Paul Valent

Paul Valent

Consultant liaison psychiatrist, psychotherapist, traumatologist,
Co-founder and past president Australasian Society for Traumatic Stress Studies,

What have we learned so far?

The corona pandemic has thrown our normal lives up in the air. How the pieces will settle is to a large extent up to us. Taking a look at how we got to where we are may help us choose a better future.

Initially we heard reports from China and Europe of ever-increasing numbers of deaths. The pandemic was likened to the Spanish flu, the Second World War, even the plague and the Apocalypse.

As infections and deaths reached Australia, we were faced with existential questions, such as do we let the virus rip through the community toward supposed herd immunity? But if in the process suppose ‘only’ 1% died, that would mean 250,000 deaths, which would almost equal three times the number of Australians who died in the two World Wars. Such attrition, accompanied by overwhelmed health workers who would have to decide who would live and who died, was unacceptable.

Human life emerged as the paramount value. This meant that energy and resources had to be directed to the whole population, especially the most vulnerable, such as the elderly and the sick.

Other major decisions followed. The years-long ideology of a budget surplus crumbled within days into the greatest government debt since World War Two. No more waiting for resources to trickle down from the wealthiest minority; the poorest were pumped with money to keep them afloat. At a similar unparalleled pace, straitened health services were suddenly supplied with new hospitals, beds, and intensive care units.

From espousing capitalist, small government, laissez faire values, the government somersaulted into an economically directive quasi-socialist government. In the face of government unison with the opposition and the unions, right wing Coalition doctrinaires fell silent.

Actually, there was a general swing away from doctrinaire positions. No more spin. No point scoring off political opponents. The swing was toward facts and reality. Doctors, epidemiologists, and scientists replaced politicians, industrialists, and bankers as companions to daily prime ministerial press conferences.

Unlike in the climate change and bushfire crises, people were relieved to find the leadership they craved. As they came to trust the government to have their welfare at heart above political, ideological or religious considerations, like their leaders, citizens in their millions also changed almost overnight.

In their trust, people gave away their rights of assembly, work, learning, religious congregation and privacy- values for which they had fought for centuries.

What can we make of all this?

First of all, we realised that the overriding issue was survival. Our leaders, the economy, our values existed to serve survival, not the other way around.

It was in the service of survival that previously stubborn leaders quickly threw over their ideologies, which were exposed to be remnants of needs from a distant past, inapplicable currently. On the other hand, acknowledgment of the naked, even if unwelcome current truths, gave the rational mind its best chance to deal with current survival challenges.

We learned that the best leaders, those whom we trust with our lives, for whom we are willing to sacrifice, are concerned for the nation, not for themselves. While acting decisively, they are also inclusive, they take advice, they acknowledge facts, and they are humble and truthful. Leaders with opposite tendencies have led to tragic consequences.

We in Australia have been relatively fortunate, but we are still in turmoil. How will the chips fall?

We may nostalgically seek to revert to the past, forgetting its problems. Also, some dark spots from the current crisis may become ominous clouds. We may become more tribal, nationalistic, inward looking, and contemptuous.

Or we may use the current crisis as an opportunity to carry over the energy, flexibility, cooperation, and regard for facts, to deal with other problems and crises, such as climate change and social inequality.

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