Politics Opinion

COVID apathy is contagious

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(Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons)

Just because our governments have given up on the pandemic doesn't mean we should do the same, writes Tom Tanuki.

I WAS AT A house gathering of mates who have recently recovered from the novel coronavirus. They’re the only people I trust to spend much time around at the moment. (I’m not even paranoid, honestly. But mates say they’re “being careful” and next minute, I see them in Instagram stories doing conga lines, or just lines, in clubs.)

One of them told me that they went to work throughout their infectious period. “You did what?” I asked, a bit bowled over. They weren’t proud, they said, but they were broke. And their boss told them to come in.

Someone else said:

“Maybe we’d have been mad at you this time last year, but now...  what else can you do?” 

Maybe I would have been mad if I haven’t suffered from being broke as much of my life as I have. No food in the fridge is an insurmountable obstacle. More importantly, I remembered that this same friend of mine was conscientious in staying at home — this time last year, that is. Back when they were receiving government relief.

I hear many employers now insist you come to work with the novel coronavirus. They don’t have the staff and you can’t prove you have it because you can’t get a test, so what else can you do? What else was my mate supposed to do? Not eat?

I think people can feel for this quandary. They know my friend was forced into a corner by bad government decisions. But it’s not just people going to work.

A mate sent me a video from Midsumma Festival over the weekend featuring many sweaty people packed into a tight crowd dancing. That same sight is now probably to be found at any weekend pub or club in Australia, but any weekend pub or club is not Midsumma.

I think my mate expected a greater degree of community-mindedness out of a space we’ve coded as progressive due to its celebration of otherwise marginalised groups. (Even if those spaces are really just big parties, like Midsumma.) They saw the video as evidence of a kind of headlong dash to oblivion by all of us, even the progressives. Like looking at people who’ve kind of given up on each other.

Immunocompromised people, people with disabilities or anyone with “co-morbidities” might not forgive these people partying into oblivion. We’re only reminded of this online, usually, unless we have these people in our lives — because they’re all now having to hide away.

Outside is too dangerous for them. They can’t enjoy any “freedom” anymore because the public now represents an imminent threat to their life. Not for them the endemic assumption of 2022 that coronavirus is now “mild” unless you have “co-morbidities”. (I read recently that if you tally up all the health complications that could worsen COVID-19 at least a little, actually a huge swathe of the population have a potential “co-morbidity”.)

In a way, they’re only suffering at the bottom of a growing pile of people the Government has discarded. Toward the top, too, is anyone who could stay home but now cannot, like my mate who had to work. Essentially we’re all being forced back together, by financial necessity, to spread the virus at will.

But that doesn’t account for the partiers.

Sure, there are lots of people who are now making bad personal decisions. Now that we’re all talking about personal responsibility, I suppose we’ve got to berate these people for their personal decisions. Right?

State and federal governments were active mediators in the early pandemic of what constituted collective responsibility and they did that by limiting our public movements, compensating us and so on. They threw the towel in on all of that in December 2021.

We’re mostly done with collective measures. This left us bickering with each other over comparative minutiae — about, say, how well we’re wearing our inadequate cloth masks over our noses in Woolworths. Or how faithfully we’re checking in to QR code apps that barely work anymore because state governments don’t list “casual contacts”. Or how long we’re isolating beyond the required period, which isn’t long enough to cover the Omicron variant’s actual infectious period. All these personal decisions.

Who’s fault is it that Australia is acclimatising to infecting each other with the novel coronavirus en masse? No assignment of blame feels quite right to me. Every time I point to the governments, I feel like I’m exonerating individual selfish people (or big, sweaty groups of them). But every time I rail against those people, I feel useless and petty, like I’m giving our governments the opportunity to hide behind the cloud cover of the chaos they created by giving up.

After whinging about the Midsumma party video, my friend and I discussed why everyone seems to be giving up on avoiding what remains a danger to them. If we can set governments aside for a moment, what can make individuals act this way?

Their theory is fun — David Foster Wallace’s novel, Infinite Jest, features a film, called ‘The Entertainment’, which is such ecstatically entertaining content that viewers become so engrossed in watching it repeatedly that they die of starvation.

Regular readers will know I’ve spoken before about Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle with respect to the anti-lockdown movement, and how the movement’s obsession with viral spectacle and hokey movie cliches reflects a general deterioration of our societal conditions through the pandemic and late capitalism. This feels similar.

The party video reminded them of Infinite Jest — of the desire to be entertained to death by a fantasy narrative. 

They asked me:

“Do you reckon, deep down, people were invested in this pandemic for as long as it could fit a three-act structure and be a good film?”

Perhaps we threw away nearly two years of grinding and depressing, but life-saving, collective health measures in exchange for one good Christmas and the prevailing sense, brought on by reaching certain vaccination targets, that we made it. That’s the fantasy narrative — “we made it!”

But even as we began to celebrate the way “we made it!”, it became clear that we didn’t. ICUs began to fill again. But we were too busy clinging to the narrative we’d started at Christmas. Entertaining ourselves to death.

If it all sounds a little abstract to you, perhaps it takes surreal circumstances for people to give up on their own health and community.

My theory is that the sole information feed for the average Australian learning about the pandemic – the main connection to the pandemic itself – has come almost solely in the form of daily announcements on the telly by a premier or a chief health officer. The content of those announcements was revised regulations and case statistics.

This has been an unrelenting grind. It has had the effect of making the pandemic appear to the layperson as though it is a state government rollout. It has also diluted the true deadly nature of a global health crisis. People became experts on a bunch of numbers and constantly changing rules about masks, curfews, QR check-ins and radiuses.

Every time those burdensome and often bureaucratic rules would be exposed as inadequate or wrong, peoples’ faith in them would wane. As those rules were peoples’ only connection to the pandemic, in the end, those people might simply tire of it all as a bureaucratic nightmare. Dismissing the pandemic like it’s a botched state government rollout.

Obviously, as boring as a virus might be, it’s not bureaucratic. And the pandemic is not a botched state government rollout. It’s a nightmare, with a mountain of dead bodies to speak for it.

But if my theory is right, the blame for this situation lies on our media and government, hand in hand, who communicated the pandemic as an administrative or regulatory issue from the very beginning. We got it wrong from March 2020 and we lost so many people. Anyone with a tenuous grip on politics only really caught the stats and the rules — until they didn’t care to anymore. 

Our sense of purpose early in the pandemic came from a sense of collectivism. But now it feels like we’ve all given up on protecting each other.

I hold that this deep shift, this great giving up, began with our governments, which earlier took to the wheel to steer our collective response. When they gave up, it signalled to everyone else that it was fine to do so. And now they’re out partying. 

Where do we draw the line, asking people to be accountable in this bizarre situation we’ve all slipped into while also not neglecting the governments’ systemic blame? I’ve got a lot of time to think about this, because I’m hiding away at home. I feel I’m in the minority.

Tom Tanuki is an online satirist, social justice commentator, writer and comedian. He has worked in anti-racist political comedy, most notably through his satirical group the Million Flag Patriots and anti-racist group Yelling At Racist Dogs (Y.A.R.D.). You can follow Tom on Twitter @tom_tanuki.

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