We’ve had to redefine what’s ‘essential’

If I were living in stage four land, I could, masked and alone, go to the supermarket. I could then pick up a script from the chemist, proceed to the grocery store for anything miscellaneous, fill up the car at the petrol station, make an appointment at the bank to see the manager, buy a paper at the newsagent.

Victoria police and military personnel patrolling Melbourne.Credit:Eddie Jim

I could mail a letter at the post office to my future self. It would be marked, Do Not Open Until 2022. The letter would begin, Dear Warwick, if you’re reading this, hooray, you made it through.

Lastly, I could go to the bottle shop and buy several bottles of wine.

Of course, I would have to do all this before curfew.

My retail destinations are all deemed by the state government as essential to existence in a pandemic.

There’s no argument with the list. What were once the humdrum activities to life are now the necessities – the essentials. As long as you can reach them within five kilometres of where you live.

They are, if one were to define their use by the Oxford Dictionary, "absolutely necessary, extremely important". Or to put it another way, they constitute the "fundamental elements or characteristics of something".

What we once thought were fundamental elements, such as eating out, going to the pub, exercising at the gym, playing sport or having the hair styled, are not. They are surplus to the requirements of suppressing the spread of coronavirus. They are essential in their not being essential.

It’s a rationing of movement, and that is essential in these times. It is no trifling matter.

Food, water, shelter. Security. Social belonging. These things are essential to a person functioning at the most basic level. One can sing that love is all you need, but your body may beg to differ. If your life was a garden, love would tend it, and from that, of course, it would blossom. But as an essential service, physiologically, first we need food, water, shelter. Then we can love.

The stage four restrictions have thrown light onto what has been taken for granted for so long, that is, this unprecedented time of peace in which generations have lived, has created a normality many regard as essential. These days are showing it is not.

It’s forced into everyone’s home’s the social contract called sacrifice for the greater good.

One can feel for the small trader, say, a hairdresser, whose business is feeling the effects of closure because it is now deemed non-essential, but who argues that in its service it does provide such a thing. Everyone feels better after their hair is tended.

But it’s really missing the point. At the risk of stating the obvious, everyone feels better alive. That would seem the essential starting point, and endpoint, to life in a pandemic.

Warwick McFadyen is a desk editor for The Age.

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