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  • Sara Tiefenbrun

If the coronavirus pandemic is a sci-fi blockbuster, how does it end?

So, you feel like you’re living in a sci-fi movie and you’re finding the plot hard to believe.


Ordinary life has taken on a surreal and dark dimension because of the coronavirus pandemic. You’re wondering if you’re acting in a Hollywood blockbuster with a happy ending or a bleak and haunting drama you won’t be able to forget.


The truth is that we don’t know how this story will end. We aren’t able to press the skip button to find out. We have to live this drama in real-time.


Accepting a starring role


You may never have dreamt of starring in a film. The first step is recognising that like Truman in ‘The Truman Show’ the decision has been made for you. And now, your actions matter.


In the current situation, we are collectively the hero of the movie, who’s being called on to step up and act in a way we’ve never done before.


Act One: Setting the scene


This story begins in Wuhan, with the ophthalmologist Li Wenliang. On Dec 30, 2019, Li Wenliang sent a message to a group of fellow doctors warning them about an outbreak in Hubei province of a new version of SARS - a severe respiratory illness.


But his message didn't make the impact he wanted. The Chinese police arrested him and accused him of making false statements. He died a few weeks later on Feb 7, 2020, aged 33 years from COVID-19.


By Jan 25 Australia had its first case of COVID-19 identified in a man who had returned from a trip to Wuhan.


The inciting incident


A movie begins with an inciting event. This event is a turning point, which shows us that the natural world is broken. It presents a challenge that forces the hero (in this case, us) to act.


In early March, COVID-19 cases sprung up around Australia like spot fires.


The majority of us kept working and taking our children to their schools. We didn't want to admit the ground was disappearing under our feet.


The problem with real life is that danger doesn't come accompanied by an ominous soundtrack, so we don’t know how close we are to danger.


As the danger moved closer, universities delayed the start of term, music festivals were cancelled, and the government announced it’s first stimulus package to deal with the growing pandemic.


On Sunday evening Mar 22, working parents listened anxiously to the news trying to understand whether or not schools would be open, or safe to attend, the next day.


This was the moment many of us had to ask ourselves how much we trusted official advice? And was this now the moment for us to stand up and protect our children, no matter how hard it felt to accept?


Workers looked to their workplaces for guidance about what steps to take next.


Looking at our ancestors for guidance


Like many people, I’ve experienced anxiety in life, most of it unrelated to actual danger. It's hard to identify when action is necessary and not an overreaction.


I’ve reflected often on the stories of my ancestors – those who survived the Holocaust. It was 1938 when shops were destroyed in Kristallnacht that Jewish people in Vienna realized danger was imminent.


That's when my great-grandparents knew it was time to send their children away to keep them safe. My grandfather (who was aged 17) went into hiding. His parents put his 12-year-old sister on a train operated by the Red Cross that went to the UK. The Nazis tried to set the train alight as it left the station.


This story taught me that parents could be called on to make hard choices to protect their children. Regular life can change and safety can evaporate. Moments that require courage don't announce themselves. They can be subtle to detect and full of risk and vulnerability. There’s no time to get changed into our superhero outfit.


If we are the heroes of this story, our ancestors are the mentors guiding us through it.


As the American Buddist teacher, Jack Kornfield puts it; “We’ve done this, as human begins, before. We’re survivors. We have generations of ancestors behind us cheering us on, and saying , ‘Yep, we’ve lived through some tough stuff too.’”


Act Two: Living with the unknown


In the traditional three-act structure of stories, act one includes the setup, exposition and plot point one (in our case home isolation – Level 1).


The second act begins now.


Fixing a pandemic is a huge challenge that we Australians haven’t experienced before. We’re learning as we go.


We can't jump straight to silver linings. We have to let the enormity of this situation set in.


Brene Brown is a world-leading scholar who studies shame and vulnerability. She notes that as a society, we prefer to skirt over failure. We like to talk about rising from the ashes, but we don’t talk about the actual pain of hard times.


That’s not an option anymore. We have to feel the turmoil and the fear and grieve for what's being lost.


Living in a time of huge transition


The last week has been a weird scramble to maintain business as usual whilst our children are from home school.


It reminds me a little of the first week after you arrive home from hospital with a newborn. Everything is different, even though it’s the same physical space. We’ve lost our freedom to choose what we want to do.


At work:


Until so recently, Australia was a place where hard work could translate into business success, regardless of your background. Now jobs, businesses and entire industries are being decimated.


Some predictions are that Australia will have the worst economic downturn since the 1930s. Our tired brains struggle to keep up with the news.


For families:


We now live in a world where our children can't hug their grandparents. Flights are grounded; people are unable to attend funerals for people in their immediate families. Family celebrations are on hold.


Bit by bit, we are beginning to feel the scale of the pandemic we face and it’s consequences.

Act 3: Shaping how the story ends


The next act will be a test of our character as individuals, families and as a society. The tension will build. Our story will follow the curve of the virus. If the rate of increase is too step and our health systems are overwhelmed the knock-on effects will be far-reaching.


We can't fast forward, but we can help shape the ending. We do this by focusing on the stories and ideas that demand that we step up and transform into better people, rather than those that paralyse us with fear.


What will remain?


We don’t know when this crisis will end, but we do know that it will end.


There’s every chance that the hero of this story will emerge transformed.


In the process of living through this drama we’re likely to discover what matters most.


What meaning will we find after this story is told?


- Will it be a reshaping of the dichotomy between work and home?


- Will it lead to better care for the more vulnerable amongst us?


- Will we look at our teachers, nurses and doctors with renewed respect?


- Will we appreciate the need for a robust public health service and a national broadcaster that people can trust?


- Will leaders be able to earn trust again as they work to protect their populations?


- Will we appreciate how inter-reliant we are?


- Will parents learn it’s okay to disappoint their children?


- Will people reconnect with their neighbours, their local shops and grow more produce at home?


-Will the story of perpetual 'busy-ness' give way to more value in presence?


Or once this episode passes, will we quickly return to the way we were before?


This ‘choose your own adventure’ is a dark reality but as Australians, we have the power to work together to deliver the ending we desire.


Both photos by Daniel Cheungon Unsplash





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© 2020 Sara Tiefenbrun.