The collapse of Australia’s extreme covid policies disintegrates the tenets of covid-zero zealotry and reveals a path to a better world
by Markus Spring
(Recently, Nevermore posted a CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS, encouraging anti-authoritarians from around the world to write reports about the Zeitgeist in their respective countries. We are pleased to present this original report from Markus, our Australian correspondent.)
Australia was once referred to as the “envy of the world” on covid policy. Their zero-tolerance approach of snap, harsh lockdowns and border closures was credited with eradicating the virus and allowing most Australians to live a degree of normalcy unknown elsewhere in the pandemic world. But this view was never accurate. As I wrote in July 2021, the situation was more akin to an anxiety ridden purgatory than anything close to normalcy. Within days of writing that piece, extended lockdowns, curfews, and business closures were imposed on Australia’s largest cities. This was particularly disturbing for residents of Melbourne who had been subjected to long periods of these cruel policies in 2020 with the promise of never needing to do so again. Alas, Melbourne again entered an extended house arrest, with the city ultimately suffering under the longest and most extreme lockdowns in the world.
Not a good look
Many citizens became increasingly despondent, culminating in large protests in defiance of public health orders. The subsequent state crackdown on this movement revealed just how violent the state was willing to be in the name of public health. Deploying drones and helicopters to shout at children playing in parks, the army to patrol the streets, arresting protest and community organisers for incitement, and ultimately unleashing elite militarised police, firing rubber bullets and stinger grenades into masses of peaceful protesters.
Nothing says the state cares deeply about your health like police gang pepper spraying a cowering 70 year old woman.
No measure appeared too extreme for public health. Australia was one of the first places to lockdown the unvaccinated. Under this system, the state proclaimed the vaccinated could now enjoy “new freedoms” such being able to go to work, travel 20km instead of 5km from home, or cross a state border. While conceptualising liberty in this manner was certainly new, it was hardly freedom. It is what Agamben describes as “authorised freedom”, that is, freedom that can be revoked at anytime. This was soon discovered by even compliant citizens who found that being in the wrong place at the wrong time could result in detention in hotel quarantine or incarceration in one of Australia’s covid containment camps (officially named “national resilience centres” – no, I’m not making that up).
The world now looked to Australia with a lot less envy.
Australia’s sudden embrace of the tools of totalitarianism such as nightly curfews and containment camps was distinctly at odds with common perceptions of Australia as a laid back nation of freewheeling individualists. The contrast between the popular conception of Australia and medically imposed authoritarianism served to amplify the sense of shock to an international audience. I was less surprised. Those familiar with Australian culture know that a penchant for authoritarianism lies thick beneath a thin veil of “she’ll be rights.”
Australians thoroughly enjoy subjugating others to pointless rules, especially minorities. This is mildly expressed in the litany of nanny state regulations ranging from compulsory bicycle helmets to strictly controlling where grown adults are permitted to have a drink. More serious manifestations come in the form of harsh border controls, particularly for refugees; some of whom have been languishing for almost a decade in indefinite detention. The average Aussie appears perfectly comfortable with their situation, reasoning their arrival by boat instead of air justifies such lengthy detainment.
Australia’s indigenous population is also well aware of what it is to live under authoritarianism. Australia gives platitudes of respect to indigenous people, while simultaneously overseeing a situation where, on almost every conceivable measure, indigenous people live with massive disadvantages. Indigenous people are especially subject to the criminal justice system, with incarceration rates almost 14 times higher than the broader community. Covid added to the Australian government’s paternalistic treatment of indigenous people with whole communities locked down and “locked in,” including deployment of the army to drag people from their communities and imprison them in “National Resilience Centres”.
“Where there is strife, there is pride.”
The end of community transmission of covid after the 2020 Melbourne lockdowns was evidence enough for public health officials that these authoritarian controls were justified. The weakness of such a post hoc, single case assertion should have been apparent to anyone with even basic scientific training. Yet public health officials determined this was proof enough to determine causation. Melbourne 2020 established a global orthodoxy that lockdowns simply worked. New South Wales therefore re-imposed harsh lockdowns with some confidence when faced with a new outbreak in 2021. This time, there was just one problem; it didn’t work.
Seeking to explain why their favoured policy wasn’t working, experts claimed Sydney locked down too soft, too late. This reasoning was soon tested when the Victorian government rapidly shut its borders and returned the state to even harsher lockdowns the moment a single case appeared. Yet despite the hard and fast nature of this new lockdown, cases continued to rise. How could this be? It must be because of people breaking the rules! Once again though, reality intervened. When NSW began to remove their restrictions some “experts” claimed this would cause cases to explode. They were wrong. Again. Cases fell as restrictions were eased. Covid case numbers became conspicuously absent from front pages.
A new explanation was now needed. It must be the vaccines preventing the spread! After all, the vaccine passport system ensured only vaccinated people were allowed to move about freely and the vaccines are billed as highly effective. But the natural ebb and flow of virus waves again got in the way of the orthodox story. A new wave of covid arrived and, despite some of the highest vaccination rates in the world, daily cases climbed to a new per capita world record. When cases rose despite high vaccination rates and draconian vaccine passport regimes, it not only undermined the case for the passport system itself, it also clearly showed that vaccinations were not going to stop the virus spreading.
Every story and every justification of the medical establishment lay in tatters.
2021 demonstrated that lockdowns and vaccination are not a practical method to control covid cases.
This new wave of infections saw a return of the media’s daily covid ticker tape to frontpages, along with shrill health expert demands to return covid controls. The NSW government succumbed to a degree, but there was no going back to lockdowns. The damage to the official story had been done. Government messaging shifted from “controlling” the virus, to managing its inevitable waves. Most people were simply moving on. Some extreme forms of insanity remained in Australia, but this is primarily in states that stayed closed; their leaders standing firm like an arrogant king demanding the tide stay out. Most Australian’s had been truly terrified of the virus, overestimating its lethality on average by more than 300 times. In states with covid though, the lived reality of catching the virus began to break down the fear. Now, if someone hasn’t had covid themselves, they know many people who have. They’ve discovered first hand that, for most people, covid is rarely the death sentence they’d been led to believe for the past two years.
Australian state premiers: “Don’t worry folks, I got this”
While some public health measures were re-imposed with this latest wave, compliance was tangibly more half-hearted. The public had been promised that vaccination would end all this. Now they were going back to masks and other measures that had not only proved futile in the past, but which were once again failing to control the spread. Today, when people feel they can get away with not following the directions on masks and “checking in” with QR codes, they do so. For there is a flip side to Australia’s authoritarian culture: while Australians love to impose authority on others, they are also masters at knowing how and when to safely avoid and subvert such authority. The physical manifestations of the remaining government covid theatre such as masks and QR codes are generally limited to corporately controlled business, institutional settings, and anywhere you find hipsters. Elsewhere, they are more often ignored. The impact of such civil disobedience should not be underestimated, with several governments now grudgingly removing most QR codes due to low compliance, and mask mandates set to follow.
The disastrous failure of technocratic rule
The past two years’ myopic fixation on covid will likely have caused immense damage to virtually all aspects of society. Expect no expert apologies or admission of their wrong doing. Instead, expect revisionist claims that their approach and the subsequent pain was “worth it” for the greater good.
The problem of such crude utilitarianism of course is the identification of whose good is served more greatly. Was the missed breast cancer screening worth it for the mother whose previously treatable cancer has now metastasised? Was it worth it for the aged care resident who spent his final days confused, alone and incarcerated, blocked from visits by his wife of 60 years, his children, grand children and great grand children? Was the subsequent restriction on funerals that prevented his family coming together to heal their grief worth it for them? Was it worth it for the disadvantaged child for whom online education was unworkable, setting up a lifetime of reduced possibilities? Was it worth it for the young man whose expert enforced loneliness and anxiety led to severe and ongoing mental health issues? Was it worth it for the mum and dad restaurant owners who lost the business they had built over a decade and who now find themselves without a livelihood? How many such injustices, both trivial and catastrophic, have occurred in the name public health over the past two years and what will be their cumulative impact?
Such catastrophic harms were created because the approach advocated by these experts considers you, I, and all the millions of people severely impacted by their actions, merely as means to their epidemiological ends. To technocrats, the individual is little more than a rat in a cage to be manipulated towards an end point of the expert’s choosing. At its core, a technocracy of this nature is misanthropic. It rests on the assumption that everyday people are not capable of managing their own lives and communities. Instead, their interests require a paternalistic expert class to dictate how they ought best live.
Hope for an authoritarian free world
For some time now, the complete shambles of modern politics and the emergence of critical issues such as growing wealth inequality and climate change have been emboldening technocratic forms of governance. Most did not understand the true dangers of this approach. The power ceded to technocrats in response to covid however, has revealed technocracy as inherently authoritarian and incapable of creating the conditions necessary for humans to flourish. This is because attempts at technocratic state collectivism are naturally hubristic in their overestimation of expert capacity, and occur at a scale that simply cannot account for the intricacies of what is most appropriate for every person’s life. At a bare minimum, the individual must be empowered with the autonomy necessary to fulfil their own needs, and those of their local communities. The covid response severely curtailed this most basic right to autonomy. But it also revealed new common ground among millions of people who were previously irreconcilably separated by the culture war’s left/right divide. It is here, that real cause for hope resides. A popular anti-authoritarian political movement is beginning to emerge from the disaster of the global covid response.
There are still many disturbing elements of medical totalitarianism remaining in Australia such as internal border controls and mandatory vaccinations for work, travel, and everyday life. And there is much work to be done to wind back all of these impositions and to ensure they never return. But the growing realization of the need to do this has spawned something new here. Hundreds of thousands, potentially millions of Australians, are becoming increasingly united against authoritarian control. If the end result of all of this is a powerful movement that ends technocratic authoritarianism, then who knows… maybe some good can come of this pandemic response after all.
(To learn more about the situation in Australia, we highly recommend checking out “Recommendations Roundup #2: Down Under Edition, a list of informative links compiled by Nevermore contributor Margaret Anna Alice.)