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An age of communal and civic responsibility?



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.

Woman putting on mask (courtneyk/Getty Images)

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 in hotels. This was part of a more general support for people whom the virus threatened with loss of work and of accommodation. Together with the rise in the JobSeeker scheme it helped homeless people live with some dignity.


'Governments have two choices. They can return to the attitudes that have led to endemic homelessness and a neglected old age for the vulnerable, and to a society and economy vulnerable to pandemics. Or they can ensuring and fund adequate housing and aged care for the vulnerable through enlisting properly regulated community organisations.'


This accommodation, however, is temporary, intended to last only to the beginning of economic recovery. Simultaneously, many of the financial supports and the protection from bankruptcy and eviction that were also introduced in response to the virus are also scheduled to cease. If and when this happens a very large number of the people who have lost employment will be unable to pay rent or mortgages, and so risk homelessness. This will in turn create ideal conditions for the virus to spread.

The contrast between the responsibility evident in the housing and support for people who are homeless in the name of a society united in addressing the threat of the coronavirus, and the lack of responsibility evident in the return to a previous state of affairs, is notable. It suggests that the habitual government attitudes to housing, employment and welfare are characterised not by responsibility for the common good but by idiocy: the focus on individual gain at the expense of the good of the community.

They have withdrawn from their responsibility to ensure that all members of society, especially the most vulnerable, are decently housed. They have allowed responsibility for housing, aged care and other social goods to be left to private enterprise, with the result that they have become a source of self-aggrandisement by the already wealthy. Social housing was sold off, allowed to deteriorate and not expanded to meet need. Underlying this neglect is the self-serving belief that society is made up of competitive individuals, and that subsidising the most successful will create a prosperity which will then spread to the whole society. People who could not compete were regarded as undeserving of a share in the fruits of prosperity. The pandemic has shown how reckless this attitude is in destroying the solidarity needed to meet crisis. It is the abstract equivalent of refusing to wear a mask when walking during lockdown.

In this time of coronavirus the fruit of these attitudes can also be seen in the policy governing the housing of aged people. In Victoria nursing homes have been one of the major sources of infection within the community and of deaths from COVID-19. As with homelessness the root of neglect is to be found in turning aged care into a market where the government subsidises private operators at an inadequate level. Good nursing homes, and the best are very good, are expensive, the businesses are profitable, and people with some wealth are cared for safely.

Many other nursing homes are also very profitable, but the profit comes from skimping on food and care, and employing casual and badly trained staff. Because these staff need to eat and feed their families, they often works shifts in different homes, helping to make the homes a dream target for ambitious viruses. Regulators, faced with the alternative of closing down homes with all the distress this causes to vulnerable people while knowing that they are unlikely to find better conditions elsewhere, are typically ineffectual.

Again the root of these conditions lies in the idiocy of governments that neglect the welfare of low paid workers by encouraging casualisation, and refuse to take responsibility for the welfare of vulnerable elderly people. Instead they shift the responsibility on to profit making private enterprise on the pretext that it will yield better results for people in a more efficient manner. Efficiency is produced by underfunding.

In both aged care and in housing for vulnerable people the catastrophic risks inherent in the attitudes that drive policy are now clear. Governments have two choices. They can return to the attitudes that have led to endemic homelessness and a neglected old age for the vulnerable, and to a society and economy vulnerable to pandemics. Or they can ensuring and fund adequate housing and aged care for the vulnerable through enlisting properly regulated community organisations. It is a choice between going masked in communal responsibility and going unmasked out of idiocy.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street

Main image: Woman putting on mask (courtneyk/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, COVID-19, civic responsibility, homelessness, aged care, masks



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Existing comments

How well spoken Andrew. I do hope there are some in government who hear your words. The alternative does not bear/has not borne thinking about.

Henri | 06 August 2020  

At times during this pandemic, and in encountering life generally, I am and have been unsociable, self-absorbed, with little interest in public life or the public good. Being a private person does not inevitably lead to the aforementioned traits though - productive disinterest can ensue. We all struggle with being responsible: it's a heavy burden. As difficult as the pandemic has been for everybody, it has certainly been catastrophic for homeless people and for those on the margins of society without the comforts of home. Federal and State governments have been less than competent in their responsibilities towards older Australians who require aged care and the pandemic has highlighted this inadequacy. It is heartbreaking to think about the loss of life, the indignity being suffered by a vulnerable group in our community and this has tended to make me feel very unsociable indeed. My inadequacy in the face of a stressful situation which unmasks my self-absorption.

Pam | 06 August 2020  

Excellent article showing how markets for social goods can be cut-throat and exploitative of clients and staff. Governments are finally responsible to see that services are well run and adequately funded.

Bruce Duncan | 06 August 2020  

Thank you, Andrew, for such wise words. I want to say to you and all who read your article a loud "hear hear".

Jim Cunnington | 06 August 2020  

Thank you, Andrew, for the thoughtful and wise article. There is much to be learned from the experience of COVID-19 and your comments are wise and helpful. Alan

Alan Wade | 06 August 2020  

The opportunities COVID throws up for sale substantial change so clearly expressed Andrew. Who will drive this change and pick up the baton? I don't have much faith in an LNP government. It goes against their philosophy

john bartlett | 06 August 2020  

Thank you Andrew for a very thought provoking article with which I totally agree. Government it responsible for the whole community including the more vulnerable therefore should provide for their needs especially one of the most basic needs, housing.

Jan McCaffrey | 07 August 2020  

Andrew, I realize I am partly repeating what others have written. Your essay is absolutely spot on. Since the days of John Howard, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, Thatcher-ism, Reaganomics have reigned supreme under conservative governments . Literally 'dog eat dog' style of life for many of the 'down and outs 'of our society. "Privatization" has been the buzz word . Greed and profit at the expense of the public good has been the result in aged care and other essential services.Now the chickens have come to roost! The Morrison from marketing slogan "Snap back" will not come back.The alternative policy that keeps surfacing from this LNP Government to too depressing to consider. My generation bore the cost of World War Two.It will be this younger generation which will have to the bear the price of COVID-19.

Gavin O'Brien | 08 August 2020  

So what do the bishops have to say ?

Ginger Meggs | 08 August 2020  

When John Donne wrote these lines: '...send not to know/For whom the bell tolls,/It tolls for thee.' he was living in an age remarkably similar to our own. If that does not spring us awake, I fear nothing will. Sadly we do not seem to have a consensus about what makes a good society. Margaret Thatcher did not believe that society as such existed, there were only individuals. I think some of our politicians, such as the Prime Minister and the Treasurer, do not share Thatcher's view, which is fortunate. We need to survive the COVID-19 pandemic but it is the way we survive it which will lay the foundations for our future. We need to ensure that these foundations are solid. That is not just up to the politicians, it is up to all of us.

Edward Fido | 10 August 2020  

"It is up to all of us." Indeed it is, Edward - and I think Wordsworth's "little unremembered, nameless, acts of kindness and of love" will be an integral part of the future's solid foundations.

John RD | 11 August 2020  

It has taken 2 decades to run our systems down to their current state. When I worked in home visiting, I would get a txt asking me to present at one of 3-4 companies at varying times of the day/evening, along with the code to unlock the office door. I would pick up my list of addresses and carkeys and drive from one address to the next. Tasks were mainly to check medication was taken and vacuuming and cleaning fridges. I had 30mins to get there, complete tasks and get to the next address. If I ran late, that was on my time. The only time I saw a manager over 12mths was to complete my application. The only feedback I had was a note in my locker asking me to record only that I had been and not things like that the person reported chest pain. Oh and a call from the office telling me they had completed my police check - 10mths into the job. This was 12yrs ago. And friends tell me now they are also required to solicit work such as by taking baking or flowers to the people they visit. You won't be surprised we were on the minimum wage and no quals required.

Catarina Neve | 22 August 2020  

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