There’s a sticker you’ll find on walls and bins around Perth in Western Australia. “If it wasn’t for the 24/7 media lies, you’d never know there was a pandemic”, it reads. Perth is very probably the last city on the planet where these stickers could breed in such numbers. This is a city of two million that has never seen a serious Covid outbreak. We are living in the before times, zealously guarding our Covid-zero status by sealing our border (fortunately located in the middle of a desert) from the rest of Australia.
The severity of this latest outbreak seems to have led many to wonder what the point is
It might sound like paradise, but Perth has a rude shock ahead. Like it or not, Covid is coming. The Australian PM Scott Morrison has made it clear that it’s time for Australians to emerge out of our cave and live with the virus. There are some problems with this approach. The major one is that Morrison was remarkably complacent about ordering any vaccines. Not only that, but since getting around to ordering some, he has consistently managed to scare most of the country off taking the only available (just this week he sparked 10,000 cancelled vaccination appointments by suggesting a better one might soon be on offer).
At present, only 25% of Australians are fully jabbed. Opening at those levels would be a disaster as-yet-unseen on these shores. And yet the narrative is quickly becoming one of “moving on”, with Morrison and the Murdoch press looking to the UK’s Freedom Day as the gold standard. Like much of the world, the UK has been through hell. Australia is still standing at the gates.
Right now, most of this country is under strict lockdown after an outbreak in Sydney spread uncontrolled across the eastern coast. The battleground between now and Christmas will be how to reopen and how fast, with individual state governments at loggerheads about how relaxed or draconian measures should be. New South Wales tried to prove it was smart enough to control the latest outbreak without using strict lockdown measures. It failed. Victoria has tried to prove it can kill the outbreak by going hard and fast in the exact way its northern neighbour didn’t, but with limited success.
Throughout Australia’s pandemic response, Liberal PM Morrison has been effectively sidelined by the state premiers. While he hesitated, the – primarily Labor – state governments shut borders and implemented lockdowns that, ultimately, allowed the nation to return to COVID zero. To get there, Melbourne spent three months in one of the world’s harshest lockdowns, complete with mandatory masks, curfews, widespread retail closures and one hour’s permitted daily exercise. Morrison and his party consistently undermined these measures – until New South Wales’ Liberal state government got desperate enough this week to give them a go.
But Morrison’s moment may be coming. His recent allusions to Groundhog Day likely struck a chord with Victorians who this week notched up 200 days under lockdown since the pandemic began. The severity of this latest outbreak seems not to have galvanised Australians into embracing restrictions but rather led many to wonder what the point is. The anti-Covid protests we first saw last year are no longer merely tin-hatted conspiracy theorists worried about 5G (mostly maybe), but a broader demographic fed up with the rolling lockdowns and a tendency towards governments employing authoritarian measures to enforce them.
And maybe they have a point. There was widespread unrest from the left when police sealed off a tower block in Melbourne to contain an outbreak among some of the state’s poorest people. And yet there has been little outcry around pictures of youths being paintballed by riot police during the last weekend’s protests. Those who insisted on their right to march in support of Black Lives Matter in contravention of last year’s lockdown, many of them apparently in favour of defunding the police, are oddly quiet about this latest demonstration of state violence. Surely the annoying thing about being in favour of civil disobedience is you’re obliged to support the principle, even when you don’t agree with the protest?
It is unclear what effect these protests are having on the spread of the virus. It’s worth noting that last year’s largely peaceful BLM protests took measures to limit any possible spread, whereas to do so on the weekend would rather have defeated the purpose. But there is a sense that complacency – or simple exhaustion – may be an issue. It is unclear whether the current lockdowns are struggling because of essential movement or simply because people have had enough. What is clear is that governments are responding to contravention with ever-more severe measures. Armed forces have been employed in New South Wales to ensure that people in isolation are staying in isolation. An impromptu piss up outside a closed Melbourne pub led to a ban on lowering your mask to drink alcohol in public.
These are challenging times for those of us with a healthy disrespect for authority. We have been forced to rely on governments to do their job and protect us from harm. Many on the left and the right have been concerned about the use of state power over the past 18 months, although attitudes have varied along party lines depending on the recipient of said state power.
Many of us are happy with extreme measures in response to an extreme situation – but what happens when that extreme situation becomes the norm?
The main difficulty for Australians in the coming months will be deciding how much we want to be protected and how much more power we are happy to hand over to the state. Many of us are happy with extreme measures in response to an extreme situation – but what happens when that extreme situation becomes the norm? During the last, brief Perth lockdown I overheard a parent in the schoolyard say he was glad the West Australian premier had taken such strict measures to protect us here, “but I kind of wish he would stop now.”
The likelihood is that parent will soon get his wish. With an election pending, Morrison is hoping to go down as the man who reopened Australia. He’s pinning his hopes on optimistic modelling that suggests infections can be kept down to influenza-style levels with some measures left in place, even if lockdowns are binned. This modelling has a 180-day lifespan, which might just be long enough for Morrison to go to an election before Australians discover exactly how optimistic it is.
The paradox is, of course, that most Australians have been far more free than most of the world over the past 18 months precisely because of the restrictions in place around travel and a tendency in most states towards strict, snap lockdowns. Western Australia, where lockdowns have been fastest and restrictions strictest, is in boom, packed to the gills with people who have escaped the virus interstate or overseas. Our prison has been our liberation. We’ve had the freedom to imagine that living with Covid wouldn’t be that bad, actually. Our “freedom day” may well feel more like judgement day, as the cases mount. Australia is often mocked for living in the past, but the future is coming. I don’t think we’re going to like it.
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