Storytelling in turbulent times: the narrative of Australia’s coronavirus crisis

In December and January (i.e. less than two months ago) 12 million hectares of Australia burned. Over 1 billion animals were killed. More than half of Australians were worried for their own safety, or that of loved ones.

No one had heard of coronavirus.

Back then (i.e. not so very long ago) the world watched as Australia’s bushfire season went from a worrying early start, to major flames in the state of NSW, to out-of-control burning across most of the eastern part of the country. Our main narrative was the evidence of climate change.

There were sub-narratives of the impact of climate change on vulnerable people, the difference in perception between city-dwellers and those in regional areas, and a government’s capacity to handle crisis.

Our later stories talked of community support, tourism and mental health.

“So many people I’ve spoken to in that community talk about you and the role you played and the leadership role that you took. They think you saved lives probably by being such a strong leader in that community at that time.”

Hamish McDonald, host of Q&A to Cheryl McCarthy, on March 2 2020.

Sometimes those narratives were twisted.

“We have faced these disasters before and we have prevailed, we have overcome.”

Scott Morrison, SBS News.

Scott Morrison’s words were technically true, but there’s an ick factor. I think it’s because the story he pushes ignores other concurrent, and critical stories, such as the likelihood of present trauma destroying not just physical communities but future social cohesion.

“I think we were just saved by the wind that day. And I hate to think… what would have happened if that wind change hadn’t come and we had those 5,000 people there with us to be safe.

Cheryl McCarthy, Far South Coast Director, Surf Life Saving NSW, speaking on Q&A March 2 2020.

Stories ripple, the waves of narrative run deep

Last week I returned to clown practice with “From the neutral mask to the red nose: the journey of the poetic body and the essence of physical comedy”. World-renowned theatre educator (and, as it happens, scientist) Giovanni Fusetti delivered this 5-day training as part of a longer Australian program.

On Monday (i.e 8 days ago), Giovanni’s country, Italy, had locked down a quarter of its population due to COVID-19.

By Friday (3 days ago) the whole of Italy was shut down. Hospitals were making the terrible decision to prioritise care for those most likely to survive.

As Australia cancelled large events, almost everyone in our training (primarily performing artists and casual workers) saw their income disappear for the foreseeable future. The training group became a curious petri dish in which to see our internal processing of this unknown crisis.

Kimberley Twiner, who has been studying with Giovanni for some time and is a performer and educator in her own right, reminded us:

“It’s a privilege to be a storyteller in turbulent times”.

Kimberley Twiner – Producer, Director, Performer PO PO MO CO and Melbourne Physical Theatre School.

I wrote that down.

Being a storyteller is a privilege and a responsibility.

We all tell stories.

Storytelling is actually a complex word. The term covers everything from the tales told around a fire and mulled wine in an Edinburgh pub, to fables we narrate to children to teach moral lessons. In the 2000s, ‘storytelling’ has been inextricably linked to business and marketing. 28-year old entrepreneurs open 5-minute investor pitches with a carefully crafted story. It helps their audience (and people with the money) “get” the problem their startup “solves”.

When coronavirus, as we understand, first appeared, China closed down entire cities. We wondered (and doubted) Australia or other western countries could ever be successful. Our images were of sad faces in masks and grey building in grey cities.

In Australia you might say we are lucky. We’ve had time – to get our health care services ready, emergency legislation under consideration, and to think through the social impact of an entire nation isolated at home.

Importantly, Australia has had time to consider our collective narrative of COVID-19.

My main news sources are The Guardian and ABC; occasionally BBC and New York Times (all online). I hear different stories to those who tune into 7 News, read The Sunday Times, get their news from Facebook, or WhatsApping friends in Wuhan through a VPN. I’m a freelancer so my stories are different to friends with permanent jobs and sick leave. I live alone in a CBD apartment so my stories are not those of people I know with house, garden and family in the suburbs.

These are individual stories, but we also have collective stories.

In Australia, an early one was, “Coronavirus is a mild illness in most people”. I assume this was to reassure the population.

However, the unfortunate implication (sometimes explicitly, though I suspect unconsciously, stated) was, “It’s just older people and those with health issues who are likely to die”. (Not to mention experts like Norman Swan now say healthy people in their 30s and 40s are dying in China and Italy.)

Imagine being one of those people, affected by that story.

As we watch Italy make impossible choices about who to intubate, imagine (or perhaps you are one of the people and don’t need to imagine very much) knowing that if you get sick because this disease spreads you may not get the care you need to stay alive.

Collective stories reinforce or evoke deeper narratives.

That collective “Don’t panic” story fuels a narrative that certain individuals are unworthy, disposable.

In my contact improvisation community, we seemed to agree to consider “the right thing to do”. CI involves a lot of sweat and physical contact so it’s a high risk activity. So sure, cancelling our jams and classes before Australia enforced social distancing protected us individually. But mostly, we saw what was happening internationally and knew that restricting our activities could help give our health care system time to cope. We’d save lives.

Now we have to ask a different question: how do we stay connected as a community that has always existed in physical space? March 17 2020 is the first Tuesday in 27 years that Melbourne’s Contact Improvisation jam has not run. Until coronavirus it had run every single week – rain, hail, shine, Christmas Day, Easter, New Year’s Eve.

Imagine taking away the main source of physical exercise, social interaction, creative practice and human contact for an entire community.

One story can go so many ways. It’s our responsibility to pay attention to how we put a story into the world, and what we do after that.

I also work with vulnerable populations (in fact I’ve been one of them) so I am the colleague who grumbles if you come to the office sick. I know what one spluttering worker with “important things to do” can do to the lives of those with compromised health.

Personally, I love the coronavirus narrative of thinking about the impact for, well, everyone.

Those with full time permanent jobs may seemingly have an easier transition with the social isolation of coronavirus, working from home and spending more time with family. However, if folks who still have a livelihood in the times of COVID-19 aren’t out spending money, their local cafes and small businesses will fail, changing the social fabric of that community. It may take months of years but a diminishing economy may affect their employment.

Casual workers have had their stories told too. We realise it’s not just bad for them, but all of us: someone on low pay without sick leave is more likely to go to work, in exactly the kinds of places where germs spread.

Australia’s coronavirus narrative is composed of many stories, that help each of us make meaning.

If we shut down cities it might sound different to Wuhan. The music we play from our windows would probably feel different to the Italians, and our applause for health care workers will echo slightly differently to Spain.

It’s not that one story is correct and the others are wrong. What we should be asking is, “How do our many stories, contribute to the narrative that helps us all go, together?”

“The size of Australia’s bushfire crisis capture in five big numbers” ABC March 5 10.14am Accessed here March 15 18.04
(2) Scott Morrison urges Australians to celebrate ‘amazing country’ as fires rage SBS News, 01/01/2020 Accessed 16/3/20
Image Donatello Trisolino

Published by rachaelwest

Strategic Speaker Coach | Founder | Engineer

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