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Living with lockdown



I was with about twenty-five year nine students when my phone pinged with the news update: ‘Snap five-day lockdown for Victoria’. I was accompanying the students as a chaplain on a class retreat day. The year twelve leaders smiled as the news broke: it meant Monday’s assessment – their first year twelve certificate task – would be postponed. But after the initial wash of relief there was, or so it seemed to me, a longer pause. Might the promise of a ‘COVID-normal’ 2021 be illusory?

Main image: Flinders Street station under Stage Four lockdowns (Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)

Two weeks earlier, Western Australia went into its own snap lockdown. Late last year South Australia did the same. Although in the latter case the lockdown was cut short, lasting only three of the six expected days. It shouldn’t surprise anyone if Victorians received the news of their lockdown differently. Last year Melbournians experienced 111 days in ‘hard’ lockdown, on top of the months of lockdown experienced across Australia earlier in the year. The strategy to subdue was successful, but it was also suffocating.

In December, feeling emancipated from fear of the virus, I went to Sydney. I was amazed by just how relaxed the feeling was. People hugged and shook hands, where in Melbourne we elbow-tapped at best. On trains and in shopping centres almost no-one wore masks. In the carefree harbour city, the whole atmosphere was different. The gulf in experience gave rise to a different outlook, a different way of being present and interacting with others.

Each of us has our own experience of the first COVID year. We do all share, though, some of the best results in supressing the virus anywhere in the world. We are not bearing the extraordinary levels of death and sickness, the long-term effects of which are unknown. We are not being communally scared by such catastrophic lack of social cohesion and government incompetency to manage the health crisis. Although we have taken an economic ‘hit’, we are better off than other western countries where the virus has been allowed to ‘let rip’.

Talk, though, of social cohesion and government competency is loaded here in Melbourne.

Take, for example, a message I shared to the family WhatsApp group on that Friday afternoon. Frustrated, I lashed out at the impending lockdown. To me, in the moment, it felt undeniable and matter-of-fact. But when it was met with apparent hostility, and the reply constituted of ‘better locked down than sick’, it was only because of what was, to another family member, also undeniable and matter-of-fact.


'We need to get better at being able to name what the virus is doing and how we are responding, to articulate as full a picture as possible, without howling each other down.'


It’s not surprising. We feel this crisis personally, and often if we’re honest, viscerally.

This isn’t political theory 101, this is our lives. The vast majority of Victorians, or Australians, have never experienced this level of government intervention. For those 111 days, we lived under a set of government-mandated directives unprecedent in their curtailment of the whole population’s civil liberties. And, here in Victoria, we lived under them again.

I can feel the bristle at that suggestion of civil liberties curtailed, but it is true. Whether the lockdown, in its severity and length, was necessary to avert the health crisis, whether it could have been avoided by better governance, these are ancillary questions. We need to get better at being able to name what the virus is doing and how we are responding, to articulate as full a picture as possible, without howling each other down. Everyone who questions the decision making and actions of the Victorian Government is not a Murdoch acolyte. Everyone who recognises the difficult circumstances all government leaders have operated in is not an apologist for bad government.

We need to be able to recognise and articulate how well our society, and the various communities that make it up, has done in curtailing this virus. There is no doubt that governments, including Victoria’s, have been the largely successful coordinators of virus suppression.

But we also need to think carefully about the relationship government has with the society and communities it serves. Or ought to. There has been, necessary or not, a major shift in the way that government interacts in the lives of its citizens. Just as social cohesion offers opportunity, so uncritical responses to government risks squandering them. All our leaders ought to be open to rigorous, but fair, scrutiny without need of emotive campaigns to shield them from critique.  

After watching students pack their bags with everything they might need for a period of home-schooling, and doing the same myself, I drove home last Friday along busy inner-city Bridge Road. Every pub and bar was heaving to the curb. No-one wore facemasks, consistent with the rules. There were, no doubt, many more who had gone home, cautiously starting lockdown early.

It was a reminder to me that we experience times like this differently. Some take the time as respite; some, concerned for their health, are grateful for the cautious approach. Others, returning to the swing of a new year, with diaries full of activities, rankle at the change.

We do well to recognise how much this is affecting each of us, how much it will do so differently for each citizen, and how much these lockdowns are changing our understanding of the role of government. We do well, too, to register that some Australians experience government’s hand in this way all the time. We might find some greater measure of empathy and understanding for them.



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: Flinders Street station under Stage Four lockdowns (Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Julian Butler, Victoria, lockdown, COVID-19



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Existing comments

Great article. I to have mused over the different approaches and responses people have taken to this pandemic. I personally have found the restrictions easier than many. I was struck by an article that I read comparing the war experiences of soldiers at the front and in prison camps. In both instances the ones that handled it better physiologically didn't put a time frame on things ending. That might be a difficult ask but I think we could take that lesson and apply it here

geoff | 19 February 2021  

Better for the government to shut us down and deprive us temporarily of our largely selfish desires than to provide us with the mass graves to bury our dead as governments in Europe and the Americas have had to do. We will always get over a lockdown but death is a bugger of a thing to get over.

john frawley | 19 February 2021  

Science is about eliminating error. Politics is about choosing what to do. Given Victoria's history with managing the virus and the overwhelming of contact tracing at the worst time, I can understand that the political class was not ready to rely only on contact tracing, especially in the light of the more virulent B.1.1.7 (UK) version of the virus. So, lockdown was chosen to allow extended (3 ringed) contact tracing. As we now know, the extended contact tracing was good enough to manage without statewide lockdown. This should provide confidence to the political class that localised lockdowns should be enough (for now). Dan Andrews may wish to err on the side of caution, but he will find it increasingly hard to do so; hence the plans for a quarantine station. This will be good for all of us.

Peter Horan | 19 February 2021  

I was not sure what this article was getting at, and what I felt about it. So I have read it twice. I am none the wiser. Living in regional NSW in an area not unlike Tolkien’s Shire in a shelter from bushfire, storm and pestilence, maybe my experience makes me lacking in perception. What I can say is thank goodness for Australia’s strong state premiers who have got our nation where it is in handling the pandemic without outbreaks involving tens of thousands of infections and thousands of covid related deaths. Back to my reaction to the article, I think I line up with the author’s relative, better the imposition of a lockdown than the alternative, death.

Sandy | 19 February 2021  

“Better locked down than sick”, sounds like a lazy attempt to end discussion without debate. While numerous studies have stated they cannot rule out some benefits from lockdowns, most confirm there is no scientifically verifiable data to show lockdowns are effective. And when lockdowns destroy livelihoods (except government ones), increase mental health problems, and seriously damage the economy, reasoned debate is essential. Yet increasingly every belief seems to revolve around political allegiances. Last year Victoria introduced a Covid-19 Bill that would have overturned the 800-year-old Magna Carta right of Habeas Corpus. Yet the loudest champions of human rights remained silent. Fortunately, 18 QC’s spoke out against this draconian legislation and it was dropped. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo caused thousands of deaths in nursing homes by forcing them to take in Covid-infected patients. Yet Cuomo was praised by Coronavirus Task Force boss Dr. Fauci, who said the state “did it correctly.” Cuomo is now accused of undercounting deaths by 50% to avoid federal scrutiny. Both Daniel Andrews and Andrew Cuomo refuse to take personal responsibility for policy failures. Allowing tribal loyalties to override reasoned debate is detrimental to social cohesion and the common good.

Ross Howard | 19 February 2021  

I don't know about Andrew Cuomo Ross, but it seems to me that neither Daniel Andrews nor any of the other premiers and chief ministers have failed to accept responsibility for their decisions and actions. They were bound to get some of them wrong, given the 'fog of war' in which they were operating. The encouraging part is that they all seem to be learning learning, not just from their own experiences, but from those of their opposite numbers.

Ginger Meggs | 21 February 2021  

John Frawley: ‘….selfish….’ Peter Horan: ‘….choosing….‘ Religion helps politics to choose by locating selfishness. The last thing to be emptied of humans is the municipal public transport system. A contagion can be so virulent that buses or trams/trains can’t run. But, some element of juggling values must be happening because public transport usually runs when everything else is locked down. Scientific method hypothesises from sample to population. Most churches are microcosms of larger public spaces, the nave/hall being a public space intended to confine a population of immunologically unrelated individuals, using common air, in close proximity for a substantial period of time. Tests examining the public health situation in this laboratory may extrapolate to spaces like malls or restaurants. If you can make a church ‘work’, it’s hard to see why lockdowns need to occur where movements can be disciplined (discipled?). There is a prior question: is banning a Mass an intrinsic evil (for which the consequence is ‘you can’t’) or prudential (where the consequence is ‘It depends’). God, in his orderly rationality, implies it is prudential not because his Church says so but because Mark 7:11, which, conceptually, is greater than the Church, says that korban can be abused.

roy chen yee | 22 February 2021  

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