Victoria: Australia’s COVID-19 state of exception

At the change of one’s expression, they rise in the air, soaring up and then perching in a flock. [The Master] said,
The hen pheasant by the mountain bridge,
What timeliness! What timeliness!
Zilu bowed towards them, but with three sniffs, they flew off.

Confucius, Analects

Seven months have now passed since a state of emergency was declared in Victoria, Australia’s second most populous state. Except for a month around June, when easing of restrictions preempted a second wave of COVID-19, the residents of Melbourne have been under varying degrees of ‘lockdown’.

Our rights to freedom of movement, association and commerce have been severely curtailed in a largely successful effort to stop the spread of SARS-COV-2. This was no doubt the right thing to do at the time.

The evidence for this is in the drastically reduced case numbers over this period, down from days of over 700 recorded cases in July and August to less than 10 by mid-October. Nonetheless, over 800 Victorians have lost their lives from COVID-19, with the national death total at 904.

The question, then, is whether this remains the right policy course at this time. The current target for next step toward what the Victorian government is calling ‘COVID Normal’ requires a two week rolling average of five new cases a day or less – it now stands at nine. To be clear about this, we are talking about one person in a million.

Born free and equal

In his influential work Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1998), social theorist Giorgio Agamben makes use of a distinction between bios and zo­e as different types of life. The ancient Greeks saw humans, animals and plants on a continuum of life, but to be human was to be an animal with the faculty of reason. Bios is a mode of life only available to humans, who by virtue of their ability to reason, reflect and deliberate can participate in the political life of a community.

All other life then, is zo­e, or ‘bare life’. But under certain circumstances, people can be relegated from their status as fully human members of the community, to the conditions of bare life. An example is the outlaw, who is deemed to be outside the equal protection of the law. This is homo sacer.

What it means to be a fully human animal in this sense is to some degree dependent on the society we live in, but there seem to be core elements. Very importantly these include our relationships with others in our social networks, especially our families and friends. Another is our personal identity, which is constructed through a complex interplay of self knowledge and interpersonal interactions over our lifetimes.

While keeping people socially isolated is no doubt the worst dimension of the lockdown, the lack of access to hairdressing services, for example, also has the potential to erode our self image as members of a human society. Not because hairstyles are necessary in a bare existential sense, but because they are important in shaping the persona we present to others, and thus to our identities as social beings.

By restricting our social and commercial activities to little more than the essentials of physical survival – food, clothing, medicine, and the odd picnic in the park – Victoria’s regime to suppress COVID-19 has reduced Melbourne’s residents to conditions resembling those of bare life, of zoe. In our ‘state of exception’, we are all homo sacer.

A Victorian state of exception

States of emergency creates states of exception by suspending normal processes governing the rule of law. States of exception have been widely used to understand the actions of the United States government during the so called ‘war on terror’ in places like Guantanamo Bay. Deprived of fundamental legal rights of habeas corpus, hundreds of people were subject to indefinite detention and repeated physical and psychological abuse intended to ‘break’ an individual by creating a condition of ‘learned helplessness’.

The horrors of Guantanamo Bay, though, are a world away from the probably very necessary lockdown of Melbourne during a viral pandemic that has claimed the lives of over a million people globally. Such that any comparison is worse than meaningless – surely? Well, troublingly, it is really a matter of degree rather than kind.

Rather than producing a legal blackhole, states of exception such as Guantanamo Bay or Melbourne fill this newly evacuated regulatory space with novel rules imposed by the executive branch of government, through its unrepresentative and often unaccountable agents in the bureaucracy. And in doing this, the traditional roles of the legislature and judiciary so fundamental to modern democracy are at best sidelined, and at worst usurped.

Under Victoria’s state of emergency, ‘stay at home’ and other legal directives at the core of the ad hoc regime of restrictions on personal freedoms are signed into existence by the Chief Health Officer or their delegate, themselves appointees of appointees of the executive. These instruments create statutory powers for wide ranging and highly discretionary police enforcement of lockdown rules, without need for approval by parliament.

Not only are we subject to extensive and intensive controls on our daily lives (while the nightly curfew has been lifted this still includes a five kilometre limit on movement which is being challenged in the High Court), we are also forbidden from leaving Melbourne, let alone Victoria, without the state’s express permission. And if we could, the federal government has, momentarily, bound us to the shores of this erstwhile penal colony we call Australia.

Shame, shame, shame

Culture is almost a dirty word in Australian public life. And it’s not just about culture wars.

Some people think Australia’s problem is a lack of culture – as if culture is always, or at least mostly, positive. All human and many other animal societies have culture. It’s the form, the topography if you will, of Australia’s mainstream culture that presents us with problems.

A telling fact is a city of five million people needing to be coerced to stay in their homes for most of the day and wear face coverings when they do go out in order to avoid community transmission of COVID-19. By and large, Australians aren’t good at respecting other people’s personal space. Or their right to not be involuntarily inflicted with pollutants, including in this case bodily fluids that could carry a deadly virus.

It may be that Australian society ordinarily operates not so far above the line between zoe and bios; closer to bare life than to the full human existence envisaged by the ancient Greeks who bequeathed us our democratic culture – as we were reminded in a timely tweet by Victoria’s health minister who since resigned over the mishandling of the crisis.

This invidious idea is certainly suggested by our national obsession with endless reality TV series revolving around the basic elements of human life: food and housing in particular. It is also suggested by the almost complete absence of civic consciousness, all the way from our local communities to national politics.

As a rule, we hew far closer to British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s dictum that ‘there is no society’, than to the ‘Asian values’ espoused by her Singaporean counterpart Lee Kuan Yew, which place collective socioeconomic wellbeing above individual rights. But perhaps there’s a thing or two we could learn from the successes of East Asian societies in stemming the spread of COVID-19.

For me, the most salient of these lessons is that, at the end of the day, mainstream Australia lacks any robust sense of social shame.

We are simply either too afraid or too conditioned to call out antisocial behaviour. Indeed, we are probably more likely to report such activities to the police than to directly engage with our fellow citizens.

Arguably, it is this lack of shame in the public sphere that has landed Melbournians in this shameful situation.

And what an ignominious state we are in. Our city’s vibrant arts, entertainment and sporting life is all but crushed. We mostly cannot see our friends or family. We are not free to make plans and work toward our goals and dreams. We can’t take to the streets to protest social and environmental injustices. We can’t even get a haircut.

Are we not barbarians inside the city’s locked gate?

Published by Kurt Vall

Based in Melbourne, Australia, Kurt studied linguistics, philosophy and Asian history at the Australian National University and is currently a graduate student in international relations at the University of Melbourne. He has over a decade's experience in public policy and administration in Australian federal and state government.

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