NSW Northern Beaches covid-19
(Image: AAP/Dean Lewins)

In Both Sides Now, author and ethicist Leslie Cannold presents two sides of an argument. Then it’s over to you: what do you think is true, and what do you think Cannold really believes?

Today: journalist John Pilger recently tweeted his frustration at the lack of attention being paid to Julian Assange, and in doing so criticised Australia’s “COVID scaremongering in a pandemic-free society”.

Was he right? Does success at controlling the pandemic mean you’re not really having one?

No case: Of course not. The pandemic is far from over — even in Australia. Yes case: Everyday life is basically back to normal. Plus, that’s not really the point he was making!

No

I have time for John Pilger. A British-based Australian native with an endless reservoir of sympathy for the oppressed, Pilger was arguably one of the first media figures to master the art of campaign journalism. To read Pilger on Pol Pot, the Vietnam War or Indigenous Australians is to experience one’s own privilege as a ball and chain, able to be set down only once we got off our asses and worked for change.

Yet I was just as enraged as other Aussies by Pilger’s tweet. Not least because this message was posted on Valentine’s Day, when myself and other Victorians were complying with a snap five-day lockdown ordered by the premier because our hotel quarantine system had leaked virus into the community — again.

This was Victorians’ third hard lockdown, but we are by no means alone. Every state in Australia has had border closures, travel restrictions and different degrees of lockdown over the 11 months since the Ruby Princess docked in Sydney.

Australia’s response to COVID-19 has been the envy of the world. We are in the top ten of every list ranking the success of countries in bringing the hyper-transmissible and sometimes deadly virus under control. But success at controlling the pandemic doesn’t mean we never had one. It also doesn’t mean we didn’t suffer in the process of containing it. Quite the contrary, in fact.

Australia’s current control of the virus is rooted in suffering: we have suffered the mental, physical and economic costs of the extreme measures that were required. And we have no guarantee those measures won’t be required again.

According to World Health Organisation director Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, no country is safe until everywhere is safe. While the virus is uncontrolled and some of the world’s populations remains unvaccinated, it will keep being imported into places like Australia and New Zealand.

We are also still at risk from the variants which are the consequence of the uncontrolled spread we’ve seen in the UK, the United States and South Africa. These mutations are more transmissible and more able to evade the vaccines on which the entire world is relying to return to something resembling “normal”.

This isn’t over yet.

Yes

Competitions about suffering are unseemly and ripe for ridicule. Who can forget the Monty Python skit in which four Yorkshiremen, dressed in dinner jackets and quaffing fine wine, try to outdo each another’s stories of poverty when they were young men?

But the truth is that the citizens of Australia and New Zealand — and other countries where the virus is being controlled — have it better than those living in countries that do not. I mean, of course they do. Why would we endure the nightmare of stage-four lockdowns if they didn’t make things better?

The biggest benefit of our now “pandemic-free society” is our shared freedom to move around without risking infection or — if one is older or has an existing medical condition — death. Australians like to think that it is government edicts that dictate when we retreat to our homes and when we emerge, but what minimal-restriction environments like Florida and Sweden show is that an uncontrolled virus does this itself. If it isn’t safe to mingle, older and medically vulnerable people confine themselves to their homes indefinitely, while young people enjoy the luxury of moving around.

Having said that, a careful read of Pilger’s tweet suggests his primary angst isn’t that Australians are concerned about COVID-19, but that they aren’t more concerned about Julian Assange.  

To hear Pilger tell it, Assange is in the same small elite class as himself: an anti-establishment, corruption-fighting journalistic hero. In his article titled “The Stalinist trial of Julian Assange. Whose side are you on?”, Pilger dismisses or ignores every transgression of the WikiLeaks founder and instead styles Assange as a victim of unaccountable political and media power.

But the truth about Assange’s personal ethics, and the way in which he’s gone about obtaining and exposing materials governments would prefer to keep hidden, is more complex.

You may laud Assange as the wronged genius creator of WikiLeaks. Or you may view Assange as an egotistical and amoral gun-for-hire. But either way, we can surely agree on one thing: that indefinite detention is torture.

Assange has been enduring indefinite detention for the last nine years and it is high time he was set free. He should be allowed to return to Australia, where — for the moment at least — we are COVID-free.

Leslie Cannold was a Senate candidate for the WikiLeaks Party before resigning prior to the 2014 election over concerns about the anti-democratic leadership of the party. 

Which side do you think Cannold sits on? And what do you believe? Send your thoughts to [email protected] with Both Sides Now in the subject line.