Ingeborg van Teeseling

About Ingeborg van Teeseling

After migrating from Holland fifteen years ago and being warned by the Immigration Department against doing her job as a journalist, Ingeborg van Teeseling became a historian instead. She endeavours to explain Australia to migrants new and old at her website, and runs, telling people's life stories.

We wild social animals cannot be caged by the coronavirus

In order to navigate the coronavirus, we’re going to have to look after ourselves. As social animals, this could prove to be difficult.



Recently, I asked you to keep a close eye on our powers-that-be, just in case they use the coronavirus situation to advance their own ends. Now I want to focus your mind on something even more complicated: yourself. And I don’t mean just yourself. I mean myself, ourselves, who we are and want to be as a society.

After the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009, a lot of people who had gone through them were psychologically scarred. Not only had they lost a lot, they had also been scared and anxious for too long. Scientists, always interested in people’s coping mechanisms, started doing research. What they found was extraordinary.

People who tried to keep a stiff upper lip did generally badly, even years afterwards. People who had pulled up the drawbridge, trying to cope alone, were equally traumatised. But the ones who had reached out to others, the ones who had made the experience a community ordeal, were faring much better.

Scientists believed it was because they felt part of the collective and always close to people they could talk to, they were less prone to depression, heavy drinking or loneliness. They also felt better about themselves and the world around them. Less angry, more positive.

Although we tend to think of ourselves as unique, people are herd animals. Without the collective, we are nothing. We feel safe in numbers and being isolated kills us in the end. This is why a lot of Indigenous peoples in the world had one punishment worse than death: send a serious perpetrator away from the group. Banishment is death by a thousand cuts.

When we are unseen by others, we become unseen by ourselves and disappear into the rabbit hole. Let’s remember that today, and in the weeks and months to come.

Two years ago, an important book was published by social scientist Hugh Mackay called Australia Reimagined. He wasn’t talking about the coronavirus, of course, because that hadn’t happened yet. But his analysis is now even more salient than it was then. ‘Anxiety saps our energy’, he wrote, and that is because we’ve got ‘an obsession with security and control’.

The consequence of that is run-away individualism and social fragmentation, for which the only solution is connection.

Once we get out of our own heads, our individual problems seem less important. And when they seem less important, they are. That will give us more oxygen, more power and will make us feel better about ourselves, about others and the society we live in.

Also on The Big Smoke

My daughter has two small children, three and eight months old. She lives in The Netherlands, as you know by now. The country has closed childcare centres, public transport is very limited, and she and her husband are freelancers who can now barely work. You can understand the issues there.

My oldest granddaughter has recently decided that adults are fun, but that the world, her world, should be run by children like herself. She has also just acquired a new scooter, in her favourite colour, baby blue, with wheels that light up when you ride it.

Now she is cooped up inside, other children are off-limits and she can only use her toy when there is nobody on the sidewalk to admire her. What fun is that?!

Of course, the first day or so my daughter panicked. So, would I, so would you. But then she started to think laterally and with the community in mind. First of all, she decided not to start hoarding. Instead, she has set up a network of friends and neighbours who now cook for the crowd. Children get shared as well. In small doses and carefully, but a few hours a day the kids get a chance to run together.

There is always a parent with them, to make sure they don’t get too close, but at least they can interact in one way or another. In order to still be able to do some work, my daughter and her husband have now introduced a completely new schedule. In the mornings, my daughter works, while her husband minds the children. In the afternoon, it is the other way around. Normally, they tend to fight each other more, vaguely jealous of childless time. All of that has gone out of the window because they realise that in order to survive well, they have to work together. So they do. 

Thankfully, we see this kind of behaviour everywhere. Yes, people are hoarding toilet paper and pasta. But they are also singing together, one balcony to the other. They are beating up people who are coughing. But they are also setting up websites to help out the vulnerable, cook for others, help isolated people do their shopping.


People who tried to keep a stiff upper lip did generally badly, even years afterwards. People who had pulled up the drawbridge, trying to cope alone, were equally traumatised. But the ones who had reached out to others, the ones who had made the experience a community ordeal, were faring much better.


On one hand, there are people furious their cruise has been cancelled. On the other, more enlightened humans who try to support their local businesses by keeping up their patronage, who donate the price of their theatre tickets to the performers, who self-isolate without complaint. A few weeks ago, I was in Holland visiting my mother who is quickly disappearing into dementia. Almost immediately after I arrived back in Australia this week, the nursing home she is in decided that visitors are no longer allowed, to protect the patients and staff.

For my mother, who can no longer work a phone, that is a small disaster. She is alone and although people inside are trying to explain to her that we have not abandoned her, she forgets and feels exactly that: abandoned. So we have set up a writing campaign. People who haven’t written anything but SMS-es in years are now penning letters every day and accompanying them by real photographs, on real paper. Love, for each other and for the society that sustains us, feels so much better than fear. It is easier to sustain too.

Let’s keep it up.




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