Empty chairs and empty tables in Melbourne's fourth lockdown (Image: James Ross/AAP)

Well here we are in Melbourne, locked down for another week. It’s cold and damp, and everything is shut, the city is half-deserted, and “For Lease” signs are everywhere.

I’ve gotta say I’m enjoying this immensely. This is Grim City, who we really are. Forget all that liveability crap. That was just a passing fad. Now that’s all peeled away to reveal the truth — people clasping their overcoats huddled against the wind, standing outside a cafe waiting for the coffee they ordered 15 minutes ago.

It helps that the only thing still going is the construction industry, because it’s putting up one concrete box after another all over the inner city, vast walls of grey which we’ve decided to go with instead of, you know, asking developers to put some money into their buildings.

That’s all bad enough, but according to The Australian’s Cam Stewart, the city is something like Warsaw after the uprising was defeated. Apparently one very long lockdown, one lighter one at the start — a sort of amuse-bouche lockdown, in Melbourne-foodie-style, where small shops couldn’t open but JB Hi-Fi and the casino could — a later three-day “retro-chic” lockdown, and now this seven-day lockdown reunion tour, have all served to break our spirit.

We were once chippy larrikins but have become docile supplicants of the Big State. Dad Dan appears to have vanished forever, sent to his dacha by the SDA’s interim public safety committee, and we now have James Merlino, who just looks wrong — like when your mum married your woodwork teacher.

This is nonsense, of course, part of News Corp’s desperate desire to undermine the Victorian Labor government to give the desperate Vic Libs some way back into power, or even the contention for such. The “docile” idea, which a few on the far left have also been running, only works if your idea of freedom and self-assertion is a knee-jerk libertarian one, like bikies who won’t wear helmets on the ride to visit their mates in the brain injury care homes they’ll one day be admitted to.

Melbourne committed to the long lockdown last year as an act of reason, a collective rational judgment that this was what had to be done. I’m not saying consent was universal, nor that the hardship fell equally on all. But if there hadn’t been that consent, the protests would have been larger and taken in a broader swathe of people.

There was another one this weekend, and it was the usual mix of hard-rightists, V for Vendetta maskers, anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists. The police presence was, it should be said, enormous, but that really has no effect on how big or ornery a protest is.

Indeed, if anything made it likely this return tour lockdown would go smoothly, it’s that we understand at least part of the reason for it, which is that the bloody federal government didn’t do the one job it had in this regard, which was to roll out the vaccines — and fast.

We’re not idiots. We can see that Joe Biden’s team managed to turn around the chaos of Donald Trump’s vaccine effort and get half the US vaxxed in six months. We can see also that sluggishness on quarantine facilities is to blame, but we don’t regard that as the main game. Vaccination was the simple thing that the Big State is meant to use its big stateness to do bigly.

We know that vaccines work overwhelmingly, whereas quarantine will always be partial (that said, here’s something I’ve been wondering: if the main problem with hotel quarantine is shared air, why haven’t we commandeered holiday camps as facilities? There are half a dozen Big 4 and other holiday camps, with separate cabins, with all amenities, in a 100km radius of Melbourne. They’re naturally air-gapped, but close enough together for social distancing supervision. Was the possibility of using these never discussed?). We know who screwed up. Scotty and that grinning sweat-ape who follows him round, Greg Hunt.

So, we’ve accepted lockdown four, and News Corp and the IPA Santiago boys etc, will just have to accept that our acceptance is a sign that Australia is not the US. We’re a society that retains a collectivist layer, we see positive freedom — the freedom from harm gained by collective action — as a real thing. We’re not nutters who think that going against good advice somehow makes life better.

That said, there’s a limit. I think if this lockdown goes into injury time — another three or seven days or longer — there’s going to have to be some thinking about a modified regime, more conformed to real risk profiles.

Like many, if I’m walking down a street where I can’t see anyone for 100 metres either way, I’m maybe taking off my mask for a bit. I don’t see why cafes couldn’t put a few judiciously spaced tables outside, or why bookstores and one or two other categories of shops couldn’t open, with customer limits. I know why they’re not — as a sort of behaviouralist approach that if nothing is open, no one will go out.

But that overall approach could be mixed with a little more of an appeal to reasoned judgment — stay local, keep it short, etc. It would certainly be a down payment on lockdown five, because I reckon that might be the one where the dummy spits begin en masse. And of course beyond that we have to think about this as training for a viral era. This period may be a complete anomaly or the new normal, we just don’t know yet.

Beyond that, if we’re going to do the full Grim City thing, can I make a plea for the following: the return of red vinyl coffee lounges in the CBD; the 79 tram, turning into Carlisle Street from Chapel Street; the Venue; the afternoon Herald sold by small, cold boys; the white-bread salad sandwich with beetroot stains through the bread; League Teams; Bohdan on RRR; Export Cola; the rebuilding of Princes Gate; cops selling speed, ohhh I really miss that; and — this is really too much — a Liberal Party fit for government and a News Corp tabloid with news not propaganda in it.

That oughta keep us going through the loooong coooold winter.

I subscribe to Crikey because I believe in a free, open and independent media where news and opinions can be published that I can both agree with and be challenged by.

As a Crikey subscriber I always feel more informed and able to think more critically about issues and current affairs – even when they don’t always reflect my own political viewpoint or lived experience.

Jess
Singapore

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