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

The line was long for a COVD-19 test yesterday. In one Brisbane suburb, cars snaked for a kilometre along a main road before being coaxed through a roundabout, an industrial area, a car park used as a waiting zone, and finally into the makeshift testing station.

Testers — mainly young women — stood shivering, their facemasks protecting them from the virus but doing nothing to keep the winds at bay.

In the car in front, a middle-aged woman was singing her heart out, patiently waiting her turn. In another, a few further up the line, a younger woman was trying to placate two toddlers who had sat in their child restraints, patiently, for 75 minutes.

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A maxi-cab full of passengers was holed up a few vehicles back, just next to a tradie van, a ute, and a flash European car. 

Mothers and fathers. Grandparents and toddlers. School children thankful to be missing the first classes on a Monday morning; young professionals keen to get back to the office and to their working week.

All sorts. Except one. None of those lining up to get tested in Brisbane — or Sydney or Melbourne or anywhere else — were likely to have been part of the anti-lockdown mob that took over city centres on the weekend.

That’s because there’s a clear chasm between the selfish, publicity-seeking opportunists who refuse to mask up, and the rest of us who understand the power of this insidious disease — which this weekend killed a young woman in New South Wales.

And it’s not only the power of COVID that most law-abiding Australians understand. It’s the lessons in history and the wonder of science and the importance of not spreading a disease to others. Forget their exaggerated outrage. This crowd of publicity seekers, above all, are plain selfish.

Selfish enough not to care that their foolish actions might plant the seeds for a new virus cluster. Selfish enough not to care that someone’s grandparent or sick child or healthy sibling will be the next to die. Selfish enough not to even register, perhaps, that the last death from COVID-19 in Australia was a healthy woman in her 30s.

Gladys Berejiklian, who looks in need of a long, restful sleep, said she was heartbroken. We all were. Scott Morrison condemned their “irresponsible” behaviour. I suspect everyone in that COVID-19 testing queue yesterday, irrespective of political persuasion, did so too.

But that’s not enough. Taking your eyes off the road for one moment and hurting someone can land you in jail. But knowingly endangering someone’s life during a pandemic? Lying to jump border restrictions? Moving around the community, knowing you have tested positive to COVID-19? Do any of these things, and the penalties are wishy-washy, differ between jurisdictions, and mainly add up to a rap over the knuckles that hurts neither pocket nor reputation.

That has to change. And our states, which seem unable to agree what time it is on most days, need to develop a set of standard behaviours that draw condemnation — and a punishment that deters others. The cost in refusing to act will be significant. More and more people who believe COVID is a threat in other parts of the country and not their own will adhere less to the law if rule-breakers go unpunished.

Increasingly, this pandemic is dividing our nation: vaxxers and anti-vaxxers; those who have kept their jobs and those who haven’t; students learning remotely and students able to go to school; those isolated from families and those who remain in their embrace. The list goes on. 

But the weekend’s shenanigans shows another divide: those who wear a mask not because they fear the disease but because they want to protect others, and those who refuse to don cover; those who want us to wage war on this impostor together, and those without any sense of community; those running up the hours in testing queues each day, and those skipping borders against the law.

In short, fighting this disease comes down — in no small part — to the battle between the selfish and the unselfish. 

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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