We are not yet through the pandemic – and for women in some parts of Australia, big challenges still lie ahead. But as we enter a new phase and perhaps dare to imagine a life after COVID, we take a look at how women have coped and how we might reshape our future lives.
Since the pandemic hit more than two years ago, we’ve learned a whole new vocabulary – lockdowns, quarantine, social distancing, flattening the curve, N95 masks, The Great Exhaustion.
We’ve also learned more about the strength and determination of women. They shouldered the brunt of the crisis created by COVID-19, working from home, schooling their kids from home, doing most of the domestic chores. Some endured violence and abuse while others experienced greater levels of loneliness.
Some women are still struggling with anxiety and depression as the weight of the past two years reveals itself. For most, this is a natural response to one of the greatest challenges of our time.
And while many of us may be cracked, we are not broken. Indeed, at least some of us are experiencing post-traumatic growth – displaying a remarkable capacity to come back from a most terrible event.
This is exactly what Melbourne researchers found when they surveyed more than 3500 people in Australia affected by the bushfires in 2019-2020 about how they fared in the face of a natural disaster.
The ‘Fire to Flourish’ survey, run by researchers at Monash University, found that rather than seeing themselves as ‘victims’ with reduced power to act, the survivors insisted they felt more confident in their ability to cope with whatever the future might throw at them.
Prof Jane Fisher AO, Finkel Professor of Global Health at Monash University and one of the authors of the survey, believes that women’s efforts during the years of the pandemic have been heroic.
Each has been touched in some way by COVID-19 and each will recover in her own way. Prof Fisher says that women are tired. They are also uncertain and a little puzzled about what will now unfold.
Until now there has been a sense that one day we will go back to what was normal. But we are not going back to that. The new normal is not going to be what it was."Prof Jane Fisher AO, Finkel Professor of Global Health, Monash University
This ‘new normal’ perhaps explains why this idea of post-traumatic growth has been gathering momentum around the world. It centres on the notion of fashioning a new life, or a second life, for ourselves after a traumatic event.
As we recover, we might develop a new understanding of ourselves, have a new appreciation of life, undergo a spiritual change, or see new possibilities in life, even a new way of living.
In one scientific paper, this reawakening was compared to Kintsugi, the ancient Japanese art of fixing cracked pottery. Instead of hiding the cracks, the focus is on re-joining the broken pieces with lacquer mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. When put back together, the whole piece of pottery looks beautiful again, even with the cracks that reveal its history.
It's a marvellous analogy for our lives as we slowly emerge from what we hope has been the worst of the pandemic. “There is a shift from six months ago,” says Alexandra Howard, who has more than 10 years’ experience in the field of post-traumatic mental health. “People are beginning to enable themselves."
What we have learned from other disasters is that most people who have the right access to support can cope. They are resilient. But this is not the case for everybody, and the recovery won’t be without its challenges.”Alexandra Howard, Director of the Disasters and Public Health Emergencies, Phoenix Australia
Ms Howard, who is director of the Disasters and Public Health Emergencies at Phoenix Australia, says there are people whose lives have been fundamentally changed by the pandemic – the nature of their relationships, their financial situations, their careers.
“It has made very lasting change and I want to acknowledge that for those people it is not as simple as going back to basics. It requires longer-term help.”
While we have all faced the same pandemic, each of us confronted different challenges. This was captured early on in a popular saying that we were all in the same storm but on different boats. Ms Howard suggests that while we are still in the same storm, the distance between the boats is now greater than before.
“…What we do know from disasters is that they increase the divide between groups, between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. Those groups that were marginalised before the pandemic, who had poor mental health or were under financial stress, are often the people who are further left behind during the recovery efforts.”
Dr Debra Parkinson, Adjunct Research Fellow with Monash University Disaster Resilience Initiative and Director of Gender and Disaster Australia, adds to this, warning that many people feel they are personal failures if they are not seen to be ‘resilient’.
“They are also blamed by not contributing to the iconic notion of the Australian spirit and the amazing resilience of Australians,” she explains.
We seem to ask everyone to be resilient regardless of their personal circumstances – what about old people, people with anxiety or depression and, of course, women in domestic and family violence situations?”Dr Debra Parkinson, Adjunct Research Fellow and Director of Gender and Disaster Australia
“A better message would be that the effects of disasters can be damaging and long-lasting and that when everything is gone – your career, your home, your marriage, your financial security, your health – we all need help. And ideally that help is available and there is no stigma in asking for it.”
Dr Parkinson says research has shown that disasters are a window of opportunity for change and that change can be progressive or regressive. “We need to ensure progress on gender equality is not lost as governments respond to the pandemic,” she adds.
There are, however, reasons for optimism. “There is a lot of support out there for women and speaking with your GP or trusted health professional is a good place to start,” says Ms Howard, director of the Disasters and Public Health Emergencies at Phoenix Australia.
She emphasises the importance of taking advantage of the respite. “If there is one message I would like to get across, it is that this is the time for women who have been busy doing everything to take a moment and take stock,” she says. “They need to look to their own self-care. Accept any offers of help. This is critical."
We are not at the end of the pandemic but for most, this is a slight period of relief. It’s time to pause, to take stock. Our adrenalin has run out. Let’s look at the things that can recharge us."Alexandra Howard, Director of the Disasters and Public Health Emergencies, Phoenix Australia
“The pandemic has forced us to think creatively about how we reconnect with people. Think about what we did before the pandemic to recharge. Remind yourself of what used to work for you. Make a conscious effort to remember the things you used to enjoy.
"Social connection is really important. And it’s not about just having a shoulder to cry on. Ask yourself who you can get practical help from. Where can you get trusted information? Who can you have a coffee or beer with and not talk about the pandemic?"
Prof Fisher says it’s important for women to understand that being resilient does not mean that they have to be constantly happy and confident. “It really means that you keep going, acquire and use some new skills, think about life in new ways,” she says. “It does not mean that you never feel miserable."
Like Prof Fisher, Ms Howard believes that by drawing on our own coping strategies, most of us will recover from the trauma that has been COVID-19. For those who continue to struggle, there is a range of support available. Talking to your GP is a good starting point.