Overcoming Fatalism: Victoria, The Congo and Yemen

Scapegoating Victoria suggests indifference to global issues. A touch of internationalism could replace the hand wringing pity which has been compounded by partisan attacks on Premier Andrews.

Political and economic commentators are fatalistic about the crises in Victoria. ‘It will become an economic wasteland.’ ‘Businesses are leaving.’ ‘No one will invest in that state.’

A forlorn-looking Josh Frydenberg – when did he not look forlorn? – promotes his political fortunes with virus-like attacks on Premier Andrews.

Jennifer Westacott, the chief executive of the Business Council, plays the grim reaper prophet of doom. Everything will be a disaster unless governments conform to business council proposals.

These perspectives display criticism of curfews and despair about an economy, but as with any exercise in conflict resolution, issues can be reframed. By pondering a couple of international comparisons, about life in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in Yemen, the hand-wringing, national self-pity might end, and Victoria’s malaise be reinterpreted.

At one end of the commentary continuum, appraisals of the Victorian demise have been mostly non-judgmental. Media outlets serve up nightly scores of infections, deaths and lockdown timelines. The usually thoughtful 7:30 places Leigh Sales in front of a Corona Virus backdrop while Dr Norman Swan plays the skilled undertaker ready to preside over a national burial.

But judgmentalism is also infectious, as in one-eyed, unimaginative, either/or ways of casting Victoria as the Covid scapegoat. Once locked into binary ways of thinking: health v. economy, no jobs v. employment growth, nil investment v. flowing economy, it becomes difficult to consider alternatives.

A first step away from this impasse starts with scepticism that a vaccine will solve the problems of mental health, housing, aged care, household debt and unemployment.

Looked at as an opportunity instead of a basket case, Victoria provides other lessons, including the idea that solving problems of tracing and testing enhances readiness for the next virus season.

Energy wasted in the aged care blame game suggests obvious lessons.

Containing elderly people in large privately run homes has little to do with human rights; and the federal government’s home care packages are expensive and difficult to obtain. If aged care provider agencies can charge hefty fees, cut, or underpay staff to meet business objectives, caring becomes secondary.

Economies generated on a local basis, as has happened with volunteer initiatives to feed isolated vulnerable people, have shown ways to care and to craft potential new forms of employment.

Pictures of a deserted Melbourne CBD raise questions, not just about re-opening shops but about redefining what is meant by work, a task that must address long-term policy goals and not just responses to a crisis. Merely talking about the value of working from home does not re-define work.

The French philosopher Andre Gorz wrote, ‘Let us work less so that we may all work and do more things by ourselves in our free time.’ In A World Without Work, David Susskind argues that a social and economic transition should not only be to jobs in renewable energy but to a more equal, less competitive, less destructive society. That challenge has to consider the benefits of a universal basic income.

Victoria’s encouragement of exercise as the way to relieve the boredom of confinement is another bonus. If those ‘Exercise Matters’ initiatives were promoted as experiments in health care, that would be more encouraging than if they are simply labelled as a lessening of restrictions.

Lockdowns have highlighted how poor housing contributes to virus infection, hence Victoria showing the need to assess the effects of housing on mental and physical health.

The slogans ‘Our Home’ scrawled on high-rise public housing blocks underline the importance of secure space to breathe, sleep, cook, converse and plan for tomorrow. Tackling Victoria’s housing difficulties could inspire policies for affordable housing and imaginative use of space for future generations.

Scapegoating Victoria suggests indifference to global issues. A touch of internationalism could replace the hand-wringing pity that has been compounded by partisan attacks on Premier Andrews. Commentary could sound less selfish and more liberating. Consider the Congo.

In that country, an unending civil war coupled with an ongoing Ebola virus accompanies widespread HIV/AIDS infections. That disease co-exists with insect-borne diseases, yellow fever and malaria. Covid-19 spreads with surging violence from rebel forces, and into this mix more than half a million refugees try to survive. It is not safe to walk in the capital Kinshasa, even during the day.

The people of Yemen have endured six years of civil war. More than 10 million children have no access to health care and four million citizens are displaced. In a country of 30 million people, the UN concludes that more than one quarter are malnourished. Editors of the journal Science say that before the 2020 scourge of Covid 19, more than one million people had been infected by cholera and 4000 had died.

A Congolese, Yemeni perspective on Victoria would vaccinate against Australia’s either/or doomsday fatalism. By dealing thoughtfully and creatively with loss, healing and creative change begins.

Be international. Avoid the fatalism. Ask Josh to smile. Invite Annastacia to cease appearing as a Romanov princess in her version of War & Peace and suggest to Mark of WA that he might stop reading from All Quiet on the Western Front.

Acceptance of those invitations would help to remove the mind shut fences, which limit thinking about the lessons to be learned from Victoria.

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Stuart Rees OAM, human rights activist, poet, novelist, author of books on social justice. Recipient of the Jerusalem Peace Prize, Founder Director of the Sydney Peace Foundation.

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