The pandemic induced chokehold on Melbourne’s population is starting to bite. Just one month into the second metropolitan-wide CoViD-19 lockdown and the pressure on people’s day to day lives is starting to show, tempers are beginning to fray.
Right from the beginning of the lockdown regimes there were consistent, credible and widespread reports of extremely concerning and dramatic increases in domestic or family violence, predominantly affecting women. This is a clear indication that stresses and anxieties related to the pandemic are in many instances manifesting as modes of ‘lateral violence’.
Under the lockdown regime to date, outdoor activity has been strongly curtailed, with running the only activity with a blanket face mask exemption. Under these conditions, rising early and walking in the cool morning air is a good way to get some relatively relaxed exercise. Sunglasses – essential for the Australian climate – and face masks don’t mix well, and there’s also less people about to dodge.
So I was unpleasantly surprised this morning on my way back from walking along the creek. Before 9am on a Sunday I was being threatened with having my jaw smashed and my phone taken, as I fumbled to call the police in an attempt to deter the source of these threats.
Only seconds earlier, a menacing man with a hard-as-nails look got out of his oddly shaped car, replete with bling and low-profile tyres. My transgression had been refusing to cross in front of him as he stopped in the middle of the street in an otherwise deserted light industrial estate, barely a few hundred metres from the local high school.
I couldn’t immediately remember the number as he moved in my direction. ‘911’ came into my head; I got as far as the ‘9’ before realising my error. Luckily by then the ploy had worked. Later I recalled I’d been reading about the beginnings of the global ‘war on terror’ the previous evening, which may have contributed to the moment.
Real and present threat of grievous bodily harm is, if nothing else, an interesting experience to be unexpectedly faced with. A genuine fear of his return slowly dissolved wave by wave into lingering anxiety about random acts of violence projected onto an imaginary future as I walked away from the scene. It was a violent and unwelcome intrusion into my white, urban, middle-class and male privilege (WUMP).
Winter of our discontent
Beyond the unsettling subjective experience itself, this reinforced for me concerns about the sustainability of the current lockdown approach as the isolation and frustration faced by millions of Victorian residents threatens to grind on for months to come.
Winter is not the most enjoyable season in this city at the edge of the Southern Ocean. But prevailing climatic conditions are usually mitigated by an immense depth and diversity of cultural production and reproduction. Centred around the ubiquitous ‘footy’, even the lives of non-acolytes become tuned to the league calendar, with Grand Final festivities heralding spring and its open-ended promise of the possible.
States of emergency are not a common experience for the vast majority of Australians. We are mostly not used to having our lives restricted much at all, even in such a relatively mild and benevolent mode. The national novelty of the crisis was demonstrated by early and aggressive panic buying, with Australia topping the world in a ‘panic index’.
Until the impacts of climate change were catastrophically thrust into centre-stage by the 2019-20 spring/summer of the mega-fires, most Australians have not lived with constant or recurrent concern or fear arising from threats inherent in their communities or natural environment. Apart from the monsoonal northern tropics, extreme weather has not been a concern, and its effects are generally mitigated by the quality and amount of infrastructure and aggregate wealth.
Simply put, the Victorian community was neither conditioned nor prepared for any substantial duration of continuous adverse conditions disrupting or limiting daily activity. But the answer to this problem is not to simply ‘be resilient’. Rather some sensitivity is needed to take this fragility into account when designing, developing and implementing policy responses to the CoViD-19 pandemic.
A key lesson of this crisis is that long term political and financial erosion of community and public sector institutions and infrastructure makes modern advanced industrial societies susceptible to systemic failures when faced with external or internal shocks. However, it is much too soon for post-mortems yet.
It is time, though, for a rethink of how the situation is being managed, and how it could be managed better. What is clear is that a state-based, top down approach has so far not worked to contain Melbourne’s ‘second wave’ coronavirus epidemic. SARS-CoV-2 is not only spreading locally, with 626 more cases taking the Victorian total to 11,557, but also being transmitted to other states.
This afternoon, 2 August 2020, premier Daniel Andrews announced a ‘state of disaster’ from 6pm. New ‘stage 4’ lockdowns will be in place for the next six weeks until mid-September. People are required to remain within five kilometres of their place of residence and will be under a general curfew from 8pm to 5am, with exemptions for work and personal care. Only one person per household allowed out once a day for shopping, with one hour of exercise permitted each day.
While details are yet be released on how this will be policed and how the potentially devastating effects impacts on business will be mitigated, no one is in doubt of the magnitude of the task involved in turning the tide of community transmission. If their current track record is anything to go by, however, government agencies will need to really pick up their game to make a go of doubling down on lockdown.
Under these circumstances, consideration should urgently be given to devolving on-the-ground aspects of response to more agile and flexible levels and forms of governance. Being able to tailor responses to specific local and regional conditions and being more responsive to a rapidly changing epidemiological realities can provide more effective interventions driving better outcomes.
Supported by appropriate and adequate central coordination, devolved governance can improve the ability to pro-actively engage and consult communities, to develop more effective communication, and to nurture trust and openness through genuine two-way relationships. This leads to enhanced problem solving environments better suited to targeting support and other activities where, when and in the manner required to achieve intended results.
This type of approach is especially relevant to cultural and linguistically diverse segments of the community, as well as other socially excluded or vulnerable groups, many of whom have found themselves at the centre of Melbourne’s CoViD-19 ‘hotspots’. After all, the knowledge of what is happening on the ground, what is working and is not working, and what could work better is invested in the very people the state is trying to help.
Instead of further concentrating power to fight the pandemic in state medical and policing authorities as facilitated by a state of emergency, residents should be genuinely empowered and meaningfully supported to manage, individually and collectively, their own risks and requirements. Perhaps it is time for everyone to ‘become our own experts’? It is surely time knowledge about health and medicine was promoted widely and thoroughly in the community, as a public good and human right.
But, tragically for the victims of this crisis, the hollowed-out neoliberal state’s capacity to adopt a more human, more organic, more dynamic approach is at best borderline in my assessment. This was heartbreakingly evident in the failures of the aged care system to protect elderly people in residential accommodation from CoViD-19, and this despite clear lessons from other countries’ painful experiences.
Yet, Australians have time and time again exercised their democratic rights to endorse at the ballot box the continued erosion and marketisation of the public sector and civil society, which underpin the very fabric of our collective existences.
We have also allowed our commercial and public mass media to be unduly influenced by very few and very narrow interests. And we have decried from the sidelines as our educational institutions – those quintessential shapers of values, moulders of young minds, producers of compliant citizens – were cast as political footballs in ideologically-driven culture wars.
More than merely accepting this diabolical deal, we repeatedly put out our aspirational hands, myopically thinking only about what we can have now, conditioned to be more concerned that someone else might get a better deal, and willfully ignorant of the impact on the future. That future is now – and it’s not looking too bright.