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Australia What nine months of interviews told researchers about life in Australia after the pandemic

00:08  27 february  2021
00:08  27 february  2021 Source:   abc.net.au

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a person sitting on a bench in a garden: Tatiana Tarasova's garden plot brought her extra comfort during the long Melbourne lockdown. (ABC News: Chris Le Page) © Provided by ABC News Tatiana Tarasova's garden plot brought her extra comfort during the long Melbourne lockdown. (ABC News: Chris Le Page)

For 10 years, Tatiana Tarasova has tended a plot at the Veg Out community garden built on a former lawn bowling green in the Melbourne beachside suburb of St Kilda.

She has always loved gardening, but she said the patch brought her extra comfort and a sense of community during the city's coronavirus lockdowns.

"You don't just look after your own garden. If people are away, if people are sick, you water their flowers and their seedlings," Ms Tarasova said.

That sense of community grew as nearby residents started leaving food scraps outside the locked gates for the gardeners to add to their compost.

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"More people started to bring leftovers and people became interested in growing more things and they knew where to come to get some seedlings," she said.

Ms Tarasova's experiences in the community garden are reflected on a much broader scale by a new report into Australians' behaviour during the pandemic.

Some were temporary measures to get us through the worst of the pandemic, but others are expected to last much longer, even beyond the rollout of the coronavirus vaccine.

When the first lockdowns were imposed last March, researchers at consultancy Fiftyfive5 started a nine-month project to monitor Australians' emotions and behaviour.

They conducted more than 38,000 online interviews, talking to 200 people across the country every day between March 2020 to January 2021.

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The information was used to inform their clients who were knocked sideways by the sudden lockdown and struggled to find a path through.

The survey found respondents embraced a "cocoon culture", or the desire to stay close to home, partly due to stay-at-home orders but also for a sense of security in uncertain times.

"There is still uncertainty out there, there's still anxiety and isolation out there," Fiftyfive5 director and survey leader Michelle Newton said.

"But overall, I think we're kind of moving to a good space by taking on these positive behaviours."

New hobbies closer to home

Some of the survey's findings are not overly surprising.

For example, 37 per cent of respondents questioned between March and September said they had planted a vegetable garden during the pandemic.

Kitchens also became more popular, with a 42 per cent rise in people cooking meals from scratch and a 32 per cent jump in baking.

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"We re-evaluated our values, we had time to slow down and reflect, we picked up new skills, and we've learned some new things," Ms Newton said.

Some of that reflection led to a push to buy more local products.

"People buying local and looking for local products is on the rise, and will continue to be so," Ms Newton said.

"That also signals a new sense of self-sufficiency."

Not everyone is seeing the results of that in the street.

In the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy, Marc Lacoste runs a bulk food store that is focused on sustainability and local produce.

He said his staff made some great connections with customers during the lockdown.

"We were selling huge amounts of flour because everybody was seeding their sourdough starters and people were trying new things," he said.

However, he said shopping precincts like Brunswick Street were now "very quiet", an observation backed by figures showing pedestrian footfall in Melbourne's CBD is still much lower than pre-pandemic levels.

"'The street has seemingly become just a thoroughfare to get to Coles … rather than being a precinct where people decide that they're going to come to enjoy a few hours of recreation," he said.

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"They're not in the stores actually consuming, purchasing as they used to."

A communal approach to wellbeing

What surprised researchers was how quickly businesses pivoted to the change in consumer culture to deliver items and experiences at home.

"The pandemic created this idea that experiences will come to the home, and that they will be great," Ms Newton said.

"Business have pivoted really well, consumers have adapted really quickly. And we think that's going to be an ongoing change."

People had been moving to online shopping for some time, but the pandemic accelerated the pace, Ms Newton said.

It also fast-tracked the use of communication tools that helped us to work from home.

But alongside the acceleration of some trends, was the move to slow down.

Around half of the Australians surveyed said the pandemic gave them time to reflect, and 59 per cent said they now had a greater sense of what was important.

"We've got this conscious deceleration happening, particularly in the context of wellness and health and wellbeing," Ms Newton said.

"More people are downloading wellness and meditation apps, for example, and are going to continue that behaviour."

Despite Australians' more introverted focus on their home and the "cocoon", the survey also pointed to a more communal approach to wellbeing, Ms Newton said.

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"What was really interesting is that we saw people saying, 'We understand that there's a community and a collective here that needs to take precedence'."

Positive changes to stay

The gardeners at Veg Out were part of that shift towards a more cohesive community.

During the lockdown, Melbourne artist Kristin Burgham planted more flowers in her patch to brighten what was a bleak time for many people.

"There was definitely a real appreciation from people walking past. I talked to a lot of people during lockdown through the fence about the garden," she said.

One day, she and Ms Tarasova decided to dig up some stray seedlings that had sprouted along the path and put them into small pots to give away. Normally, they would have been discarded as weeds.

"We put them in a little box outside and they just went so quickly," said Ms Burgham, who works in a studio near the Veg Out garden.

"They disappeared straight away. People were so happy and grateful," Ms Tarasova said.

Ms Newton said the survey showed that some behaviours like gardening, cooking from scratch, and shopping local were likely to last well beyond the pandemic.

Other COVID-related changes in our behaviour, like using contactless card payments, hand sanitiser, maintaining social distance and talking through plastic screens in shops, are also expected to continue.

Ms Newton said the information compiled in the nine-month survey could help businesses chart a course after the pandemic.

"It's fascinating how adaptable humans and businesses are to something that was such a trend shock as a pandemic, you know, it just hit everybody both collectively and individually," Ms Newton said.

"I think for a lot of us, for the most part, if the changes made during COVID have yielded a positive result, they'll probably stay."

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This is interesting!