COVID 19 and the transformation of Victoria – Part 1

Oct 21, 2020

As Melbournians waited with bated and unbated breath for the announcement last Sunday about relief from the Stage Four lockdown, the pressure that has been increasing dramatically for the past month has eased. Will a new normal be reached?

Though this easing was a soft whistle rather than a loud explosion. Yet beneath this the political tensions that have been building up will continue to swirl, helped along by a rapacious media, until or if some kind of new normal is reached.

Covid-19 has dominated Victoria since early March, and all the changes it has necessitated have not necessarily been connected with the contagious nature of the virus. Of course, not everything has gone into neutral. Whilst Daniel Andrews and a few others have seemed to be centre stage, politics has gone on behind the scenes, initially in a more subdued manner. It is often hoped that a crisis like a pandemic will pull a society together, and that is the impression the government would like. Yet where the effect of this impacts unevenly on different areas–demonstrably more on the economically depressed as opposed to the affluent–and where it affects some people at a much greater level than others, tensions will inevitably arise especially where the disaffected are well organized.

Arguably this Covid-19 virus crisis began in Victoria in March but really reached its peak in mid-July with the highest daily figure of 723 new cases. If the state government acted slowly to begin with it took a very strong stand from early July, instituting Stage 3 (end of March) and then Stage 4 lockdowns in mid-August. Initially it was thought the latter might have been reviewed at the end of September, but the lockdown was extended until October 18 when some relief was announced.

Since the second and most severe lockdown of Melbourne began in July–caused by hundreds of new Covid cases per day and the continuing deaths of elderly people in aged care homes–the rhetoric of governmental authority has been used consistently by the premier, Daniel Andrews, with the health care coordinated by the former health minister, Jenny Mikakos. Each day for the past 109 days Andrews has given a press conference, usually accompanied by Dr. Brett Sutton, Victoria’s Chief Health Officer. As such it has been a public relations exercise designed to calm the affected residents of Melbourne and justify what seems to many people to have been an unnecessarily harsh lockdown. Andrews and Sutton have worked under exhausting conditions, but apart from Mikakos the other ministers in the Victorian cabinet have scarcely been seen.

To the public eye the state government has been Daniel Andrews, Jenny Mikakos (and now Martin Foley) and Dr. Brett Sutton, chief health officer. This, at least, is the impression given by the electronic and the printed media, almost as though the state premier is now a president. All other Labor ministers and members have been conspicuously absent from the media except for Adam Somyurek who was sacked for branch stacking and has become an Independent. What we have seen is the interesting paradox that government has been reduced to a group of well publicized individuals on the front line, with a massive public service and police effort somewhat behind the scenes.

It has to be said that everyone has seemed to become an expert on the severity or otherwise of the virus and how much social and economic activity should have been restricted in order to bring it under control. In part this has been because everybody has been effected and all sorts of social tensions have emerged. Reactions to these have to some extent fallen along party lines, though the small business groups have been especially active in calling for the opening up of the economy because their members have been hit very hard.

All the evidence–anecdotal, letters to the editor and electronic media–suggest a state of exhaustion has been reached, with the likelihood of considerable mental illness as a follow up. The state government has, however, become the arbiter of last resort with the Department of Health and Human Services its expert back up. Behind this and sometimes at variance with it have been difference epidemiologists who in the main stream media have attempted to provide a sober picture of the whole situation historically and scientifically. Yet whilst many people have been negatively affected by the different stages of the lock down, the government seems to have been given a general consent for what it has done, apart from the carping of a few conspiratorial types and Sky News reporters.

Responses to this stage four lockdown have been personal, political and economic. The personal has been defined by individuals who have refused to wear masks and argue that their right to freedom has been impinged upon by mandatory mask-wearing, a curfew and restrictions on travel. This has morphed into the conspiratorial response by some members of the extreme right. But at a more moderate level it has given rise to a suggestion that Andrew’s actions might be seen as a form of authoritarianism, with some commentators asking whether the Victorian public’s acceptance of Andrew’s lockdown contradicted Australians’ supposed resistance to authority. “Increasingly, voters are questioning what we are trading away as our leaders battle to keep us safe from COVID-19 and whether we will be able to retrieve it when this is all over,” writes Jacqueline Maley Though vague, this is one indication of what the future might be, with certain traditional civil liberties being suspended, but now being relaxed.

An alternative view put forward by some epidemiologists sees Andrew’s rigorous lockdown as instilling in the general public a sense of preparedness to the possible return of this unpredictable virus, as is happening in Europe now. In doing this he is making people aware of the possibility of new outbreaks and this surely will cause a transformation in social interaction if people continue to engage in social distancing, which in itself might establish a new sense of normalcy. If a deep lockdown had continued over Christmas and the New Year it would have been potentially disastrous politically for the state government as any sense of normalcy would be completely smashed.

In his speech of 18/10 announcing some relief from the lockdown he appealed to the good will of the general public in observing social distancing and being tested if they exhibit symptoms. The hope is that the behavioural patterns developed in the lockdown will be practiced voluntarily. But given the ongoing and constant attacks made by the opposition state and federally, one could be forgiven in thinking that such care is a luxury the economy cannot afford. In the next post I analyse reactions and responses to Daniel Andrew’s progress in instituting such a severe lockdown.

Greg Bailey is Honorary Research Fellow in Asian Studies, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, La Trobe University.

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