On 1 January last year the words of the national anthem were changed, purportedly to make them more inclusive. Instead of rejoicing that we were ‘young and free’, which was supposedly offensive to the ancient cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islanders, we were exhorted to rejoice that ‘we are one and free’.
A year later this seemingly minor alteration to the lyrics looks prescient. While we are less considerably less free than before Covid-19 reached our shores, the government is working hard at making us ‘one’, at least in the sense of only allowing us to express one point of view.
Australia Day should be a time to celebrate all that is great about our nation. Yet after two long years of pandemic, we seriously need to engage in national soul searching.
The climate of fear and hysteria that has been perpetuated by governments at all levels in our federation has brought out the ugliness in our national character.
At our best, Australia is a country that welcomes visitors and immigrants, that is tolerant and relaxed, imaginative and innovative.
Yet in the shadow of a pandemic that we have mostly avoided, our leaders have become dangerously authoritarian and the populace distressingly conscious of threats, coercion and the menace of state violence.
A case in point is the appalling treatment of the unvaccinated. It never made sense. The risk that people pose occurs only when they are infected. It became clear by the middle of last year that both the vaccinated and the unvaccinated could become infected and both could infect others.
Despite this, those who have chosen not to be vaccinated have been hounded out of their jobs, even when they had robust immunity acquired through infection.
This is a wrong that must be righted. It is appalling that people who have given decades of service to the community as doctors, nurses, paramedics, teachers, age care workers and in so many other walks of life have been demonised and thrown into unemployment.
More broadly, our approach to the pandemic has been deeply flawed. It has been clear since very early in 2020, that the risk Covid-19 posed to an individual was highly differentiated and that those who needed to be protected were the elderly, the ill and the obese.
We should always have made it our top priority to protect the vulnerable and allowed others to get on with their lives.
There many in Australia who recommended this policy to the government. Unfortunately, they were ignored. Even when it became clear that countries who had not locked down — Taiwan, Japan, South Korea — had managed to protect the vulnerable without destroying their economies — Australian governments, state and federal, refused to correct their course.
Similarly, our governments refused to look at the evidence that showed that when Sweden kept its schools open, its pupils suffered no increase infection or death compared with previous years. And yet too often we kept our schools closed to the detriment of childrens’ physical and mental health and their education.
The failure of our governments to admit mistakes and change course means that we have paid a far higher price than we needed to protect the vulnerable.
All Australians, even those who are at little threat from Covid-19, have lost their freedom. That freedom must now be returned.
It is never easy for anyone to admit they have made a mistake, but it is essential that our leaders start this process.
They must stop playing the politics of fear and loathing, of hatred and division.
Australia can be so much better than that and this Australia Day would be a very good day to start.
Only when our freedoms have been returned to all of us, when those who were so unfairly thrown out of their jobs have been able to return to work, will we be able to once again rejoice that we are one and free.
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