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Beyond binaries in COVID-19 discussions



The current COVID-19 lockdowns raise an important issue — what is government for and how much power does it need to do it?

Parliament House Canberra (Getty images/kokkai)

The excellent BBC documentary Power of Nightmares, made shortly after 9/11 opened with the suggestion that governments, having abandoned the contest of ideologies in favour of neoliberalism, could now only promise people ‘security’. Hence the need to remind people perpetually of the danger posed by ‘terror’ and urge surrender of liberty as the price of ‘protection’. Despite the fact that most perpetrators of ‘terror attacks’ were ‘known to security services’ beforehand, the narrative was always that more power to detect terrorists (and less privacy) was required to stop the next bomber before it was too late.

COVID-19, however, changes the story a bit. States which have starved their health systems for years are now finding these inadequate resources overwhelmed by a virus which is not deterred by airport security, detention without trial or mass surveillance and where even Australia’s ‘Stop the Boats’ theme-song of cruelty to refugees falters when it comes to multimillion dollar cruise-ships.

The question remains, however, is there a straight binary trade-off between granting the state power (to organise lock-downs, track its populace and coerce the people) and keeping its people safe?

Many (both for and against an interventionist state) argue this way. For example, some note that at least the more authoritarian governments, which imposed draconian lock-downs backed by armed force, have preserved their people from the worst effects of the virus and the massive death-tolls seen elsewhere.

So are we stuck between a dichotomy of individual freedom (and soaring sickness and death) and a brutal state crackdown which disrupts lives? Ironically, even outlets which cheer for state surveillance in other areas are now adopting libertarian rhetoric — arguing that we need to loosen the state’s grip (and let more people die) in order to save ‘the economy’. The article in Australian Financial Review asking whether older people’s lives are worth as much as those who are decades younger is a particularly stark example.


'Surely, however, it is not beyond our wit to imagine a relationship between government and people which is not limited to such a cruel liberty/oppression dichotomy.'


Even the government has made clear, in passing its Jobkeepers support package, that its restrictions on liberty are designed to protect the economy (’to keep Australians in jobs’) and that certain people (especially temporary and education sector workers, people with disabilities, international students, refugees and others) fall outside its understanding of the ‘social contract’ (’the Government had to draw a line somewhere’).

Those beyond the line are to be sacrificed — either to the disease or to the poverty which results from the disruption which follows in its wake. The Federal Attorney-General’s description of people with disability as a $17b a year burden has not been forgotten by many of us frustrated that the government has given so little information or support to disabled people who are at high risk from COVID-19. In another age, the term ‘nutzlose Esser’ (useless eaters) was used.

Surely, however, it is not beyond our wit to imagine a relationship between government and people which is not limited to such a cruel liberty/oppression dichotomy. This would recognise that governments have a duty to all within their power and should be given the means to fulfil it.

By the same token, recognising that government power (like any other) is open to abuse, this view would also recognise the need for clear advice, transparent and accountable decision-making and meaningful oversight of governmental decision-making. In short, it would recognise that government is not a function removed from people — a world of power and privilege which demands only a cursory nod to the suckers whose votes you need once every three years. In this view, while governments would have real power, these would be exercised responsively, on behalf of all of the people affected by them and on a rational basis.

Some countries are taking real steps in this direction. The lockdown in New Zealand, for example, is far more extensive and intrusive (Stage 4 on the 4-stage civil emergency scale used in both countries) than that in Australia. It has, however, been accompanied by clear messaging, daily updates on infection numbers, recovery and death rates and locations and steps taken to combat the virus. At the same time, the government has subjected itself to scrutiny by Parliamentary committee (headed by a member of the Opposition) and decisions are taken on the advice of health experts rather than a committee of captains of industry.

It’s time to move beyond narrow binaries and rediscover the importance of society and the human worth of all of us.



Justin GlynFr Justin Glyn SJ has a licentiate in canon law from St Paul University in Ottawa. Before entering the Society he practised law in South Africa and New Zealand and has a PhD in administrative and international law.

Main image: Parliament House Canberra (Getty images/kokkai)

Topic tags: Justin Glyn, COVID-19, democracy, social contract, auspol



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Existing comments

I met him on a cruise ship. He was well travelled, weighty and didn't mind crossing boundaries. I should have been able to tell from his cough, his fever, small signs (like telling me his name was Cor) that he just wasn't my type. How could I avoid him though on the dance floor? Luckily for me, the government stepped in just in time and I self-isolated. I just needed that explanation.

Pam | 21 April 2020  

One thing lacking in this .. attempts to educate, inform, and explain the theory, of how epidemics behave. It's not that hard. Numbers needed, but nothing difficult. But I can't recall any attempts to educate the public on the simple theory. Plenty of fact sheets on what we are told to do. Next to none, telling us where in the epidemic life cycle, we are now. Understanding that, would help people cope with the situation. This is one clear area, where public health education is needed. Not just on what to do ... but why..so people can understand and as in all health .. make informed decisions. The lack of attempt at this public education ... is puzzling. But that's what authoritarians do..

mike brisco | 21 April 2020  

Thanks Justin. Balanced and fair. However the notion that we are an 'economy' first and a community second seems to have been well sewn. Part of that nonsense is that we are 'customers' of government services. And as you advise this model discriminates mostly against those who most need government help-the market won't give them a chance. When those who are expert can influence government we are all better off. Quaint how that group of 'scientists' proscribed by conservatives are the new Moses to lead us out.

Michael D. Breen | 22 April 2020  

We can be grateful that Australia is a federation, not a unitary state. If it were not for the dissenting voices of the premiers of NSW and Victoria AND their sovereign ability to take action contrary the PM's wishes, we would have had a lot more trouble in those states. With a shut down federal parliament and a meek and mild federal opposition, its is only the states that have ensured that a modicum of transparency and explanation has occurred.

Ginger Meggs | 22 April 2020  

Thanks Justin for your advocacy. And Peter Gutwein for stepping up today to help unemployed temporary visa holders.

AO | 22 April 2020  

Thanks Justin, Neoliberalism has taken a huge hit as its inadequacies have been laid bare, yet Scott Morrison continues to talk of 'business as usual' out the other end! Of course he means his mates in business, not us little guys who actually keep the wheels of industry turning. So many ordinary workers have had their lives turned upside down. Like my mother who lived through the Great Depression, this disaster will haunt them for their entire lives. My family will not use the App for locating virus contacts as honestly we can not trust this lot at all to respect our privacy. I am continually reminded of George Orwell's 1984- Big Brother is watching you! I do not have any illusions that these laws once enacted, will remain on the Statute Books permanently .

Gavin O'Brien | 22 April 2020  

Spot on, Justin NZ isn't getting everything right - a new Covid 19 Public Health Response Act was rushed through with minimal consultation and it has a few problems- 'enforcement officers'- who are not very well defined have powers to go into buildings, including marae if they reasonably believe Level 2 restrictions are being breached. So some concern not enough protection for vulnerable communities who are always disproportionately targeted. But on the other hand you are right our Level 4 and 3 restrictions were well respected, and as you suggest because of the openness and transparency around the messaging. It was quite heartening!

Maire Leadbeater | 22 May 2020  

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