Dan Andrews press conference
(Image: AAP/James Ross)

On Wednesday, a shaken, haggard Dan Andrews announced that Victoria had recorded nearly 500 new cases. It was the grimmest day of the pandemic so far in Australia. Two weeks after the state went into lockdown, the curve wasn’t flattening. Those weeks of hubristic optimism, when Australia was congratulating itself for beating back the virus better than most of the world, seemed like a very long time ago.

Unlike last time around, this lockdown wasn’t working, Andrews said. He told us more than half the people who got tested didn’t isolate afterwards. Nine out of 10 continued with their lives after showing symptoms. They’d kept socialising, and shopping. They’d kept going to work.

Those numbers were quickly jumped on as evidence of Victorians behaving badly. If only those idiots had masked up and stayed home. We’d all be OK. But what Andrews said next was telling. Too many of those people worked insecure jobs. They’d faced a perilous choice between following health guidelines and picking up valuable shifts.

As comforting as it might be to cast the situation in Melbourne as a failure of personal responsibility — of horny security guards and selfish shoppers — that narrative lacks nuance.

It’s become one of the many COVID cliches that the virus finds any weakness. And in an insecure labour market, at a time of economic stagnation, and in the forgotten pockets of Australia that were never in it together, it found just that.

Let’s play the blame game

From the very start of the pandemic, we’ve been looking for scapegoats. Unsurprisingly, this desire to finger-point often took on a deeply racialised undertone.

In the early days, when it was still the “Chinese virus” (even then, things were looking bad in Europe and the United States), Asian Australians were subject to a surge of racist incidents. Later, it was Muslim families celebrating Ramadan; migrants who wouldn’t assimilate and learn English.

Even outside the Sky News bubble, the scolding impulse was strong. Selfish kids partying in Bondi and shoppers who wouldn’t keep a distance all became the targets of our ire. Too many Australians, we were told, were acting as if we were immune to the virus.

Fighting the virus, we heard, was a virtuous battle of personal responsibility pitted against excess. That narrative, underpinned by Australia’s love for a bit of “cops and dobbers” was central to our early response.

Hundreds of calls were made to the police every day. We introduced one of the strictest, most-heavily policed, heavily fined lockdowns in the western world. Ironically, Victoria, where restrictions were tougher and police doled out more fines than anywhere in the country, is now the state with the outbreak.

And for a while, it worked. We were well behaved, and the curve flattened. As Scott Morrison said back in May, Australians had done the right thing, and could have a little early mark, as a treat.

A good villain is hard to find

But Morrison’s promise of an early mark seems a long time ago now. Instead, the surge we’re dealing with in Victoria is showing up the limits of a pandemic response centred around individualising the problem and shaming people into action.

The need to find a perfect virus villain, and to centre our response on personal behaviour, isn’t unique to this pandemic, but instead part of a broader trend in terms of how we look at healthcare, says Monash University health sociologist Alan Petersen.

“We live in a society where the welfare state has been attacked and stripped away, and where neoliberal policies have been seeking to ‘responsibilise’ individuals.”

Petersen says “responsibilisation” — or the process where individuals are held responsible for duties once placed on the state, is a road Australia has been going down for many years now.

Individuals are held culpable for their own health choices — from clean eating, to tracking their own exercise regimes, and now, to social distancing.

The problem with this individualised approach to healthcare is that it overlooks factors that complicate personal responsibility. Blanket advice on staying home from work and social distancing only really works if you’re middle class and in a secure white-collar job.

“When authorities disseminate information, they bundle it up as if everyone interprets it the same way,” Petersen says.

“But such advice screens out socio-political and cultural factors.”

When we make fighting the virus a question of individual responsibility, we run the risk of demonising those who don’t do the right thing, with little consideration of why they haven’t done the right thing.

The failure of the state

The Victorian outbreak makes a lot more sense when we view it less as a failure of individual Melburnians, and more a result of years of chipping away at the state.

Two critical pieces of information emerged in the last week that should put an end to some of the more inane bits of interstate gloating. The first was that Victorians actually followed the rules better than anywhere else in the country. The second was that since mid-May, 80% of Victoria’s new infections were in workplaces.

Sure, there were big strategic missteps. There was also plenty of bad luck. But part of what has undone Melbourne are policy trends years in the making that have been happening across the country — the increasing prevalence of insecure work (especially among women and migrants) and the outsourcing of state functions to the “efficient” free market.

Those failures are perfectly illustrated by the hotel quarantine disaster which let the virus back in. The “most progressive state in the country” decided to outsource a crucial pillar of its response to the public health crisis of the century to a bunch of security guards recruited via Whatsapp and given five seconds of training.

And when those cases spread, from security guards to family gatherings, to workplaces like abattoirs, storage facilities and aged care homes, the virus encountered another weakness: industries with high rates of casual and insecure work.

More than two weeks after Victoria’s return to lockdown, the curve isn’t flattening, because people aren’t complying. And many people aren’t complying because they feel like they don’t have a choice.

There’s a lot about the situation in Victoria that’s sadly unsurprising, says RMIT’s Distinguished Professor of work, gender and regulation Sara Charlesworth.

“The virus has really laid bare the fault lines of our economy, where we’ve grown so reliant on insecure work,” Charlesworth says.

“We have people without the protection of sick, annual leave. We have people who are underemployed — they’re always really hungry for hours
and when they’re offered an additional shift, they’ll jump on it.”

So often, Charlesworth says, these insecure jobs are in traditionally “feminised” industries, like disability support and aged care, which are less likely to have strong enterprise agreements.

The Andrews’ government has a $1500 hardship payment for those forced to self-isolate — but the eligibility test is strict, and only those who are close contacts of an infected person can get it. Yesterday, Victoria introduced another $300 payment for people who were ineligible for sick leave and had to be tested.

Changing the discourse

It’s comforting, during a time of crisis, to fall back on palatable narratives. The idea that we could beat back the virus by acting responsibly was an intoxicating one, especially because, for a while, it seemed to be working.

But what we’re facing now is an altogether tougher situation — while the first wave was largely spread by returning travellers, the virus has now stuck its tendrils deep into the suburbs of Melbourne, leaving contact tracers overwhelmed and a city terrified.

At the end of the day, the virus doesn’t respect platitudes. It doesn’t give a shit about whether you kept a 1.5m gap at Coles. But what it does, with ruthless effectiveness, is expose where a state has failed.

We’re seeing that all over the world. In the United States, it’s killing poorer black and brown people, taking advantage of the country’s appalling public health system and paranoid political idiocy. It’s hammered factories and nursing homes everywhere. It’s a virus that spots societal inequalities and blows them out tenfold.

So when we talk about the second wave, we need to change our conversation. We need to abandon the scolding and the rush to point fingers. Rather than ask why so many Victorians ignored the tickle in their throats and went to work, we need to take a long look at how we’ve built a society where so many people had no other choice.

Peter Fray

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