We have entered the Covidscape. We are constantly consuming and being consumed by it. We are dreaming about it. We are desperately seeking moments of escape from it, if we are able to.
The roads are quieter, the trains are nearly empty. Although we know that the air is clearer now, it feels heavier. The home, for those that have a home, has become an enclosure. The microbial world demands our constant attention, an invisible threat made visible only when it is too late, when hospitals are overflowing.
The Covidscape slows things down. Uplifting viral videos tell us to embrace the simple things and take up hobbies. But COVID-19 also speed things up. The 24-hour news cycle is now a 2-hour news cycle. A month seems like years. Demographic measures escalate from panic weddings, accelerated separations, and, of course, increased death rates.
All the while, the enduring inequalities etched into our social fabric dig in deeper. The rich and mobile spread the virus but the poor and marginalized will suffer. The homeless who cannot shelter-in-place, workers risking exposure so we can continue to get groceries, regional and remote residents who have precious little healthcare in the best of times, especially Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Those who will be targeted by policing of public spaces. Those whose bodies are weighed down by the chronic conditions of structural violence, making them more likely to end up in intensive care. Carers of children whose double-shift of paid work and care work just turned into a triple-shift. Those trapped in unsafe households. And on and on and on.
But the virus also etches new lines of privilege and oppression, some unexpected. Bidet manufacturers are unexpected beneficiaries of panic buying. Animal shelters are empty as the mental health risks of living alone are intensified in the time of physical distancing, leading to panic pet acquisition. And hopes of escape from the human concentration of cities has caused a small flood of residents to holiday homes.
The impacts of the Covidscape on the greatest long-term challenge we face, climate change, are difficult to predict. The massive reduction in industrial pollution and air travel are clear short-term gains for the planet. But if we return to business as usual, these gains will be quickly lost. We must demand that our governments make sure the transition to normal economic life is a transition to a greener economy.
The most hopeful part of this crisis is the panic socialism that many countries are adopting. In Australia, unemployment benefits have doubled overnight, private hospitals are open to public patients, and childcare is free. The stigma of unemployment is gone. The right-wing hatred for the welfare state is gone. Swept away in the Covidscape.
The fear of the poor and disadvantaged has been supplanted by fear of COVID-19’s effect on human and economic life. Governments rightly fear social unrest – in this country, symbolized by tussles over toilet paper in the supermarket aisles – and some have stepped up.
It feels callous to think ahead to recovery when people are getting sick and dying and health workers face unbearable stress and risk to their own lives. But we need to think of how, once we have a vaccine, the ways our society have been reshaped by the Covidscape can be repurposed. We need to fear poverty, suffering, and climate change the way we fear COVID-19 now.
This article originally appeared in Deakin Disruptr, the publication of the Deakin Research Office, on 6 May 2020.
Prof Emma Kowal is a cultural and medical anthropologist. Her previous work as a medical doctor and public health researcher in Indigenous health settings in Australia has led her to pursue two intersecting lines of theory and empirical research:
• Australian racial politics: Indigeneity and Whiteness, settler colonialism and postcolonialism, racism and anti-racism. Part of this research is presented in her book, Trapped in the Gap: Doing Good in Indigenous Australia (Berghahn, 2015). Read a review in the Monthly here.
• Science and technology studies: the anthropology of biomedical research, genomics, bioethics, and public health. Read an example of my scholarly work in this area here and a piece in the Conversation here.
This article is part of a series of COVID-19-related analysis and opinion articles from ADI researchers.
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