• Lara Flanagan

Identity and the pandemic

2020 will always be for me the year of the pandemic. The year that made many of us question our identity. Who am I? What sort of person am I? What is my identity?

I have always known I am Australian. A very proud Australian. Someone who loves this land that Dorothea Mackellar so eloquently described. A sunburnt country that is also a land of beauty, of terror, of droughts, and flooding rains. This strange, beautiful, and somewhat frightening country has created a nation of larrikins, of people who are happy to lend a hand, to laugh, and to have a go. Aussies like to take the piss, to self-deprecate, and while they laugh, they usually extend a hand to those who need it more.

My identity is that of an Australian; it is also primarily tied up with being a human. Then I am a Tenterfieldian who has hankerings for Italy. I used to say I was a Queenslander, then a New South Welshman living on the border, but I don't want to use that identity anymore. For me, being human is what being an Australian is all about.

There are a couple of moments that stand out for me as being Australian. The first is listening to Australia win the America's cup with their crazy winged keeled boat. I was with my parents on the Hawkesbury River, and we listened to the race on the radio. When Australia won, the air filled with hooters and screams as Australia won an unwinnable race. Later Bob Hawke, our then Prime Minister, would exclaim, "Any boss who sacks anyone for not turning up today is a bum." So messy, so Australian, and so wholly lovable.

Later I remember the floods of 2011. The kids and I were living in a tiny apartment on the Gold Coast, and it rained throughout December 2010. It was impossible to dry anything; everything felt damp, and then one day, it stopped raining. There was an eerie silence over SE QLD as, under clear blue skies, we waited for the flood. By the 13th of January, there would be a devastating inland tsunami in Toowomba, which would be catastrophic for Toowoomba and the Lockyer Valley. Then the Brisbane River catchment sunk under filthy and never-ending floodwaters.

I will never forget Anna Bligh's speech. She was majestic. Her voice broke, she cried, and she gave inspiration to many. "We are Queenslanders. We're the people they breed tough, north of the border. We're the ones that they knock down, and we get up again." Her words were not divisive. Instead, they would inspire the formation of a mud army, where borders were not an issue; instead, they inspired all Australians. A mud army formed, and people came from all over armed with gumboots, gloves, buckets, and shovels.

2019 for Tenterfield was the year of drought and fire. Most Australians remember the fires of late 2019. For us, it began in February 2019. For months we dealt with dust, ash, smoke, fear, and the sounds of choppers in the air. I think it was September time when I was volunteering at the Driver Reviver station in Wallangarra in QLD that yet another fire threatened our town. The QLD Fire trucks that kept heading south were the stuff of legends. One truck stopped and asked where the fire was. I pointed to the cloud of smoke on the horizon and was shocked that they did not have GPS or some sort of technology in their trucks that would lead them to the fire. As one RFS bloke said to me, "Nah mate, we don't have money for that sort of stuff." They headed towards the smoke armed with the smell of an oily rag.

A grey nomad couple stopped for a cuppa and told me they were heading to Tenterfield for six weeks to help with Blaze Aid. I asked them where they were from, and they told me no fixed address. They were simply Australians, going where they were needed.

When I heard that the gods of Facebook were going to stop allowing Australians to share news articles on Facebook this week, I was rather glad as only Pollyanna can be. I don't use FB for personal reasons but rather for work. Occasionally though, a news article will pop up, and I will read it. Sometimes I read the comments, and afterwards, I feel like I need to have a good scrub because of the sheer lack of compassion reflected in those comments.

This week there was an article from the ABC about how New South Wales families were begging the QLD Premier to allow their children to come home for the holidays. The first visible comment said, "well, if they loved their children so much, maybe they should home school them." That comment came from a woman who obviously had a great understanding of the challenges faced by rural families and was overflowing with humanity. When did we become so heartless and so cruel? When did we forget that first and foremost, we are humans, and secondly, we are Australians?

Now we have a QLD Premier, who proclaims, "in Queensland, we have Queensland hospitals for our people." I could not help but think of when Archie and Rissie were diagnosed with MEN2A and needed an operation. We went to Westmead hospital in Sydney primarily because Queensland did not have the expertise to deal with their condition. Westmead hospital welcomed us, and the kids could not have got better care because we were holders of an Australian Medicare card. A representation of the incredible privilege that is the Australian health care system.

I have so many vivid memories from last year. One of them is a photo that showed a planeload of fire-fighters arriving from South Australia to fight the fires that raged on the Eastern coast. There were no borders, there was simply this innate understanding that we were Australian, and as Australians, we lend a helping hand.

Australia is unique. Our first-nation people are one of the oldest living cultures in the world. Waves of immigration shaped our country, where people from all over the world came because they could have a better life in our land. We are a lucky country. Unfortunately, unlike fire and drought, pandemic seems to have touched a profoundly ingrained fear in many and made them forget compassion, empathy, and what it is to be Australian.

We have a premier who tosses a ball in her hands with a smug air of condescension while allowing the AFL elite to frolic in pools under a very strange quarantine. Meanwhile, others try to access health care and their kids while questioning what it means to be Australian.

I think right now, we can forget about our politicians, but perhaps as Aussies, we could remember that primarily what makes us Australian is our humanity, our empathy, and our humour.

We live in a challenging country. It is one that is harsh, frightening, incredibly beautiful, and so very, very lucky. If only all of us could remember that to be Australian is to be human. Without compassion, we are nothing.

So what is my identity? I am Australian. I am hopeful. I am a Pollyanna. I like to think I have an Italian soul. I am a seeker of beauty. I am a mother. I am a dreamer. I am a traveller, a photographer, a cook, and a teller of stories. But most importantly, I am human. The fact that we are human first and foremost, is perhaps where we should all begin.

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