The seven 'off-limits' taboos that will change after coronavirus

Among every culture in the world are taboos – conversations and acts society shies away from, however the coronavirus pandemic is challenging taboos and thrusting difficult topics to the forefront.

Dr Sabine Krajewski, from Macquarie University, has been studying taboos her entire career and she says COVID-19 has challenged some of the topics which were largely off-limits before the coronavirus pandemic.

Through Dr Krajewski’s ‘Taboo: health issues around the world’ workshop, she and her students have identified which of these topics have been challenged amid the pandemic, and which ones are now emerging.

Higher incidence challenges taboo of mental health

At the start of the pandemic, mental illness and domestic violence were two topics thrust into the the public sphere, which made way for important conversations.

Throughout the pandemic, mental illness has been discussed as an unavoidable consequence of the uncertainty and loneliness of the pandemic and its associated lockdowns. The expected higher than average number of suicides and people seeking mental health help have been discussed in the public domain.

Dr Krajewski believes discussing mental health could help alleviate the stigma, making it not taboo, but rather something medical, no different to someone seeking treatment for a broken arm.

A man looking distressed on a couch, with his face in his hands.
During the coronavirus pandemic there has been a lot of discussion surrounding mental health as experts feared the pandemic would result in a higher suicide rate and people seeking help. Source: Getty Images

In terms of why mental illness has been spoken about more often and more openly, Dr Krajewski believes it is because of “higher incidence”.

“If you have a pandemic, then you can expect that most people will experience some level of anxiety about the future, their current situation, about their own health or the health of others, or other issues like the economy,” she told Yahoo News Australia.

“All of sudden it’s not something unusual [anxiety], it’s something talked about and people reach out to each other.”

While most people are feeling a degree of anxiety, or perhaps sadness or depression, it may help remove the stigma society has attached to mental illness moving forward, she says.

Domestic violence taboo only serves the perpetrator

Like mental health, it was of grave concern rates of domestic violence would spike during the pandemic due to people being at home and stressors like potentially losing a job.

Not speaking about domestic violence or having it as a taboo only serves the perpetrator, Dr Krajewski explained.

“The victims are usually the ones who feel ashamed,” she said.

“They [the victims or survivors] don't want to talk about it, so the taboo actually protects the perpetrator not the victim in this case.

“So that's a very difficult one to, to talk about, or to find a solution to.”

Domestic violence has become a more prominent topic over the past few years in Australia, as has mental illness.

However, Dr Krajewski believes while there will be more openness when talking about depression and anxiety she isn’t sure about domestic violence. She worries there is not enough economic resources as a result of the recession, and victims and survivors may not feel as though they can come forward.

Dr Sabine Krajewski says the taboo surrounding domestic violence only serves the perpetrator as reports of domestic violence surged amid the pandemic.
Dr Sabine Krajewski says the taboo surrounding domestic violence only serves the perpetrator as reports of domestic violence surged amid the pandemic. Source: Getty Images

You can no longer ask what someone does for a living

Many people lost their jobs due to the pandemic, so Dr Krajewski and her students ponder whether it will be off-limits to ask what someone does for a living now and in the near future.

“If you meet someone new, you don't really want to first go be reminded of, you know, issues that are not going well in your life at the moment or that create a lot of anxiety,” she explains.

“So the first question may be something else.”

People pictured lining up outside Centrelink, attempting to register for the Jobseeker allowance in the wake of business closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the start of the pandemic, Centrelink offices around Australia have been inundated with people as many lost their jobs due to COVID-19. Source: AAP

While often there are “negative connotations” associated with losing a job, right now might not be seen as “embarrassing”, due to so many jobs being cut.

Due to the loss of jobs, people have had to turn to government handouts. Welfare was generally stigmatised, but when people who never thought they would need to go on Centrelink have no other option, public perception begins to shift, erasing the stigma and making welfare less of a taboo.

Will going on a cruise be taboo?

The travel industry has suffered due to the coronavirus and the cruise industry has been particularly hard-hit, and perhaps people will be more reluctant following the Ruby Princess debacle.

“If you are going on a cruise holiday in the future, it might be something you don’t tell the neighbours, because it will be embarrassing,” Dr Krajewski told the Macquarie Lighthouse.

But she did tell Yahoo News Australia she was sure the industry would pick up again.

“It'll pick up again, people will do cruises again,” she said.

“But maybe hopefully, governments learn from that and know that if something is really serious there has to check before that people off the ship.”

The cruise ship the ruby Princess sits of coast of Sydney, Sunday, April 5, 2020. A number of passengers from the Ruby Princess have died in due to the Coronavirus and a number of crew have been taken off and hospitalised.
The travel industry has been gravely impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, especially the cruise industry following the Ruby Princess debacle. Source: AAP

The elderly a ‘neglected’ area

The coronavirus disproportionately kills older people and the way the elderly are treated in aged-care homes was highlighted during the pandemic as the clusters in these facilities accounted for majority of Australia’s COVID-19-related deaths.

“That is something that I think is also a neglected area,” Dr Krajewski said.

“And we don't talk about it, we know that not everything is good in nursing homes, and we still don't.”

Over the course of the pandemic, there have been several outbreaks linked to nursing homes and aged-care facilities, contributing greatly to Australia’s coronavirus death toll.

“How can it be that we find people who are undernourished or dehydrated in a pandemic, because there's not enough staff looking after them anymore?” Dr Krajewski added.

“This is terrible for society. And it actually that is something I find really painful for society, you know, that, that we are not able to look after and protect our elderly.”

An elderly woman standing in a corridor of a hospital.
The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the flaws in Australia aged-care facilities. Source: Getty Images

Inequalities ‘out of balance’ paves way forward

While the global pandemic has been distressing, to say the least, Dr Krajewski is somewhat optimistic about the future, as it has exposed the inequalities within society exhibited throughout the world.

“All those inequalities are all those things that are just out of balance and every society has them,” she said.

“And I think the only good thing we can draw from a pandemic like this is to become aware of those issues and try and fix them, at least, you know, even in small steps, make small steps because some of these issues are the better, I think.”

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