Covid-19, the novel coronavirus, respiratory disease pandemic of 2020, seems to have also unleashed a pandemic of polarised community argument. More than argument it is rage, accusation, blame and protest. It is perhaps epitomised by what we see in the U.S.A., with president Trump and supporters hurling abuse and accusations at a wide variety of officials and institutions that urge treating the pandemic as a medical / public health emergency and acting accordingly. While it is hard to see what pathway the Trump / “anti-mask” crowd are urging—their talk and actions don’t seem to have any consistency—they are most certainly enraged and intensely driven.
[the image is of a house fire I was in the middle of in 1974, in Auckland NZ; simply here to symbolise the way in which the world seems to be on fire over how we handle the Covid-19 pandemic]
We see some of the same polarisation here in Victoria, Australia, where the numbers of cases of Covid-19 infection have been much higher than elsewhere in the country. The Daniel Andrews government has instituted very strict, but classic public health epidemic control measures. His opponents, on social media and to a small degree on the streets, have gone wild with abuse. He has become “Chairman Dan” and “Dictator Dan” to them, even drawn with a Hitler style moustache. I think the irony that they are mostly right wing protestors and Andrews is of a ‘slightly Left’ party is lost on the Hitler moustache artists.
Over the decades of my life, four and a half decades of adult life, I have taken anti-authority or anti-mainstream positions on many things. In my early twenties I disappointed and angered my physician father by taking to Natural / Alternative medicine and quitting my University studies for some time (I did return, but not to complete Medicine). I don’t like government telling people what to do in most situations, where I judge it unnecessary. I don’t like excessive surveillance. I have marched in the street on issues that concern me and have manned the barricades and been in the middle of mounted police charges to disperse and arrest many of us. BUT – – – this protesting of sound public health measures to protect against a disease that spreads fast and does harm people; I just don’t get it; can’t get it; can’t get caught up in it.
I have no doubt that the Andrews government has made some mistakes, I think every government everywhere has. I can see that the government might have gone a little too far on things like a curfew on evening movement. I never much liked Daniel Andrews when I had dealings with him as health minister around 2007 to 2010. I still have letters from him that angered me in my files. But these decisions on public movement, gatherings and masks are judgement calls made by summarising and integrating the scientific, medical knowledge of this thing the best that the decision makers can do. I have come to grudgingly respect the job he is doing and the media interrogation he faces up to each day. I am sure he could have done things a bit differently; but I am equally sure I could not have done a fraction of the sound management he has achieved. I am just as sure that virtually all of those throwing abuse at him would have failed dismally if they had been asked to lead a statewide response to the escalating illness and deaths from this thing.
The rage and the certainty that everything the Victorian government does is wrong: where does it come from? And where has any ability to weigh things up with some balance gone? How did common sense disappear?
I read ‘1984’, ‘Brave New World’ and such books as a youth. I reckon I am alert to signs of totalitarian thinking, and we often do see them (several ministers in the present Australian government need careful watching). But these anti-pandemic measures are not that. They are not some excuse to take control of people in a total way. They are a slightly bungled, but science-led, public health-led attempt to come as close as possible to eliminating a newly mutated virus; a virus that causes pretty bad sickness in most elderly adults that get it, in some younger adults that get it, and apparently can leave some quite nasty, long term after effects. In order to control the pandemic authorities are not injecting anything into people (I would probably start protesting if there were forced injections). They are not dunking people into tubs of chemicals like sheep dip. They are not telling people to wear tracking bracelets; the tracking phone app was voluntary and the majority did not take it up.
Government and health department are asking and ordering the public to take ordinary, non-chemical, non-invasive measures to stop this virus exploding through the cities and communities. Stuff like, for the duration of the pandemic, keeping some physical distance between yourself and friends, colleagues, people in the street or shop. For the duration of the pandemic avoiding close contact in group gatherings, entertainments and the like. They are trying to contain small virus outbreaks in the region they started by stopping people moving around spreading it to everyone. These are exactly the same measures that were applied in Victoria and NSW in 1919 and 1920 to control the spread of Spanish Flu pandemic. You can read histories and diaries of people at that time. Authorities were asking and in some cases ordering everyone to do exactly the same things. Medicine knew much less about virus disease at that time, but they knew enough to institute those measures. They instituted face mask wearing too. Most people took to it. There were protesters then who claimed the world was coming to an end due to these restrictions on their liberties. But the virus was controlled. The pandemic died down. There were a lot of deaths, about 15,000 in Australia, but a lot less than there could have been.
So, where does all this rage and abandonment of common sense come from? Of course I don’t know. But I know what I see, and my hunches. To me it looks like a sort of viral pandemic of ‘out of control’ rage at elected government and officials. And perhaps at ‘Science’ too. It looks like a sort of “Trump virus” has infected the thinking of hundreds of thousands of Victorians. Probably not millions, but a very noisy hundreds of thousands.
I too can be very annoyed at government and official bureacracy; often, and about many things. This just isn’t a time for it; it is the wrong issue. But that doesn’t seem to worry this mob. They reckon it is the right issue. They see a giant conspiracy to control the entire population, to inject everyone with vaccines, to have border controls and surveillance of everyone’s movements all the time. I do think that Donald Trump, and probably behind him a handful of the ‘anti-science’ agitators that he listens to, have kind of unleashed this fury in people that previously had about the same level of annoyance as me about bad government and bureaucracy. Somehow there has been an explosion in the minds of a lot of people. A granting of permission to go beserk about wearing a face screen and about keeping the one or two metre distance that stops this viral disease having the chance to jump from person to person. And from that point of view it is the wrong issue to go beserk about. The right issue might well come up soon if government wants to inject every man, woman and child with a vaccine that has been rushed through its testing and approval process. That might be different.
But simply wearing a piece of cloth on your face in public for the next few months, and keeping a metre or two between each other most of the time? It just doesn’t make sense to go beserk about that. However I did name it a “Trump virus” so nothing about it is going to make much sense.