Throughout this pandemic, as we hit the half way mark of stage three restrictions (mark 2) and are rewarded with even more limiting stage four restrictions, one word has risen from obscurity and been granted the air time of an A grade celebrity – ESSENTIAL.

What is it? What does it mean? This is subjective and perhaps the grey area that has either saved us or hurt us, but most definitely confused us over the past six months or so. What is the essence of essential?

The Oxford Dictionary defines essential as – absolutely necessary, extremely important; fundamental or central to the nature of something or someone. Is this limited to the things that are needed to sustain life? Food, shelter, water, healthcare.


Is it Bunnings? Is it some TLC at the hairdressers or a new air fryer from Kmart? It’s a grey area for sure and a huge can of COVID worms. Back in March, when we first heard the word essential in relation to social distancing measures, we were told there were four reasons to leave home and one of them was to shop for essential items. If this were defined more clearly, could the second wave have been avoided? Closing all stores and services that weren’t ‘absolutely necessary’ would have resulted in a complete unbalance of the health vs economy tightrope that we know exists but no one really talks about. But perhaps it would have meant a single six week lockdown; a sprint, instead of the marathon we are all enduring now.

Maybe the essence of essential is far more complex than new clothes, tins of beans, a bigger TV and a cut and colour. The classification of essential for bottle shops and hardware stores certainly says a lot about our culture in Australia. One thing this pandemic has universally reminded us of is the importance – the essential luxury (is that an oxymoron?) – of human connection. Another is the impact of being occupied, mentally and physically, to support our emotional wellbeing. Given that, maybe essential isn’t as black and white as it first appears.

If you ask 20 people what essential means to them, you’d probably get 20 different answers. I wonder if the use of this word was a carefully considered deliberate allowance for self regulation of the restrictions. A sort of kindness and an acknowledgement of the subjectivity of the term. Was it picked as a way to limit our interactions with others, but on our own terms?


This global pandemic has certainly forced us to reevaluate what is essential; what is absolutely necessary, extremely important. For some, it’s time with family – thank goodness because most of us have had a lot more of that! For others it’s spending more time on the activities that feed their soul; creative projects, learning something new or finally being able to dedicate more time and energy to health and fitness.

After a slow start back in March, and even the sense that people with disability had been forgotten in early COVID-19 planning, common sense has prevailed and people with disability have been largely able to continue to be supported in their homes and communities. Thanks to this buzz word essential, our support workers and coordinators have marched along the front line with that word emblazoned on their chests. They’ve provided essential support – the things that are absolutely necessary; personal care, medical support and assistance with day-to-day tasks. They’ve also worked creatively to tick off that subjective area of what is essential. They’ve done this with bushwalking, craft and cooking, online support, gaming, facilitating wider social connection and much needed respite for deserving families.

We’re proud of them. We’re proud of the way that they have thought outside the box to ensure that support can continue, and not just at a plateau or baseline level, but to help individuals and families make progress with goals they knew they had and identify new and previously unexpected areas for growth. Throughout this once in a hundred year event, the measures aimed at keeping us safe have  forced us to consider that word more than ever.


What is it? It’s subjective for sure. There are grey areas. There could even be debate with both sides bringing strong arguments. But as a team, as a community and as a society, we have been reminded about what’s important in the most harsh and unexpected way. What is essential for life? What is absolutely necessary – extremely important? It’s food, water and healthcare. But it’s also connection, purpose, time to breathe, a rainbow in the window on a family walk and an offer of help from an unexpected place.

When COVID-19 is a thing of the past and when we inevitably go back to our busy, overscheduled lives, my hope is that we can remember the time that adversity forced us appreciate the most simple pleasures. It’s almost like a time machine has taken us back to a world unexplored by younger generations (mine included). A time when communities were smaller, children played outside, families cooked together and wrote letters to faraway friends and family.

In a post COVID-19 world, can we bring those two worlds together, remember what is really essential and put our lessons learned into practice for years to come?