Claire Harris

What’s Worse: The Pandemic? Or the Politics That Surround It?

(Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash)

Waking up, fretting over the pandemic, and listening to the news is a daily routine. As is wading through the political dreck and hackneyed takes that follow soon thereafter.

 

During this pandemic, my routine — and that of everyone in my city of Melbourne — looks something like this. Spend all morning waiting for the time of the Premier’s press conference to be announced. Wait for the press conference where today’s number of new cases is delivered. Anxiously hope that it is lower than yesterday. Spend the rest of the day worrying about the fact that it isn’t. Wonder constantly if the tickle in my throat means I should get tested (even though a sore throat is a reliable feature of the Melbourne winter). Think I’ll wait and see if it’s worse tomorrow. Sleep, repeat.

We can usually predict how bad “the number” will be by how late the Premier holds the press conference. If it’s at 11 o’clock on the dot, we can breathe a sigh of relief. The longer after 11 am, the more we should fear the number.

Today’s press conference was scheduled for 2:00 o’clock, then pushed to 2:30 pm, so we knew it was going to be bad. And it was. The number wasn’t quite as high as our record two days ago but it was higher than yesterday. That means we still have no idea whether tomorrow’s number will be up or down — and we still have to spend our mornings waiting.

There was already speculation that the Premier Dan Andrews would declare a move to Stage 4 restrictions, although we weren’t quite sure what that meant. He did — and we learned that it meant a nightly curfew from 8:00 pm to 5:00 am, a limit of being outside only one hour a day, and no more than five kilometers from our home.

Predictably — and instantly — as after each of the last 30-ish daily press conferences the Premier has wearily delivered in a row, the hashtags #DictatorDan and #ChairmanDan were trending on Twitter.

I am not quite as exhausted as our state leader looks, but I’m exhausted. We all are. The thought of six weeks or more of total confinement to the walls of our home, the surreal sight of even my barista wearing a mask, the inability to see friends … and the uncertainty of not knowing when this will all end, it’s all very tiring.

 

The state borders are unlikely to open any time soon. The constant bombardment of bad news, of rising death tolls, of new hotspots — it is already difficult to deal with on a daily basis. But the fatigue is enormously worsened by all the fucking politics.

 

As August creeps into September, my hopes of traveling to Sydney at Christmas to see my family are beginning to grow thin. The state borders are unlikely to open any time soon. The constant bombardment of bad news, of rising death tolls, of new hotspots — it is already difficult to deal with on a daily basis. But the fatigue is enormously worsened by all the fucking politics.

It probably goes without saying, but I do not enjoy wearing a mask. I don’t know anyone who does. It fogs up your glasses and reminds you that you ate too much garlic. But personally I have been wearing a mask for months — and I wished everyone else was too. Most people didn’t until it became mandatory a couple of weeks ago.

The greatest downside of mandatory mask-wearing is having to listen to people complain endlessly about how their freedom is being taken away by a piece of fabric. I wish we lived in a society where thinking about the collective good didn’t have to be mandated. However, the pandemic has made it abundantly clear that we don’t. (Hello, toilet paper hoarders!)

Like other Victorians, I don’t feel comfortable seeing police patrol my street (although probably not as uncomfortable as people from marginalized communities feel …). I have great concerns about if and how a culture of policing and the powers associated with a “State of Disaster” will be rolled back when this is all over.

That isn’t to say that I think Dan Andrews has done everything right. The hotel quarantine debacle, which seems to be the source of this new outbreak, was a monumental fuck-up. The effective imprisonment of public housing tenants was unconscionable.

But what other leader is asked if they’re going to resign every time they face the press? The national sense of “we’re all in this together” goodwill that had us sharing sourdough recipes through the first lockdown has completely evaporated. In Victoria, we have the ultra-conservative Liberal Party in opposition whose sole agenda is to attack the Andrews government at every turn — in a way that the federal and state Labor parties in opposition simply do not.

Never mind that there is no logic or coherence to these attacks. It was #DictatorDan when Victoria went into an early lockdown, and #ChairmanDan when he allowed businesses to reopen. #DictatorDan when he didn’t arrest 10,000 Black Lives Matter protesters (even though he voiced explicit opposition to the protests).

Almost two months later, he is STILL reprimanded by a right-wing media which has tied themselves into knots attempting to link the current outbreak to the BLM protest, despite health experts repeatedly refuting this claim. Then it was #ChairmanDan when he made us all wear masks, which we should have been doing anyway in the interests of public safety.

Can you imagine if our state leader actually resigned in the middle of a pandemic? In 2020 alone, he has guided us through two national catastrophes: the horrendous bushfires and the COVID-19 crisis. It is hard to remember as long ago as January of this year, but it was our state government we relied on when our Prime Minister was on holiday in Hawaii as the country burned to the ground.

 

Almost two months later, he is STILL reprimanded by a right-wing media which has tied themselves into knots attempting to link the current outbreak to the BLM protest, despite health experts repeatedly refuting this claim. Then it was #ChairmanDan when he made us all wear masks, which we should have been doing anyway in the interests of public safety.

 

And yet, there are real systemic issues that we should be talking about. During this pandemic, the cracks in capitalism have been laid bare — beginning with the mass casualization [independent contractors] of the workforce, which unions have been warning about for years. Job insecurity and lack of paid leave is forcing Victorians who have tested positive to COVID-19 to return to their workplaces, where the largest spread of the virus seems to be occurring.

The government has attempted to patch this problem up with payouts to replace lost income during the required 14 days of isolation. But the fact that people are going to work anyway indicates that they’re afraid of losing their casual employment if they try to take two weeks off.

With over 100 nursing homes infected with coronavirus, our entire aged care system now faces imminent collapse. An enormously disproportionate number of these cases are occurring within the private, not public, sector. It should not have taken a pandemic to expose the inherent flaws in the rampant privatization of essential services across Australia.

From our hospitals to our aged care homes to our prisons, when an organization becomes privatized, it operates for one purpose alone: to make an ever-growing profit. The result will always be cost-cutting, usually in the form of under-staffing and reliance on casual workers. A decade ago, when I worked in disability and mental health services, I was casual, untrained, and on minimum wage. Taking two weeks off work would have been devastating.

The security guards working in hotel quarantine also seem to have been casual, untrained, and on very low wages — and hence why we are in this situation in Victoria in the first place. Instead of tearing ourselves apart over masks, we should be looking at why capitalism fails to protect the majority of citizens when there is a crisis.

Unfortunately, as more of our public services are sold off to the highest bidder, it will become increasingly difficult to reverse that process. Do you know who nationalizes private industries? Only communist dictators. It seems extremely unlikely that Premier Dan Andrews will live up to his hashtag when this is all over.

 

Claire Harris

Claire Harris is a writer in exile who has spent the last decade traveling and working around the world. This is not nearly as glamorous as it sounds and usually involves scraping by on a diet of muesli and cheap wine. Occasionally together.

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