Wyndham Village shopping centre could be anywhere in Australia. An Aldi at the entrance, a Coles at the other end, with rows of small businesses – a barber, a fashion store, a few cafes – down the sides. Peter Reid, 65, is taking a breather on a wooden bench, mask on.
He’s tired of Melbourne’s stage four coronavirus restrictions, but he supports them. “It’s all a pain in the bum, but we have all got to try to get out of this,” he says. The local government area of Wyndham, on the western edge of Melbourne, is multicultural and growing fast. It is also the area that has suffered the highest number of Covid-19 cases in Victoria – more than 2,000 – and has the most active cases now, at more than 300.
Reid is an Uber driver so he has filled in the “permitted worker permit” that police can demand to see at any time. He has no tolerance for those who flout the myriad restrictions, including compulsory masks outside, a nighttime curfew and staying within 5km of your home. “Hit them with it,” he says. “It’s got to be a big stick or nothing.”
Australians’ self-image as a nation of rugged individuals with a healthy scepticism of authority was always a half myth – but the willing, even enthusiastic, compliance with restrictions, unknown even in wartime, is compelling.
“I was actually surprised at how willing people were to submit to restrictions,” says Assoc Prof Tom Daley, the deputy director of the school of government at the University of Melbourne, who is collating information on the impact of coronavirus on democracies and governance around the world.
“I would put Australia at the further end of the spectrum in terms of willingness to submit to regulations, especially among the more individualistic Anglo countries.”
There has been pushback. Business lobby groups want tough international border restrictions loosened to help economic recovery. Libertarian thinktank the Institute of Public Affairs rails against “the greatest incursion into our basic liberties ever on Australian soil”.
Even those who support the lockdown, such as the Victorian upper house MP Fiona Patten, say “something is wrong” when someone can have a sexual partner over to their house but not a friend or relative. She and other crossbenchers have also revolted over premier Danial Andrews’s plan to extend state of emergency provisions for 12 months.
But overall, public opinion seems solidly behind the curtailment of civil liberties that would have been unthinkable a month ago. Many people want even tougher rules. A Guardian Essential survey published this week found 60% of respondents would support compulsory tracking bracelets during self-isolation for people diagnosed with coronavirus. Sixty-five per cent favoured closing the international border to all foreign travellers and returning citizens.
A Roy Morgan poll specifically on Victoria’s stage four rules revealed overwhelming support – aside from a more mixed result on Melburnians being able to visit immediate family members. Almost 90% backed mandatory mask-wearing, 72% supported the curfew, and just over 70% did not believe anyone should be able to travel more than 5km from their home.
Nobody seemed to worry when a young woman was jailed for six months for sneaking into Western Australian on the back of a truck.
In South Australia, new laws mean you can be jailed for up to two years for “flouting” border closures. In Victoria, there was hardly a peep when police reported issuing $200 fines for those not wearing masks, more than $1,600 for travelling further than 5km to buy cigarettes or driving 30km to buy “specific butter chicken”.
Public health crises rely on a cooperative effort from citizens, an acknowledgment that the community’s wellbeing requires individual sacrifices. Most civil liberties experts accept that but stress that restrictions should be proportionate to the risk.
Daly from Melbourne University says huge power is concentrated in the executive. “There’s nothing undemocratic about having a strong hand when it’s necessary and it’s proportionate and it’s open to scrutiny and there’s a time limit, but [this] crisis means a certain type of government where executives are running the show and no one else gets much of a look in, [and] that’s worrying me .”
Victoria’s Public Health and Wellbeing Act states the spread of an infectious disease should be prevented “with the minimum restriction on the rights of any person”. Where there are alternatives “the measure which is the least restrictive of the rights of the person should be chosen”.
Yet Australia has banned its citizens from departing the country without an exemption, one of the few democracies to do so. The caps on international arrivals have meant that Australians are trapped overseas, or vulnerable to price gouging by airlines. States have kept borders closed to other states, even those with little community transmission, without releasing the medical advice purportedly justifying it.
Outside the Wyndham shopping centre, Abdul Kader is pushing a trolley laden with the week’s groceries. The 43-year-old, a researcher, says he “gladly accepts” the restrictions because his instinct is to be cautious about the virus’s potential spread. He likes Australia’s strong approach, given the explosive second waves in many places overseas.
Around the corner in the suburb of Tarneit, accountant and mortgage broker Rishi Prabhakar is running his business from home and looking after his children, aged 11 and six. He supports stage four and wishes the government had gone harder earlier, so that businesses could have potentially recovered by now.
The 40-year-old is willing to put his faith in governments that he believes are trying to do the right thing. His view echoes the analysis of Essential Media executive director, Peter Lewis, who says that “in crisis the public has turned to government for protection”.
“I’m pretty much supportive of anything government does,” says Prabhakar. “It’s our obligation to make sure it’s a success.” His one reservation is informed by personal experience. He knows many Indian Australians who visited India for family deaths or illnesses and now can’t return. “They have no clarity if they can come back in three months, four months, five months,” he says. “Australia is their home.”
Angela, 68, who declined to give her surname, says her adult son is working from home for a bank and trying to look after and home-school his children. He is under stress and so is his relationship.
Angela lives alone and buying a few groceries is her only outing. “It’s too hard,” she says. “I watch TV all day and think about things and get more depressed.” She sees no reason why she cannot have one person to visit.
Compliance may be high but it’s also fraying a little. Across town in affluent Brighton, university student Damon Fahey, 23, is waiting for a takeaway coffee in Church Street. He doesn’t mind the curfew or the masks – although he does wonder whether the latter is necessary if walking alone.
But he perceives a shift among his friends on Facebook. Come 13 September, when the stage four restrictions are due to end, people will crave relief, Fahey says. They are hanging on, despite the inconsistencies, the hardships and the economic damage. But there’s a limit.
“If it goes longer, the costs will be much greater,” the student says.
Source: The Guardian