scott morrison josh frydenberg
(Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

Well, we now have at least one learning from the coronavirus pandemic: behaviour change really doesn’t jump from country to country.

No matter what the spectacle of what is happening elsewhere, it seems almost impossible that change will be adopted simply by seeing it.

Your correspondent returned from the US on what appears to have been the last Qantas flight out of Los Angeles. I left a place where, well, if film school students aren’t out there guerrilla-filming their zombie apocalypse film, they should probably reconsider their career choice. The place had become the backdrop of 1000 tacky B movies.

Poor, scruffy, beaten down: Sunset Boulevard looks like Parramatta Road after a chemical spill. LA without its frenetic energy and ceaseless movement is left with just the cruddy residue of decades of public squalor and mass inequality. The homeless drifted through the streets, the cops shooed ’em away from the 7-Elevens; an occasional jogger; Starbucks with all its tables and chairs removed. Hand sanitiser was on every counter, and people were using it all the time.

There were sticker dots where people queued, to keep six feet distance. The hotels were deserted, Barton Fink-ish. Once every two or three days, one passed another guest in the corridor. At the Qantas gate, people — near-all Aussies — were masked and scrubbing their hands and social distancing.

Sixteen hours later, we poured out of the plane into the airport with forms for self-isolation and a stern warning that the cops would check up on us over the next 14 days. Then we were herded into an escalator to customs, cheek-by-jowl, breathing into each other’s infection zone (around the mouth, nose and ears).

At LAX there had been masked staff controlling the spacing in such areas. In Australia there was no sanitiser on counters, nor were staff using any as they stood close and took our smeared customs forms. The crackdown on foreign arrivals is symbolic bullshit. Those of us who arrived are as likely to have been infected by under-protected airport staff as they were by us.

The hammer came down barely 12 hours after we arrived, but about a week — even a fortnight — has been lost in enforcing these measures. This is simply because of this widespread global phenomenon of lack of leadership and the ability to jump ahead.

The leaders of the right-shifted anglosphere — the US, the UK and Australia — are hopeless, risen on tides of political symbolism and PR, desperate not to be in these roles, and openly speaking of “miracles”.

Meanwhile, state leaders are mixing direct measures with political pressures. For example, on the radio as I write, Daniel Andrews is talking tough, having previously quailed before the people he needed to stand up to: Crown Casino, the shiny petri dish on the Yarra filled with many people with neglected health, the elderly, Asian-Australians from high-density communities (from Crown to the Richmond flats), and all a self-selected group of poor risk assessors.

Crown took his exemption, put some laughable pseudo-measures in place and its right-wing mates in the government ran interference for 10 days while a virus span ’round the roulette wheel. So spare us the “I’m disappointed at people’s selfishness”.

I’ll observe the 14 days self-isolation, even while knowing that it is partly symbolic because the virus has been spreading domestically for weeks — and cowardly screw-ups like the Crown decision are partly to blame. The only thing you can say is that they’re better than NSW, the “best government in Australia”, thoroughly run by its donors.

However, all that said, it’s one thing for governments to make a call on what sort of order they impose; it’s quite another for the media to rubber stamp it.

Over the last 48 hours, much of the mainstream Oz political media have excelled themselves in their usual sycophancy and obeisance to power by acting as little more than tannoys for the various governments, and their confused regimes of restriction.

Interrogating that confusion is part of what they should do, but not for the purpose of uncritically enforcing government policies.

After weeks of confused and reactive policies, the advice and research on which the government is acting remains a black box.

We’re not being told what models they are preferring, what assumptions they’re making, and the relationship between policy and evidence. What’s hilarious is that the right-wing media wh — OK, News Corp — who usually huff and puff about any threat to the free market, are so terrified of being outside the intimacy zone of power, that they are not rigorously interrogating policies.

These policies, extended for more than a few months, may well pretty much end capitalism as we know it, and make part- or whole-nationalisation of the economy necessary to keep social life on the road.

The right-wing think tanks are worse. All this bullshit about the “freedom agenda”, and they won’t say boo to a “500-strong police squad” (in Victoria) enforcing shop closures, which may be unnecessary (the Vic government is allowing hairdressers to stay open, one of the higher disease vectors for COVID-19).

The only freedom the think tanks are defending is the rights of price-gougers. Heck of a job, chinos! Natural geniuses in the Trump mode.

The fight against the virus is being called a war, and the sycophantic Australian press corps are lapping this up, and enforcing it. But it isn’t.

In a war for your actual communal survival, leaders don’t circulate information, and free media is limited because the enemy can hear you. The virus can’t — and a lot of this sudden assertiveness and quasi-dictatorial power has a cosplay element to it.

Agreeing that we should observe a precautionary regime at this moment doesn’t mean observing a need-to-know regime. We need more information not less. We need open debate about risk modelling, sources of government evidence, and reasoned arguments for policies.

Remaining physical workplaces need to take safety and risk assessment into their own hands, form employee-based workplace safety committees, and assess the evidence on the sort of work they’re doing, with assistance from their unions — but without taking directives from their ALP-buttressing union leaderships.

If supermarket, transport or agricultural workers feel they are being put at risk so that the bourgeoisie and the knowledge class can work from home and watch Netflix, they should put “yellowbans” — yellow for disease — workbans in place. Same goes for medical workers denied equipment and adequate pay to compensate risk, although that is obviously more difficult.

In the days, weeks and months to come, we need to reaffirm this principle: that we may consent to governments’ extraordinary measures — but it needs to be consent, not submission. It needs to be based on evidence, the demand for evidence, the questioning of power, resistance to pollies’ beloved Churchill impersonation contests (no winners yet).

This consent needs to be offered collectively, provisionally, and reserving the possibility of organised (not individual) dissent.

That dissent may include enhanced safety measures, or work refusal, as well as rejection of surplus repression of social life. This is not merely an opportunity to reshape the relationship between public and government, it’s a necessity.

We are flying into unknown territory, not knowing how this all lands.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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