COVID-19 and the Zen of iso, pivots and bubbles

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It is hard to believe that the index case of COVID-19 was identified only a year ago on 1 December 2019. The impact of the pandemic has been profound and unprecedented and will continue to shape our society for many years.

Little wonder then that ‘iso’, a uniquely Australian abbreviation of isolation, has been voted winner of the annual word of the year competition. Iso describes the social phenomenon and public health measure of remaining physically apart from others to help limit the spread of an infectious disease. The other contenders for first prize were bubble, covid-normal, and pivot.

The new words reflect at least three important lessons our COVID-19 experiences have taught us.

The first lesson is gratitude for things we may have taken for granted before. Travelling interstate or international, going to the gym, or simply meeting friends and family for a coffee and a chat. All our activities occur within invisible yet very real geographical and metaphorical bubbles.

The pandemic demonstrated to us just how fragile and precious our freedom is, and how quickly bubbles can contract or expand. Bubbles remind us that happiness is not getting what we want but loving what we have – and being grateful for it.

The second lesson is prioritizing relationships over resources and material rewards. COVID-19 provided us with ample opportunity to reflect on what we truly value as a society, and how we each individually decide our priorities.

For too long, modern society has disproportionally prioritized professional rewards like recognition, remuneration and promotions. Instead, what we required and relied on to survive and even thrive during the pandemic was our relationships.

Eddie Jaku, centenarian and author of ‘the happiest man on earth’ survived unimaginable horrors, persecution and suffering during the second World war. His advice for a happy life is that we ‘may always have lots of love to share, lots of good health to spare, and lots of good friends who care’.

The amazing Eddie Jaku, author of The Happiest Man on Earth

The third lesson is how resilient we are individually and collectively. The media often portrays the ‘human as hazard’ – flawed and prone to err. And, admittedly, the behaviour of a few individuals did have negative repercussions for others. However, the vast, vast majority contributed in a very positive way to the pandemic response. The true narrative is that humans are heroes.

We do not exist in ‘iso’. We live in complex, interconnected and highly correlated societal networks. Random acts of kindness have ripple effects through systems. Hidden contributions bolster our collective defenses. The organized benefits of policy makers, clinicians, carers and researchers benefit us all. Too many people to count stepped up when it mattered and acted heroically.

In summary, the COVID-19 pandemic reminded us of a Zen-like truth: ‘we are braver than we believe, stronger than we seem, smarter than we think and loved more than we will know’.

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