I got engaged recently. It was my third attempt – my big proposal weekend, more tightly choreographed than Cirque du Soleil, had been scuttled twice by lockdowns. Under the circumstances, we skipped the engagement party.
My fiancée and I were supposed to go to Queensland a week after that, but lockdown five was announced the day before we were supposed to fly out of Melbourne so we never made it. Instead, we settled for our usual ritual – going on that last, defiant pubcrawl before restrictions came into effect. We ended up at some bar on Chapel Street, heaving with people who were thinking the same thing we were, drinking and dancing until the ugly lights came on and everybody dispersed. The 11:59pm swill.
As for planning the wedding, well it’s a complicated enterprise at the best of times, but these days even more so – every decision about the flowers or the photographer or our esoteric playlist for the DJ feels tentative, provisional.
Neither of us complains much about it. Lockdowns have become as inevitable as they are inconvenient, like bad weather. This is our life now.
Everything changed when Gladys caved. I’d always viewed the ‘Liberal moderate’ premier of New South Wales as suspiciously as the next right-winger, but Berejiklian became an unlikely heroine for lockdown sceptics at the tail end of 2020. She stared down the public health brigade and refused to plunge Sydney into a lockdown over a handful of cases in the Northern Beaches. In the New Year, Gladys became evangelical about the importance of keeping Sydney open, going as far as to admit she ‘feared for’ the people of lockdown-loving Victoria.
Then in late June, it all got too much. With the media hyperventilating over less than two-dozen cases in Bondi, Berejiklian pulled the trigger on the same ‘localised lockdown’ that had summarily dealt with the outbreak over Christmas. Three days later, restrictions were extended from the original three local government areas to the entirety of Greater Sydney and beyond.
Within the week, no fewer than three premiers rushed to impose stay-at-home orders over an absurdly small number of cases – bringing the total to
12 million Australian were in lockdown. Not to be outdone, perennial bedwetter Steven Marshall rolled out all manner of nonsensical restrictions in South Australia despite the fact that Australia’s original ‘free state’ had no cases at all.
It was like March 2020 all over again – in fact it, was worse. Fifteen months after ‘two weeks to flatten the curve’, we were back in the chaotic embrace of government by press conference – a hellish cacophony of confusing and contradictory information coming from all directions.
At least March 2020 had some sort of underlying, linear logic to it. But this was a public policy tower of Babel in which nobody – not the feds, not the premiers, not the regulators, not the ‘experts’ – seemed to have any idea of what came next. It was lockdown first, ask questions later.
But unlike last year, we didn’t have the perverse comfort of knowing that, for better or worse, almost every country in the free world was doing the exact same thing. Visions of the old life were filtering back to us from overseas – photos of overseas friends’ holidays abroad, pool parties and beach raves in our Instagram stories, talk of mask-free nirvanas like Miami under Ron DeSantis.
And unlike last year, there was the growing realisation that places like Sweden that didn’t lock down – much to the hand-wringing of the public health brigade – did no worse in terms of coronavirus deaths than anywhere else. Anywhere else, that is, except Australia.
Aside from New Zealand and a handful of Asian countries that went through SARS, Australia has – thank God – had the fewest deaths per capita than any other country in the developed world. Scott Morrison shut the borders early – quite possibly his only helpful contribution during this entire saga – and from there, Australia’s sparsely populated cities, warm climate and cash-soaked public health system meant that the coronavirus was a downhill battle to begin with.
But somewhere along the line, we started believing our own bullshit. Our blind luck became infused with some notion of Australian COVID-19 exceptionalism; a flawed mythology stoked in no small measure by politicians praising the cowered populace for their ‘hard work’ and obnoxious fanfare around ‘getting to zero cases’.
And so now the more we cling to that zero, the further we slide into the epidemiological time warp in which Australia is stuck in pandemic mode when the rest of the world is beginning to treat corona as endemic.
And no, vaccination rates won’t make a difference. That’s not to say vaccines don’t have a place – the experience elsewhere is that they do decrease hospitalisations and deaths, dramatically it seems. But the promise that ‘this will only go on until everyone is vaccinated’ is about as illusory as ‘two weeks to flatten the curve’ was.
The political class have shifted the goal posts too many times on this. I don’t trust them now. But more to the point, even with the recent outbreaks hospitalisation, rates in Australia are low. If they were driven down a few percentage points lower on account of the vaccines, would anyone notice or care?
Maybe they would, and maybe they wouldn’t, but that’s not the main game. Reports from overseas indicate that although deaths have plummeted, case numbers haven’t been affected and unfortunately, that’s the one metric everyone here seems to be focused on.
Even with the vaccine, there will still be cases. And that means that there will still be daily announcement of case numbers and the ensuing media hullabaloo.
There will still be endless talk of outbreaks and clusters and rolling case averages and exposure sites and primary close contacts and fleeting encounters and contaminated pizza boxes. And so long as politicians have that trusty panic button within reach, there’ll still be lockdowns as well.
Nobody seems to care that the people who have lost the most from lockdowns had the least to begin with"
Here’s my dirty, shameful little secret: I’ve started to like being locked down. Touring the bars the night before has taken on the same kind of confected exuberance of New Year’s Eve. Waking up the next day feels like the first day of school holidays when I was a kid – the prepubescent luxury of weeks at home in one’s jamies.
I don’t bother watching the interminable press conferences anymore. They’ve long become predictable, bleeding together like reruns of a sitcom you’ve seen a thousand times before. Nowadays, I just turn on Sky News for a couple of hours in the morning, but once I’ve gotten the gist of whatever the daily horror show brings I turn it off and get back to my desk, writing in peace as the horrible chaos of the real world unfolds somewhere beyond the safety of my apartment. Trekking as far as the shops across the road is a burden. Going back to the office the handful of times I’m rostered on feels almost alien.
I rarely get around to exercising. Unopened envelopes are piled up on my desk. My phone is bursting with unread text messages, emails, direct messages on social media. Sometimes I go a couple of days without showering. I’m a good month or two overdue for a haircut, but there never seems to be enough time between lockdowns to go to the barber. I’m half a man, a useless bootleg of who I was prior to March 2020 – a life so far in the past now I sometimes struggle to remember it. But I still like being at home.
I’ve become everything I despise – the comfortable ‘knowledge worker’, insulated from the consequences of the lockdowns that have plunged so many others into poverty and despair. I haven’t experienced the brutality of the Centrelink queue, the ruin of my business. Yeah, I can’t go to the pub, but – unbelievably – I’m missing even that less and less.
There are too many people in my situation – the lucky cohort who have the luxury of demanding that we ‘lock down harder’, because whatever that ‘harder’ means is at worst inconvenient, not existential.
The brutal truth is that the misery and deprivation of the coronavirus era has been good to some people. Big business has cashed in as lockdowns have kneecapped their smaller competitors. The wealthy have seen the price of their assets soar off the back of cheap ‘stimulus’ money being printed in the trillions. The chattering classes have plenty to chatter about, and plenty of time on their hands to do so.
And the people responsible for all this have it especially good – the privileged politicians and bureaucrats who have thrived on their uninterrupted six-figure salaries and their generous overtime allowances and their increased relevance and what I can only assume is the twisted, adrenaline-fuelled rush of near-total control over the lives of millions of people.
The plight of the other half of Australia is little more than an afterthought. For all the political elite’s bleating about ‘inequality’, nobody seems to care that the people who have lost the most from lockdowns had the least to begin with. Among the bottom fifth of income earners, almost half a million jobs have disappeared during the lockdowns. The top fifth saw jobs increase by nearly 200,000. The average wage in the private sector was slashed by over $1200 in 2020. Public sector workers were given a raise of over $1500.
And if anyone dares to puncture the obscene lie that ‘we’re all in this together’, then indifference turns to hostility. Complain about petty restrictions and you’re ‘selfish’. Mention the shuttered businesses and you’re accused of ‘putting money before human life’. Question the
‘expert advice’ and you’re a ‘conspiracy theorist’. And if you take to the streets to register your dissent – pursuant to your God-given right to freedom of assembly – then you’re a dangerous lunatic who deserves everything that’s coming to you.
OUR NEW WORLD
As I write this, the magic 8-ball that is Twitter has all signs pointing to a sixth Melbourne lockdown, coming into effect. The papers have been reporting that it
is ‘under consideration’ all day. Dubious rumours are swirling around on a handful of group threads I’m on.
We’ve been here before – that same slow-motion finality, the calculated pattern of briefing that is presumably designed to soften up the population in advance. And we know that there’ll be other lockdowns after this one. Like I said, this is our lives now. This is the world now.
As bad as 2020 was, at least it seemed transient – a bizarre aberration in the norms of democratic governance from which we’d ‘snap back’.
This time it’s something darker, the slow asphyxiation of a free society that has become too confused and terrified to fight back.
This time, it’s becoming permanent. The political class is learning how astonishingly far it can go in dictating the lives of the population. And the paranoid libertarian in me is already wondering what the next liberty-crushing ‘emergency’ will be.
Lewis Carroll himself couldn’t have written anything as nonsensical as public debate in Australia in 2021. Nobody knows what’s going on – nobody. Not me, not you, not the people supposedly in charge – not anybody. We’re at the mercy of long, violent bureaucratic spasm – a Kafkaesque death spiral chewing through our livelihoods and liberties as it hurtles towards some indeterminate conclusion.
We are no longer in a health crisis, we are in a political crisis. Our governing institutions have failed us, crushed under the weight of an overbearing political elite whose disdain for fundamental rights and freedoms has been building since long before anyone heard of SARS-CoV-2.
But it cannot last. History shows us that you can suppress human liberty for a while, but not forever. Australians will be free again, as soon as we collectively realise that we have to take back our rights and freedoms instead of waiting for them to be handed back to us.
What that will look like, and when it will happen, is anybody’s guess. But in the meantime, lockdown will be in here soon so I’m off to the bars. Another night in the age of corona.