On a clear morning, our home in Melbourne’s middle north looks out on the sun rising over the Kinglake Ranges with red, pink and orange hues dominating the horizon. My first response is always a shout out to the Maker of heaven and earth for such magnificence. Of course, it’s a shout of the heart dare I disturb my wife’s or my neighbours’ important early snoozing.
It’s a 180-degree view from our rear windows. The Dandenongs are further south and sprawling suburbia fills out the foreground with houses of many different shapes and sizes and colours, and the green of Melbourne woven intricately into the picture. Terracotta and slate tiled roofs are plentiful, but tin is making a comeback.
In the middle distance, high-rise buildings at Heidelberg and Box Hill punctuate the scene, landmarks piercing the skyline. Closer to home, Northland Shopping Centre is prominent, stamping its brand and the brands of its retailers on the whole scene.
It was such a morning on Maundy Thursday last week, although something about it was different. The hum of suburban traffic, usually evident before sunrise and increasing in volume as peak hour approaches, was noticeably absent. Instead, silence accompanied this sunrise, coronavirus having so comprehensively stopped humanity in its tracks.
As I write, the global death toll from the crisis has passed 125,000, 61 in Australia – statistics we could not begin to imagine when immersed in the brilliance of a sunrise or the majesty of a mountain range.
What does one say to the imposition upon our lives that has immobilized the entire world, whisked away our freedoms, and to which the World Health Organization has allotted the monochrome, opaque-like acronym COVID-19 (coronavirus disease that began in the year 2019)?
In Australia, as in other countries, people’s responses have been unpredictable. Compliance with physical distancing and stay-at-home measures aimed at halting the disease’s spread has not been easy to enforce. Weeks into the crisis, hefty fines continue to be issued to those who appear intent on flouting the crisis rules.
Yet for a significant portion of the population, acceptance of the conditions imposed upon us has given birth to what appears to be a natural process of evaluating the worthwhileness, the relevance, of our pre-COVID lives. A global groundswell of yearning for a better world is taking shape.
It’s like our response is shifting from one of angst and dread and annoyance to one of hope and the possibility of a new dawn for humanity – one focused on the flourishing of ‘life in all its fullness’, as Jesus put it (John 10:10), and not maintaining our 500-miles-an-hour, progress-at-all-costs existence. Writing in the Financial Times of India, Arundhati Roy described COVID-19 as “the wreckage of a train that has been careening down the track for years”.
If past cataclysms are anything to go by, humanity is prone to forgetfulness when it comes to learning, including from past pandemics such as Spanish flu which killed 15,000 Australians and 50 million globally in the late 1910s. We may learn for a while and allow ourselves to be humbled for a season.
But faced with COVID-19, and given the priority of lifelong learning in our ‘advanced’ and ‘progressive’ society, is it possible for the crisis to become a catalyst for humanity learning lessons we will not forget and that will help us reshape how we live? Is it possible for us to experience a paradigm shift in our societal priorities – a ‘philosophical recalibration’ as I heard it called on ABC’s The Drum recently – and take it with us into the future?
Can we change?
Winding back a couple of weeks, it’s 5pm on Monday 30 March 2020, mid-crisis. With my wife Tara, I’ve been at The Salvation Army Preston in Melbourne’s north where we have assisted the Salvos’ community services team in giving care packages to people doing it tough. We home-delivered a few of them, all along keeping the 1.5m physical-distancing rule. We now head into the city on further Salvos’ business and decide to see for ourselves the ‘deserted’ Bourke St mall we’ve heard about in the news.
On any normal weekday at this time, the streets and sidewalks are crowded with people making their way home or to bars and cafes and restaurants to relax after work. But aside from street cleaners cleaning an already clean Bourke St and a handful of commuters making their way to the two tram stops along the mall, there is little movement and an eerie sense of void. The shops are either closed or empty of people.
Tram 86, headed for the northern suburb of Bundoora, arrives with two passengers aboard. Normally, there would be well over 100 with capacity on the Bombardier E-class being 210. Tram 96, headed for East Brunswick, follows. Same story.
We spot two people who are homeless and who have adopted the usual crouched position; faces down, handwritten messages and a makeshift bowl for donations in front of them. But there are no passers-by and their futile presence completes a scene that borders on dystopian.
We drive away from Bourke St in silence, both of us contemplating if it is possible for life after COVID-19 to change. Can the overarching stay-at-home action of this crisis result in people rethinking and reorganising how we live? Will we streamline work and life practices, and focus much more on the flourishing of humanity?
Will societal structures be flattened enough and self-indulgence be discarded enough and egos be humbled enough for us to possess the personal and collective will to stop homelessness once and for all and end poverty like we’ve been saying we will? Will we solve domestic violence and restore our fractured relationships and heal the experience of depression that seems to have spread like a disease of the soul among us?
Will we stop environmental decline before we arrive at the world’s end? Will we confront the demons of greed and anger and pride that have made us ‘victims of our own device’, and put them in their place for good?
A brighter future?
On Maundy Thursday, our church reflected on the night before Jesus’ death by crucifixion and what it might say to us amid crisis – what we might gain from Jesus’ example. Despite the onset of overwhelming grief as he contemplated the next day, and with the plight of humanity upper mind, Jesus knelt in Jerusalem’s Garden of Gethsemane and confronted the very human temptation to divest oneself of responsibility: “Not my will,” he cried out to God, “but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).
May the sun shine brightly on our post-COVID-19 world and may the sum of our lives rise to the highest possible good for the foreseeable and unforeseeable future of humanity. May it be accomplished in the greatest possible partnership with each other and with the most profound help from above. Jesus’ last words to us, according to the Gospel of Matthew, were: “I am with you always, even until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Let’s take courage.
Peter McGuigan is a Salvation Army officer currently serving in Melbourne. The writer of several books and a substantive body of feature and opinion articles, Peter has served in senior communications roles in The Salvation Army and has held several editorships. He holds an MA (Writing) and is a former President of the Australasian Religious Press Association (2008-2011).