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Anti-lockdown protests expose need for new conversations



Walking down to the local Saturday morning street market, I wasn’t expecting to find myself amidst the beginnings of a violent protest. Seeing some police, I thought they were out and about to ensure the public weren’t taking too many liberties with the slightly eased restrictions that had come into effect for Melbourne the previous night. But half a dozen on each corner of Church St and Bridge Rd in inner-city Richmond suggested something more.

After a quick message, a bemused friend sent me event information that had been circulating on social media. The protest was to begin at midday, fifteen minutes away, and participants were encouraged to arrive early and ‘blend in’ before they made themselves known. Many had arrived early, but they didn’t quite manage to blend in.

There was a palpable sense of tension as I crossed Church St, off to do my shopping. On side streets protestors were getting out of cars and kitting themselves out for an afternoon’s protesting. Changing their shoes, putting on waist belts with holders for water bottles, and one doesn’t like to think what else. They greeted each other, trying to be discreet. I have no way of knowing whether some knew others already, but the greetings had the sense of new encounters, each made familiar to the other by this common, clandestine undertaking.

I could not help but circle back to Church St as midday past, my shopping bag full. The protestors, rather than head towards the heavily barricaded CBD, were beginning to march east. A seemingly small group of police emerged from a side street and formed a line about 50 meters or so from the protestors, shuffling ahead as they went. Other police seemed to arrive and depart in big coaches and unmarked SUVs.

It felt like street theatre. Almost. The anger and the aggression of the protestors was too intense for anything so trifling. Some shouted slogans denying the presence of the virus at all, others seemed primarily concerned by the mandating of vaccines, others still chanted for an end to lockdowns. After a further week of protests, the demands of these individuals and various groups remain unclear, but the anger and aggression remain palpable.


'It is not especially surprising that those who tend to do well out of our current social structures are willing to trust the government, persevere with the lockdowns and get the jab.' 


As some protestors marched past those of us stopped on the footpath, our days interrupted, there were indignant shouts for us to join in. Didn’t we see what was being taken from us in the lockdown? Didn’t we see what risk we would be taking by being vaccinated, let alone the damage that would be done by mandating vaccination?

Many in Melbourne, as well as people in Sydney and other parts of Victoria and New South Wales would share at least the frustration with lockdowns that protestors express. Some continue to be wary of vaccines, unconvinced by the medical science that suggests relative safety and efficacy.

The protestors that day, and in the days that have followed, are of course a tiny minority of the population. They do illustrate, though, a rising frustration throughout the community. The political has never been more personal for most Australians, and the strains of lockdown exacerbate existing social inequalities. It is not especially surprising that those who tend to do well out of our current social structures are willing to trust the government, persevere with the lockdowns and get the jab. If, however, you have experienced this period of pandemic as further dislocation and alienation, then you may well be less likely to accept that following the government’s policy prescriptions will reward you.

That is not to suggest that the policy prescription is wrong or should not be followed. It is a partial explanation for why some post exasperated messages on social media about everyone needing to get on with it and get the jab, while others furiously resist. These tensions will only rise, and the division is only likely to increase, as vaccinations become mandatory for workers in a whole range of industries and having proof of the jab will be necessary to access activities and events.

It will be a relatively small minority divided from the broader community. Given that over 75 per cent of Australians have already had a first dose of the vaccine, with over 85 per cent having done so in New South Wales, it appears clear the overwhelming majority of the population have, or will, accept the imperative to vaccinate. That is especially so in places where vaccination rates are tied to easing of lockdown restrictions. Yet in Melbourne, four of the five local government areas with the highest numbers of covid cases have first dose vaccination rates that trail the state and national average by 10 per cent. This contrasts with some of the wealthier metropolitan local government areas which have strong numbers, but most significantly with regional Victoria where 28 local government areas have already achieved first dose rates above 80 per cent.


'There is an opportunity, as the vaccine rollout continues, for local and community led conversations that might elicit a response that goes beyond state imposition and individual liberty.' 


Part of the reason for this discrepancy is likely to be the relative youth of the population in areas in the north and west of Melbourne where the virus has spread and where vaccination rates are low. Disproportionate segments of this demographic experienced, and continue to experience, significant fluctuations in their employment status and income throughout the pandemic. Employment and wage data suggests substantial movement in and out of employment for those in lower paid jobs, while those who have remained in full time employment have seen small but steady wage growth. That factor may exacerbate the unwillingness of many to get the jab.

Though the Victorian regional response might be skewed by an older population, for whom the vaccine has been available for longer, it may also suggest community coherence and the power of local voices to encourage vaccinations. The approach in Sydney of opening churches, mosques and community centres as vaccination hubs might form part of the reason that variations in vaccine uptake in local government areas don’t so starkly correlate with the average age and income of local government areas in that city.

There is an opportunity, as the vaccine rollout continues, for local and community led conversations that might elicit a response that goes beyond state imposition and individual liberty. In a highly complex and integrated society mandates may be necessary but they are a blunt instrument compared to the conversations about how our decisions effect our neighbours and those we go to work with. We should not be lulled into sentimental notions that since we have ‘all been in this together,’ we have had the same pandemic experience. Inequalities already present in Australia, not to mention globally, have only been exacerbated. Sentimental notions can be useful, and they would be here if they opened out local conversations not just about vaccination, but about the community we desire as we live with the pandemic. 



Julian ButlerJulian Butler SJ is a Jesuit undertaking formation for Catholic priesthood. He previously practiced law, and also has degrees in commerce and philosophy. Julian is a contributor at Jesuit Communications, a chaplain at Xavier College, and a board member at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Australian anti-lockdown activists gather in Melbourne (Diego Fedele / Getty Images)

Topic tags: Julian Butler, anti-lockdown, protests, conversation, vaccination



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Existing comments

Thanks Julian,
A very helpful, respectful and insightful addition to the ongoing conversation.

Richard Healey | 28 September 2021  

One of the calmest and balanced pieces of writing regarding the disruption of Covid and vaccination that I have read since the beginning of the pandemic. Thanks Julian.

Claire Collins | 28 September 2021  

Thank you Julian.Your article is lucid . I just to express my total disgust at the Fed State Government for the Layzy way they go about it. The isolation place should be built to care for those with Virus to be treated properly.!Not send them to public Hospitals, it will overload the Hospital system. The Drs and Nurses and front line Staff were over worked. The Government were only interested in raising the bar , push the vaccines intake up and disregarded the SAFY of Hospital Staff wellbeing....So they used Lockdown instead of building Coronavirus units to treat them..Very conveniently for the Government. Using Draconian punitive laws to back their actions. The Government impose Lockdown in people’s homes instead of building Isolation unites for pandemic with no cost To Government. Keep those who are sick at isolation units and let those not with virus go to work .After all the Government should be on the community side , Not on Big PHARMACEUTICALS Side.

John dos santos | 29 September 2021  

Dealing with a pandemic of this magnitude, and the accompanying loss of freedom, has been threatening and contentious for each one of us. In the daily updates by Premiers (and others) sadness and condolences are expressed for the loss of lives. And this is the crux of the matter: people are dying, families are devastated and society is losing what is of greatest value - their people. It is a difficult journey to find a way out, a way through. Health professionals tell us that vaccination is that way through and with the elimination of other deadly diseases through vaccination, we have to trust at some point. Every other issue pales in comparison to people losing their lives to this virus.

Pam | 29 September 2021  

In the wake of the recent breakdown in Covid control measures by large sections of the Melbourne/Victorian population Victoria has today not only caught up with but exceeded the case numbers and deaths in NSW. Conversations mean nothing and change nothing if the people who should be joining in and listening to the conversation come from a different culture, don't understand the language being used, are simply too intellectually challenged to understand the conversation or are simply ignorant of the basic guiding principles that should drive the conversation, namely an understanding of the human being's immune system, something which takes the experts in the field some 10 to 15 years to achieve and even then still has features that are not fully understood. There is no need to "live with Covid". It can be eliminated just as the advanced world has eliminated smallpox, polio, German measles and numerous childhood killers such as diphtheria, whooping cough and tetanus amongst others. The jury on infectious disease has been in for generations and its findings should be acted upon not talked about in uninformed "conversations". Vaccination of the entire population would spell the death knell for Covid and that should be the goal. Considerations of human selfishness that we see everyday from large sections of our community have no place in the control of a killer virus that doesn't understand the language of the conversation about its activities. The only conversation is - "Covid doesn't give a bugger about freedoms, lockdowns or inapplicable theories of the dangers of the weaponry being used against it. All it fears is vaccination.

john frawley | 29 September 2021  

Well written, balanced and thoughtful. Usually I'm a bit over the "conversations to be had" approach to matters of urgency but there's a fairly clear divide and this article identified some reasons for the knowledge and confusion gap between the understandings of some community groups. I have mixed feelings about mandatory anything but if we consider (say) fluoride in the water supply which most of us ( including "anti-vaxers" ) blithely accept there comes a moment when State imposed controls may be questionable but the people-power of resistance by refusal remains. Governments rarely want to spend money that won't save them money; the theory is that vaccination and "living with the virus" is more cost effective than un-vaccinated and the associated Medicare cost. I'm pretty sure that the message would go through all those compromised communication groups if Medicare was stopped for the unvaccinated and they'll be faced with any COVID-related hospital or ICU costs personally unless they have a medical reason for exemption. Perhaps after more than 12 months of one message the stragglers need a new concept to grasp. I fully respect every person's choice but suggest refusal or hesitancy with a reasonable related price tag has an element of persuasion provoking some of those needed chats.

ray | 01 October 2021  

Good article, but a point, 'It felt like street theatre', an outside observer could say that is the point, as observed elsewhere including the same alt/far right 'media' attaching themselves to a crowd, provoking police, receiving a reaction (preferably physical), cry victim, creating media content and then amplifying, locally and globally.

Especially apparent in the US, UK and some in the EU, but also represents anti-science radical right libertarian agenda that matches the former Trump administration and the UK Tories; of course many simply have strong views on vaccinations and related constraints.

There are nation states e.g. within the EU, which have managed to have a clear strategy of all required factors or steps, high levels of vaccination and most citizens abiding by the social contract, but the Australian national government and media seem often more about creating chaos and confusion?

Andrew J. Smith | 02 October 2021  

The article suggests that, because some groups don't have steady employment, they can't be pressured to take the jab by jeopardising their jobs. Is the author aware that pressuring people to take an experimental medication, whose long-term effects are unknown, violates the Nurembourg Code? Perhaps these down-and-out people actually know more than many others about the real vaccine development process.

Marita | 05 October 2021  

Many, not all, of those in the areas in the North and West of Melbourne which have the lowest innoculation rates and highest instances of Covid infection would be, I imagine, from countries in the Middle East and Africa where there is grave suspicion of the corrupt, autocratic governments who maladminister things. You do not seek help from the Police in countries like Egypt, Syria et sim. You avoid them like the plague. The well-kitted out protestors with good English and organisational skills sound very much like savvy, well off locals. There is a lot of voodoo science circulating about vaccination. There are also some extremist 'civil libertarians' and professional protestors around. Dialogue?

Edward Fido | 14 October 2021  

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