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A word to those who are about to lose their daily commute

Tuesday, 7 April 2020  | Rebecca Forbes

A large number of people in Australia are making the change to working from home. In mainland capitals like Sydney, Melbourne and Perth, dropping the commute will translate to an extra 66 minutes per person per day.

When you add the diminution of social activities and the reduced attraction of ‘just popping down to the shops’, there are going to be a lot of people with a little more time on their hands.

Of course for some people their days will be very full. Anyone who works in health and aged care is in for a busy 6-12 months, for example. And parents are wondering what will happen if the schools close and grandparents are in quarantine.

But for the rest of society there is, if we want to take it, an extraordinary opportunity to reconsider how we use our time in these next few months.

At the moment, many office workers have an opportunity to fulfil their New Year’s resolution of working from home. We are all hoping that this strange disjuncture of ordinary life will finally allow us to make some changes. My local bike shop, for example, has seen a lot of people planning to replace public transport or car trips with some long-intended exercise. Churches and community groups are considering their purpose and then turning their resources toward living that purpose out. Neighbours are exchanging phone numbers and checking in with older people they may have hardly spoken to before.

At the same time, we are living from one unexpected moment to another. We are deeply reactive. When we hear that an item is emptying out of supermarkets, we presume we might need it too. We are constantly waiting for the next measure, the next statistic, the next press conference. Businesses are prioritising the urgent over the important and anything that can wait is being put on hold.

It’s understandable. But now is the time to set habits for the long haul of this crisis and beyond. We need to begin as we mean to go on.

In the next few months, cracks will show in our society. And while it’s important that we address them in the short term for the sake of the people in our community who are most vulnerable, we need also to think beyond the immediate.

Imagine if every person who did have an extra hour in their day used it with purpose. What might that mean? Exercise is certainly important (this is a health crisis after all). Maintaining connection and preventing genuine isolation are also responsibilities we should carry out with great love. And as Christians we should be devoting considerable time to deep, openhearted prayer. But what else?

Focussing on the short term is our natural inclination. But being reactive, though instantly gratifying, makes us jumpy and divided in the long run. You and I are both less likely to work towards our common good if each of us is absorbed in reacting to our immediate, individual situations. We’ll find ourselves competing, not collaborating (something we’ve seen in the toilet roll aisles in the last few weeks).

Instead, what if everyone carved out some time not only to respond quickly to the cracks we see in our society with grace and justice, but to take a good hard look at them? And then to work out who we want to be next year? And the year after? To be ready, when the immediate threat starts diminishing, to begin rebuilding together, for the better?

Here are some thoughts on how we can do this:

  • We’ve agreed for many years now that the amount of futile treatment that goes on in ICUs is deeply problematic (where ‘futile treatment’ refers to treatment that has only a very low chance of achieving meaningful benefit for the patient). It’s expensive, dispiriting to medical practitioners and doesn’t bring quality of life to the patient. But Australia is a society with very low death literacy - we don’t like to face the reality that everyone dies, and we don’t like to plan for it - and, until now, we haven’t been able to address this issue. We are now going to see the impact of this. How will we respond? And what does this mean beyond the Coronavirus pandemic?
  • The gig economy was lauded as flexible, innovative and mighty convenient if you wanted to have dinner in your pyjamas. Casualisation has allowed businesses to scale up and down on demand. But now we find that more than 30 per cent of Australia’s working population does not have access to sick leave. What are the trade-offs we should make in the future when it comes to balancing optimism about ‘disruption’ (as in Uber and Airbnb) with basic protections to address the realities of life in a broken world?
  • Australians have become even less enamoured of experts in recent years. Now, suddenly, we are in a situation where we need to show a united front and do as we are told by the experts. And for the most part, we are complying. Is this an opportunity to apply salve to a fractured ‘post-fact’ world? How can we learn to gift our trust to institutions and experts again? And what do those institutions and experts need to do to be worthy of that trust?
  • Aged care is in the news again as one of the front lines of the pandemic. Before that, it was in the news as a result of scandals in the lead up to and early days of its Royal Commission. Are we willing to face the sacrifices required to provide a rapidly ageing population with wrap-around care? Would we pay more tax for that? How do we face the reform needs of this sector clear-sightedly when, in a youth-obsessed culture, we fear loss and dependence more than anything else?

  • CO2 levels are dropping as people stop travelling. But when we need to get back to ‘normal’, what do we keep and what do we jettison from the experience in order to combat climate change?
  • If schools close, the inequalities experienced by Australian children will become even more pronounced. Again, how willing are we, as a nation, to address these inequalities? And what do we want to accept as sufficient?
  • Only two months ago we were entirely focussed on the bushfire crisis. Now we are fully absorbed with this pandemic. How well do we do long-term recovery in Australia? How good is our national memory? How can we build our capacity to respond to multiple struggles, not only with generosity, but with genuine commitment?

Everyone will see different cracks and opportunities. These are just the few I have noticed over the last week. You may work in local government or see something play out in your church and think ‘hang on…’.

But whatever it is, imagine if each of us set aside just a bit of each of these strange days to think deeply about one of these problems. Imagine if we used our virtual catch-ups with friends and colleagues to test our ideas and ask the hard questions.

What if we had a weekly discussion with a few others who also care about that question, and started planning for who we will be, collectively, when we come out of isolation?

To do this, we would need to quarantine ourselves from the immediate for just a little while. But using even half of our commute time to think about the future could help us get to some extraordinary places and emerge from this season better than we went into it.

Rebecca Forbes lives in Sydney. She works for a health and aged care charity and loves language, people and the truth that sets us free.

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