By Kim Taylor
Over the past month, I’ve spent a large amount of time in many homes around Australia. You might be wondering how I’ve managed to get around the current restrictions on social gatherings… But actually, thanks to the digital acceleration forced by the pandemic, and our ability to use online research methods like video conferencing, webcams and smart devices, focus groups of diverse individuals can come together to tell me how they are thinking, feeling and handling life during COVID-19.
Fear, uncertainty and individualism
In the last week of March, I, like everyone else, was caught up in the craziness of it all. The focus group became an outlet for individuals to talk through their confusion, uncertainty and pain. Individuals across Australia grappled with being ripped away from routine, figuring out how to adjust and trying to find some semblance of control by consuming COVID-19 news 24/7. In that first week, participants were a collection of strangers trying to find a way to make sense of their new reality.
Transitioning and the re-emergence of collectivism
In the second week, as we entered April, anxiety and panic found an unhappy partner in sadness. Some were still running on adrenaline, juggling long work hours with the demands of home life. Others were lost on how to fill time while facing economic uncertainty. Each story was unique, but difficult. Share houses of 20-somethings where everyone had lost their job; older Australians scared to leave their homes; parents with reduced incomes battling the stress of home schooling while wondering how to pay bills; small business owners having to lay off staff and close their doors. It was difficult for participants to engage with each other as the stress of individual circumstances was too consuming. It was impossible to take it all in. And that is when loneliness started bite.
The ‘New Normal’
By week three the tone had changed. Where in week one, an hour swiftly past and there was barely a pause from individual downloads, suddenly the novelty of meeting new people and hearing from others was a welcome lift from loneliness. A group of strangers was referring to each other by name and wanting to interact independent of moderation. A teacher from mid-west WA wanted to talk about a new-found love of gardening with a stay-at-home dad from NT. An 18-year-old high school student mourning parties with friends was happily reflecting on how fun it was to talk to a 24-year-old speech pathologist, for no other reason than it was nice to see a new face. An immuno-compromised South Australian was thanking a regional Victorian for her (and everyone’s) efforts in “sticking with isolation – it’s so hard, but I’m grateful because it could save my life.”
Week four has since come and gone, and with it another change in sentiment. We are feeling more optimistic – collectively hopeful. The anxiety is still there and we are worried about the long-term impacts of isolation on mental health, and the social and economic fallout, but there are green shoots.
The emotional journey I witnessed in my weekly focus groups was mirrored in Quantum’s AustraliaNOW tracker, which last week saw a decline in extreme negative emotions such as anxiousness and uncertainty.
Participants were proud of our efforts as a nation, proud of each other for our collective achievement in ‘flattening the curve’, and that makes us feel hopeful for the future. Where in late March, we were worrying about ‘“others” partying on Bondi’, we’ve decided to turn away from “sensationalist media” and focus on how well we’ve done – together. There is a new confidence in each other.
And to now…
Week five, the last week of April, is upon us. The week will bring new conversations and no doubt unveil new challenges. We are by no means off the rollercoaster, and no recovery is a straight upward trajectory, but I expect that our appreciation for hearing from strangers and our gratitude for one another will remain.
Rationally, we knew that to beat COVID-19 it would take a collective effort. But closing our worlds down to just our household and existing friends and colleagues can make it hard to truly think of others. I’ve been asked about Australian traits – how do they play a role in how we are dealing with this situation? Optimism and resilience are certainly key cultural values. And three in four (77%) Australians agree ‘Australia is a resilient and resourceful nation and will prosper despite short-term challenges’. But broader than that, it’s our faith in “other Australians” that is important in helping to get us through.
AustraliaNOW is Quantum’s tracking study that provides an ongoing understanding of Australians’ attitudes to and perceptions of the COVID-19 crisis.
Using cultural tracking expertise and leveraging 25 years of insights generated from AustraliaSCAN, AustraliaNOW provides an ongoing understanding of Australian’s attitudes and perceptions to the COVID-19 crisis.
Capturing emergent themes, how they co-exist and inter-relate, AustraliaNOW explores and helps define what this means for organisations and brands, assisting them to prepare for and navigate the days, weeks and months ahead.
It involves 300 interviews per day, 5 days per week, closely tracking the rapidly changing sentiment of Australians. Key findings are published weekly and available on request (contact: [email protected]).