The Coronavirus Crisis – Desperate Times Call for Disparate Measures

We live in unusual times. 

A month ago, in a different world, EG was in the throes of a festive world record attempt for the largest human image of a house. We assembled over 600 people in a town square and raised over $100,000 for youth homelessness. 

Today, the very same event would be illegal. 

It’s surreal how drastically the world can change and how quickly. No doubt for many it feels disorienting, disturbing and unsettling. 

But it’s not the first time we’ve suffered a crisis, and odds are it won’t be the worst. In the twentieth century alone, we endured two world wars, the Great Depression and the Spanish influenza – a flu epidemic that killed 50 million people in 1918-19.

So we can take some consolation from the fact that this too shall pass. And with Australia’s world class medical system, we can hope and expect that the number of deaths suffered on home soil will be modest. 

That said, the financial, emotional and psychological toll of this crisis will be immense. I will address the business consequences of the epidemic in a future blog – but my focus here is on how best to respond to the human impact of the crisis (which is still very much in its infancy).

Anxiety, loneliness and depression are terrible enough in ordinary times, but far more so in a period of uncertainty and rising unemployment. And spare a thought too for children in troubled marriages or homes where domestic violence is the norm. 

Here’s what I’ve asked the EG team to focus on during the “self quarantine” period: 

1. Reach out and touch somebody.

To borrow the lyrics of the great Noiseworks mega-hit, we should all “reach out and touch somebody.” I’ve asked the EG team to call one person they know each and every day during the quarantine period and just ask: “How are you doing? Is there anything I can do to help?” 

This is a time to call distant relatives and even friends you may have lost touch with – people you may not have spoken to for months or years. And especially people living alone and single parents. You’ll be surprised how welcome your call will be and how uplifting (to them and to you). Remember: there are very many people in self quarantine that are feeling isolated and lonely, wondering if anyone cares about them. Be the first to let them know that you do. 

And don’t ask: ”why aren’t they calling me?” The answer is simple: because you’re a leader and leaders lead. 

2. The courage to be kind.

One of my favourite lines of poetry was penned by an obscure, mostly mediocre, Australian poet (and jockey), Adam Lindsay Gordon: “Life is mostly froth and bubble, two things stand like stone. Kindness in another’s troubles, courage in your own.” And it takes courage to be kind at such a time as this, because the natural human impulse in a crisis is to hoard. 

But now is a time to be attentive to the stories of the people around you and to adopt the motto of Mother Mary MacKillop, Australia’s only saint: “Never see a need without doing something about it”. If you do that – if you really pay attention to the needs of people around you and resolve to do something about it (something, not everything) – you escape the prison of self obsession and self worry and experience the freedom of being part of something bigger than yourself. 

Kindness is even greater than donating to charities, because it’s personal. As such, it delivers not only material succour but, more importantly, emotional succour. Take for example the story I heard from one EG colleague who a week ago went to have a haircut at his usual hairdresser in the city. He asked how she was doing and found out that this would likely be her final pay day. She was being stood down. She held back tears because she was a single mother and was unsure how she would survive. He took time to reassure her and later (together with the rest of the team) funded a month’s worth of food to be delivered daily to her home. It wasn’t everything, but it was something. And it was personal. And it meant a great deal to her. 

3. Life is a mirror. Try smiling at it.

All this talk of infections and death rates is a very serious business. But life is a mirror, it reflects whatever you give to it. To do serious and important work does not require a serious countenance all the time. We must find time for pranks, smiles and a little laughter. 

Social distancing makes having fun a little harder to come by, but that just means we have to try a little harder. To this end, we’ve decided at EG to replace our Friday drinks with ”compulsory fun” sessions. We break the team up into random groups of five and get them to play fun, interactive games like Drawful (a brilliant online game which is a cross between Pictionary and Balderdash). 

Another way we are looking to bring a little cheer to the world is by organising candle lit, live music acts at our residential communities – to be enjoyed from the comfort of your balcony. We held one such event recently at Bosco, EG’s residential development at Five Dock and we were overjoyed by the response. No crowds, just three talented jazz performers sending joyous music into people’s homes. And what’s more, we’ve helped create an online community for the residents that we hope will be a well spring for many more community initiatives. 

The final word goes to… Muhammad Ali.

In 1975, Muhammad Ali was invited to talk to a group of Harvard students. At the end of the talk, someone shouted: “Give us a poem.” He paused for a moment, looked up and said: “Me. We.” This couplet became the shortest poem ever composed in the English language. 

I can’t be entirely sure what Ali meant by his poem, but for me it means this: we all must start with “me” – self discovery, a sense of our uniqueness as an individual. But to complete the journey, we must all end up at “we” – togetherness, a sense of community. Indeed, on reflection, our happiest times are those when we’ve had an intense sense of “we” – when we’ve felt like we belonged to a strong culture with a compelling purpose. 

Now, more than ever, we need “we.”

Then again, some of those who were there that night believe Ali actually said: “Me? Whee!” Come to think of it, that’s just as good.