COVID-19 doesn't discriminate and in order to end the pandemic, we can't be complacent or lose community spirit, writes Sylvia Aramchek.
ON 10 MARCH 2022, the Queer exhibition launched at the National Gallery of Victoria. That same day, Victoria reported 7,779 new COVID-19 cases.
I saw photos of the NGV launch event all over my Instagram for a few days. Many of the most influential queers in town were there and it appeared to me that not a single one of them wore a mask. Some of them clustered together in groups of six or seven to take bathroom mirror selfies.
Meanwhile, the exhibition featured some of the text art of David McDiarmid, a HIV activist who passed away in 1995:
‘I WANT A FUTURE THAT LIVES UP TO MY PAST.
DARLING, YOU MAKE ME SICK.
I’M TOO SEXY FOR MY T-CELLS.’
Someone has to point out the hypocrisy of this and I guess it has to be me. Comparing COVID to HIV/AIDS is a problematic task at best and I usually wouldn’t go there. But if we care about our own history at all, if we have any ability to look back at what we’ve been through and how we got through it, surely we have to recognise that going to indoor events like this without even the courtesy of a mask throws our most vulnerable community members under the bus and puts our ancestors to shame.
Like HIV/AIDS, we can’t go down the path of stigmatising people just for contracting COVID and we have to acknowledge that there are systemic faults at play bigger than any of us individually. But this is also a very different situation because we’re dealing with a virus you can give to someone else just by walking into a room.
Surely, we do still have to care about whether or not we’re doing our best to avoid spreading it. Especially when something as innocuous as wearing a mask makes such a huge difference. Especially when all we have is each other.
Lately, I’m starting to see the evil genius of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s “personal responsibility” rhetoric; it works both ways. People who like Morrison think, “Yes, I agree that the Government should do nothing and I, too, will continue to take no precautions.”
There’s also an opposite but equal reaction: “I hate Scott Morrison, therefore I will do the opposite of what he says and take no personal responsibility whatsoever. Anyone who says I should is acting like him and therefore can be dismissed.”
The virus, as usual, does not care about any of this. It cannot tell the difference between these two kinds of people. They may as well be the same.
The 2022 Sydney Mardi Gras had an estimated 400,000 people attending and all the footage seems to suggest that none of them took any precautions. There’s no way to pin down how many people got COVID there and went on to spread it to others, but anecdotally, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was in the hundreds or even thousands.
It’s spread to enough people that the nickname “homocron” has started to circulate. I’ve seen a joke going around: “It’s homophobic that I got COVID at Mardi Gras.” Actually, the word you’re looking for is “ableist”.
It’s tempting to try and dismiss the implications of this. “It’s cishets crashing the party. It’s the corporate sponsors. It’s the privileged queers, the ones over there. The ones who go to Mardi Gras. Not us.”
I don’t buy it. Of course, no blanket statement can account for every single queer person, but so many of us are complicit that I’m reluctant to imply that it’s just someone else’s problem. For every Mardi Gras photo, I’ve seen dozens more at crowded house parties, niche little gigs, raves and club nights, packed to the rafters, not a mask in sight.
In the eyes of the virus, it’s all the same thing. And for our high-risk and immunocompromised community members, every single one of these events is a heartbreaking betrayal. Sometimes it hurts worse when it’s someone you thought you could trust.
Gigs, festivals and celebrations are supposed to offer us hope, to give us a vision of a better world. But lately, all I see is a threat to public health. And it’s breaking my heart, poisoning me with bitterness and rage. I can feel my love of community slipping away. It’s as if we were only ever a marketing demographic all along, a loose conglomerate of the short-sighted and self-interested.
And as I’ve watched all this happen over the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking about Missy Higgins’ lockdown-era song, ‘When the Machine Starts’, released November 2020:
When the machine starts up again,
Will I be snapping at its wheels,
Drinking down the voices.
Oh, and buying books on how to feel.
When the machine starts,
Will you remind me,
I saw the truth once, I saw it floating in the air.
Oh, don't let me forget,
Don't let me forget.
It’s a clever, subtle song. It’s realistic. She’s got things to look forward to and a new lens on life, but she also doesn’t expect the end of lockdown to solve her problems. She’s still anticipating “drinking down the voices and buying books on how to feel” in a post-lockdown world. She’s acknowledging we’ll always be struggling because we’re human and that we’ll all be dealing with COVID-related trauma for probably the rest of our lives.
But it’s that title refrain that I can’t get out of my head. It now sounds disturbing and cynical to me. I don’t think it was Missy’s intention, but I now hear “when the machine starts up again” as: when capitalism resumes. When I’m allowed to. When the cops say it’s okay. Not necessarily when it’s safe.
Was that what people were waiting for all along? Just the green light, regardless of the other circumstances?
I’d like to think we’re better than that.
I dug up Missy’s blog post from when the song was first released:
I think [2020 has] given me more faith in humanity than any other time in history. It’s also made me realise how disconnected we have been from each other. I’ve seen strangers reaching out to each other to see if they’re okay. Work colleagues checking in on each other’s mental health for the first time ever and really caring about the answer. Streets and communities creating platforms where they can connect and share stories and offer support. A conversation about the things that really matter. There’s a feeling of solidarity with the entire globe that has never been possible before.
I believe that we can hold on to everything she’s described and I believe that a good life for us is still possible. We can still see our friends. We can still go to galleries. We can still enjoy live music. But we have to adapt. We’re learning more and more about COVID’s potential long-term side effects lately — the brain, the heart. Some people are smelling cigarette smoke 24/7.
Sure, the Government’s colossal failures are not our fault. Scott Morrison and his corrupted idea of “personal responsibility” can get fucked. But we still have to rise to this occasion. All we have is each other and we owe it to each other.
Lockdown was cruel and arbitrary. The 9 PM curfew and the 5-kilometre radius probably achieved nothing. Nobody wants all that back again. But if we give up completely, we betray only ourselves. Now that there are no rules, nobody can tell you what exactly “doing your best” looks like. Only you can decide.
The other day, I was driving through the Melbourne CBD and I felt a jolt of that old feeling, like a reunion with an old friend — excitement, potential, nightlife, adventure. It consumed me for a few seconds and I felt tempted to give in to it, to welcome it back unconditionally into my life. But then an ambulance overtook me, lights on, sirens blaring. And I thought back to what Missy sang: “Don’t let me forget.”
Sylvia Aramchek is a writer from Melbourne.
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