When the World Health Organisation’s Director-General pronounced the concisely named CoViD-19 as the first controllable pandemic on 11 March 2020, a moment in world history flashed before our eyes.
However, two and a half months later, the coronavirus formerly known as ‘novel’, now SARS‑CoV‑2, is anything but under control – with over 100,000 new cases in 24 hours reported globally on 20 May. Yet control is very much the apt nomenclature to describe the general global political climate of the 2020 Pandemic. Embryonic in this epoch marking event were twin modes of response to the global spread of CoViD-19: securitisation and surveillance. And for every legal and regulatory measure governments take under these conditions, both positive and counter narratives can be constructed.
The pro-government narrative advocates for these measures as being well-intentioned and in-the-populace’s-best-interests. These ostensibly protective measures include legally proclaimed states of emergency giving police extraordinary coercive powers over people’s freedom of movement, assembly and association. This securitisation of the worst global public health issue in a century (since the USA Flu) is no trifling matter. The rights curtailed by stay-at-home and other socially restrictive policy responses reside at the heart of the liberal democratic traditions that define Anglosphere politics.
Sailing solo on the seas of cheese
Internal borders are generally a big no-no in western democratic regimes, which in adopting a nationalist legitimacy narrative strongly shy away from subdividing the nation with household registration schemes and the like.
However, Queensland, incidentally or otherwise Australia’s most US-Americanised state, currently requires non-exempted persons, include children, to obtain an ‘entry pass’ to cross the state line. And Western Australia, a state that despite its cleaner cut appearance is equally conservative, established a network of internal movement controls, effectively creating borders within borders within… Both states have histories of secessionist politics.
Vulnerable communities including Aboriginal peoples in Australia’s remote ‘top end’ should have and could have been protected with or without blanket border controls. Enabling Australia’s Indigenous peoples to exercise more autonomy over their lives and communities would allow them to better protect themselves in major crises such as our current predicament.
Beyond what are generally nothing but distant or abstract considerations for most Australians, restriction of movement insidiously undermines previously less considered aspects of our lives. This includes our quotidian participation in alternative microeconomies. While it is okay to buy stuff from commercial retailers and through the medium of the internet, on the other hand giving, bartering, private sales and so forth are problematic under legally enforceable social distancing regimes.
This situation also inevitably favours larger firms compared to smaller businesses, with the former having vastly more resources and operational flexibility to adapt to the social distancing norms that are supposed to be at the heart of the stay at home directions issued in many countries around the world. And the workers who manage and deliver our precious cargo are amongst the lowest paid and most precarious in western societies.
Divide and surveille
Virtual borders are now drawn around our dwellings, irrespective of whether we live in rural farmhouses, inhabit swanky suburban mansions, or are denizens of dilapidated inner city apartments. Victoria, arguably the contemporary cultural heartland of Australian, made it a summary offence to allow a person other than another resident into your home, with some exceptions including for service providers and compassionate care. Work and education are required to be undertaken in the home environment where possible.
The prohibition on allowing most other people into our homes has covertly reinforced the deep pro-family bias in Australian social and economic policy. This plague-worthy response is redolent of the puritanistic Christian ideology known in Australia as wowserism. Mixing in pubs and bars, dining, house parties and ultimately sex before (de facto) marriage were or are effectively proscribed under the State of Victoria’s state of emergency.
This pincer movement, from inside and outside our homes and dwellings, has atomised our society to an extent hitherto unknown. It feels more akin to the stuff of ‘pre-covid’ TV science fiction such as Black Mirror, than to our inherited and adopted ideas of a decent, free and democratic society.
In this liberal wetdream/nightmare of every one/family on their own, online commerce has boomed, providing a boon opportunity for surveillance capitalism to really get its fangs in. We have been pushed toward a cashless society by stealth, with card transactions as an obvious (one might even say commonsense) way to reduce risk of transmission of infectious agents like SARS-CoV-2.
Many of us have turned (even more!?) to social media for connection with friends, families, acquaintances and complete strangers. Our higher education institutions have shut their campuses, and in Australia’s case moving – surprising or impressively depending on your perspective – to a more or less full online mode, delivering us the zöomiversity experience. The next step has been ‘proctoring’ software for remote student examination, which sees Zoom’s highly hackable internet teleconferencing service, and raises it to straight-out ‘spyware’.
Melbourne perhaps more than elsewhere in Australia has felt the depth of the destructive impact the lockdown response has had on the arts sector. The closing of large venues was very clearly a very sensible measure reasonably early in Australia’s CoViD-19 epidemic. What followed, though, can be seen as calculated neglect of a sector that is both an economic powerhouse and, surely more importantly, a way of life for a city situated at the ends of the earth. There are also eery echoes here of the disastrous response to modern Australia’s worst bushfire season, a terrible summer if ever were.
Meanwhile, the advent of the ‘virtual festival’ replete with internet-streamed live music and e-commerce opportunities aplenty, can, as always, be seen as positive narrative and counter narratives: of adaptability, resilience and the power of human connection; or conversely as a doubling down on capitalist co-option and commodification of culture.
Is this the society we really want?
After doing an incredibly dubious job of tracking, tracing and stopping SARS-CoV-2 in the early phases of its international career (fancy a cruise on a ship anyone?), the Australian Government CoViD-19 tracing app was rolled out in late April. This was accompanied by a big push for Australian’s to download and use the app, with the lead role played by the carrot of a return to pre-lockdown freedoms. This was despite lag times for state and territory governments to introduce their own operational environment rendering it initially inoperative.
Notwithstanding the technological upgrade, this attempt at twenty-first century public health governance has echoes of previous attempts to introduce universal personal identification systems. These include the ‘health and social services’ Access Card that died an ignominious death along with Liberal Party prime minister John Howard’s political career in 2007, and back to the Australia Card, that stillborn progeny of the mid-1980s neoliberal turn under the Labor government of Bob Hawke.
Built on source code used by Singapore’s hybrid political regime for their CoViD-19 app, the Australian Government has refused to release source code for their version. There are some unavoidable parallels here with the refusal to release coronavirus modelling that was being used by the grand sounding National Cabinet’s to make its decisions about lockdown regimes that would be implemented under state and territory jurisdiction.
Yet for all the securitisation and surveillance, the atomisation and control embodied in pervasive controls over who can enter a property, amounting to what could veritably be described as a government home invasion, the state still cannot effectively intervene to protect women and children in their homes. On the other hand, tragically, in the isolation of pandemic lockdowns there has been a sharp rise in the incidence of reported family violence in many parts of the world.
And overlaying all of this is the legal deprivation of the right to physically protest against government using traditional and modern methods of mass demonstrations, pickets and other blockading action. But there are perhaps even more reasons that people should be protesting in various ways against government policies under the death throes of neoliberalism, relating both to the state responses to the pandemic, and in some countries probably more importantly, the nefarious activities governments are doing (and by and large getting away with) under the proverbial and legal cover of CoViD-19.
In Australia, such activities will generally benefit business interests arguably more than the community, and none more so than the major push for a post-pandemic fossil fuel driven recovery. Leaked documents from the National COVID Coordination Commission, hand-picked by Liberal Party captain Scott Morrison and led by an energy industry insider, advocates public subsidies, including government underwriting and creation of floor prices to ramp up the socially and environmentally destructive on-shore gas industry. Even the self-styled progressive Labor Victorian state government reintroduced conventional onshore gas extraction during the early, confusing weeks of the coronavirus pandemic in mid-March.
The WASP in the room
Surely effective and timely public health measures could have been implemented early in Australia’s epidemic experience that would have ultimately led to less economic costs than has been the result of the piecemeal lockdown regimes adopted by Australian jurisdictions.
In being careful to take control in a context where they will also take the blame, collectively the states and territories of this fractious federation have carved up our civil liberties like the industrial canker of coal seam gas wells (further) scarring the rural landscapes of a number of Australia’s states.
Likewise, decent and equitable support for sectors including the arts, early learning, schools and universities, and other vital but politicised sectors would have gone a long way to preserving jobs and economic independence of local and migrant workers and families across the broad economic and cultural matrix of Australian society.
But if it is axiomatic in politics that a genuine crisis should never be wasted, then it is equally a cornerstone of Australian politics that culture, learning and diversity are anathemas to the dominant WASPish paradigm of social control.
Image: Citizen D