We’ve had a few near misses, and we might be about to throw it all away. But so far, Australia remains one of few countries in the world in which the coronavirus hasn’t become endemic.
We’ve been spared many of the typical pandemic debates and experiences: how to dispose of excess corpses; whether to turn people away from overflowing hospitals; how to keep a health system operational when most of the health workers have contracted the virus; how to manage a long self-isolation when the virus is rampaging through your town, you’ve got underlying health conditions and the government is happily letting it rip.
In Australia, we have a different set of debates. The biggest is the now semi-regular fight over lockdowns. If an outbreak takes place, should we close down big chunks of profit-making industry to eliminate community spread?
We’re all pretty used to the arguments: lockdowns will be ruinous for mental health, wipe out small businesses and—the perennial argument of business owners whose irresponsible behaviour is causing outrage—threaten the livelihoods of workers. That’s all transparently cynical when it comes from LNP Senator Matt Canavan, the Institute for Public Affairs, bosses’ front groups such as “Unlock Hospitality” and their various advocates in the corporate media. But increasingly—and especially since the Sydney outbreak—they’ve been helped along by a chorus of “progressive” voices: a serious lockdown in Sydney would, we’re told, be racist, sexist, anti-worker, useless, dangerous, ableist and authoritarian.
Typical is 7am podcast editor, journalist and professional opinions-haver Osman Faruqi, whose Twitter feed has become an increasingly unhinged liberal extension of the anti-lockdown Reignite Democracy movement. “Melbourne’s lockdown actually proved the limits of lockdown”, he opined as Gladys Berejiklian’s NSW Liberals lost control of the growing Delta outbreak. “Yelling about implementing a ‘real lockdown’ misses the point.”
There’s plenty more like it. As the NSW government steadfastly refused (and refuses, at the time of writing) to impose serious restrictions on businesses—one of the recent exposure sites was the Corset Bar and Supper Club, a burlesque venue—Faruqi’s Twitter feed has painted a picture of a burgeoning dictatorship, where the biggest threat is an out-of-control police state cheered on by the left. It resembles the fearmongering of the fringe right-wing Liberal Democrats, One Nation and the Sydney University Liberal Club. (Is it a coincidence that Faruqi has recently opened a restaurant?) The reality is that NSW’s biggest threat right now is that the coronavirus will continue to entrench itself in working-class communities, spread throughout the country and cause debilitating illness and death on a mass scale.
As always, measures that would prioritise workers’ health at the expense of their bosses are portrayed as a fascistic assault on individual freedom. But now, big chunks of progressive opinion are on board for the ride, too. In some outlets, that was the case from pretty early on: the ABC, the voice of liberal establishment opinion, was always obsessed with interviewing shopkeepers about their mental health during lockdown, but less interested in the mental health of the bulk of the population having to live in fear that the bosses’ “freedom” campaign would lead Australia into the ranks of the mass-death countries. (Cafe owners and hairdressers were on TV every day, but how often did we hear from a nurse?)
The ABC being like this should come as no surprise: it is the voice of the elites, with a mission to portray their world view as if it’s the peak of democratic discourse. Now we’re seeing that kind of point-missing propaganda pushed through independent liberal and “progressive” voices. And it’s seasoned with all the intersectional, privilege-checking verbiage that make those commentators so masterful at the modern Twitter biathlon: moralistic grandstanding followed by completely missing the point.
A prime example was published recently at Junkee, as part of the great Bunnings war of 2021. Bunnings Warehouse has become a kind of symbol of the weird intransigence of the Berejiklian government. Throughout Victoria’s lockdown last year, Bunnings was closed for browsing, except for tradespeople; you could shop online, or by click-and-collect, but only workers needing supplies could go into the store. It was a sensible restriction—in fact, it’s just been reintroduced in Victoria with no outcry, dictatorship or wave of suicides.
In NSW, Bunnings keeps popping up as an exposure site, so the government’s refusal to restrict access—along with the Reject Shop, which also had some exposures listed—has come to represent its general ambivalence about lockdown. When the government came under pressure from Sky News journalist Andrew Clennell at a press conference, Junkee helpfully defended Berejiklian with an article that concluded:
“At the end of the day, regardless of where Australians decide to buy their groceries or purchase home repair supplies, the concept of what is ‘essential’ to each person differs greatly. So next time if Andrew Clennell could check his privilege before trying to question why poor people require the option of cheaper stores, that would be great.”
Bunnings and the Reject Shop aren’t really the point: the point is that day after day, common-sense restrictions on business activities are refused, Berejiklian dodges important questions at every press conference, and now that refusal and avoidance are being helped along with a boost of identity politics. Gladys Berejiklian couldn’t really explain why these shops are open; Junkee has contributed the idea that “what is ‘essential’ to each person differs greatly”.
I regret to say that this isn’t the silliest argument I’ve encountered: I’ve had progressives, even self-described socialists, argue that it was sexist to point out that Gucci stores remained open during the outbreak (because women shop there for handbags), racist to call for restaurants to be closed (because non-white people work as delivery drivers) and ableist to call for major stores to transition to home delivery (because people with dementia might find it confusing).
I’m used to people wielding bizarre and creative applications of identity politics against arguments for social solidarity; I’ll never forget student politicians telling me it was ableist to express support for striking workers, because some people with serious disabilities can’t go on strike. But there’s something particularly galling, and disturbing, about these arguments being used during an unfolding crisis that could become a mass-death event.
If you’re concerned about the wellbeing of workers, the poor, those with disabilities and underlying health conditions, there’s something very simple you can and must do: fight against the bosses and bosses’ organisations that are trying to keep making money in an outbreak by exposing greater numbers of people to a deadly disease
Lockdowns come with their own problems. They can bring unnecessary restrictions on important, safe activities, which can potentially stay on the books beyond a public-health rationale. They require welfare and wealth redistribution to make them work. (That’s part of why right-wingers hate them.) But we’re better placed to fight for civil liberties, welfare and other things if we make it clear that we’re also fighting for public health and safety, and that our demands for economic justice and democratic rights aren’t just a cover for big business’ “freedom” to trade.
The anti-lockdown bosses pretty much won the argument in the United States. That didn’t empower anyone to fight for welfare; it just ground people down into accepting horrific levels of viral transmission. By clearly demanding business closures in the interest of public health, Socialist Alternative’s Sydney branches were able to lead a campaign for democratic rights last year, because it was clear that we—unlike the “freedom rallies” opposing lockdowns—weren’t indifferent to the spread of disease.
We need more than business closures. But when outbreaks explode, they’re a necessary first step. We’re lucky that Australian bosses haven’t completely had their way. If Australian “progressives” keep undermining that argument and contributing to the drumbeat for premature reopening, it will be to their eternal disgrace.