melbourne-cbd-during-covid-19-curfew
The Melbourne CBD after curfew (Image: AAP/Erik Anderson)

With the stage four lockdown of Melbourne grinding on amid the grey skies of winter, the city’s glum acceptance of a new “normal”, and no sign yet that other states will succumb to the same predicament, the ideological right is getting frisky once again. The Australian is foaming at whichever part of it is the mouth, raring to take a bite out of the much beleaguered Andrews government. 

It’s a juicy target. Whatever its diminishing band of stalwarts might like to say, the Andrews government failure on quarantine and the new outbreak is about as bad as it gets. Come on Dannos, stop being babies, just tear the bandage off with one rip. 

This was an emergency measure imposed, after a number of days in which little action at all was taken on the virus, followed by a hard-core quarantine lockdown, which had an air of political cosplay about it. 

But no-one took charge in a real nitty-gritty way. If you’re a minister locking people in hotels for a fortnight, hiring spec firms to do it, the smart thing to do would be to get down there yourself and see what’s going on — and then to send public servants down incognito to check it out. 

If ministers did by some wild chance go down, they didn’t see what they should have: an untrained staff, quarantinees wandering in and out, hysterical behaviour, panic and breakdown, some of it reported on Facebook. 

Some time ago I noted that the Andrews government was a rainbow-painted bulldozer, and this seems to have been the worst of that, ploughing on, unheeding. If it turns out the firm doing the security was chosen as a diversity hire, well, the full contradiction of that sort of politics is laid bare.

So for the right, the Andrews government, due to its electoral success, is a useful target by which to attack all of Labor, and to imply, as various commentators did, that Labor per se is to blame for everything that happens in Australia from COVID-19 from now on.

Scott Morrison got in on the act, in a minimal way, at the end of last week. A useful way, as numerous have also noted, of diverting from the failures of the federal government in controlling entry points, such as airports. Apparently if you let the virus break out, you own it all. 

Well that is a very courageous decision. For though the failings of the Victorian lockdown are obvious, the right haven’t taken the logic of that further.

If a whole COVID-19 outbreak can revive from a single error, in one place, what are the chances that such an error will be avoided all the time, throughout? COVID-19 is like water in a roof, moving around, looking for a leak. It will find one eventually. Thus to believe that the gap between success and failure is entirely or even largely due to the actions one has taken is a fallacy. 

So the right appears to be setting up a very exacting test for themselves. You’d think they’d realise that, with Gladys B clearing her throat and asking young people if they might socialise a little less, voluntarily hahaha, and the South Australian wossname government talking about reimposing controls. Do they not hear the bell tinkling, the tiny sound of the ely?

Courageous, yes, but most likely stupid as well. It’s a product of the magical thinking that persists through this moment — the idea that the virus is a unique and utter aberration, the once-in-a-century disease that’s already occurred three times this century (SARS, MERS, COVID-19).

Just as excess of control is attributed in the case of disaster, so the idea that our “normal” — a society dependent on an ever greater velocity and expansion of money — is ordained by nature as something we can simply return to, is equally magical. 

Caught in that desperate desire, which is powered by fear — oh pleaaaaase pleaaaase let us forget about all of this — we are squandering a chance to prepare for the next pandemic, which may be worse, and for rapid events that may arise from climate change.

COVID-19 has been a scourge, out of control, and has caused great suffering. But if you had to choose something for a “live-fire” practice for future disaster, this would be it: a disease with a low mortality rate, slanted to the very old, requiring social rearrangement but not breakdown.

The fact is we are bound by nature. Our biological existence is contingent on nature’s grace; any form of human culture all the more so. The odds that we would be permitted to hold onto debt-driven full-tilt consumption capitalism are long indeed. Now would be a good time to work out what we do should it suddenly come apart.

There is no chance of this of course. The right don’t want it. Labor barely want it either. The Greens can’t get a hearing. 

Yet there would actually be public support for it, if there was someone in politics willing to speak seriously about what we face in the century to come, and how the preparations we make now may be the difference between living together and dying together. For what is emerging from Melbourne lockdown two is high level social solidarity. 

Don’t believe the hype, if you’re elsewhere; there’s few cops and army out on the streets, very little hassling. There may well be a lot of seething anger, and compliance out of fear of fines, but there is compliance, out of commitment and understanding too.

We know why we’re doing this. We understand the strategy. The right’s adolescent tantrums about illiberalism and freedom simply expose the fictions of their populism.

We’re not an individualist people; we don’t fetishise individual license, as freedom. We find our freedom, a positive freedom, in our capacity to commit to collective action, which ensures our security, thus making life possible.

We’re the land of the compulsory seatbelt. It’s the childish tantrums of the right about “ferrdom”, during the first lockdown, that has probably vaccinated the Andrews government against the virus of its own incompetence (and the effective reproduction rate of that is, let’s face it, through the roof).

It has identified Dan Andrews as the personification of real rationality, the man you’ll vote for grudgingly — because the other mob aren’t even a government at all. That sudden shaking out may be replicated across the country, depending on how things go. Of vastly more importance than that is that someone, anyone, with some sort of power, speak to what it could possibly mean to return to normal.

Peter Fray

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