Letter from Australia
On the scale of catastrophes and irresponsible hype
On April 25 we celebrated ANZAC Day, the annual commemoration of Australia’s and New Zealand’s participation in the Gallipoli campaign of the First World War. The campaign failed in its objectives and our troops withdrew having suffered terrible losses over several bitter months of struggle. There can’t be many countries whose patriotic focal point is a military loss, yet that is true of us: hundreds of thousands, including a large number of young people, flock to dawn memorial services all over the country (in every year but this). There is no event in the calendar that moves so many people so very deeply.
We lost that battle, but ultimately the War was won, as everybody knows. But at what cost! Sixty thousand Australians died in the Great War at a time when our entire population was only about six million. There is not a town, not a tiny village, that does not have a War Memorial listing the names of those who went and those who never returned.
Imagine the impact on society if you can. In 1917 the average daily death toll was about 55. Throughout that war it was government policy to advise a dead soldier’s next of kin personally, rather than by telegram: priests and ministers were asked to take the news to those who had lost their dearest. In my own family a widow with two sons in the Army saw the Presbyterian parson coming up the path one day and went out to meet him: “Which one of my boys is it?” she asked. “I’m so sorry, Mrs. Campbell, but it’s both.”
We are in the midst of another crisis. In terms of numbers killed, it pales into insignificance in comparison with the horrifying losses of two world wars and subsequent conflicts such as Korea and Vietnam, but it’s very real for those who are affected and for those who are afraid. There is a great deal of fear abroad, a lot of frightened people, and it would be arrogant and heartless to make light of their feelings. Equally regrettable, though, is the distress of the unemployed, those who have lost their jobs at least for a while, and possibly for all time if a profound recession eventuates. They too are fearful, not so much for disease as for financial disaster.
When the tumult ends, some urban regions of the world will undoubtedly show a grim spike in the number of deaths at this time, while others will report no significant change. The politicians will shelter behind the claim that if they hadn’t done something it would have been much worse. Even if true, has the price been too high?
Speaking of politicians, at least two state premiers in Australia have made statements to the effect that Covid-19 has been the worst catastrophe their states have ever experienced. Are they so very ignorant of history, or are they hyping the present crisis in order to vaunt their own role in getting us through? Either way, it diminishes their claim to sound judgment.
One could wish that the media had shown more responsibility. Many people lack the information to process statistics, so it is sheer irresponsibility to report, for example, that the number of dead in the US now exceeds the death toll in Spain, without pointing out that the US has six times the population. We are rarely given comparative figures, either: in tiny Tasmania, in the course of an ordinary year, 12 people die every day on average. The Covid-19 deaths must be viewed against that backdrop. The media have contributed greatly to the distress of the community by withholding context.
Perhaps I am dabbling in pop psychology, but I suspect that there is something else going on here. Is it possible that in the collective mind of a community that has lived through decades of comparative peace there is a kind of a longing to share some of the risks that their forefathers faced, and to be worthy of their great example? Expressions like “we can get through this together” (I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard that, particularly from young people) seem to be evocations of that ANZAC spirit.
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