It’s Time to Reimagine our Covid Survival Story so Everyone can Thrive
There is an A.A. Milne poem that pops to mind whenever I face an insurmountable task, such as cleaning the house, or preventing the current onset of catastrophic climate change. It’s called The Old Sailor. Shipwrecked on an island, he is paralysed by the sheer number of tasks needing doing to aid his survival and how to best prioritise. He is aware of his need for water, shelter, food, and friendship. Should he craft a fishhook, domesticate a goat, seek a spring? Where to begin? To the narrator’s disgust, he submits to sunbathing on the sand, wrapped in a blanket, awaiting salvation. I feel an uncomfortable affinity with that sailor—his paralysis, his procrastination, his blanket.
By mid-January 2022 the Omicron variant had hit New South Wales hard, bringing a harrowing physical, mental, social, and economic toil to an already pandemic wearied community. Everyone had a story. Christmases skittled. Elderly relatives in care confused as to why nobody visited. Vital medical appointments missed because the required covid test was unattainable. Sparce supermarket shelves. Stalled supply chains. Foreclosed businesses. Fear. Deaths.
When Dominic Perrottet assumed the premiership in October 2021, NSW saw a decisive change in our Covid survival narrative, epitomised in the renaming of the crisis cabinet as the ‘economic recovery committee’ and the notable absence of Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant from the press conference where Perrottet announced getting people back to work as his primary priority, his sights set on fast easing restrictions to move past pandemic disruptions towards business as usual.
But people did not get back to work, they got sick. Economy activity was not unleashed to soar to new heights, but plunged below lockdown levels. NSW did not move past the pandemic, but waded irreversibly into its sticky grip. Jim Stanford, director of the Centre for Future Work and the Australia Institute, wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald, “From one of the best COVID-19 responses in the world to one of the worst, Australia has snatched defeat from the jaw of victory. The idea that health considerations had to be balanced with economic interests was always a false dichotomy. A healthy economy requires healthy workers and healthy consumers… Above all, our policy makers need to remember the economy is composed of human beings, and refocus their attention on keeping people healthy. Protecting people is the only thing that can protect the economy.”
What crisis are we are in? Health? Economic? Social? A misdiagnosis will prevent our flourishing. How we define this pandemic, our words, our narrative, it will forge our path for worse or better. But where do we wish this path to lead? What goals and values are we striving to protect? How do we define survival? How to achieve it? Do we first craft a hook, befriend a goat, seek a spring?
The Bible warns us to play close attention to words. Our words reveal our heart. Words can steer great ships or spark fires that destroy vast forests. Back in 2002 Australia’s birth rate was falling and policymakers concerned about our future economic stability as the working population shrunk and thus the pool of tax-payers and consumers. Peter Costello called for Australian families to produce three children, “one for Mum, one for Dad, one for the country.” My gut response to these words was disgust. Yes, good economies are vital to raising children, but the message seemed askew. There is a decided difference in aiming to build a healthy economy to benefit our children than aiming to produce healthy children to service the economy. Which do we wish to bend and break into shape to serve to the other? What do such words speak of our national goals, our values, our heart?
The same askew messaging appears to underpin the current debate on changing school hours. The proposition is school hours must bend to benefit economic productivity as they are currently out of step with the working hours of working women. True, but what is in step with the wellbeing of children? What of the wellbeing of women beyond their utility as economic tools? Our language speaks to our goals and values, it will forge our path, our priorities and practices, our final arrival.
During recent lockdowns, which workers are the vital organs of our communities came clearly to light: health workers, teachers, truck drivers, shelf stackers, farmers, and many others. Yet perhaps you will remember back in 2015 when housing affordability in Sydney had snowballed beyond the reach of many in these professions, treasurer Joe Hockey’s responded, “The starting point for a first home buyer is to get a good job that pays good money.” In his words, teaching and nursing are bad vocations, beneath these words sits the grim reality that as a society we don’t value these essential services with salaries which would allow access to all the wellbeing benefits of housing security.
Back in 1904 sociologist Max Weber already feared that capitalism would become an “iron cage” which would determine the character of human existence until “the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt.” By 1935 theologian Nicholas Berdyaev observed, “The life of the whole world moves beneath the sign of economism, and economic interests have put all things under their feet.” More recently Australian theologian Brian Rosner wrote in Beyond Greed, “In Western society in general the economy has achieved what can only be described as a status equal to that of the sacred. Like God, the economy, it is thought, is capable of supplying people’s needs without limit.” Our participation in the economy has ceased to be simply about exchanging goods and services for mutual survival, but a primary narrative through which we travel our human story, bestowing our worth and identity, shaping political agenda, determining core cultural values and giving meaning to our existence, reaching a point where our leaders unblinkingly refer to humans as gears of economic growth.
How have we reached a point where policymakers need reminding that the economy needs healthy humans to survive? Can we please reject the premise of this well-meaning corrective, reverse this narrative and speak of fostering an economy that serves us? Do we desire to bend and break ourselves and our children to serve the market or reimagine a new way which aids us all to thrive?
I suspect the authors of modern capitalism would roll in their graves at what became of a system they envisioned for our freedom and flourishing. Under feudalism impoverished serfs toiled under the whim of landowning nobles. Class and career were determined by birth and unquestioned. Yet in the mid-18th century a revolution in thought championed an economic system in which each individual was free to pursue their own profit. It was thought that if every individual was free to exchange what they have for what they want, not only would this encourage maximum efficiency, but as everyone finishes the day with what they desire the greatest social good would be achieved simply by us all selfishly pursuing our own aspirations. Classical economic theorist Adam Smith did concede there was some need for governments to prevent monopolies and provide some public goods. But this did not detract from Smith’s general faith in the ‘invisible hand’ of the free-market to work unrestrained to provide the best wellbeing for all. History speaks a different outcome.
Free-market capitalism did not prove a safe nest in which to nurture healthy humans. As production soared, the demands of efficacy gave rise to dangerous and dehumanising working conditions, child labour, hazardous products, and environmental devastation. Today’s capitalist societies do function with some acceptance that the free-market cannot be entirely left alone to set social agenda. The Australian government regulates safety standards, criminalises child labour, determines the minimum wage, and provides many public services. Yet even with this oversight, the market has not maximised the greatest abundance for all. The richest 1% hold 45% of the world’s wealth while 10 million children a year die from starvation and preventable diseases. Yet the language we still hear from our leaders, the drum we are asked to march to, still appears to sacredly elevate economic growth above all other means and measures of social good, striving for more and more and more without thought to where this more is going or what it cost, valuing the monetary profit our fragile bodies can produce above the beautiful worth of the fragile human bodies themselves.
What is our current crisis? Physical health? Mental health? Economic? Social? All are suffering. All need attention to nurture healthy humans. And healthy humans should be the end not the means in any equation. A simplistic diagnosis will prevent our flourishing. How we define this crisis will forge our path and destination. What is our desired destination? What goals and values are we striving to protect? How do we define thriving? How do we achieve it? Let’s have these conversations, search our hearts, light the snuffed candles within our weary souls, build a better story for everyone.
The task can appear paralyzingly, but rekindling hearts and building restorative cultures which support common human flourishing embodies the Christian vocation. We have words—resurrection, salvation, justice, sanctification, words of life which give us the prophetic capacity to envision a restored future. We believe God made the world as a temple to be filled with God’s goodness, and thus made humanity to receive and spread God’s love. We have a grand narrative—in the beginning God gave humans the vocation to nurture creation into a garden of plenty for all, a vocation restored to us by the work of Jesus Christ. We have a core value—Jesus said, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and the greatest commandment and the second is like it. Love your neighbour as yourself.’ We have a goal—following Jesus partake in remaking creation into a comic temple for God’s goodness, trusting that our daily relentless pursuit of common good is woven into God’s promised eternal redemption arc.
But what to do first? The task is vast. Craft a hook, befriend a goat, seek a spring? Can we delegate? We may be shipwrecked, but we are not alone. We could each pursue our personal profit, or together pursue good for everyone. We could survive alone or thrive alongside 7.9 billion allies in a God-given creation where sun, rest, blankets, and salvation can be abundant for all.
Hello, I’m Laura Tharion, and I am passionate about spreading the joy and wonder to be found in living a resurrected life inside Jesus Christ. I enjoy tea, cake, history, hammocks, wild bushland, gardening, reading, and gifting my favourite books into the hands of others. I had the pleasure of studying at Sydney Missionary and Bible College before my three lovely little boys arrived to fill my days. Here I picked up the pet soap-boxes of mission advocacy and teaching the Bible as one unified story. I have a heart to write—sermons, studies, articles, meditations, poetry, and epic novels, all which aim to explore theology and encourage everyone to fully realise all they have been given and commissioned in Christ.