OPINION

The end of the beginning - paradox of a pandemic | OPINION

IMPACT: Relative to other countries, Australia has avoided a catastrophic health situation to date. Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK
IMPACT: Relative to other countries, Australia has avoided a catastrophic health situation to date. Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK

Victoria is in the grips of the strictest lockdown in Australia since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Our regions are nervous about what the next few months will bring.

In our new reality, we have an obligation to use this challenging time to reflect on what we have learned that will help us go forward from here.

The pandemic and our collective response, have highlighted many paradoxes - bits of information that seems contradictory and confronting.

All 13 million Australian workers have been impacted in some way by the pandemic, but the paradox of economic inequity is perhaps most striking in our young people ...

Professor John Fischetti

Relative to other countries, Australia has avoided a catastrophic health situation to date.

The strong government measures and the will of the people have risen to the challenge.

But this challenge is by no means over and as a society, we are far from unscathed.

Recently, I delivered the first University of Newcastle Looking Ahead Lecture entitled The Paradox of a Pandemic.

A wonderful panel and I explored the opportunities that have emerged from the disruptions, while at the same time identifying that these opportunities present significant life challenges to others.

I call our new reality 'Normal X' since we don't actually know how to understand this moment in time and where we are headed.

In this transformational time, we need to think about how we, as a society, will address the emerging paradoxes that for me, fit into at least these five areas: economic inequity; impact on women; schooling from home; health and wellbeing; and social change.

All 13 million Australian workers have been impacted in some way by the pandemic, but the paradox of economic inequity is perhaps most striking in our young people - hardest hit by job losses, but many have benefited from the government support.

Some have never earned more and some are on the brink.

Women have also been disproportionately affected.

Key response industries are heavily reliant on a female workforce (such as nursing and aged care) which has increased their work-related pressure.

Women also continue to shoulder the bulk of caring responsibilities at home and domestic violence statistics are more alarming than ever.

Yet paradoxically, working and schooling from home provided more much-needed family time and connection that four out of five Australian families "reset" their priorities.

On the health front, staying home to stay safe from COVID-19 has led to increased alcohol consumption and a host of mental health challenges. As panellist Professor Frances Kay-Lambkin said, mental health will have its own curve that we need to watch closely.

What we have realised is that there are some very visible impacts of COVID, but as Professor Penny Jane Burke identified, we have to challenge ourselves to dig deep into the more invisible root causes - to effect real social change.

Our world pre-COVID wasn't perfect for many members of our society and we cannot afford to go back.

As one of our future leaders, a brilliant fifth-year Mechanical Engineering student from Zimbabwe, Ru Vusango said - this is our opportunity to step outside of ourselves to acknowledge that people around us have had contrary experiences.

These paradoxes are important for us to grow as individuals and as societies.

We are now at the 'end of the beginning' of COVID-19.

The hardest parts are likely ahead.

We know that this pandemic does not discriminate and that our most vulnerable are indeed even more vulnerable.

We can learn a powerful lesson from our Indigenous communities who, as Nathan Towney shared, account for fewer than 0.5 per cent of COVID cases in Australia - which is testament to the power of community and respect for our Elders.

As a society, we need to ask ourselves what we will accept and what positive action we will take.

Is an individualistic society one that serves us well in the modern world?

Or will we work harder to connect for the common good and to eliminate inequities?

At least two big challenges will remain post-COVID, whenever that is - climate change and social change.

We will, indeed, be faced with big decisions as a community and as a nation.

Professor John Fischetti, Pro Vice-Chancellor, Faculty of Education of Arts at the University of Newcastle