(Image: AAP/Dave Hunt)

It started as a Facebook gripe from a woman in suburban Brisbane about someone trawling through her council bin.

“Is it just me or is anyone else bothered that people roam the streets and bin dive into people’s recycling bins to get cans and bottles? I just had an altercation with someone going through my bin and I don’t appreciate it at all.”

It escalated quickly. “Wow, it’s not like they’re breaking into our houses to steal our possessions,” one neighbour commented. “I don’t mind as long as the scavengers put the bloody bin back where they got it,” someone else added.

“It’s shit,” said another. “I was so shocked when it happened. I thought it must have been possums or something throwing shit around from the bin — but nope, was someone going up the street and rummaging through my empty wine bottles.”

And then this: “We do this as a single mum … low life abusive ex gave up his six figure job to avoid child support. I’m left with $6/wk to fee me and the kids after rent and bills so this helps our family while walking our dog.”

One small neighbourhood and a glaring illustration of both the rise of suspicion and the loss of trust as we navigate a future no-one saw coming.

On a bigger scale, that’s exactly the risk in the bamboozlement of numbers, without faces, being delivered by our political leaders about COVID-19 each day.

In Victoria today, we have 70 new cases and sadly, five deaths. In NSW, a new cluster of 13 is causing concern. Hooray for Queensland, where yesterday there was only one case — but wear a mask anyway.

In those messages, dominated by numbers and dutifully delivered, humanity is absent, and it’s easy to miss the suspicion and lack of trust that risks causing as many problems as the pandemic.

Each number is someone struggling to breathe. Each death is a funeral, where at least one loved one is physically unable to say goodbye. In aged care homes, people are dying without being wrapped in the love of someone who cares.

In our healthy obsession with sport and stolen football finals, state borders have become harder to penetrate than national ones, and this alone will drive discussion for years.

People are unable to get the cancer treatment they need because of a closed state border. Parents are unable to see their children for months in boarding school, because they are not permitted to border hop. State premiers are up against each other; not over funds from Canberra, but a determination to keep “their patch” COVID-free.

In Queensland, we’ve become as suspicious of vehicles bearing Victorian number plates as some are of people diving into their recycling bins.

We need to know the numbers each day, but we need to understand that they don’t tell the stories that continue to unfold as our homes and hotels become prisons. Those interpersonal skills, where we look out for our neighbours, and teach our children how to develop friendships, have never been more in need. 

It’s not just here. The Economist pointed out this week that in Ecuador, people are still searching for the bodies of relatives who died four months ago; in Italy, a boy begged a priest to forgive the “sin’’ of lowering his face mask outdoors. In Zimbabwe, grandparents are being taught how to provide “talk therapy” on village benches to those who cannot afford to visit clinics. Meanwhile, in Brisbane, the wait to see a psychologist is now, routinely, six months.

So what will our lives look like in a decade? That narrative is still being written, but surely it needs to be as big a focus for our policymakers as the day-to-day running COVID tallies.

On that same suburban Facebook page, under another chat, a book-lover tells the story of the Human Library and asks whether that is what we need here.

Started in Denmark 20 years ago, it now graces more than 50 countries. Instead of books, people are able to “borrow” other people. Each human “book” represents a group in the community who have been subject to discrimination or prejudice because of disability or ethnicity or belief or diagnosis or lifestyle. 

Sitting across from each other — or perhaps even on Zoom — the human book tells its story, answers questions and shares thoughts. Connecting people, reducing suspicions and building trust. 

It’s just one idea. We need more, just as much as we need the vaccine we’re all chasing.

How have you been connecting with people during the pandemic? Let us know by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say section.

Peter Fray

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