Living with pandemic uncertainty amid the ‘Great Disruption’
by Jonathan Cole
The human psyche is dependent on regularity and predictability for its health. Imagine the psychological pressure of trying to continuously adapt to a world in which the sun rose and set at a different time each day, or perhaps rose for five days and then set for two, then rose for a mere eight hours followed by ten straight days of darkness. Imagine trying to maintain sanity in a world in which there were no seasons, just random daily weather events: minus 6 Celsius and snowing one day, 35 and sunny the next day, a tropical thunderstorm the day after that.
While human social existence by definition cannot attain the level of regularity and predictability found in the natural world, it does come close. This is because humans are veritable creatures of habit, predisposed to create and impose order and regularity wherever possible. Our professional, educational, recreational and familial pursuits and activities are ordered by daily, weekly, monthly and yearly routines, whether it is the fixed times and days of school, work or worship or when, where and how we shop, play and socialise.
With some tailoring here and there for individual predilection, most of us live by the predictable rhythms of personal, social and societal routine. It is this regularity, complementing the regularity of the natural world, that affords us the psychological security to not only live our lives in the absence of daily neurosis, but also to plan for the future, confident in the knowledge that such plans have a reasonable chance of success.
Today, however, we find ourselves living through the total disruption of the stability, regularity and predictability on which our psychological health depends. History may come to know this moment as the Great Disruption — one of those truly seminal events in human history that will animate generations of historians in perpetuity. The sun mercifully still rises and sets with its prior regularity in the Great Disruption, but the stability and predictability of our erstwhile social existence has been left in disarray by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Many have lost their jobs or businesses and find themselves in the grip or on the precipice of financial ruin. Many of those fortunate enough to still have a job find themselves working from the confines of their homes, once the domain of recreation and recuperation away from the pressures of work. Many have additionally been thrust into the role of amateur teacher, in an unprecedented mass home schooling experiment, valiantly and vainly attempting to manage the total collapse of the boundaries that once delineated work, school, recreation and home life. Individual movements have been severely curtailed and social interactions restricted. We can no longer engage in many of the activities that have long given meaning and order to our lives. We now live in the temporary, the ephemeral, the ever evolving and the perpetually changing. Our short-term future uncertain, our long-term future utterly obscure. Time is at a standstill.
We are all painfully aware that we are living through a moment of great political, social and economic upheaval. Our daily lives, right down to what we can do with our hands and where we can do it, are now dictated by a bipartisan, technocratic national cabinet, incorporating every blue and red state and territory government, the federal government and previously obscure medical experts. Bereft of the luxury of time, and thus of careful planning, the national technocratic cabinet (where every word that leaves a politician’s lips “is following the best medical advice”) no longer pursues policies; it announces sacrifices.
But we also live a less remarked, but no less profound, disruption. This is the disruption to our psyche that is a consequence of the myriad uncertainties, individual and collective, created by the wholesale disruption of our social and societal regularity — a regularity that many of us perhaps previously took for granted, but have quickly learned to mourn. Four newfound uncertainties, in particular, now impose acute and previously unknown psychological strain on peoples everywhere.
The first relates to the immediate health crisis. We must all now live with the immediate psychological pressure of knowing that each and every one of us, or somebody we love, could at any moment become infected with COVID-19, and while the statistical probabilities of dying from it vary according to age and co-morbidities (a new word with which we are all now morbidly familiar), no one is immune from being the statistical exception that proves the rule.
In addition to confronting the immediate risk of our own potential infection and death, we live with the attendant psychological burden of being capable of unwittingly transmitting death to others, as political leaders and health experts are wont to remind us daily, if not hourly. We also live with the uncertainty of not knowing the true scale and scope of our disaster. No two experts can agree on the disease’s mortality rate, as it is too early and the data too patchy for accurate diagnostics. We have some insight into a worst-case scenario in Italy and Spain, but remain uncertain whether Italy and Spain foretell our destiny or whether a more benign course, a la Singapore and Taiwan, is still in prospect.
The truth is that we cannot even be certain that Italy and Spain represent the worst-case scenario and Singapore and Taiwan the best, as the virus is a long way from running its full course and the variables of government policy, community responsiveness and demographic profile make predicting the course in its national particularity all but impossible. The horror story of Italy and Spain today might come to represent the best-case scenario in a month or two for many countries back stream. The worst-case scenario a month or two from now might prove to be unimaginably worse than either Italy or Spain today. So we are left in the certain knowledge that the virus will cost lives and disrupt every facet of our existence, but at the same time the painful uncertainty of not knowing how devastating the virus could turn out to be even a month from now, let alone three, six or twelve.
The second uncertainty relates to the sacrifices we are being asked — and in many cases, forced — to make individually and collectively. We simply do not now when, if and to what extent they will work. Will they help Australia avert the fate of Italy and Spain or is delaying the inevitable all one can hope to do under the circumstances? Will we even be in a position to know when, if and to what extent they have been successful? The sacrifices we are making are an investment promising an uncertain return. No one, including the experts, can say for sure when and if the sacrifices will be successful? Indeed, “success” is not clearly, nor easily, defined in this situation. One certainty is that the sacrifices will be painful and, once made, cannot be unmade — at least, not easily and quickly. So we sacrifice on trust: trust that our immediate suffering is both absolutely necessary and will prove efficacious.
The third uncertainty is a consequence of the disruption of time. In addition to the aforementioned uncertainties, we live in complete uncertainty regarding just how long we will have to endure our total disruption. Experts tell us it will be a minimum of six months, possibly twelve, but also plausibly eighteen. We do not know when and if we will overtake the mythic curve we are chasing. Nor what it will actually mean if we do, given vanquishing the curve does not ostensibly promise an end to our social paralysis, a vaccine being anywhere from twelve to eighteen months away. In the meantime, our lives are universally held hostage to the disrhythms of the Great Disruption’s temporal stasis. And so we must carry on our disrupted lives in suspended time under the spectre of death at the hands of a pandemic the deadliness, trajectory, duration and denouement of which we cannot know.
The fourth and final uncertainty is that we do not know who, what and where we will be once the Great Disruption finally ends and a new regularity emerges in its wake. Instinct and common sense suggest that we will be changed by the Great Disruption in ways large and small. It defies belief that we will be able to return to the old patterns of life, as if waking from a nightmare. An even greater uncertainty — and one that compounds an oversupply of anxiety — is that we have no way of knowing at this juncture whether the new post-Great Disruption order will be better or worse than the ancien régime.
We thus live with the tension of multiple plausible futures, ranging from short, painful and recoverable to long, drawn out and apocalyptic. Will the Great Disruption prove to be a moment of creative destruction, a period of intense, extremely painful, yet ultimately short disruption followed by an efflorescence of euphoria, optimism, social cohesion, innovation and creative energy leading to the dawn of a better world? Or, will it prove to be a Hobbesian vision of mass death, bankrupt states, economic ruin, political turmoil, mass unemployment, decrepit health care systems and traumatised societies which have lost faith in the old idols of prosperity, progress, globalisation, capitalism and liberal democracy?
The human psyche is not built to cope with the prospects of a future so variable and unpredictable. Our present lot, then, is to stoically endure the pandemic uncertainties of the Great Disruption in the hope that the new order that comes in its wake will be formed from the fruits of creative destruction, and not simply destruction.
Jonathan Cole is Assistant Director of the Centre for Public and Contextual Theology at Charles Sturt University, Canberra. He is the author of Christian Political Theology in an Age of Discontent: Mediating Scripture, Doctrine, and Political Reality.
This article was first posted on Monday 6 April at: