I’m at risk, but I don’t want lockdowns
It’s hard to credit in a democracy like Australia, but five and a half million Melburnians are set to continue under virtual house arrest almost indefinitely. On Sunday, Premier Dan Andrews’ ‘roadmap’ to reopening turned out to be a plan for even more lockdowns. Unless cases in Victoria drop to below current New South Wales levels, the curfew will continue beyond 26 October; and restaurants won’t be open for indoor service until after 23 November, and then only if there are no new cases for a fortnight.
Prior to the virus hysteria, there has never been a general curfew in Australia. When new infections peaked at just over 700 a day in a state of 6.5 million people, the city of Melbourne was subjected to a night-time curfew with people banned from leaving their homes except for an hour’s exercise, necessary shopping, or work in essential services. Since then, hundreds of Victorians have been fined $1,600 for being more than five kilometres from their home or being out after 8pm. Police in Victoria routinely approach people in the street asking why they’re out.
The premier says it’s for their own good but that’s how rulers always justify police states. The only difference between these draconian measures and those of other authoritarian regimes is their rationale. In Victoria, the justification is health protection. In other places, the rationale is national security versus enemies of the state. It might be a virus that Victoria is supposedly ‘at war’ against, but the result is an oppressive impact on ordinary people’s lives.
Over the past fortnight, NSW had 104 new cases. If, and only if Victoria drops to below five new cases a day, and even then not for another seven weeks, the curfew will finally be dropped, people will be able to leave home without a specific reason, ten people will be able to gather outdoors, five people will be able to visit another home, students might be able to return to school and restaurants will be able to open for outdoor service only. It’s hardly freedom; it’s far from what’s currently allowed in NSW; and it’s contingent on cases getting below NSW’s current levels.
On Sunday there were 76 new cases in Victoria. Despite on the same day experiencing 10,000 new cases in Spain and 9,000 in France, normal life there is continuing. All that’s being stepped up is the admonition to wear masks in crowded public places. As President Macron has said, there will be no new lockdowns because they do too much economic damage. Even in Britain, which has also succumbed to a degree of virus hysteria, 1,800 new cases on Sunday produced no more than a ‘close watch’ on some regions.
Despite the changing nature of the pandemic illness and the improvement in treatment methods, the Victorian government remains wedded to lockdowns. It’s paradoxical that Victoria has been Australia’s worst-hit state, as its initial lockdown was the longest and the most severe in Australia.
But instead of accepting that his response should change in line with circumstances, Premier Andrews seems committed to even more of the same, possibly to protect himself from the recriminations that will be inevitable when and if it’s over.
Since March this year, democracy as we know it has been suspended in Victoria under emergency and disaster declarations. People can be detained, homes can be entered and the ordinary law of the land can be suspended by executive order. Parliament in Victoria only came back so that Premier Andrews could ram through an extension of emergency powers.
Even if cases drop and the state inches back to normalcy on this timetable, most students will have missed a year of school and most families will have missed a year of normal life, with parents somehow juggling working from home and home-schooling their kids. Although a majority of the public has so far been prepared to sacrifice freedom for safety, it’s hard to imagine Victorians being ready to endure much longer the world’s most repressive lockdown, with the exception of Wuhan in China. People’s patience with this government is wearing thin, in large measure because the second wave that prompted this draconian lockdown is entirely due to the Andrew’s government’s failed management of hotel quarantine, coupled with incompetent contact tracing.
Premier Andrews justifies the ongoing lockdown saying that he’s not going to sacrifice the elderly. After six months to study this virus and the bitter experience of poorly prepared Victorian nursing homes, surely we’ve learned how to protect the old and the sick without blighting the lives of the young and the healthy. As a 75-year-old widower and recovering alcoholic, I’m more vulnerable than most to this illness. But the last thing I want is to see everyone wrapped in cotton wool, especially as like most Australians I’m more than capable of making my own judgments about the risks I’m prepared to run.
As swathes of normal life have been obliterated, so far most Australians have been prepared to give governments the benefit of the doubt. More and more, though, citizens are asking whether the cure is worse than the disease.
It is pleasing to report that Prime Minister Scott Morrison has finally abandoned his reluctance to criticise the Victorian government. He was starting to look like he was conniving in an exercise of power for power’s sake. The Liberal party, after all, is supposed to believe in freedom. And freedom still matters, even in a pandemic.
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Ross Fitzgerald AM is Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University. He is the author of 42 books, most recently a memoir, ‘Fifty Years Sober: an Alcoholic’s Journey’, published by Hybrid in Melbourne.
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