Trust and Terror

Good morning, friends. Let’s chat about everyone’s (least) favourite topic right now, which isn’t so much one subject as many intertwined: lockdowns, vaccines, policing, health, governance, and social cohesion. The subjects may be many, but the engine that powers them is the same, which I’ll get to later. Let me start by saying that I think it’s in all our best interest to follow the public health orders, and that everyone should seek out whatever vaccine is available to them. I think it’s necessary to air some of the valid problems that are causing so much anxiety right now, but not at the expense of our ability to survive this crisis. Please get vaccinated if you can.

This past weekend saw large anti-lockdown protests in Sydney and Melbourne (and other parts of the world, but my focus for now is local), that were largely driven by right-wing extremists and anti-vaxxers, but I think it’s reasonable to say it also included a fair number of unaffiliated people who were confused, exhausted, and in need of support. In fairness, it probably included a fair number of bargain basement dickheads too, who were along just to make a ruckus, and fuck those people forever.

The background to this moment is simple: a viral outbreak in the affluent suburb of Bondi was treated by the government with processes previously used on Covid to great success, but which proved insufficient against Delta. This was a policy failure, to not have adapted their process to suit the more dangerous threat Delta posed, and which we were well aware of, given ample warning by large outbreaks overseas. It spread overwhelmingly fast, making its way into Western Sydney, a less affluent region heavily populated by working class migrant communities, and it’s now more or less out of control. (I would not be surprised if the protest is ultimately blamed as the moment control was lost, but only an idiot would believe that. The protest could only exist in a context of hopelessness, as an expression of despair.)

I am of that working class migrant community, born and raised in Liverpool. I have family there still, and in Bankstown LGA, and I live in Auburn. When the virus spread to these areas, there was a marked shift in the messaging coming from our elected leaders. Police announced a “crackdown” would be taking place, an extra hundred officers were dispatched to the region to force compliance with new restrictions. I watched this take place with familiar dread. The implication from the outset was that our communities could not be trusted and needed to be threatened and punished both pre-emptively and collectively. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if the cause for this shift and crackdown was deliberately racist, or the belated panic of public officials, the impact was racist, and it’s hard to understate the damage. That was two weeks ago, and we are now in a position where the Prime Minister has said he wants “the army on the streets.” It should give everyone pause that Scott Morrison is ready to call on the army to police Western Sydney when we have around 150 cases a day, which while concerning, hardly demands this kind of rhetoric.

How did we get here? In the short term, we saw severe lockdowns in Western Sydney localities that were over-policed and poorly managed—stringent restrictions like mandatory coronavirus tests every three days were put in place without an equally forceful multilingual messaging campaign and access to those tests, which resulted in chaos. 6-hour long testing queues. Cars lined up overnight. Police checking people’s bags at Kmart, needless arrests and fines. All this, while case numbers keep rising—not because people were flouting the rules, but because it can take up to a fortnight for the virus to take effect and show up, and because Western Sydney is predominantly made up of the only people allowed out—“essential workers”—who can’t work from home. Cleaners, healthcare staff, truck drivers, couriers, tradies, hospitality and supermarket staff. Incremental restrictions—first suggesting, then forcing employers to shift to working from home, before locking everyone except healthcare workers down—have been utterly ineffective. Throughout this, financial support has been equally incremental, with a one-off $1500 payment for lost work and a $600 weekly allowance, provided you aren’t receiving any other government support. Meanwhile, $600 doesn’t even cover my brother’s rent, let alone help him pay his other bills, or feed his six children, but he is locked down in Villawood and unable to work.

Every step of the disaster unfolding before us has been guided by a miserly attitude that notionally puts finance ahead of health and predictably costs us both. Instead of seeing this as the outcome of successive failures at the state and federal levels where massive restrictions disrupted families and communities living week-to-week, without actually denting the outbreak, leading to understandable frustration that boiled over into protest, the Prime Minister is talking about putting the army on the streets, taking another step down the road of militarising a public health emergency that he himself orchestrated. Australia could have had priority access to the Pfizer vaccine, and treated the chance as a joke. Months later, our government crawled back to Pfizer and even then, ordered an insufficient amount of vaccines. This, along with mixed medical advice around the AstraZeneca vaccine, has contributed to one of the worst vaccine rollouts in the so-called developed world. It was only ten days ago that the government saw fit to make it mandatory for quarantine workers—the first contact point with contagious people, and the origin of our current outbreak—to be vaccinated. I could go into every example of the staggering incompetence of this government but even limited to the past few months, it would just take too long.

We need to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. The reality is that we are run by a conservative party that has demonstrated, time and again, that it will choose profit over health, security theatre over sensible policy, sensationalism over expert guidance, all while constantly pandering to its anti-vax, anti-science, anti-intellectual base. In the middle of a global pandemic, our tertiary education system has been deliberately devastated—tens of thousands of jobs lost without support and new budget cuts announced, which comes on the back of a decade in which our scientific capabilities have been undermined, and every bond of trust worn away thanks to a government plagued by corruption scandals.

As profoundly frustrating as it is to see people disrespect the safety of us all, it is understandable why people are so mistrustful, when we're governed by a political class that acts with impunity, and without integrity. Ours is a generation that witnessed and took part in the invasion of Iraq on the basis of lies, a generation that witnesses corporations and politicians get away with human rights crimes all the time. We live in a time where the scientific consensus on the calamity of human-driven climate change has been met by our leaders with corporate-funded contempt. We live in a time where the public and expert consensus on big pharmaceutical companies is that they are ludicrously immoral, and routinely wield their enormous power not for the sake of public health but for profit, to the detriment of us all. In short, we live in a system that is killing the world and killing us for the short-term benefit of the few, and now we’re being scolded by wealthy politicians whose income has not been impacted and whose healthcare is total, to do the right thing for the good of everyone.

This is obviously fucking insane. It is absolutely and perfectly reasonable that a wide spectrum of people are furious, and want to make it known, irrespective of the cost. They are, after all, modelling behaviour seen every day in our supposed leaders—recklessness and a wilful disregard for the future. To be clear: I am certain that we should take up the vaccines that are presently available as soon as possible. I have had my first dose and I will get my second in a couple of weeks, inshallah. It’s important, however, to acknowledge that this pandemic has profoundly exposed the lie in the phrase “for the good of everyone”. It’s important to acknowledge that we live in a deeply divided, unequal society that not only lacks a clear vision for the future, but is ruled by powerful institutions that are not acting in our best interests. It’s important to acknowledge that the virus has shifted, that the variants are different, and that the vaccines we have available—while crucial in keeping us alive if infected—do not prevent infection itself. People are only now understanding this fact, which, in the context of these lockdowns, is demoralising. The popular understanding of the word vaccine is as something that provides immunity, not just incomplete protection. That this protection is vital to ensuring our healthcare system doesn’t collapse and we have the time to develop better measures has not been communicated anywhere near well enough.

This brings us back to the lockdowns in Sydney and Melbourne, the deep desire to see sacrifices yield a tangible result against a largely invisible problem, and what is required to get us through, what underlies everything at play here: trust. Or rather, the lack of it. I watched the announcement of a police “crackdown” for Western Sydney with dread because the area already swarms with cops, because my community—Lebanese Muslim—has long been the subject of extra police surveillance and harassment, as well as public and political hostility, for decades. I was sixteen when the Cronulla Riots occurred, and thousands of angry white people gathered to chant “Fuck off Lebs!” and to attack every brown or vaguely Middle-Eastern-looking person. There were some random acts of vandalism and violence by Lebs in the days that followed. Of the two phenomena, only one lead to the formation of police unit in response: the Middle Eastern Organised Crime Squad. A taskforce that operated for over a decade after the riots, given a publicly funded mandate to target us. This is not unique to my community, either: there was the Asian Crime Squad before it, and the ongoing targeting and incarceration of Indigenous people, which needs no name, no specific squad, as the default state of colonial institutions is their dispossession and death. All the cruelties of the State have been honed on Indigenous peoples, including military intervention.

This is one of many reasons it was deeply distressing to hear the Prime Minister invoke the army recently. The Northern Territory intervention, which required the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act, saw the military used to abruptly seize control of Aboriginal communities, under the guise of administering health and safety outcomes, and which in effect only further traumatised people who were already suffering. It was there the government tested its gross “cashless” welfare policy, a punitive and ineffective system designed to further shame and oppress the impoverished, which has subsequently been expanded nationwide. Similarly, the spectre of the Arab/Muslim Other has been used to justify all kinds of expanded state and police powers, as well as military action overseas, the invasion of other nations, a horrific array of war crimes, and a despicable refugee detention regime. This is to say that in the public and political imaginary there is no endpoint for the suffering of certain Others, no low which is intolerable—genocidal practices against Indigenous peoples are ongoing and these violences are every bit as viral as infections; they spread far beyond their initial targets, and replicate long past the point where harm is visible.

Whenever we advocate for the transformation of the system to something that has equality, justice, community and sustainability at its heart we are invariably told that it’s too hard or too expensive, that it would lead to massive economic and social upheaval on an unprecedented scale. And yet here we are, in the midst of massive economic and social upheaval on an unprecedented scale, with no real end point in sight, and no sign from the powerful that they have any intention of changing how they operate. Instead of international co-operation and the waiving of patents, we have a handful of companies making billions in profit while struggling to meet the demands of the moment. Instead of compassionate and practical resources used to keep people supported and comfortable at home, we have confused and sporadic bursts of punishment and reluctant insufficient payments. Instead of the super-elite doing their utmost to provide help, we have billionaires engaged in astronomical dick-measuring contests. All this in a time of devastating floods, fires, and plague, where a virus that has killed over several million and infected 180 million people continues to mutate in a largely unvaccinated global population.

Friends, I’m terrified. And like many, I’ve made fun of ludicrous anti-vaxxers who span from the uneducated poor to the wilfully stupid rich, and I’ve laughed at and criticised the gronks from my own community, but I won’t pretend that there aren’t very real systemic problems here, I won’t pretend they don’t have reason to be afraid, or to be mistrustful. They’re terrified, too. The question for all of us who have come through the past two decades of ideological warfare—the war on terror, or more accurately, the war to terrify—is this: what will it take to restore trust? How do we move forward not with fear but with purpose, and with healthcare, with care itself, as our priority? I don’t have the answers, and until such time as better options avail themselves to me, I will follow the public health orders, I’ll stay home, I’ll take the vaccine. That said, it’s easy for me to do so—I’m a writer, I work from home, I live with the person I love, and for now we are able to support ourselves. Frankly, I don’t know what’s going to happen when that changes.