From a Psychological Perspective, it isn’t the pandemic you need to worry about.

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The Covid Pandemic has created considerable anxiety and this is no surprise to any of us. We wash our hands repeatedly, we check our distances. Vigilance spills easily over into suspicion: strangers and friends alike become potential carriers.

The emphasis that our culture has on protecting our health is pleasing: People matter, and they matter more than the minor things we some times get caught up in our society.

This past week 265 well credentialed economists signed an open letter to the Prime Minister and Members of the National Cabinet, encouraging them to make health, not the economy, a priority. I found this encouraging, all be it a little naive when considering the potential psychological impact of ongoing quarantining.

When we get a virus, a significant portion of us are physically vulnerable. The elderly, the friends and family members who have compromised respiratory functioning need to be protected. Not many of us need to be psychologically protected though. None of us blame ourselves or have our identity ripped apart if we get quite sick. We simply feel physically rotten and say, “I must have got it from such and such a place”. After all, we all get viruses from someone else, or something else…. a stranger who didn’t wash his hands, a tourist from another country, a cruise ship that just docked. The psychological impact of actually getting the Virus will be limited but the ramifications of Covid 19 such as job losses and social isolation, will potentially impact us all.

If there is a down turn in the economy, we as a population will be more fragile than we thought. Many of us pin our identities to our role in life. We see ourselves as providers, as dentists, pilots and academics. We get our sense of self and our value from the things we do. If these roles are taken from us, our sense of self and our value can be stripped from us in an instant.

It doesn’t have to be that precarious. The reality is that there is no better time to keep your heart in your mind.

What is in your heart is the way you define who you are and where you get your value from. If you define yourself by your profession and the economy stops you will lose your identity and your value. You don’t have to define yourself that way, and there is a great opportunity to reconfigure your psychological make up prior to the possibility of a recession.

You can define yourself in other ways. You are not your profession; you are a brother, you are a daughter, you are a mother, a father, a child, a friend and a neighbour. In fact any of these more relational references are much safer ways of defining yourself than your profession.

This is where people of faith are at an advantage. Well over half of the Australian population can find their identity in their creator. They don’t have to invest their identity in their position in society or the money that they earn. They say “I’m a loved child of God”. This identity will protect their heart from the loss of a job, or the loss of money. To be sure, losing a job and the income that goes with it will hurt, but it will not be heart breaking.

That is the naivety and the irony of the letter signed by the 265 economists. It is fine to say “focus on health” but we are a fragile bunch. We do indeed need to prioritise health over money, but let’s not be naive about it. If many of us lose our jobs there will be a new pandemic of people who have lost their identity and value. People who have not examined their hearts prior to a downturn in the economy, may end up feeling lost, they may find themselves questioning who they are and finding they feel worthless. I suspect, even some of those very economists who signed the letter will be examples of this.

Jonathan Andrews
April 2020.

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