My mother told me there’d be days like this

Just before his unexpected death in New York City in 1980, John Lennon sang those strangely presentient words, “Nobody told me there’d be days like these.” The song was released posthumously, Lennon’s last ode to a fractious world, but 40 years on, how true were those words?

The cover of Time magazine three years ago

For a long time commentators have warned that the greatest threat to our civilization is not nuclear war or even the depletion of the Earth’s finite natural resources, though those threats are real enough. While billions have been spent every year maintaining armies we hoped would never be used and engaging in environmental talk fests that seemed to go nowhere, comparatively little has been spent building up a surplus of hospital buildings, medical staff and supplies and preparing the world for the predicted and seemingly inevitable fight to come. The fight against a new virus against which the human race has no natural immunity and the potential for a subsequent collapse in the existing social order.

Covid 19 may be that virus, or it may not. It’s still too early to say but ultimately it may be dependent on whether the slippery nature of the Covid 19 virus allows it to mutate into something more deadly in the coming months, a doomsday scenario that would not be without precedent. The so called Spanish Flu of 1918-19 returned in multiple forms before it was finally spent, killing an estimated 50 million people along the way and right now, even the best case scenarios are predicting the deaths of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people from Covid 19 worldwide.

Private cemetery in a garden, probably Yallambie, by E L Bateman, (Rex Nan Kivell Collection, National Library of Australia).

The fact is, as a species the human race has always lived, and died with the ever present threat of a shortened life from disease. The devastating effect of Smallpox on Indigenous people in Australia at the end of the 18th Century is one example of what can happen to a community when it comes into contact with diseases against which it has no natural immunity. The Black Death in 14th Century Europe is another. It is only in modern times that, with advances in medicine, we have developed a mistaken belief in our invulnerability. But the Asian Flu of 1956-58 killed two million, the 1968 Hong Kong Flu killed another million while AIDS is thought to have killed about 36 million at its peak. The victims of any of these plagues are a danger of being just numbers when presented on a page but just think about it for a moment. Each number represents a life lost, the suffering of a real person, each with their own story to tell and with friends and family effected by loss.

The easement behind the Yallambie shop, April, 2020

The threat to the human race from Covid 19 then is quite clear but as we go into lock down and into something not far short of Martial Law, it is the threat to our society and social order that is the elephant that has been crammed inside the isolation room alongside us. With businesses closing all around Melbourne and people who have never been without work suddenly out of work, the fabric of society itself suddenly seems very fragile. Last night when I stopped outside our local shop to admire the morale of a group of kids still willing to play basketball outdoors and to ask their permission for a photo, it was disconcerting to be suddenly met by the passing constabulary who appeared as if out of nowhere, questioned me and directed the group to break up and be on its way. The “Stay At Home” directive from the Victorian Government which began on 30 March means just that, unless you have a valid reason for being out, and already there have been reports of scores of people being fined for ignoring it.

For a nation that values its freedom and civil rights so highly there is something unnerving, almost sinister about this. Maybe it says something about this country that, while sales of toilet roll in Australia have soared, in the United States, it is the sale of firearms that has seen a similar growth. I mean, I think I know what people will do ultimately with all that stock piled toilet paper, but what are they going to do with the guns? I have family in the US but I worry and thank my lucky stars I live here.

Chef Terry taking a break outside Li’s restaurant on Main Rd, Greensborough, February, 2020.

Only two months ago I wrote a post about a much loved local dumpling shop while urging support of Asian businesses. That post seems an age ago now. Like so many others, the shop is closed with the owners struggling even to source the ingredients for their products at a price that matches their business model. It is a story being repeated all over Melbourne and all over the world in countless ways every day as the snowballing effects of this crisis unfolds.

It is a crisis but if you think about it, maybe it is a crisis with some unexpected benefits. People asked to stay at home for work or because they have no work to do are reconnecting with their loved ones and home lives in ways they have probably never thought of. Suddenly a job seems no longer so important, a car is just a tin box on wheels and a house is just some walls keeping you from being outside in the sunshine. It’s what we do beyond those walls, in our hearts and in our minds I mean that really define us. At last people who have never had time to stop and think are doing just that.

Yallambie Park
Oak avenue
Misty morning with Hoop pine
Soccer ground

The streets of Yallambie are quiet now. Cars remain parked in their drives and the flight paths above are devoid of the planes that have previously always crossed our skies. In the evenings you can still see family groups in the Yallambie parklands, all of them maintaining the correct social distancing from other groups for fear of encountering the heavy hand of the law. (To avoid another run in with the authorities, photos used here have been recycled from previous posts). I see couples walking hand in hand, pushing a pram or walking a dog and think, ‘We still have our families. They haven’t managed to ban them yet.’ This after just six days, but where will we be in six months? Will the old order prevail or is this just a moment in time before we have a chance to reinvent ourselves and make a better world?

The current economic model of the Capitalist society emerged from the theories of men like Adam Smith writing in the 18th Century. Smith, the so called Father of Economics had a lot to say in the Scottish Enlightenment on the proper ordering of society but who says his ideas were necessarily the only right ideas? We have fought wars both real and Cold to maintain the ideas first espoused in “The Wealth of Nations”, but is a system where half of the world’s net wealth is held by just 1% of its 7 ½ billion people necessarily a fair society?

In 1968 John Lennon appeared in a now largely forgotten anti-war film, “How I Won the War.” In an eerie foretaste of his real fate a dozen years later, Lennon’s character is shot in the chest near the end of the film and turns to the camera dying, breaking the third wall with the words, “I knew it would end this way.” In those words is the ultimate truth. Life is by its very nature transitory. These days might seem like strange days right now but I want to believe that some good will eventually come out of living and in some cases dying in them. We cannot see now the shape of the new world that will eventually emerge from this but as Lennon once said, we can Imagine.

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