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Personal Freedom vs. Community Safety: Where do we draw the line during a global pandemic?

Personal freedom matters. A lot.

The freedom to make our own choices in life without fear of prejudice or judgment. The freedom to choose the where, the what and the how we go about our daily lives is something as Australians we can happily (mostly) take for granted. Or at least we used to.

But when something as disturbing as a global pandemic comes knocking on the door, we find ourselves being asked to put those personal freedoms to one side, for the common good.

While we might enjoy working out at the gym, meeting up with a mate at the bar or travelling to unexplored destinations, if this could potentially increase the risk of transmitting a potentially lethal virus, we defer these normal activities.

If you’ve been one of those asked to work from home, you may have travelled through the entire spectrum of emotion over the last few weeks and now feel wrung out. The initial shock, surprise and anxiety wrought by the threat of the pandemic that led to the rapid adoption of new ways of going about our daily lives has been enormously tiring.

Not only have you had to adapt to create a working from home space within your home, but you may also have had to share that space with your partner or your children, all vying for bandwidth and your attention.

The surfeit of negative media 24/7 bombarding us with updates of horrors from around the world, healthcare workers in hazmat suits, critically ill patients with their faces made fuzzy to avoid recognition adding to our concern that our own lives are in danger.

This constant threat places an immeasurable burden on our cognition (the ability to think and make decisions) and is mentally exhausting. Except sleep is elusive as you toss and turn, worrying what the future might hold and wishing some of this horrible uncertainty could be resolved.

Several weeks in and you’re getting the hang of the ‘new normal’. Working from home doesn’t feel so abnormal any more. You’ve got your regular Zoom calls, Microsoft team meetings and you’re working really hard. Heck, you might have even found you’ve become super productive getting more achieved in three days than you would previously take a week to cover. But then again you might not, waging a daily battle against procrastination, loss of motivation or even boredom.

If you’re missing your colleagues and friends and if you’ve been separated from your loved ones, the pain of not being able to see them, touch them, kiss or hug them can be unbearable. It hurts. Because as social beings our relationships are essential to our physical, emotional and mental well-being.

More people are reportedly feeling depressed. Their resignation to being stuck in this limbo leading to the question, ‘When will this ever end?’

The problem is, nobody knows.

You can have all the models and predictions and panel discussions you like but we still don’t have the answer because this is a novel virus. We have no ability to know how things will pan out or what the final outcome will be, although what we do know is, we have to take the ongoing threat seriously for however long it takes.

Which is a deeply unsettling position to be in. The longer we remain in lockdown, the more people are laid off from their work, even with the lifesaver of Jobkeeper and Jobseeker that is available in the interim or hopefully until September, the great unknown remains.

This ongoing threat is potentially damaging to us as humans.

A prolonged sense of disconnect and loneliness is leading to greater social distress. Loneliness kills through the negative impact it has on our physical and mental health, and cognitively we can go into a steep decline if we lack sufficient meaningful social interaction to stimulate us to keep abreast of what’s happening in the wider world.

Social isolation studies have revealed how people, whether as astronauts in space or research teams in Antarctica, experience what is called The Third Quarter Phenomenon. What you and I might call ‘cabin fever’.

We’ve put up with the lockdown, the need to adjust pretty much everything about how we live because we ‘get’ how important it’s been to flatten the curve.

And we’ve done well.

The problem now being that sense of anticipation that we’re over the worst and now can look forward the shackles of restriction being steadily released as we return to some kind of normal, whatever that might look like for you.

Which is where expectations change.

Maybe you’ve noticed. We’re starting to question the speed of easing of restrictions. The need for different areas to adhere to them at all. The concern that if we fail to move fast enough the economic downturn will be even worse than expected.

We want our personal freedom back; to be able to go to the beach, enjoy a BBQ with our friends, head off to the bush for a walk.

Our perception of Covid-19 being that it’s now less dangerous, we’ve dodged a bullet, and all will be well.

Except it’s not.

Covid-19 is still as much a threat as it always has been in the short time we’ve been exposed to it. We don’t have the answers to fully understand how to effectively restrict transmission as more people demand their freedom. We don’t know how long it will take before an effective vaccine is readily available to keep us safe. We don’t have an effective treatment though many scientists and researchers are working around the clock hoping to find a solution soon.

So much remains unanswered.

Which is why discussions around personal freedom while pertinent, need to be held against the new backdrop of what is best for the common good?

Because over the last week or two questions relating to personal freedom are rising to the fore. Questions around, should wearing bicycle helmets be an individual choice? Should team players be allowed to make an individual choice around receiving the influenza vaccine? Should going back to work in an office and using public transport still be the expected norm?

Are we now in this third quarter where morale and mood have dropped? Where frustration and emotions are starting to dictate the decisions we take and the feelings we have about the decisions being taken by those in charge?

Personal freedom vs community safety. It’s a tricky one to navigate.

What will be the best way forward to redesign our future and thrive?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on ‘where to’ from here.

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