic-buying is evidence of our inclination to first protect our own interests and the interests of close family and friends.
Yet this very human tendency does not mean that we lack concern for the common good.
Like human beings the world over, Australians are neither inherently selfish nor inherently selfless. A moment of introspection will reveal that each of us is capable of behaving well or poorly: of being greedy or restrained, impulsive or thoughtful, generous or mean, truthful or dissembling. The degree to which we exhibit the virtue, or the vice, depends on many factors, including what others do around us. If everyone else is clearing the shelves of pasta sauce, chances are that we will grab some too.
But selfish and panicked reactions are not inevitable. Nor are they the norm. Many individuals and organisations are responding to the crisis in reasoned and caring ways. In suburbs across the country, people are letterboxing offers of food or groceries in case neighbours are stuck at home. The major supermarkets swiftly imposed purchase limits on staples like pasta and instigated a dedicated shopping hour for the elderly and those with a disability.
This may not be a sufficient response, but it demonstrates a widely shared concern for the welfare of vulnerable members of our community.
Then of course, there are the staff in medical centres and hospitals working endless hours and putting themselves in harm’s way to tend to the sick and infectious — just as emergency workers braved the terrors of our unprecedented summer of fire to protect life and property.
The ancient philosopher Aristotle identified virtues such as courage, generosity, kindness and moderation as the exemplars of what it means to be good at being human. Virtue, for Aristotle, was synonymous with excellence.
More than two thousand years later, we continue to evaluate one another in similar language. To call someone generous is to say that she sets a norm of behaviour that is admirable and worth emulating. To call someone greedy is to condemn their actions as unacceptable.
Aristotle also argued that the things we routinely do shape our characters. We become brave by doing brave acts, we become kind by acting kindly.
These difficult times challenge us to practice Aristotle’s virtues — along with more careful hand washing — until they become such a habit that they are part of who we are. In doing so, we lay the foundation for a stronger, more caring community after the threat from the virus recedes.
Peter Mares is lead moderator at Cranlana Centre for Ethical Leadership and the author of books including No Place Like Home: Repairing Australia’s Housing Crisis and Not Quite Australian: How Temporary Migration Is Changing the Nation.