Have we developed ‘Greater Good’ fatigue?

Blog post by Professor Tracy Smart AO, our Public Health Lead in the ANU COVID Response Office
24 August 2020

Early last week I watched the Four Corners program on the Melbourne COVID-19 outbreak. It laid out the flaws in the system, both the pre-existing issues and the many points of failure, that contributed to the outbreak. But amongst this analysis, two quotes stood out for me. The first was Professor Raina McIntyre who, in laying out the case for hard hotel quarantine for overseas returnees, got to the crux of the matter - that we needed it because "We can't rely on everyone to do the right thing". The second was from besieged Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews. As the outbreak spread and he contemplated putting the entire city under Stage 3 restrictions, he made a plea to the public: "The government cannot do this on our own. We need every Victorian to play their part".

My conclusion was that the reason we needed strict quarantine in the first place was because we can't trust people to rise above their own self-interest and do the right thing; we also couldn't trust people to do the right thing in the quarantine situation; and that when we needed the public to play their part in stemming the outbreak they didn't on the whole rise to the challenge. So while there were systemic failures, there is also a fundamental problem with people understanding and behaving in way that benefits the 'greater good'. In other words, the problem is us.

Public health 101 says that in order to control a pandemic, everyone must play an active role in protecting and preserving the health of the public. Its in the name! And yet after a very good start the people of Victoria and many others right across the country have failed at these basics. The question is why? Why is it that, when threatened with a major unfolding disaster, such as last summer's bushfires and the early days of the pandemic, we all respond with an extremely strong sense of community, but now seem to be motivated by self-interest? Are we suffering from "greater good fatigue" or have we reverted to type? I think the answer is that our modern western society has evolved to put too much emphasis on the individual above the collective; the 'me' above the 'we'.

It didn't seem like that when I was growing up in a small country town. Here the sense of community was strong and it was the norm to prioritise things that would benefit all. I then entered military service where again it was the expected that we put serving the nation above our own needs. But things have changed across the broader Australian society. We live on the fringes of Asia, where collectivism rules, but we are even more heavily influenced by our more distant neighbours across the Pacific and to the north, where individualism triumphs. Individualism works for many people in good times. After all it's the key to key to 'American exceptionalism' and the 'American Dream'. But even in the best of times it leads to a widening inequality gap and in a public health crisis its an absolute disaster. For evidence, just look at the contrasting performance during the pandemic between most countries in Asia and the US.

To not only survive but thrive in a global pandemic, we need to return to this sense of community. It's not easy to do in such a slow burning crisis but if not now, when? And just how do we harness all that 'greater good' mentality that is on show during an imminent disaster and extend it to get us through this period in history? I think we start with going back to the principles we clung to during the bushfire crisis and in the early days of the pandemic. These are: look after yourself; stay connected with family and friends; help those who need help; support local businesses; put the health NEEDS of the nation above your own individual WANTS; stop looking for someone to blame and the government to tell you what you should do; act responsibility; and above all, be kind. And if we collectively reset our mindset to community over self, we may just end up with a better society in the longer term.

Being a relatively new member of the ANU community, I have been pondering how our culture can empower us to overcome this greater good fatigue. Can we draw from our strengths and sense of purpose as Australia's national University to not only bind together in this time of crisis but to role model for others what a strong community looks like, even though we have been splintered to the four winds for much of this year? Tweaking our strong ANU culture to help us thrive while living in this strange new COVID world is no doubt a great challenge, but one I look forward to working on in the coming months in my new role as Public Health Lead for our new COVID Response Office. But it will take the whole community, both those who have returned to campus and those still working and studying from afar, to effect this change, and I would love to hear your ideas on how we might best do this.

Until next time.