Undermining community

Most of us are working for our collective good – a tiny minority are pushing individualism. We can’t allow those who seek to divide us to win. Charities can lift us all by showing what happens when we support each other writes CCA CEO David Crosbie in Pro Bono News:

Undermining community, Pro Bono News, 23 September 2021

While millions of Australians are still working, enjoying social engagements, shopping for non-essentials, and sitting in classrooms, millions are also locked down for their safety and the safety of their communities. 

Across our country, the pandemic experience varies enormously. And the variability is not just about whether people live in a locked down area or not.  

The past 18 months have exposed the fault lines of inequity that divide almost every aspect of what living in a pandemic means. Within cities and jurisdictions, we know poorer suburbs and marginalised communities tend to have higher infection rates, higher death rates, less capacity to keep working or stay connected to school. How do you book a vaccine appointment if you don’t have good access to the internet, or an email address, or a regular GP you can go and see, or if you are not entitled to a Medicare card because your visa is only temporary? How do you work, study or exercise at home if there is no private room and no green space nearby? 

As the pandemic drags on, negative impacts can be compounded by disadvantage upon disadvantage, and some groups of people struggle to cope.

There have been many studies of how people deal with adversity over more than a century. Some consistent themes have emerged. Most importantly, they tell us that when people perceive problems as shared across a community and not as the responsibility of an individual, or one family or one group of individuals, the problems bring people together rather than driving them apart. Isolation is the enemy of good mental health. Sharing knowledge, art, expression, feelings, struggles and success, pain and joy is the essence of a good life. This sharing of experience is also a driver of strong productive communities.

In comparison with most countries, Australia has done very well so far in responding to the pandemic. While we may argue about various inadequacies, the bottom line is Australia collectively listened to health experts, followed medical advice, initiated strong measures to reduce infection rates, and provided a level of financial security and support enabling most people to comply with health requirements.

Worldwide, the pandemic has taken almost 5 million lives. In Australia, COVID deaths now number over 1,200, but it could have been so much worse. In comparable countries like Canada (population 38 million) over 25,000 people have died, in France (population 67 million) total deaths are over 100,000. 

For most of the pandemic, charities have played a critical role, not just in providing shelter, food and emergency services to those in need, but also in finding often innovative ways to maintain connections between people. From the online choir to the free home delivered dinners, charities have been at the forefront of our collective resilience. They have found ways to reach marginalised groups, offer vaccinations, enable kids to have the devices they need for school, help access financial and other support.

All this good work has helped keep Australia strong, able to deal with the pandemic, maintaining our health system, supporting our communities. It has reinforced our interconnectedness, and been acknowledged and valued by many Australians. 

Now some are seeking to undermine the important contributions charities have made. And this undermining is being legitimised in politics and the media.

There are politicians in our federal parliament and our state parliaments who have been attacking the science of vaccines and seeking to destabilise communities across Australia. Several politicians from the Coalition government have defended recent Melbourne “protests”. 

Some rich entitled Australians have invested millions of dollars in spreading lies and misinformation.

A handful of powerful private media outlets continue to selectively twist and spin a web of misinformation motivated entirely by greed and vested self-interest. Like second rate side-show-alley snake oil salesmen, they know there is money and reputation to be made attacking those who are working to keep communities safe during the pandemic. They provide fodder and open platforms to those seeking to reverse the public health approach that continues to save so many lives in Australia.

It is one thing to criticise or to seek an explanation of the decisions being taken by leaders. Most Australians understand that mistakes have been made in our COVID-19 response and that we are likely to make more mistakes in these unprecedented times. We also know Australia could have done even better in dealing with COVID-19 had we secured enough vaccines early, developed a vaccine roll out that was timelier (a race) and better targeted, and put in place more comprehensive quarantine facilities. 

What concerns many is not the ongoing debate or criticism about vaccine roll outs, borders or living with COVID, but the sustained and systematic effort to publicly undermine the fundamental facts of disease, vaccinations and the need to keep communities safe. It is worrying to learn that health officials and drug regulators have become a target of threats and ridicule. 

And herein lies the challenge for charities. It is not difficult to seed fear and confusion in a pandemic, then stand back and cheer on as growing anger and self-righteousness take root.

There are many more of us working for our collective good compared to the small minority pushing rampant individualism. The numbers of Australians being vaccinated, the numbers of Australians following health orders, the numbers of Australians working for their communities are impressive by any standards. But numbers alone might not be enough. 

We can all do more to highlight the positive community focused behaviour that has transcended individual interest and demonstrated both our humanity and our collective strength. We can show what has and can be achieved through our actions, our values and through telling our stories.  

Allowing those who seek to divide us to win is not an option. Now more than ever, staying silent is not the way to achieve the Australia we want.

Read on Pro Bono News: undermining-community