Posted inColumns

Minority Report: Apartheid in the Name of Covid

One particularly unpleasant side to the pandemic has been the apparent pleasure – or at the very least, satisfaction – with which a certain kind of politician has exercised the new powers granted to them. The Antipodes appears to harbour a higher than average number of these wannabe authoritarians.

Australia and New Zealand had – until Covid arrived – gained reputations as being countries of a chilled, laid back sort; full of long haired surfers and tanned beach babes. No longer. It turns out that both Aussies and Kiwis can follow restrictions – or be subjected to them – like few others. Perhaps it is a lingering legacy of the penal colony.

New Zealand has amongst the strictest international travel rules in the world. The Prime Minister of that country has for too long been doused in a Niagara of uncritical publicity. Yet Jacinda Ardern’s stellar international reputation stems in large part from her successful attempt to turn NZ into a hermit kingdom.

In terms of restraining the virus, the effect has been positive: There has not been a Covid death in New Zealand since the 15th of February. Since August last year the average number of weekly cases has not exceeded 10. But the long term plan looks exceptionally bleak. Ardern has explicitly rejected a ‘living with Covid’ approach, apparently condemning her citizens to perpetual isolation.

Whenever a Kiwi journo has the temerity to suggest that perhaps the country could do with a spot of opening up, Ardern dons her trademark rictus grin, and begins an explanation in the tone of an exasperated Mary Poppins addressing a slow child:

“This virus is not done with the world yet [patronising smile and vigorous shake of the head]. And if we preserve our options. That allows us to make choices which are good for our economy and good for our health.”

I’m no economist, but I would have thought prohibiting international travel was bad for domestic business. And while we’re on travel bans, is it not interesting that lefty politicians like Ardern – prior to Covid, a fully paid-up member of the internationalist set – are now the keenest to buy into a medicalised xenophobia, which regards all foreigners as carriers of plague. It is the ‘Little England’ rightists who are keenest to reconnect. Maybe the virus does have a sense of irony.

The situation is no better in Australia. I used to live in Melbourne, capital of Victoria state. Even aged eight, I could tell it was a wonderfully freewheeling city. Sun, coffee, open air markets that stretched on for miles. Hop on a tram, go see the footy, then to the beach, and back for a street party with the neighbours. Hyper social, yet super relaxed.

So I could hardly believe that Victoria’s premier is now a man called Daniel Andrews, who opened his announcement of yet another ‘temporary’ lockdown last Wednesday with the following:

“Thanks for joining us for what is a very difficult announcement. None of us want to be in a situation where we have to lockdown again…”

We can all remember various politicians opening their statements with a line like this. And I can’t help but scream internally: ‘YOU HAVE THE POWER, DAN! NO ONE’S FORCING YOU TO! IF YOU DON’T WANT TO LOCKDOWN, DON’T LOCKDOWN! You’ve managed to out yourself as a man incapable of following his own convictions!’

But notice how the phrase ‘have to lockdown’ cunningly abrogates the politician of any personal responsibility: ‘Sorry ladies and gents, I just had to. No choice I’m afraid. Hard cheese.’

Of course, I shouldn’t be surprised at Andrews. He and his fellow premiers are being dictated to by federal physicians like the delightful Kerry Chant – the chief health officer of New South Wales – who said in a press conference last month:

Whilst it is in human nature to engage in conversation with others, to be friendly, unfortunately, this is not the time to do that. So even if you run into your next door neighbour (…) don’t start up a conversation. Now is the time for minimising interactions with others. Even if you’ve got a mask, do not think that affords total protection. We want to be absolutely sure that as we go about our daily lives, we do not want to come into contact with anyone that might pose a risk.”

This person is insane. Certifiably bonkers. How dare she claim to dictate whether her countrymen can converse. How dare she frown on ‘being friendly’. One can only assume that New South Welshmen and Welshwomen are dropping daily by the dozen. Let me just check the stats…oh…an average of two deaths a day. That doesn’t quite seem to justify the rhetoric.

For Chant – and a great many other bureaucratic bullies – phrases like ‘no exceptions’ and ‘zero tolerance’ are akin to the sensual. They really do take pleasure in extracting total compliance from a captive population.

Last week, it was announced that personnel from the Australian army would aid the Sydney Police in enforcing a stay at home order which has applied to Sydney’s five million inhabitants since June. You can just imagine Chant’s soft moans of delight as the soldiers were drafted in: ‘At last, the full force of the state is levelled against the people. At last, everyone will stay inside. At last, there will be no exceptions.’

The deployment of the Australian military to ensure Sydneysiders remain locked in their residences is worrying enough. Even more needs to be made of how disproportionately – even discriminatorily – the soldiers are being used. The areas of Sydney deemed to require additional policing are the poorer, migrant-heavy southwestern suburbs. They are being targeted because of relatively lower vaccination rates.

Sydney’s rich are not being faced with the prospect of boot shod squaddies in fatigues telling them to cut the grocery run short. They – safely ensconced in the internet reliant world of high-paying tertiary industry – will find it easy to work from home. In the southwest, median personal incomes are half those in the city’s east.

It is the poor, and the foreign, who will have to endure the sight of the military on the streets. In the name of public health, an epidemiological apartheid has been imposed. That many of these citizens have recently escaped conflict ravaged Middle Eastern countries contains an irony not lost on regional mayor Steve Christou:

“A lot of them are refugees. They’ve escaped hardship, they’ve escaped war-torn countries — instances where the army has not represented a good experience for them (…) To come out and say you’re going to put the army out on the streets . . . is very insensitive.”

In countries like Syria or Iran, secret policemen will ask you where you’re going for no reason, and will turn you around if you stray too far from your front door. When they came to Australia, those refugees could have been forgiven for thinking that sort of treatment was behind them. They were wrong.

Illustration by Oliver Buckingham

Covid Is Passed By Friendship Inspired by Kerry Chant

Just remember, fellow residents of Sydney,

If you feel the tug of solidarity,

If you feel the pull of kinship,

If you fancy a chat and a smile.

Just remember what Kerry told you.

For the virus is ever eager,

With new variants galore.

We must keep up our guard against it,

We must separate and mask.

We all want to feel supported,

To pour our troubles out,

To share a joke, a wink, or even a drink,

But now is not the time.

So if I see you down the Aldi,

Or in the local park,

I will wave at you from a distance,

Then briskly stride away,

Because Covid is passed by friendship,

Now is not the time for friendship,

Now is not the time for friends.