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Most mornings, as soon I wake, I retrieve some voice messages left overnight on WhatsApp. Sent from friends in the Northern hemisphere, they are missives from the pandemic, a granular account of what daily life is like in lockdown over there.
For almost a year now, various friends and I record and send audio messages back and forth that contain the sort of ephemera that seems too slight and unimportant for email but satisfying to listen to in the morning as I have my first coffee.
The content of these recordings could best be described as texture rather than events. They talk about the weather (in Beirut, in Cambridge, in London), the particularities of their particular lockdown (one hour for exercise, a bubble, a trip to the supermarket), how they are feeling (physically – a weird cough, mentally – drained), the deliveries coming that day, the things they have ordered, their work, childcare, and what their plans are when this whole shitshow is over.
The details pile up like tiles creating some sort of mosaic or picture of what it’s like to be them, now, in a country on its knees, in a pandemic, and what it’s like to be me, now in a country that has tentatively got it under control. This mosaic feels more real than anything I see on their social media feed.
From Sydney, I leave my own voice memos in return. They are a contrast. The weather (La Niña!), seeing friends, going to the beach, the gym, out to dinner, to the pub and weekends away. I leave messages about how the recent Melbourne snap lockdown screwed up my travel plans but cringe as I do so, aware that the friend waiting to hear it on the other side of the world is in hard lockdown. For them, getting on a plane and travelling interstate is the stuff of fever dreams and vaccines.
But somehow, for each of us, it’s important to keep the channels open – to hear about each other’s worlds as they are, not some sanitised version. This texture from daily life, in the form of WhatsApp messages, is like connective tissue, keeping us tethered to the bones of the other’s reality.
To remain tethered feels important. Without it, there’s no empathy, and away from the hotspots, the virus becomes a bit flat, an abstraction. 500,000 dead? What does that really mean? Three national lockdowns? Not seeing anyone for months? How does that feel?
Empathy requires information and imagination. What’s it like to be you? Can I imagine myself in your shoes?
Without empathy the connection between two people weakens, as does any compassion that might flow as a result.
For a long time, usually among people of the same race and class, a commonality of experience could be assumed. In a globalised world, a middle class person living in London or Sydney or Los Angeles or Madrid would live more or less a version of the same life. But now an enormous chasm has appeared between those living a relatively normal life in places like Australia and those that are in countries devastated by the virus.
Friends overseas circulate the Mel Gibson Jesus meme when Australians talk about interstate bickering. You couldn’t go to the tennis! We had 60,000 new cases that day! Each day listening to the WhatAapp messages is a form of reality check about Australia’s privilege.
Some days I awake to voice memos from virus-ravaged London saying, “I can’t believe you guys locked down after one case.” They’re incredulous at the national conversation in Australia – how we can talk in shorthand about individual cases: the BWS cluster or the RSL session musician or the guy that went to Chadstone and the Boxing Day test. They can’t. They have so much death and disease everywhere, that the notion that an entire nation knows the reference points for one case (one case, not even one death) may as well be a missive from another planet.
Australia is – yet again, so far – the lucky country.
But something can happen when you emerge relatively unscathed into a devastated world. There is a risk of being out of step, lacking empathy, of failing to properly see the suffering of others, of not having the imagination to put yourself in their place.
This would be a feeling not unknown to Melbourne people during their lockdown, as stuck in their homes they watched the rest of the nation go to the pub. “It has been easier speaking with friends in more wickedly ravaged places, like London and Los Angeles,” wrote Melbourne resident Martin McKenzie Murray of the winter lockdown.
My friend and colleague Elle Hunt raised the empathy issue in a recent essay, quoting a tweet about New Zealand: “What if every person who was in New Zealand during Covid-19 has become fundamentally incapable of empathising with everyone who wasn’t?”
So … what if?
We have already seen this lack of compassion and empathy at play since colonisation in the treatment of Indigenous Australians. It’s also been a long-term feature of the conversation around welfare and a living wage to jobseekers and has dominated the political landscape in Australia since the Howard years around issues of borders and asylum seekers.
Much of the rest of the planet has accepted that being part of a connected world means you have international humanitarian obligations – but Australian exceptionalism has meant we’ve shirked these obligations, instead pioneering boat turn backs and offshore detention centres.
(“You are worse than I am,” former US president Donald Trump told then Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull after hearing about our asylum policy.)
Now you see the cruel, logical extension of this policy being turned on Australia’s own citizens that are stuck beyond our borders.
No other country, let alone a country as wealthy as Australia, has made it as hard for its citizens to get home during the global pandemic.
What was once applied to the other has now been turned on our own citizens – with broad support from the populace. It was only a matter of time.
Cruelty takes the seat vacated by empathy. It’s easy not to care about someone if you can’t imagine yourself in their shoes. But with this virus the tables can rapidly turn. Who knows, one day we may be the ones that need empathy and understanding.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Australia is once again the lucky country – but if we can’t feel the virus pain beyond our shores we are simply cruel | Coronavirus