Author Jackie French (Image: Wikimedia)

I am old, 67, though I still manage 15-hour work days that help create and keep jobs and bring in export income for Australia.

But by 67 you have seen many friends die, and the illnesses of age increase. I am not scared for myself in this pandemic, just cautious, concerned. I am desperately scared for our youth, and for our planet.

This is a virus that kills the elderly, but leaves young people — even those with such mild doses they didn’t know they were sick — vulnerable to strokes, lung clots, paralysis, lung damage and fatigue. And this is only month eight. We do not know how bad the long-term effects will be.

Death from this virus is reasonably swift: weeks. I am scared for the one in 10, or more, of the world’s youth who may need long-term care, for months, or decades.

Are we capable of creating a society that will care for so many, for so long? 

Will this virus act like polio, and 20, 30 years later strike those who’ve had it with even greater ferocity?

This is not “an old people’s problem”. It is simply a time when problem people, like the aged, the homeless, and those forced into several underpaid casual jobs and crammed buildings, became visible as vectors of infection, and death statistics. At least this virus has forced people to look, though I suspect once the nursing homes, the homeless and the desperate casual workers are no longer an infection risk, the attention and search for solutions will fade away.

I am scared because, as a historian, I know the responses of Australians in the Spanish flu epidemic — when the media was not full of handicrafts or gourmet dishes for bored isolators, but recipes for soup to take to the houses in quarantine, their curtains closed to show there were sick who needed help.

My great-grandmother — one of tens of thousands — organised kids to feed the dogs, the hens, to milk the cows, to deliver food to the doorsteps of those in need. I am deeply scared of today’s self-indulgence.

We have two weapons against this pandemic, age old weapons: kindness and quarantine. Use them hard and fast, and in two or three years a plague can vanish.

I am scared because we have just faced three months of bushfire, where authorities did not listen to experts. Those who holidayed in a catastrophic bushfire summer had not listened either. Humanity is still vulnerable to catastrophe, and yes, it will include you, too. 

I am scared because those who make our political decisions, and those who choose what to publish, still so often do not follow expert advice even now, when we face catastrophe again.

I am scared for humanity, because this pandemic, and the ones that follow it, are caused by “habitat disturbance”, a polite way of saying we are destroying the planet’s life support systems for ourselves and other species.

Pandemics, unprecedented heat waves, droughts, floods, coastal erosion of a scale far more vast than we are seeing now. This is not even the end of the beginning. 

And yet, we do have experts, achieving semi-miracles of invention and prediction. We see the most extraordinary kindness every day. We do have quarantine. We have those who will work passionately to try to save our ecosystems.

If we can find a way to make these as contagious as COVID-19, I think, just possibly, we may be okay.

Jackie French is an author and historian, who was the 2014-15 Australian Children’s Laureate and 2015 Senior Australian of the Year.

Crikey wants to hear from readers in their 70s and beyond about their first-hand experiences of the pandemic. To contribute, write to us at [email protected] with “Missing Voices” in the subject line.

Peter Fray

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