Wil Patterson author of Mr Ordinary Goes to Jail reminds us why we are the 'lucky' country in this time of COVID
Me: Are you recovering?
Rafa (My friend in Central America who has COVID): It’s been tough days Bo, you have no idea.
Me: Tell me.
Rafa: It has been horrible. I had to walk one day to get a test. I only walked about 25 metres and I was exhausted, sweating profusely, and completely out of breath.
Me: Wow Bo, that’s bad. And you are so fit.
Rafa: I’m not the fittest but I would never tire from that. That’s why I went to the hospital. I waited four hours at the hospital to get a bed. While I was waiting four dead people were taken out. I have to say the bed I got was probably the best in the hospital. The room had a little restroom and the toilet had a seat. They put me in the bed but gave me no medicine at all. Then they lost my file. People kept coming in to check me but no one knew my name.
The second night there were so many sick people that they put three more in my room who were really sick with the virus. Then they moved me to the children’s rooms. The bed was a pink plastic elephant, it had two little drawers in its tummy and it was about 80 centimetres long. Then they had to move me again. This room was a cleaner’s room that they had put a bed in. It had a big double stainless-steel sink in one corner and was piled with boxes. The sheet that was on the bed was filthy. At this point I walked to the counter and asked to be checked out.
El Salvador (where Rafa is from) has 4200 current cases confirmed. That is a low number compared to much of Central America, which is in the thousands or tens of thousands.
I’m writing at my desk in Victoria, Australia. The news everywhere (at the time of writing) is that COVID restrictions are tightening because we currently have 24 active cases of the virus and that is many more than we want. There is debate about whether the State government are doing the right thing and if we are going to be ok. There is real fear in our country about 25 cases.
The first time I ventured to the supermarket after we were locked down I was nervous. I approached the entry and there was a line at the front to get in. There were a lot of people. I felt my chest start to tighten, I heard the noises of the people start to ring in my ears and then I heard the voice of my therapist “Ground yourself. Find three white cars. Tell me their make and model. What colour are the leaves on the trees? Is the wind warm or cold? Ground yourself.” Grounding is a well-established, simple, and amazingly effective technique. Find something around you to anchor yourself to. Bring yourself back into the moment and out of your anxiety. Three white cars, an Audi A3, a Hyundai Kona, and an older Holden commodore. The leaves are green, but they look like they are ready to turn, and the wind is warm today. I started breathing deeper and my chest loosened. Then it struck me. I know this feeling. It is familiar. It’s the feeling of not wanting to be around strangers. You don’t trust them. They could be anyone, they could do you harm, they could be ‘infected’. I recognised it as the feeling of coming home from prison to a world of strangers.
The problem with prison, even if you are only there for a short time, is that you lose your innate trust of people you don’t know. At Beechworth Correctional Centre there were around 120 inmates. In a very short space of time you got used to seeing the same faces, you learned who to talk to, who to wave to, and who to avoid. Strangers were people to be wary of. They stood out from the inmates and the small rotating group of guards and prison workers. When you saw a stranger’s face your first reaction was to step back, be cautious, and wait to see how they would fit in. When you came home you quickly realised the world is inhabited by strangers. You have a choice: to ease back into the normal way we should all treat other, with a basic sense of trust and courtesy, or to become insular, disconnected and worried ALL the time. The upside is, prison prepared me remarkably well for the shutdown, fear and panic caused by a global virus pandemic.
I looked along the supermarket line and saw my feelings reflected in many other people’s faces. ‘I don’t trust you,’ their eyes were saying. ‘Don’t stand too close,’ their body language yelled. As I observed this my own thoughts changed. I felt my fear dissipating and being replaced with feelings of gratitude and empathy. I knew exactly what these poor strangers were feeling. I’d travelled this road, and I’d come through it ok. I wanted to approach them, gently, and tell them it was going to be fine. We all felt the same way, we were all felling nervous, frightened, unsure. We were all being pummelled by a society hell bent on making sure we knew exactly how worried to be, exactly how dangerous this virus was, and how scared we should be of each other. Our government wanted us exactly this scared about 25 new cases, even though in countries all around the world people were dealing with cases and deaths in the tens of thousands.
I wanted to tell these strangers that in 1964 a bloke named Donald Horne wrote a book called The Lucky Country. We are lucky. We’ve got lots of natural resources, we have plenty of space for the people who live here, we can keep things like GFCs and global pandemics at arm’s length, and if they do affect us it’s never as bad as the rest of the world.
Donald Horne said we were a lucky country, but the controversial thing is he did not mean it as a compliment. What he actually wrote was: “Australia is a lucky country, run mainly by second rate people who share its luck.”
He was saying we are lucky. Not hard workers. Not smarter than everyone else. Not better at planning and foresight. We have been saved from the worst of this virus by luck alone. We’re an island, at the bottom of the world, a long way from our neighbours. It’s super easy for us to close our borders because we have no land borders. It’s easy for us to isolate people coming into the country because there aren’t many ways to get into our country. We are lucky. Not clever, not innovative, not forward thinking … lucky.
I wanted to tell these people, do you know what? It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter that we don’t work harder, that we aren’t smarter. It doesn’t matter that our leaders are no more forward thinking than other world leaders. Because we truly are lucky. Everyone in this country is lucky. Which is enough. It is ok for us to take the moniker ‘The Lucky Country’ and say it with pride. If we remember a large part of what got us here is luck. And now we are living in the uncertain world of COVID, and I feel as lucky as I ever have.
I didn’t approach the strangers in the supermarket queue of course. I don’t think they would have appreciated what I wanted to tell them at all.
I walked away from the supermarket thinking about what Australia needs right now is grounding and grace.
Grounding first. Let’s all focus on what we DO have. Don’t let any voice convince you that it’s nothing, or that you need more to be happy. Look around and find three things to ground yourself with. One, we live in a country with the luxury to isolate. We have space, we have a generally calm and peaceful community. Two, we have a government who is not letting us go to the wall. How many other countries pivoted immediately to JobKeeper, free childcare, and payments to casual workers so they didn’t feel pressure to go to work if sick. Three, we have one of the best health care systems in the world. We are blessed to have universal health care, to be wealthy enough to attract great doctors to our hospitals, and fortunate enough not to be carrying the dead out of our hospitals while people wait for their beds. Australia does not rate the quality of its hospital rooms based on whether the toilet has a seat or not.
And grace. Have the grace to smile, even if you have to fake it. Accept the kind smile of someone you don’t know. Do what we’re being asked to do. Stay inside, don’t hug people or shake hands yet, it’s too soon. Be the kind of person whose compliment can silence the self-doubt in others. Do the tiny things that cost you nothing, because it is so often those things mean the world to others.
The COVID-19 pandemic has done one major thing to the world. It has sent the message loud and clear that we are all equal. We have the same base fears and issues, and we all struggle with the same things as well. The problem we need to overcome in Australia is that we have forgotten just how lucky we are. We have forgotten how to accept our luck gracefully. Aussies are lucky and we have an opportunity to acknowledge that, be thankful for it, then take a breath and get on with our days. Some of the days will be harder than others, but if we ground ourselves and we act with grace then I think we will all come out of this ok.