The prime minister says we’ve faced the pandemic like Anzac-spirited stoics. His gaslit assurances ignores our collective fear, weariness and sadness
Last modified on Fri 4 Feb 2022 06.00 GMT
Perhaps the greatest myth some of our political leaders are intent on weaving about the pandemic’s profound emotional impact is that Australians are uniquely, interminably resilient.
Because when we look at friends (on screen), family (ditto), wander about the neighbourhood and listen to experiences from across the country, what we hear is fear, weariness and acute sadness. People are saying, “I’ve had enough – I can’t cope with it any more. I’m beyond my breaking point. I am done.”
Yes, we’ve had enough of the deaths of our unprotected elderly and physically vulnerable being statistically rationalised with an (alarmingly eugenicist) implicit sub-clause that their “pre-existing conditions” sort of made them Covid-fatality-inevitable. Enough of watching our children front up and do their part for community safety until they can’t front up any more. Enough of our constant tussles with the anxiety of whether that tickly throat, drippy nose or headache (omicrondria: excessive concern about one’s health in the absence of RATs or PCRs) might indicate we have that oh-so “mild” virus that would kill our elders who’ve dared in their crippling loneliness to risk seeing us for the first time in two years. Enough of our broken, beaten health- and aged-care workers (and, now teachers) being lectured down to about how inspirationally resilient they are when they are telling everyone they feel emotionally and physically bereft.
Yes. Enough of all the hollow, gaslit assurances by the prime minister and most state and territory leaders that Australians are so just so resilient and therefore have more to give.
This mythical antipodean resilience they all talk of has a long tail.
It trails to an Anzac legend (itself a supposedly country-defining political construct) that is still fallaciously clung to as the moment of Australian national conception. Notwithstanding the historical whitewash that ignored all that blood on the frontier wattle from which the federation grew, the Anzac legend drew its potency from the supposedly unique qualities of mateship (the Germans and Ottomans had mates in the trenches, too!), stoicism, endurance and, yes, resilience, of those first world war personnel.
Let’s not forget that in the post-world war one Australia of Billy Hughes (who assiduously linked white Australian nationhood to its spilt khaki blood in the Ottomans, Europe and the Middle East) from 1918 national growth came amid a stoic silence over the human cost of conflict. Limbless and facially disfigured diggers were kept off the streets. Physically intact men, meanwhile, privately wrestled their officially unrecognised mental demons, their alcoholism and drug addiction. Battered wives and children stayed quiet behind closed doors.
“Part of our reverence for them [the Anzacs] is that somehow they endured,” former governor general and defence force chief Peter Cosgrove has explained.
No surprise, then, that prime minister Scott Morrison has insisted that in pandemic times Australia must “summon the spirit of the Anzacs”.
So here we are in what is, we’ve been assured (again by politicians), the most challenging time in Australia since the second world war. Here in the midst of another “war” that will be fought with resilience.
Perhaps the greatest anomaly about this is the disconnect between this politically assumed Australian resilience, the unprecedented community demand for mental health support – and, indeed, the federal government’s own welcome response to it with greater access to Medicare-funded psychology (which is still falling pitifully short of demand).
The overdemand on mental health services points to a society on a psychological precipice. Yet, perplexingly, we are told on one hand it’s OK to be not OK, to be at the end of our coping capacities and to ask for help, while on the other assured of our resilience.
Well over a year ago psychiatrist Jayashri Kulkarni pinpointed this disconnect in her prescient essay “Is Covid-19 reshaping the Australian psyche?” in which she ponders whether the Anzac character is still an apt stereotype for the modern pandemic-era Australian.
“We speak of the ‘Anzac spirit’ when we witness bravery in our firefighters and other emergency workers who have been repeatedly tested by Australia’s many natural disasters. Underpinning this historical picture of the Australian approach to calamity is the depiction of the archetypal Australian as a young, fit, stoic man. This depiction of a pioneering nation, where rugged physicality is valued and needed, seems outdated in 2020,” she writes.
The Anzac ways of endurance and deep digging resilience might validate those Australians who still confront their uncertainty and fear with stoic silence.
But what of the millions who don’t? Where is their validation by the politicians whose community health edicts they have faithfully followed only to watch the same leaders make appalling judgments by rationing economics over human safety, all the while bungling the mechanics of health responses and victim-blaming vulnerable casualties?
Morrison is not alone among leaders when it comes to his insistence that we remain a nation of Anzac-spirited, resilient stoics amid the pandemic.
But in the face of all of the outpouring of pain that speaks to the contrary, he’s probably the most bellicose and persistently cloth-eared. Take his National Press Club election campaign warm-up on Tuesday. He made close to a dozen mentions of the country’s resilience.
“Despite the challenges we have faced, Australia, I believe, is stronger and more resilient today than when I stood before you a year ago.”
Amplifying cliched old myths about Australian character won’t drown out the voluble national cry of anguish and frustration.
The cynical evocation of some bottomless well of Australian resilience endures, today, as an emptier political construct than ever.
To be human is to be vulnerable. No matter what some politician says.
Crisis support services can be reached 24 hours a day: Lifeline 13 11 14; Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467; Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800; MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78