Features Australia

Worse than the disease

Our reactions to the virus are ridiculous. And wrong.

23 May 2020

9:00 AM

23 May 2020

9:00 AM

The shock of widespread poverty and double-digit unemployment from the Covid-19 pandemic are predicted to cause a tsunami of mental illness if the Black Dog Institute’s survey of 5,000 Australians is an accurate guide. The ensuing drop in living standards will likely come at great cost to the mental health of the population. Depression, alcoholism and suicide are predicted to spike if the Great Depression is any indication.

The usual suspects in Psychiatry HQ have reacted with calls for ‘investment’ to manage the inevitable psychological fallout of lockdown. The Department of Health has allocated a proportion of a $1.1 billion Medicare injection to boost funding for services with a focus on preventing family violence and expanding telehealth capacity. This is all commendable, but no amount of Skype counselling or medication will bring peoples’ jobs back. The federal government’s Head to Health website tells us through the medium of (admittedly cute) cartoons that gainful employment is a vital ingredient for self-worth and a bulwark against mental illness.

Mental illness prevention is all the rage. Yet at the first scent of a pandemic, health-experts jettison shibboleths like the importance of keeping children in school. The same state and local governments who pushed for kids to remain home indefinitely were the first to seal off outdoor playgrounds with police tape on the highly questionable grounds of infection control. In banning this deceptively simple pleasure, they have robbed children of valuable educational activity. Group play is linked to cognitive and neurological maturation as well as to the development of immunity. It will be interesting to compare the educational and health outcomes of the cohorts of children across our states when the dust settles.

Other more insidious threats to adult mental health have arisen from the lockdown. Current governmental policy and rhetoric are creating neuroses at a population level. Since the virus first landed on our shores, politicians across both sides of the aisle have succeeded, under the guise of the precautionary principle, in spreading panic. Living in constant fear leads to excess cortisol secretion, exacerbating stress levels already heightened by a simmering cabin fever.


Premier Andrews now routinely berates Victorians like children for not sticking to his ‘rules’ lest (despite epidemiological evidence to the contrary) the catastrophic scenes in Europe and New York unfold in Melbourne. One wonders if Andrews wishes that the ‘Glorious Lockdown of ’20’ could last for the duration of his premiership. He boasted that he wouldn’t visit his mother on Mother’s Day ‘even if it was legal’. This is not just virtue-signalling, it’s virtue-showboating. Andrews must surely know that the negligible infection risks of a filial visitation are dwarfed by the benefits of human contact. Will he also refuse to visit his mother during flu season?

Across the Tasman where until recently the lockdown has been the most onerous, Jacinda Ardern told Kiwis to stay in their ‘bubbles’. Unlike Churchill standing atop the roofs of Whitehall during the Blitz, our leaders are more like the hapless protagonist in Rolf de Heer’s Bad Boy Bubby – too scared to step outside because they believe the air to be poisonous.

Equally concerning is the facility with which politicians have gained community compliance, even in the face of petty, unscientific regulations and unprecedented breaches of civil liberties. The surprising ease and speed with which they have imposed harsh restrictions (that disproportionally punish the poor) raises the spectre of a mass Stockholm syndrome; a phenomenon wherein captives identify and then collude with their jailers. The more dictatorial and arbitrary their edicts, the more these beloved leaders paradoxically earn the loyalty of their subjects. Why should beaches be taboo but department stores remain open? Why can I browse for shiraz in a bottle shop but not stand in a café to enjoy a latte? The rule-makers and policy wonks must be pleasantly surprised at how obediently we turned off our critical faculties.

We have now been trained to automatically adopt certain behaviours through operant conditioning. Clap for a frontline worker! Dob in a Covidiot! Stay safe! Stand on the masking-tape cross! Don’t golf with your mother! Embrace the new normal! It’s no wonder that an Observer poll in Britain showed that 80 per cent of those interviewed wanted restrictions on schools, pubs and restaurants to continue. I fear that many Australians share these anxieties. We have been scared silly through relentless and highly efficient programming. Reflexively sheltering in place until we are told that it’s safe to come out is not the way to keep an economy or a society functioning healthily, but it’s a great way to consolidate political power. To his credit, the PM has beckoned us to come out from under our doonas. The imagery here is more accurate than we might like to admit.

Australians are expected to believe that we are ‘all in this together’ while simultaneously being told to adopt measures that are explicitly designed to break down the simplest bonds of human contact. There is good reason to believe that normal social interaction can’t be magically reinstated. Have you noticed how people studiously avoid eye contact in shops, or when passing strangers during their daily exercise ration? Unironically the Health Department reminds us: ‘While we are keeping physically distant, it is more important than ever that we remain socially and emotionally connected.’ This is obvious nonsense. With each day of unnatural isolation our core identity and connectedness as social, tactile creatures are being chipped away. Post pandemic social-distancing will atomise the elderly and frail. Being locked in solitary confinement is a terrifying punishment for good reason. Loneliness is far more lethal than Covid-19.

Gladys Berejiklian stated that in relation to easing lockdown ‘You can’t just make a decision and implement it immediately’, but by failing to articulate clearly when relaxation of these rules is likely, and by constantly deferring these discussions, the dread of uncertainty will deplete both our mental health reserves and our good will.

Dr Carlos d’Abrera is a Sydney-based psychiatrist. Opinions are his own.

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