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Compassion got us through bushfire crisis, as it will coronavirus

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Cartoon by Mark David/@mdavidcartoons.

If the first few months of this year are anything to go by, 2020 is shaping up to be a blockbuster.

January was defined, and will always be remembered, as the month of the fires. When the longed-for rain finally arrived in February, it did so with floods that put out the fires but also added to the destruction. Then came March, and with it, the threat of coronavirus (COVID-19) and the "great toilet paper crisis".

It remains unclear why, when health authorities say we should remain calm, observe personal hygiene and be alert to symptoms, vast numbers of the population bolted out to their supermarkets and bought toilet paper. All the toilet paper. Toilet paper in quantities that launched a thousand internet memes.

The situation went from mildly perplexing to downright bizarre when a person pulled a knife in the toilet paper aisle of a Parramatta supermarket and police were called to cordon off the entire aisle.

Supermarkets across the country began to limit the number of toilet paper packs per customer.

Extreme times call for extreme measures, apparently.

Even more perplexing, however, is the complete about-face from the spirit that got us through the fires. A Facebook friend, who lives in my local district, posted a photo of her partner’s toilet paper stash, numbering 151 rolls in total. When I questioned why, her response was, 'it’s every man for himself'.

This comment, coming hard on the heels of the bushfire crisis in a district where it was community cohesion that kept individuals going, struck a discordant note.

From late November to early February the eastern edge of the Southern Tablelands was under siege from bushfires on all sides. Volunteer firefighters (including the partner of the aforementioned friend), SES personnel and wildlife rescuers all worked tirelessly and selflessly in dangerous conditions.

In the towns, people opened their homes and welcomed evacuees and boarded pets and other animals. Others worked around the clock to provide food and drink for the firefighters. It was this selfless spirit of pulling together, of knowing we were all in it together that kept people going over those weeks and weeks of smoke-filled anxiety.

Why is the threat of disease so different from the threat of a bushfire that the response is an individual compulsion to hoard supplies? During the bushfires, my local town came within a few hundred metres of being completely cut off from the outside world when roads north, south and east were all closed by fire.

Only one road remained open and fire came within 200 metres of closing that. Yet, there was no panic buying at the supermarket. No particular item was being hoarded. No one felt in danger of running out of anything. We were in it together.

The Government’s approach to COVID-19 is key to this conundrum. The Federal Government is threatening us with measures under the Biosecurity Act 2015 which could put individuals under ‘control orders’.

If a person is put under a control order, they can be forced into quarantine or to undergo treatment. The Government also has the power to forcibly detain people in fever clinics. The South Australian government is legislating for mandatory detention of anyone “engaging in conduct that creates a risk of spreading disease”. The Federal Government is also encouraging people to "dob in" others they may suspect of having symptoms of the disease.

These measures are more than just steps to control an outbreak of disease, which health authorities say can be contained through observing hygiene and common sense. The Government’s approach is a heavy-handed means of disseminating fear – fear of each other.

I am put in mind of Geraldine Brooks’ novel, Year of Wonders, based on the true account of the English village of Eyam, which, in 1665, voluntarily isolated itself when a case of the plague broke out in the village. No one left and no one entered the village during the epidemic which killed over 200 of the village residents, but – and this is relevant to our current situation – the townsfolk pulled together as a community to deal with the crisis and contained it from spreading further.

It’s a small wonder that when the Government threatens us with mandatory detention and tells us to spy on our neighbours, the response, far from the cooperative effort that got us through the bushfires, is a Hobbesian 'warre of every man on every man' – at least in the toilet paper aisles of the supermarkets.

If 2020 is to be our "year of wonders" (in the positive sense) rather than a blockbuster (in the disaster movie sense), Australia needs to get a grip and look again to what it was that got us collectively through our summer from hell.

Hint: it wasn’t the Government.

Dr Robin Tennant-Wood is a former lecturer in political science at the University of Canberra and freelance writer and researcher. You can follow Robin on Twitter @rtennantwood.

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