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An age of communal and civic responsibility?

  • 06 August 2020
This year the first day of Homelessness Week has coincided with the beginning of Stage 4 Lockdown in Melbourne, and both with Midwinter. My mood during my first regulation One Hour Exercise walk was understandably tetchy. It was not improved by being pushed off the footpath by two men who were not wearing masks. ‘Idiots’, I muttered to myself glumly, only for my good spirits to return as an angle for a Eureka Street column graced me with its arrival.

To be fair to the men on the street, they could have both had legitimate exemptions for not wearing masks. But as we've seen, particularly from some attention-drawing examples of late, there are some who are choosing not to wear masks or physically distance. The word ‘idiot’ is derived from classical Greek, in which it referred to a private person, unsociable, self-absorbed, with no interest in public life or in the public good. Precisely the condition of people who disregard the regulations aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19. Another contemporary name for this condition is entitlement.

The polar opposite of the idiot is someone who is civic minded, sees themselves as part of a larger whole, is willing to subordinate their own narrow interests to the good of the community and especially its most vulnerable members. This is precisely the public attitude necessary for suppressing the coronavirus and for recovering from its effects on economic and social life. Another name for it is responsibility.

If they are to enlist the support of their people in acting responsibly in the face of coronavirus, governments must themselves practice responsibility and abjure idiocy. They must look to the good of the whole community, and especially to disadvantaged people who are at the greatest risk of contracting the coronavirus.

Among them are people who are homeless. Some have been living and sleeping on the streets of Australian cities. To live without a home, a postcode, an address makes difficult so many things we take for granted: cooking meals, washing clothes, hygiene, dealing with government agencies, and having access to employment or education. It is naturally isolating, carries a stigma, and threatens physical and mental health. It is not a condition that any decent society should allow its citizens to endure at any time, much less during a pandemic.

In the initial response to the virus governments displayed admirably their responsibility to people who were homeless, finding them accommodation