Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

SocietySeptember 20, 2021

The fraying tempers and fracturing resolve of Victoria’s endless lockdown

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

The state of Victoria has now spent almost two months in lockdown, its seventh since the pandemic began. It’s little surprise that the mood has turned so dark in recent days, writes Joe Nunweek, a New Zealander based in Melbourne

I got home to Aotearoa from Narrm for a few weeks’ visit in June. It was the first time in a long time, a hold-your-breath-and-wish-it-so exercise that seems more improbable the further away in time I move from it. The trans-Tasman travel bubble was suspended when Victoria had its first community cases of Covid-19 since February. My flights got cancelled once, then there was a carefully messaged “green flight” arrangement where I could get a plane home with a verified negative test result. On the day I went to the airport there were two new local cases. I’d tossed up whether I should postpone entirely. I’m glad I didn’t.

The bubble is gone now, and all the literary devices about surface tension and fragility are too cloying and obvious to pull out. Melbourne is still in lockdown, and now Tāmaki Makaurau is too. It’s a good time to think about how we’ve made it here: NSW a spiralling basketcase (15,000 active cases as I write this), Victoria now exceeding 500 cases a day but arguably increasing at a faster rate than its northern counterpart. All this while New Zealand reduces its already small daily case totals, slowly but surely.

One of the hardest parts of Melbourne’s lockdown is how the ring got snatched away just as we were reaching for it. The days around July 31 get razzed here as the “snap opening” – the one weekend when the pubs and shops and markets were open at limited capacity and probably the last time I remember being “amongst it”, social and seeing multiple friends. A few days later, students, families and staff at Al-Taqwa College in Melbourne’s outer west learnt that one of their teachers had tested positive, while another community case appeared 30km across town: a traffic controller at a testing centre in Moonee Valley in the northern suburbs. With six identified cases, Victoria entered the familiar form of lockdown in which it had passed most of the preceding six weeks and the majority of 2020: a fixed 5km radius from your home for essential goods and exercise, legally-mandated masks outside your front door, an overnight curfew, and only a long list essential services to remain open, including takeaway-only cafes and restaurants, construction and manufacturing, among others.

Lockdown in Melbourne, July 2020 (Photo: Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)

Depending on where you live outside of Australia, that probably either sounds like big-state tyranny or (more likely to Aotearoa readers) an appalling abrogation of the duty a state has to manage a new expansion pack of the pandemic. But we didn’t really think too hard about it here, particularly because we’d locked down quickly and effectively four times before with the same or similar measures (the one time we didn’t, for most of the second half of 2020, was after we’d let cases grow to hundreds a day while targeting “bad postcodes” and surrounding public housing estates with cops as our primary control measures).

So this time we took the same measures, but the delta outbreak has felt different – not just in the recognition that it’s naturally so much more contagious, but in the snippy, terse and at times sinister public mood of a place that is creeping towards a total of 250 days in lockdown since last March. With so much constraint and not all that much control, it’s perhaps not surprising that when Melbourne left the stultifying grey winter behind the city’s scolds likewise emerged from their own hibernation.

My two friends and their partners have had the cops called on their North Melbourne flat virtually every weekend for “hosting parties” (watching the football too loudly). My co-worker recounted the sight of someone glaring from their front yard and moving inside as if to ring emergency services when she sat down outside for a bit to eat hot chips. On the weekend of August 15, one paper shamed a pub for the dozens of people sitting on its kerbside drinking takeaway beers and food (the pub in question had already been shut for weeks). The Age encouraged readers to dob in their worst examples of people sitting in the sun in the sunny grass medians of the Inner North. The Victorian government then announced that flatmates would no longer be able to venture outdoors together as a group, and put a ban on open vessels. My quiet twilight walk with an open beer (simple pleasures!) would henceforth cop a fine.

Police speak to a woman enjoying the unusually warm spring weather at St Kilda Beach in Melbourne on September 2, 2021, as the city remains in lockdown (Photo: WILLIAM WEST/AFP via Getty Images)

Of course, if you’re part of a comfortably placed demographic – able to work from home, in reasonable health to start with, and now increasingly vaccinated – then it’s only right to consider who becomes a victim of your leisure during this pandemic. However, while it’s a very real and obvious choice in an American state where big weddings can be held while people die in droves, it remains a diffuse consideration here in Victoria, where the questions are about what you really need to buy or where you get your vitamin D. As the weather turned cold and wet again in late August, the private citizens and politicians demanding our rigid asceticism seemed to largely get the compliance they were after. Yet case numbers kept ticking up.

Recently the exposure sites have started to tell a new story, and official briefings have belatedly reflected it too. Covid has been transmitted at building sites, click-and-collect appliance stores, childcare centres, and caravan manufacturers. Many of those employed in these industries work in Melbourne’s outer north and west, areas that already face sparser access to testing and vaccination hubs. We’re seeing the kind of hyperlocal outbreaks flagged early on as a likely outcome of the delta strain, borne by people already dealing with Victoria’s heavily denuded financial, social and administrative services.

Debates over the outbreak, carried out by the kinds of Melbournians who get to take little breaks to refresh the news at work, therefore attained a kind of White Lotus quality – endless bickering about each other’s publicly visible manners and etiquette (should those kids really be skateboarding? I saw someone whose mask didn’t fit over their beard!) in sterile comfort while the people bearing the actual impacts were virtually unseen, the industrious extras propping the whole establishment up.

There are indications that the state government now realises this too. Places like Broadmeadows and Werribee, two suburbs hard-hit by this outbreak, are receiving a blitz of new pop-up vaccination sites, while the state has announced a crackdown on poor social distancing in the prefab tearooms of construction sites. As they did so, two experts on the ABC said diametrically opposite things – one that we still don’t know enough about who tests positive and why (including whether people are breaking rules out of necessity), the other that we simply need to crack down harder on the dolts. Now unburdened by guilt, local paper The Age has breathed a sigh of relief and offered a guide on the best places for its inner suburban readership to go get takeaway cocktails.

The state government aren’t ideologues or dimwits, and must see the difference in outcomes between Melbourne and Auckland (where virtually all building work has been left abandoned for weeks). But even if that kind of lockdown had been politically palatable to Victorians, the federal government has no interest in reinstituting the safety net it was dragged kicking and screaming into re-introducing last year, particularly not for a political opponent (Victoria has had a Labor government since 2014). State premier Daniel Andrews could get up tomorrow and announce Greater Melbourne was going into a NZ-style level four and Scott Morrison would financially starve us out of it in under a fortnight.

Andrews is instead going the opposite way – there was a tacit and reluctant admission that elimination won’t be happening in Victoria at the start of the month. That’s been formalised as of yesterday, when he laid out an “aspirational” roadmap to reopening the state and was adamant that zero cases had never been the target. The new plan is to get to 80% full vaccination paired with mandatory vaccination requirements in certain industries (childcare, teaching, hospitality for both workers and punters alike). Andrews phrased it as Victoria’s “passing through and beyond” and indicated that the state may have to fundamentally change the way it delivers health services (the implication: there aren’t enough doctors or nurses). On Twitter, the same state government loyalists who urged people to dob in anyone they saw sitting outside with a tinnie are hailed this as a public health triumph. 

Thousands of people gather in Melbourne’s CBD to protect lockdown restrictions on August 21, 2021 (Photo: Getty Images)

Victoria isn’t emulating the weird triumphalism of NSW’s government, but it’s still essentially vowing to live with the virus and its death toll without explaining or even acknowledging the abrupt change in strategy. but I worry about a slow, disempowering retreat here that basically avoids any self-reflection by officials on what they did and didn’t do – public policy as a throwing up of hands that says “well Victorians just couldn’t behave themselves so it spread”. How corrosive to goodwill. Where will people turn?

Probably not to the left, which is facing attacks from all sides and losing itself in Covid hypotheticals and dead ends. A strain of desperate pro-elimination thought has emerged, based on the fantasy that Morrison and his ilk (or the Federal Australian Labor Party, for that matter) would ever embrace a total shutdown and pay people enough to be safe at home.  The left thrives when it’s out there and visible, reaching and organising people where they are. Staying home and saving lives has its price.

The Australian far-right has no such compunctions. On August 21, 4,000 fascists and conspiracists took to the city’s streets, accosting bystanders and accusing the pandemic and its associated public health measures of being part of the Great Reset, the Great Replacement, Open Society Foundations – whatever the opportunists think will work. On Saturday a smaller number marched again as police created a ring of steel around the city that kept out essential workers and essential service-users, too. They weren’t cowed by any counter-protestors, because their opponents don’t want to get people sick. The rally’s more plausibly genial analogues in Australia media and politics – more than one of whom flat-out lied about a Black Lives Matter rally outside of lockdown in mid-2020 being the origin of Victoria’s last disastrous outbreak – were entirely silent. It’s hard to know what impact the protest had on transmission here – why would you go get tested for something you don’t believe in, administered by someone who’s in on it?

These are all problems that Aotearoa’s flawed but commendable efforts have largely avoided. Relatively short, street-clearing lockdowns have worked (aided by a reinstituted wage subsidy for businesses that shut), and the combination of a strong recovery and a much less septic media and political culture have meant that Covid conspiracists have more or less gone out with a literal whimper. This is in no way to gloss over my homeland’s challenges – as Bernard Hickey recently set out in a very clear-eyed way – but here in Australia I’m seeing what happens when hope dims and otherwise decent people start feeling like they might as well let it rip and hope that ICU capacity holds.

Keep going!