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Being a good neighbour has never mattered more than now

Hugh Mackay AO and Andrew Rowe

The COVID-19 pandemic is shining a spotlight on many features of modern life that were overdue for re-evaluation: our excessive busyness, our greed, our profligacy, our self-centredness, and even our non-essential travel (especially by air).

But its most dramatic social impact has been to expose our unhealthy individualism, and to jolt us into recognising that we are all in this thing together. Pandemics are a potent sign of our interconnectedness and interdependency, and a reminder that our actions have consequences for others: “A butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazonian jungle and, subsequently, a storm ravages half of Europe,” says eco-folklore.

Before the pandemic hit, we were already becoming a more fragmented society. Many people were becoming socially isolated as a result of radical changes like our rapidly shrinking households, our high rate of relationship breakdown, and our increasing reliance on information technology – especially social media – at the expense of face-to-face interactions.

We don’t always realise the effects of such changes while they are happening. We were not thinking of busyness as a barrier to social cohesion, though it is. We were not thinking of social media as a way of keeping us apart, though that has been its biggest effect: ‘connected but lonely’ is an apt description for people whose online activities have crippled their social life.

Because we humans are herd animals, being cut off from the herd inevitably heightens our anxiety and increases the risk of depression. We were already experiencing an epidemic of anxiety even before COVID-19 arrived, and that was a direct consequence of our increasing social fragmentation.

And at a time when we’re understandably anxious about the effects of social isolation on ourselves, it’s easy to forget that many members of our community have been suffering the effects of social isolation, and even a sense of social exclusion, for years: people with special needs, single parents, refugees, the homeless, the unemployed, students living far from home, those living with mental illness, the frail elderly living alone.

At Havelock House, in the heart of Canberra city, many residents are highly vulnerable to COVID-19 and are living with high and complex needs, including mental health issues, which further isolate them from the local community and discourages them from reaching out for connection and support.

It is important to help these members of our community feel part of a safe and supportive neighbourhood, especially at a time of such disruption and uncertainty. Whether or not there are people who feel socially excluded living in our street, they are still, in a very real sense, our neighbours and therefore, because they are part of us, we bear some responsibility for their wellbeing.

Perhaps it’s time to sharpen our awareness of their needs, now that the negative health consequences of social isolation are becoming a real threat to millions of us. If we can’t offer direct, personal support, then this is the moment to give generously – in money or goods – to the charities that exist to support them. But it doesn’t end with a donation: it’s also up to us to help remove the barriers to social connection facing our most vulnerable neighbours – well beyond the life of this pandemic.

As we begin to experience social isolation – and, potentially, loneliness – on such a large scale, neighbourliness has never mattered more. This is the moment to respond, yet again, to our natural neighbourly impulses that always emerge when we are confronted by a catastrophe like a war, bushfire, flood … or pandemic.

The complication, this time, is that we can’t reach out to each other in the normal way. But that only increases the need for us to look for creative ways of ensuring that no one – no one – in our street or in our wider community feels lonely, even if they are alone.

The remedies are simple: we can write little notes and put them under our neighbours’ front doors, just to assure them that we are here if they need any help. We can phone, text and email each other more often than usual – not for any reason other than to stay in touch. Many of us will have time on our hands: perhaps this is the moment for nurturing neglected relationships.

When so much news is bad, we can create our own “good news”. Wave. Smile. Greet people across the fence or across the street. If someone in the street is having a birthday, get everyone to stand in their front yard and sing. Bake some biscuits and distribute them among neighbours. Offer to collect someone’s groceries. Pick some lemons or flowers and drop them off at the home of someone you don’t know very well. Give away some books.

The pandemic will end. But if, on its way through, it has expanded our understanding of what it means to be a neighbour, and sharpened our resolve to be good neighbours in every way we can, that might be some consolation. And if the experience of our own temporary isolation makes us more aware of what it must be like to feel permanently isolated, then we will have learnt an important lesson about our responsibilities to the most vulnerable members of our society.

Hugh Mackay AO, social researcher and best selling author Andrew Rowe, Havelock Housing Association CEO

Hugh Mackay AO is a social researcher and bestselling author, and the newly appointed patron of Havelock Housing Association in the ACT. Andrew Rowe is the CEO of Havelock Housing Association.