State of kindness: how crisis brought out the best in us

Living Well | Story: Larissa Dubecki | Photos: Shannon Morris and Jason South | Posted on 18 June 2020

The Victorians who made compassion contagious.

Kindness, as you have probably discovered by now, is contagious. 

Whether you’re delivering groceries to an elderly neighbour, a restaurant owner donating food to temporary visa holders, or a landlord reducing the rent of a newly jobless tenant, you are part of what has been dubbed the kindness epidemic. 

The rolling crises of 2020 – the bushfires followed closely by COVID-19 – have been the worst of times for many of us, but they have also seen the best of human nature come sharply into focus.

Alex Dekker’s charity serves about 1000 meals a day to frontline health workers.

Alex Dekker’s charity serves about 1000 meals a day to frontline health workers.

The support for fire-ravaged communities in the aftermath of the summer bushfires that engulfed the eastern seaboard showcased Australia at its finest. And while it’s difficult to forget the unedifying fights over toilet paper that characterised the early days of the coronavirus crisis, they failed to set the tone of the pandemic. Our shared anxiety has found its best self in expressions of solidarity. Neighbours previously on nodding terms are connecting for the first time, the isolated elderly are being checked upon, and apartment buildings are newly collectivist communities sharing freshly baked bread, wine and toilet paper. 

If only we could show this new world order to the late British prime minister Margaret Thatcher who famously declared, “There’s no such thing as society.” 

People are going out of their way for each other, but Alex Dekker is going further than most. In mid-March, as Australia watched coronavirus turn Italy into a disaster zone and waited for COVID-19 to crash on our shores, the 20-year-old cooked a lasagne for his sister and her housemate, both doctors on the crisis frontline. He was then inspired to extend his offer to all health workers via Facebook, and the response was overwhelming. Now, Alex Makes Meals is a registered charity that serves around 1000 meals a day and has expanded to other capital cities, and Alex has abandoned his university degree to devote himself to it full-time. 

“I meant to help 10 people… I didn’t expect to help 10,000,” says Alex. “I always knew people are hardwired to look after each other, I just never expected it to be me in charge of something like this. But it’s insanely fulfilling.” 

Alex’s initiative has tapped into a groundswell of people wanting to do something for others. “Our active volunteer community is more than 700; we don’t actually have space for everyone.”

In a world where physical distancing now dictates our human interactions, digital technology has proven itself the 10-lane superhighway back to community. Informal WhatsApp groups and more polished web-based groups are giving people an easy way to ask for help or to offer it, and to share information and resources. 

It was toilet paper, ironically enough, that led Aamir Qutub, 30, the founder and CEO of multinational digital firm Enterprise Monkey, to launch Angel Next Door in early April. 

“One day I ran out of toilet paper, so I rang my sister, who lives close to me, and she came to my rescue,” says the Geelong resident. “I started thinking about people who don’t have anyone to help them or who don’t know their neighbours and are too shy to ask directly for help. I wanted to think of a way we could help each other in a way that is discreet and private.”

It took Aamir a week to launch the website that links people who need help with their neighbours. Users who register themselves as an ‘angel’ receive an email when someone in their neighbourhood posts a request. 

Aamir Qutub, with his wife Sarah Niazi, connects neighbours in need with helpers through Angel Next Door.

Aamir Qutub, with his wife Sarah Niazi, connects neighbours in need through Angel Next Door.

Leeroy Kerr has been helping people navigate Centrelink during the COVID-19 crisis.

Leeroy Kerr has been helping people navigate Centrelink during the COVID-19 crisis.

“I felt I needed to walk the talk,” says Smith Family volunteer Sue McAllister.

“I felt I needed to walk the talk,” says Smith Family volunteer Sue McAllister.

Angel Next Door, which is supported by RACV through its partnership with Neighbourhood Watch Victoria, now has 5300 registered users. About 300 people a day get help for things ranging from buying groceries to an elderly woman seeking an affordable washing machine (“a man got one for her on Gumtree and delivered it to her”). The average response time to a request is just 30 minutes, and each one receives on average seven responses. 

Should we be so amazed at the camaraderie to come out of coronavirus? An extensive RACV study into the values of Victorians found that kindness is part of our social contract. More than 2000 people surveyed between November 2019 and February 2020 revealed that the state’s core values lean heavily towards “self-transcendence” – demonstrating care for others, society and nature. “The survey is a clear indication that the Victorian community is very conscious of social stability and wellbeing,” says RACV’s senior planner Stuart Outhred. 

“The research is basically saying that if we are asked to look out for each other we will. These values have helped us in complying so far with health orders and are quite likely to serve us well over the next few months and years.”

But let’s be selfish for a minute. Studies consistently reveal that volunteering and altruism bring benefits for the giver as well as the receiver. Helping, volunteering, sharing and donating are associated with a strong sense of purpose, which is key to positivity and mental health. And ‘helpers’ high’ is a very real thing; acts of altruism spark the release of feel-good hormones.  

“The idea is that the giver receives more than the recipient,” says Dr Terry Bowles, associate professor in educational psychology at the University of Melbourne. He says our induced period of aloneness during the peak of self-isolation is likely to bring out more good than bad. 

“When we spend time alone what comes to the fore is often to do with what we might do better if we had the opportunity. I don’t think we as a society will quickly default to the way we were. Those who have been really touched by kindness will find it difficult not to give and get the support they have been experiencing.”

Helping others has become a way of life for Leeroy Kerr, 39. The former corporate recruiter recently abandoned the high-flying life to study community services. “When you’re walking down Collins Street with your Chanel handbag having just done a big deal and you don’t care, it’s time to cash in your chips,” she says. When lockdown began in earnest, she saw how many of her friends were struggling to enrol in JobKeeper and JobSeeker and put out a call on Facebook to help.   

With a ground-floor balcony looking directly onto (St Kilda’s) Acland Street, she could sit with her laptop and help people on the street from a safe distance. “I know the way the system works ... and any delays might mean someone goes without food while it’s all sorted.”

Leeroy has so far helped dozens of people navigate the Byzantine complexity of Centrelink. “I see it as a small way to help,” she says. 

“One thing this virus has shown is that we possess layers of kindness that have nothing to do with religion or politics. It’s been the control-alt-delete the world needed. I just hope the kindness continues when all this is behind us.”

Shedding light on what we value

Late last year, RACV commissioned market research firm Starburst Insights to take the pulse of Victoria as part of a wider ‘liveability’ survey. 

More than 2000 Victorians were surveyed between November 2019 and February 2020, coinciding with one of Australia’s worst bushfire seasons but before COVID-19 reached our shores. 

“The study was designed to shed light on the things Victorians hold dear and the motivational life goals that reflect what’s really important in life,” says Starburst Insights founder Megan Simpson.

So what do we value? Benevolence tops the list, closely followed by the ‘security’ values of safety, harmony and stability. Less important are self-enhancement values such as personal success, power and hedonism. 

“It’s a clear indication that Victorians are very conscious of social stability and wellbeing. We care about our neighbours [and] about nature ... a factor possibly pushed to greater prominence by the bushfires,“ Megan says. 

“Post-COVID-19, I suspect our values will be much more around the conservation side like security and conformity.“ She predicts a back-to-basics approach as people seek convention, with perhaps less emphasis on self-fulfilment and more on the core human needs of safety, belonging and connection.


Smith Family volunteer Sue McAllister

‘It’s a very lovely part of my life’

Volunteering comes in all shapes and sizes. For Sue McAllister, her son’s early years were characterised by the kind of community service with his school and sporting teams that often goes unremarked, even by the giver.

In 2012, she made her volunteering official with the Smith Family. The former primary-school teacher now  
devotes every Wednesday to the national children’s education charity, helping interview and process newcomers to the 9000-strong volunteer team.

“I don’t want to sound all Pollyanna about it,” says the 55-year-old, “but I really do it for a number of reasons. I would tell my son regularly that we are so lucky and ... I felt I needed to walk the talk. My area of interest was using education to help break the poverty cycle. And on a personal level it’s a very lovely part of my life.”

Sue is often struck by the way people she interviews to become Smith Family volunteers undersell their previous community work. “For some people it’s just part of their DNA and they don’t even recognise it as volunteering. It’s not just a fling to them, it’s an ongoing commitment to a way of life.”