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Grieving in the time of COVID-19

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(Image via pxfuel.com)

The cost of neoliberalism – which prioritises the dollar over human worth and has enshrined inequality – is seldom calculated in lives lost or plundered, writes Lyn Bender.

I AM WALKING the streets listening to Mark Seymour singing '... searching for the Holy Grail'. I am crying tears of sadness and rage for my mother who died on 16 April. COVID-19 meant that her death and her burial were made lonelier and sadder. In the end, she suffered without family beside her. I am left feeling that I should have fought harder for her.

I cannot lay all the blame at the feet of this virus.

Although the lockdown of aged care in Australia has meant that I didn't see my 100-year-old mother for the remaining three weeks of her life. Except for a 30-minute visit, hours before she died my siblings and I who, between us,  had visited her daily, were forced to abandon her. Of course, I had hoped there would be one more chance to see her. I am left with the deeply sad feeling that I let her down.

The coronavirus has exposed the cracks in our tenuously constructed, glued together, social customs and safety. We are so fragile that within weeks and months our world can be attenuated and held to ransom by a virus.

Of course, I can construct absolution for myself. I visited her for hours several times a week, over the last six years. Sometimes I stayed to tuck her into bed with one of the rugs she had crocheted, draped around her for comfort.

Nor can I blame the virus for the rigidity of Orthodox Jewish practice that meant that ten – men only – could take up the quota of those allowed at the graveside prayers — thereby excluding close mourners who happen to be female.

Nor can I blame the aged care workers and medicos constrained within a system that reduces care to a bare minimum and names signals of distress as uncooperative behaviour to be medicated:

‘The Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety’s Interim Report has found the aged care system fails to meet the needs of its older, vulnerable citizens. It does not deliver uniformly safe and quality care, is unkind and uncaring towards older people and, in too many instances, it neglects them.’

The coronavirus has exposed the cracks in our tenuously constructed, glued together, social customs and safety. We are so fragile that within weeks and months our world can be attenuated and held to ransom by a virus.

We have been forced to shut down our commercial systems to a minimum. Many of us are now reliant on the internet and "Zooming" work meetings, and planning coffee dates on Facetime. We are posting videos of ourselves defiantly boogieing in the lounge room.

Pets have become therapy and excuses for time outside.

We wait impatiently for a return to normality.

But normality has led us here.

Our neoliberal political doctrine, driven through institutions such as the IPA and sections of the media, has prioritised the dollar over human worth and has enshrined inequality. The cost is seldom calculated in lives lost or plundered.

Those most vulnerable in our community are now most at risk:

  • the homeless cannot stay home;
  • asylum seekers in detention are isolated but not able to be socially distant;
  • prisoners are at heightened risk of infection;
  • disabled people may be left neglected and isolated;
  • the aged and infirm may suffer neglect;
  • the elderly in aged care may be lonely and confused;
  • people who have suffered from depression, anxiety, or trauma may be at risk of suicide;
  • casual workers may be left financially insecure and at risk of homelessness;
  • Indigenous communities and minorities are at higher risk of racism and neglect;
  • rural medical services may be easily overrun; and
  • the poor are at greater risk of homelessness and despair.

The neoliberal conservative way now espouses a form of distorted Darwinism, portrayed as survival of the fittest. In translation, it has been posited as "herd immunity". This has been copied and pasted from what occurs when a high percentage of the populace is vaccinated. But without vaccination, implementing so-called herd immunity is wholesale slaughter.

The postulated herd immunity theory for COVID-19 – apart from its ruthless preparedness to sacrifice the aged and the vulnerable – rests on unsupported assumptions.

These include:

  • that recovery from infection confers immunity;
  • that certain classes of society have more worth than others; and
  • that an economy plagued with rampant plague would be more functional and thriving than a well-timed shut down with carefully planned exit strategies.

After anguished reflection, I chose not to go to my mother’s funeral. I had faithfully observed social distancing that meant I had not seen her in her last weeks. I was not going to squander that hard-earned social distancing equity on a male-dominated ritual that excluded me from my mother’s graveside.

Organised religion has failed me but my friends have not. I am communicating by phone and online with my children, grandchildren and friends. I am still one of the fortunate ones in this hard game of chance. There are some gains from this strange new existence. Perhaps we are learning what truly matters in our lives.

When the dust settles I am left wondering what the cost will be — apart from those who contracted this virus and their mourners.

My mother was a victim of a severely under-resourced aged care system. Three days before she died, medicos tried to persuade me that antidepressants were indicated to encourage "more co-operation". I argued strongly against this. A regime for pain management was at last agreed upon.          

When the dust at last settles, I hope we:

  • continue to spend less time on trivial and needless consumption;
  • spend more time communicating with and supporting each other in a meaningful way;
  • base our economy on equality and science rather than the profit of a privileged few;
  • transition, as determinedly as we did regarding the virus, to a decarbonised economy; and
  • we ensure government policy is responsive to the science, ahead of self-serving vested interests.

I hope we find a new normal in caring for the vulnerable among us. Otherwise, we have no worthwhile way of life to salvage and no civilisation to lose.

My mother complained that "they" – the aged care system – only cared about the money. On a corporate level, this was true. I acknowledge that many of her carers tried to offset this with kindness.

Alav Hashalom, my dear mother.

Lyn Bender is a professional psychologist. You can follow Lyn on Twitter @Lynestel.

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