Discovering humanity in triviality: from toilet paper to sunshine


*Appreciating nature and baking cakes have become some of Josh’s newly discovered past-times. 

Australia experienced a particularly challenging start to 2020 – even before COVID – since much of the eastern seaboard was devastated by bushfires and capturing international media attention. The ferocity and destruction of the fires and smoke meant that many of us had to stay indoors from late 2019, but also for much of January 2020. Then, a violent hailstorm followed, creating much damage to buildings in Canberra and to my university.

Then the COVID lockdown happened. All state and international borders were closed. A planned trip to fly home and be with family had to be cancelled. One unexpected consequence was Australia’s panic-induced buying frenzy of toilet-paper, whose motivations are yet to be investigated with scientific rigour.

Matters were made worse by the virus’ impact on the country of my professional and personal interest, Italy, but also in Sweden where I completed my postdoctoral work, as I heard, and saw, friends and former colleagues suffer through images which bounced from the other side of the globe onto my phone.

As for others on this blog and elsewhere, the biggest problem has been the lack of personal interaction. As I gathered up screens and books from the office to take back home and set up shop there, my initial thoughts raced of boundless levels of productivity – easy access to my beloved fridge and snacks with articles one after the other pouring out! This enthusiasm dissipated when it became more and more apparent that the work I do and the person I am takes place in a community. Academic work materialised in drips and drabs (which I was grateful for), but not at a level of productivity that could be measured in monographs!


What positives can be found, or have I found? Gratitude for friends and simple acts of sharing meals together, riding my bike, baking, and messages of ‘checking everything is ok’ are simple pleasures – but they have been the most tangible, and the most real signs of keeping myself (half) sane and are useful reminders that ‘I am not my job’.

All the time indoors has made me realise that fresh air and sunshine are undervalued commodities in academic life. I have a new appreciation for the beauty of the geographical surroundings I find myself in. Meals with friends and catching up with people have also shown how much corridor-talk is where proper conversations happen, and how there can sometimes be no distinction between who is a colleague and who is a friend.

Certain internet memes have suggested that 2020 should be ‘cancelled’ or erased from the historical record. But this would also mean an erasure of the very real circumstances people find themselves in, as well as a negation of the positive aspects that have emerged this year.

Another real benefit is the renewed emphasis on the importance of mental health, and the particular way that mental health is practised in universities. A final positive has been the discovery of this podcast and its ability to open up conversations about precarity, mental health and many other topics. And I am grateful for that as well.

About the author: Josh Brown is lecturer in Italian Studies at The Australian National University (


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