The Kookaburra’s laugh and chirp of the rainbow lorikeet seem far louder as the sun rises these days: there is no traffic on the road to drown them out in the dewy morning. It is winter and the first light in the sky does not tinge the inky black of the sky until about 6:30am. Few are awake to hear or see any of this now. Sydney is in lockdown. It is the third week of the second lockdown and there is no indication when it will be lifted. The traffic is gone, a line of taxis wait at the rank outside the station for passengers that won't come: few are permitted to travel outside of a prescribed radius around where they live. It is 18 months since the pandemic began yet things are worse than ever. Everyone senses this lockdown is different because we were promised it would not - could not - happen again.
New South Wales, the largest state in Australia, weathered 2020 as well as any place in Australia which, as a nation, weathered the pandemic as well as anywhere in the world. It is an island after all and that offers some advantages; the sparse population offers still more. The culture of the place - the way backyards are often large and houses separated one from another by the “quarter acre block” coupled with how people tend to keep to themselves anyway (it is a dark but running joke that so many do not know their neighbours well) almost suggests that sometime in ancient history the people experienced a similar catastrophe and learned then to social distance. It is as if the echoes of that long forgotten lesson still reverberate in the memes that shape our society; as if all our systems and community structures have just been waiting, long in preparation for it to happen again.
But the modern Australia of towns separated by long thin roads and sprawling suburbs of brick homes with desert-red terracotta roofs bordered by head high wooden fence palings is not that old and experienced. It is young and only by happy coincidence is the physical and social fabric of the place almost intelligently designed for a pandemic. Socially many in the larger cities tend to keep to themselves anyway and physically have always been distanced by the luxury of vast open space. But as a young nation, perhaps peculiarly to outsiders, we seem to suffer from the unfortunate inability some youngsters are indoctrinated with: to look only to their elders for what is right and good rather than thinking for themselves. So Australia typically looks to…almost anyone else in the developed world. To the United States or to Great Britain or elsewhere for the “correct” thing to do. No matter that the density of Great Britain is 281 people per square kilometre (Australia’s is around 100 times less than that at around 3 per square kilometre) nor that the population of the United States sits at 330 million - with Australia less than a tenth of that at under 30 million. And never mind that there is little in China's means of socially organising that we should wish to model ourselves after. Australia is not comparable to many other places in the world. But it is, culturally and institutionally, sometimes overly uncomfortable in uncertainty and thus uncomfortable about making its own decisions. We need someone else to do it first or tell us what to do.
And yet, though this was the norm for most of my life, an astonishing thing happened in 2020 when this crisis commenced. In New South Wales, in particular, under the leadership of its Premier Gladys Berejiklian we barely locked down and when we did, for a brief time, she said it would be for the last time. We rejoiced and were even proud to some extent that our Premier, unlike so many others, was not reactionary and distanced herself from any odour of authoritarianism. And as recently as May this year she said again “'We made sure that we had the systems in place to be able to weather whatever came our way so that we would never go into lockdown again.” See https://www.theaustralian.com.au/inquirer/coronavirus-gold-standards-lose-lustre-in-light-of-human-error/news-story/e6d2786fee88b82e76b5bb240fd1280b for more on that. So: excellent. The reassurance of “systems” that had proven themselves robust in the face of a crisis: tested and passed.
And yet, we have locked down. Harder than ever. Though this time a significant number of the vulnerable are vaccinated (around 76% of the over 70s for example and climbing: https://www.health.gov.au/initiatives-and-programs/covid-19-vaccines/australias-covid-19-vaccine-rollout#daily-report ) and we have learned to social distance more than ever (like that was ever much of a problem) and mask up and wash hands and so on and so forth to “stop the spread”; nevertheless there have been collective cases of amnesia from the “leaders”, gas lighting from the media and broad panic by some in the populace who spend too much time looking at the globe and looking to overseas rather than looking to their locales. They become more interested in pushing a political agenda caught up (as too many are on social media) in hyperbole.
In Australia it is, perhaps, unfortunate that the conservatives are in power both federally and at the state level and that means there is now almost no opposition whatsoever in our Parliaments to authoritarianism. After all the other side - the ostensible opposition - would never say we need “less government intervention”. So it is the worst of slippery slopes. The “conservative” government takes away some freedoms, imposes some restrictions and the Westminster opposition says….? Do more!
Though now, in mid 2021 compared to early 2020 we are all in a far better position to each, individually, take care of ourselves and each other and though we have the knowledge and technology and health care capacity across the nation and in each state to ensure everything is better despite an “outbreak” of proportions no country in Europe nor state in America would recognise as anything but “good numbers and news” - we are told it is bad. Really bad. Terrifying. The worst. Each day at 11am the Premier flanked by the hectoring, overzealous and hyperbolic Health Minister Brad Hazzard (yes, really, the person responsible for the "health" of the state is called "Hazzard"), the (though I am sure she is a lovely person and no doubt competent, nevertheless) condescending Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant (or a subordinate) and at least one senior member of the now (sadly) frightening-to-the-average-citizen NSW Police Force, all stand before the assembled media excitedly for an hour or more like a religious ceremony and pontificate to the public about what they have or have not done correctly in the previous 24 hours - and how best to atone.
While the Premier and Chief Health Officer will give case numbers each day (there are rarely any deaths or intensive care admissions to report and when there are, no details are given beyond their age - we learn nothing about comorbidities - and of course we learn nothing about other numbers to put things in perspective and context like, for example any mention of the 400,000 or so who each year are admitted to hospital for other infectious diseases in our state alone), the Deputy Commissioner of Police will inform the populace about how many infringement notices and fines have been issued. The headline is always the numbers, but the real story is the rules, judgements, "breaches" and punishments. You get the message. Do what you are told. You cannot think for yourself. We do that for you now.
It is all too reminiscent of some parody of a school assembly in some modern retelling of a scene from a Dickensian novel. The Headmistress, tapping a cane menacingly and informing the all students the dance is cancelled, the chief disciplinarian by her side - veins bulging and bullying - telling the fearful but compliant they already had their last warning. This time everyone is being kept in. And there will be SILENCE!!
It is farcical and it would be comical if it were not so seriously dystopian. It is neither play nor parody. The Premier insisted people not socialise and not leave the house for any reason not essential. A day later she was herself photographed getting coffee with a friend, unmasked. This is completely consistent with her colleague to our north in Queensland where the Premier there made it clear there could be no non-essential travel to or from her state and within the week she was flying back and forth to the Tokyo games for a photo opportunity. Perhaps the pinnacle of all this, this time around, is our state Chief Health Officer telling us in sombre tones that even if social distanced, fully masked and fully vaccinated - if one should come across a friend in the supermarket while shopping for essentials on the “one trip permitted per day per household” - one should not, under any circumstances, engage in a conversation. Now is not the time to be friendly (quote:) “Whilst it is in human nature to engage in conversation with others, to be friendly, unfortunately, this is not the time to do that.” For curious readers here is a link queued to the spot where our Chief Health Officer has that "friendly advice" on how not to be friendly: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NVFLdnDEjaI&t=390s But is that true? Has there not been a better time to be friendly to the people so horribly affected by decisions they had no part in and have no power to do anything about? We all understand it. We all get it. But we also know that masked, social distanced, vaccinated people are safe. What is not safe is this kind of social experimentation. We are already seeing people insisting on masking themselves (and perhaps others) even when fully vaccinated themselves in a community which itself is highly vaccinated. There are people for whom the mere suggestion of being anti-social by an authority - especially a medical authority - will be enough to start them down a path towards not only severe psychological distress over time but physical ill health as they go to greater measures to avoid an infection they are unlikely to get from a virus unlikely to cause them much harm.
For all other people they should, if they are afraid, stay indoors. But that is not most people.
Politicians and bureaucrats - especially in Australia but I guess across the globe - have been engaged for some 18 months now in single factor analysis (the number of covid cases) while hectoring people with basic stuff everyone already knows. The repetition of the same lessons that have been running for 18 months now mean that new information is lost in the noise and whatever scientific reasons there were for the medical prescriptions to physical distance, mask and avoid others now become signs of virtue and ways of deeming others as thinking or unthinking; caring or uncaring.
Everyone knows about masks and distancing and vaccines and we are still being beaten about the ears with the same thing by the same people day on day on day. There is nothing new and no one needs to now hear any of this. It is condescending, patronising and fear mongering and engendering in the population a suspicion that never existed before. One opinion - the government opinion - is regarded as “official” and hence correct and so other opinions - even when coming from highly qualified experts are rarely heard let alone taken seriously, explored and debated. Any opinion outside the exceedingly narrow "advice" of the chief health officers are labelled either unscientific or uncaring. It is almost unknown to hear a contrasting view on the government channel ("Our" ABC) and extremely rare to hear it on any commercial network.
And yet it is now abundantly clear the governments of the world have been singularly ineffective and largely irrelevant to the case numbers and deaths no matter what their policy. There is no correlation between how hard a country locked down and how bad their case numbers. It is now thought that Florida which barely had any restrictions did better than New York which had heavy restrictions and "locked down" in terms of deaths and case numbers - including per capita. Some dispute the numbers. But even if it's close - no one argues New York did better. And yet on that other metric - the economic and well being metric - Florida is light years ahead.
The WHO Coronavirus “dashboard” provides up to date numbers in a convenient table for cases and deaths across the globe. See here: https://covid19.who.int/table (It tends to take a while to load for some reason). By any objective measure the USA has performed worst with a mixture among the states of locking down hard vs barely at all with no clear relationship between states who did and did not lockdown. India, Brazil, Russia, The UK and the rest of Europe led by France, Spain, Italy and Turkey with much of Europe and South America not far behind. Whatever these governments did failed by the metric that there have been millions of cases and in many of those cases tens (or even hundreds) of thousands of deaths per country. Australia presently ranks 131 in the table of 239 rows and there have not even been 1000 deaths (and the deaths that did occur, occurred in and around Melbourne in the colder southern part of the country). The governments of the world, no matter what their policies, have seemingly had almost zero impact on the virus - except in some cases to make it worse by concentrating people indoors where the virus is known to spread more rapidly, and encourage people NOT to leave their homes and thus go into the outdoors where we know transmission is far less likely to occur. A "government" as a single entity acts like a single dictatorial person making mistakes but not just for one person: for everyone. The real effect their decisions have made, beyond that which has just been mentioned is not on the virus but to varying degrees on lives and livelihoods destroyed by policies of "lockdown". Lockdowns to varying degrees destroyed businesses and thus lives. We know suicide and depression has spiked but in Australia at least the government is not yet forthcoming with the numbers and the media is seemingly not interested in pursuing this line of inquiry.
Some nations went hard with these lockdowns. Some not so hard. And all of them have to one extent or another experienced terrible effects from the virus as well as the economic impacts which has exacerbated the former rather than helped it (and lowered our economic resilience in the face of future serious national and global problems). The governments have been unable to control the virus with their sledgehammers: the only thing that governments have had under their control are their economies - and control really is the word. When they have placed regulations on us via lockdown it has hurt people - individuals and businesses. It has done nothing for covid. It has controlled the ability of people to earn, flourish to some extent and build their personal resilience to the virus. And that resilience comes across a number of metrics: psychological by being able to go about their lives and rely upon themselves and not welfare cheques from government, financial: by being able to continue to earn for themselves and their families, physical: by being able to continue to participate in sport, go to the gym, remain active, social: by being able to go out and talk to each other in their own local communities and develop plans and strategies within their own local communities about how best to help each other in a time such as this - and in many cases to use local specialised and cultural "best practise" knowledge about what is to be done during an outbreak of a virus. I know my Korean friends had ideas early on and one needed only to do a little research about what other developed Asian countries do to know that Chinese-Wuhan style lockdowns were not the way to go and that inter-generational living such as in Italy, or the cooler air and limited sunlight of Britain or the high density social culture of Spain were all risk factors.
We know there are cultural and geographic components to all this. Living alone or with one other person is much safer than grandparents sharing homes with grandchildren. Getting out into the warm sun is better than staying inside a densely packed apartment building. Walking down a sparsely populated street is good. Fighting one's way through a crowd is bad. The virus spreads more easily in winter (like this is news to anyone with respect to covid and influenza viruses). Yet we are pretending so much of this knowledge is new to us: viruses spread, they spread among people living in close proximity, things get worse in winter and not allowing people to work is bad not only for the virus and economy but every single metric one can imagine from psychological well being, depression and suicide rates through to bad health outcomes with respect to every other disease or health indicator, not least of which is a person's ability to exercise and remain active and be motivated to do so and their tendency to consume a healthier diet. But this has all along been a single factor analysis (to repeat myself) with lip service only paid to economic and other health matters…or indeed any other important factor.
The Two New Classes
In Australia, as I imagine everywhere else in the developed world - among the most horrifying parts of all this has been the new class divide. For 18 months now there have been the people who each and every day have felt more and more important and critical to the good functioning of their communities as the pandemic has worn on over the last 18 months. The politicians who make the decisions and have experienced more time in front of the cameras and microphones than ever before. Everyone hanging on their every word. And upon whose word do the politicians hang? The health officials and bureaucrats who so often themselves now get to play politician, issue edicts, commands and orders of all kinds; who get to talk about "The Science which is Settled" and be "The Sole Source of Truth". And the media who, likewise, are the "real deal" (unlike all that "fake news") each day rising and ringing into work with the self important feeling of being the conduit to the otherwise uninformed masses. It is a perfectly self sustaining triumvirate of power and “essential” work: politicians, "expert" bureaucrats and journalists. No doubt their sense of self esteem, their feeling of self worth, the well being that must accompany all that, the veritable “standing up straight with your shoulders back” each morning as they positively leap out of bed to get to the next meeting or media appearance must be a truly wonderful feeling of grandiose significance to one’s own life and the lives of everyone in society. What must their family and friends think? How proud they must all be for the *important* work they are doing in these hard times.
And what about the other class? The “unessentials”? Those told their workplace and business and job is “not essential”? They are reminded each day that their work does not matter. They are a lesser kind of person. They are on a different tier in society. What they have devoted their life to: not important. Society can live without you, for now. Maybe in some weeks or months, when we’d like another night out at a restaurant - we’ll come to you. If you’re still around. And when that time comes the clothes shops that remain can open because the essentials will need a new outfit. And they’ll need their hair done.
Many - and I count myself among the fortunate here - can indeed work from home. Essential or not we can at least feel like a functioning member of society even if “not essential”. But what about the others? The "underclass" of "unessentials"? Both not required right now and simultaneously unable to perform their duties from the comfort of their living room with fresh brewed tea and the radio playing softly? Where do they go, what do they do, how do they feel and what do they think?
How healthy is such a society when this happens? It's not happened before. This is one great sociological experiment. How can individuals affected recover psychologically from this lesson they are being taught? For those who can work from home, the more they work at home the more they feel at home. Very well. That is all to the good. One day may we all be able to do so when the world of automation really is upon us. But that day is still far off. Yet it is almost as if some already have one foot in a life inside a simulation. And that might all be well if the mind could actually be uploaded into resilient hardware; sadly that is not our circumstance. We are, instead, plugging our all-too-human bodies into the global network with all of the pitfalls that entails and not enough of the benefits. People are trading their life not for an eternity in the Matrix but for one diluted of the richness of the physical world like some low resolution late 1920s “talkie”. There is no ludditism in these remarks: this is an admission that technology is amazing, but the physical and physically social world remains far more amazing still and we'll all be living in that primarily for a long time yet to come. Get used to it.
The day of working remotely for everyone and doing everything remotely is not here yet. Rather a vast number of us are still required to leave the house. To do manual labour. Some of us even choose to do manual labour - we enjoy gardening or building or cooking and serving and selling and so the list goes of people who are “people people”. Who live for the face to face interaction and the using of tools in the hand to craft the physical world around the rest of us. But, right now, all of those are told they too are “unessential”.
In some perversely inhuman and inhumane trick of our circumstance it is "the essential" ones who get to dictate who is essential. The essential get to feel they are truly “the essence” of society. The rest: easily discarded. Unimportant. Can we put a price on how unimportant they are? It turns out in Australia we can: $600 per week. The government will give you $600 per week. And that will form part of your taxable income. It’s not a gift. You’ll pay back a portion if you ever start earning again. And because of the tax you have been paying, you may not have much in the way of savings so that $600 per week you get while you are not earning had better go a long way towards paying your rent or mortgage (not to mention all your other expenses). If it does not: speak to your bank or landlord, you are advised. Your credit score will be destroyed, of course, and your landlord has nowhere to go if they themselves cannot afford not to have your rent coming in - but this is just the way it is for the unessentials.
I recently made a video about the clash of socialism with capitalism: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=svXLkLzDwTA. I “defended” socialism but concluded that the best defence I could make was unable to stand against the refutations against it inherent in any reasonably good explanation of capitalism. So I am logically and broadly speaking always going to tend in the direction of a party that purports to be “for” the individual more than the collective. So I should be “for” our Premier’s side of politics - for “The Liberal Party”. The other side that tends socialist in Australia is The Labor Party. I could not have imagined under what circumstances come next election I would ever vote Labor over Liberal. What could make one choose the party that explicitly endorses the more socialist authoritarian policies if one is against socialism? Only this: that the party who stands in opposition to it proves to be utterly dishonest about their supposed principles and policies. When they fail categorically to demonstrate any principle guiding their decisions and instead merely react on the advice of bureaucrats. In Australia we have, unfortunately, a preferential voting system. And while I do not know who I will put first on my ballot: I know this. The Liberal Party who last time I put first, will now be last. They, and not the virus, have caused catastrophic damage to my community: the physical, psychological and even spiritual fabric of Sydney and specifically the suburbs I know well and the people in them. Businesses are closed, never to reopen, people have left never to return. All too many now are suspicious and cruel about regulations and supposed “health” guidelines. There is a divide there that was not there in quite this stark a contrast before. The virus did not do this: the government did. Had the Premier and her cabinet insisted on following their own advice from a year ago - or just a few months ago - they would have had the support of their supporters (they will never win over their political opponents). But now they have the support of neither, it seems. Moreover precisely because it is the government who has damaged business and livelihoods people now do need government support. And this is the problem with government. But logically and morally the thing to do is to demand the government pay the people they have put out of business and out of a job. We'll need at least a few years to make those repairs. So, why not vote for the side who are more likely to give the poor people the conservatives would not allow to work anyway a chance to demonstrate they can't make things much worse. I'm fine with giving them one term.
Strathfield is a suburb of Sydney typical of the broader city but, perhaps, for the high concentration of Korean ex pats and hence Korean businesses. We chose to live here in large part for that vibe: we had some friends near here and made some more. It is as close to community as one finds in the otherwise “naturally socially distanced” culture that is greater Sydney in large part because of that influence. Weekends often involve a walk along “Strathfield Boulevard” to any of the many Korean restaurants. Our favourites are the BBQs and our favourite among those: “The Uncles". The manager and his wife always provide us with the house soup - which was a blend of superb consistency, identical each week of kimchi, pork and tripe. If that sounds unappealing (as it might have to me) it was a deeply flavourful affair not unlike what my own grandmother’s vegetable soup tasted like. But while hers contained vegetables and no sign whatever of pork, kimchi or tripe nevertheless they both tasted so alike: so homely. One reason among many we kept going back. We knew the manager only as “Uncle” though I am sure that he was not "The Uncle" of "The Uncles". We came to know many of the young waitstaff - almost all on working holiday visas with rudimentary English. They would practise English, we our Korean. An exception was “Aamie” a naturalised Korean with perfect fluency attending the locally prestigious University of New South Wales majoring in classical music and specialising in piano. She worked weekends and some evenings to help pay her way through a full time and rigorous course. So each week we would catch up at “The Uncles”. We got to know her as well as we have come to know many of the local casual and part time employees of the local restaurants and eateries. It is a social affair not only for us, but for many local to Strathfield and people who like Korea and want a taste of it from across wider Sydney. We know many of the managers and staff by name. You know: like a typical community which, as I say, is sometimes not so typical in "naturally socially distanced" Australia. When the pandemic began the locals of Korean descent were amused and bemused in equal measure by Australia shutting down retail and restaurants rather than simply protecting the old and vigorously testing, tracing and isolating. As many advanced Asian nations did. As so many epidemiologists suggested we should so early on. As I wrote about in March of 2020: http://www.bretthall.org/corona-podcasts.html The Asian nations had seen SARS before. Like so many other governments, the Australian Federal government and their state counterparts ignored the experience of the Koreans, and Korea being Korea (they have at times called themselves a “fast follower culture”) eventually lost its nerve too and emulated what China had began and what Europe slavishly followed with: compulsory and draconian lockdowns. As many know: this was never in the pandemic playbook of democratic nations nor even the World Health Organisation’s advice. Lockdown was to be a “last resort” https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-10-12/world-health-organization-coronavirus-lockdown-advice/12753688 Suddenly "lockdown" was among the first go to's and even more suddenly individuals could not be relied upon to look after themselves and their most vulnerable. They had to obey the central authority who made all the mistakes on their behalf. Indeed forget “relied upon” - even if a person cannot be “relied upon” to look after themselves best this is no reason to take away their individual rights to do what they think is best within the existing culture and societal structures.
The Uncles is closed forever now: only the facade remains. I expect there are a few in Strathfield that are sad to see such a stalwart institution of the local restaurant strip gone. I recall birthdays there and it was often the first place I recommended when people asked where to go in Strathfield for Korean food. Their choice of Wagyu beef was second to none and they did sliced smoked duck with honey mustard sauce that now we cannot find anywhere else. We heard the manager and his wife returned to Korea. Like so many other businesses the lights of The Uncles went dark never to be turned on again and the hustle and bustle, the smoke and smells are gone. The once vibrant strip of Strathfield Boulevard is not only missing restaurants that stood for many years but it is quiet enough to hear the native bird calls from trees in nearby streets. Our friends who run one of the local hair dressing salons were, even before this latest lockdown, struggling to meet the lease on their premisses alongside the wages of their employees and despite providing face shields and masks to all customers (who also all signed in using the government mandated tracing app) it was, none of it, enough. Hairdressers are shuttered now too. Putting aside the lease on the business premisses, how the home mortgage or rent is paid by any of them and how many of the casual staff can be kept is anyone’s guess. Maybe things will come roaring back? Maybe the local economy is like a coiled tiger? But maybe also an economy is not just an average or a total: but it is made up of individual businesses and lives and dreams and creativity and effort. I have the luxury to sit and hope, comfortable in my optimism about those general economic trends. But what damage has been done to individuals and their capacity to think well of themselves and what could again happen at any moment? I care for individuals in my community more than I care about gross economic metrics. Australia might overall do very well but if my community barely recovers, or recovers in a way that makes things seem unrecognisable, that is no win.
Tonight the Tokyo Olympics begin and everyone across the globe is united not only by sport but by their awareness (to almost the same degree) of exactly the same things: the rules and mandates, the masks and the menace. New cultural norms have descended upon us: some of lasting benefit, some of lasting hurt and harm. But so often so many are just aware of the averages and totals: the numbers in aggregates. The individuals are lost in the noise, the trees are lost in the forest: lost not directly to the virus but to the fallout from the decisions. It was not their mistake to make. The government and experts wanted to keep them safe from a single factor that could possibly have directly affected their lives (or not) in a society driven by fear of a virus which has become a fear of one’s fellows. The collective now matters far more than individual choices. We’ll all know in retrospect, one presumes. For good or ill many now realise: what they want matters not just less than that of the elites: it matters not at all because you’re either essential or non essential. Important or expendable.
The kookaburras continue to laugh in the early morning from one of the trees overlooking the empty road on which the shell of The Uncles now stands. Beside it, another Korean BBQ has closed and is boarded up: moving to a new premise recently made vacant by yet another BBQ going completely out of business around the corner. Multiple restaurants are now closed never to reopen in Strathfield alone but this is a pattern repeated across the some 900 suburbs in Greater Sydney. While the owners and workers at The Uncles Korean BBQ restaurant in Strathfield were not close personal friends, as much as anyone in one’s local suburb - we came to know each other well. We talked almost everyday as we passed one another (I live just off the restaurant strip) and come the weekend we would catch up together on that week; I would get a free soft drink, they would get a tip. They’re gone now. Some have returned to Korea. Some line up to apply for government benefits. Many, on working holiday or study visas do not qualify for government help. I have the emptiness of the shopfront to look into as I listen to the kookaburras laughing. The now unemployed workers have, I suppose, a far darker void to fill having learned now how “unessential” this society has taught them they are.
The most valuable thing you can offer to an idea