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Pandemic activists have saved more lives than Government

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Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons

Community groups and activists have done far more to help those in need during the pandemic than our own government, writes Tom Tanuki.

IT TURNS OUT there are redeeming qualities to be found in a global disaster. I’m grateful to have been witness to the way people struggle together, organise and build opportunities for community care over the course of the coronavirus pandemic.

This gratitude feels more profound to me than even the temporary welfare measures that kept me fed (before they ended) or the vaccine breakthrough that’s already saving millions. Because mutual aid feels more immediate, closer to home. I’d rather celebrate this history of grassroots struggle than view the pandemic through an endless chain of government announcements and restrictions.

Early in the pandemic, I remember going for walks around the neighbourhood at a time when that (or Woolworths) was all one could really do out of the home. The front windows of houses had little children’s drawings of rainbows in them. That gesture of British origin had travelled around the world via the internet, which was our only portal of escape (and often still is). Local community Facebook groups would document them, or encourage people to support small businesses. Little ways of negotiating the pandemic at a local level, or at least escaping the torturous online drip-feed of press conferences and infection tallies.

But the twee sentimentality of middle-class suburban buy, swap and sell groups, if reassuring, isn’t the deep community care I mean. I’m thinking of the struggle of activists and mutual aid groups — from the beginning of the pandemic to now. This story isn’t told enough. People kept fighting for the safety and livelihood of others, even as a global pandemic loomed. The state response to them was aggressive and the media portrayed them as selfish or dangerous. Their fight was maligned and unpopular. But they fought.

In April 2020, government refugee hotel detention exposed hypocrisy in the policy approach to suppressing coronavirus. If these new “social distancing” measures were key, then given the unhygienic, crowded conditions in the hotels, were refugees being abandoned to the virus?

That, on top of the inhumane violation of human rights through indefinite detention, was too much for refugee rights activists. They already knew that the Australian Government does not act ethically on refugees without activist pressure. But how could they act through new pandemic and lockdown measures? Refugee Action Collective activists in Melbourne found a solution: they held a car convoy.

It wasn’t an ideal protest tactic, but it balanced the needs of the pandemic with those of refugees. Still, Victoria Police swept in, charged organiser Chris Breen with incitement (a charge dropped in March) and issued protestors with a total of $43,000 in fines.

Breen told activist media at the time:

“Health rules around coronavirus can’t be used to stamp out the right to protest.” 

We were realising that the Government would do exactly that. The public, overwhelmed with death tolls and daily briefings, didn’t take heed.

Meanwhile, community mutual aid efforts were organised on a scale I’d never seen before. Anyone in need was likely sent an enormous centralised spreadsheet being shared around back then. Divided into states, it linked people to an exhaustive array of services and grassroots support groups.

A comrade helped set up one early iteration of these groups in Melbourne. People could put in requests for support, or offer whatever assistance or goods they were in a position to provide. Chefs gave out free meals. A plumber offered free, socially distanced emergency work. Once, I helped a woman stuck at home with chronic illness and crippling anxiety who urgently needed medication. I drove to the pharmacy to pick up her script, dropped the pills in her mailbox and later she transferred me the money. That was that. Little tasks like that were being undertaken autonomously by people all over Australia because of these groups.

As Melbourne was forced inside for months of lockdowns, Brisbane stepped up to the plate on asylum seekers. The Refugee Solidarity Meanjin fight to free the “KP120” – a group of formerly offshore-detained asylum seekers in Kangaroo Point hotel accommodation – was a pitched battle over the course of a year. The fight rejuvenated that city’s activist scene. The Premier, Health Minister and Police Commissioner of the state all condemned them ad nauseum.

Court and police action were taken to suppress the protests under the guise of COVID-19 restrictions. The activists who participated in this sustained battle had to weigh up the risks of infection, police violence and arrest; they considered it their moral duty to take every precaution they could and head out anyway. It takes courage.

When the nation paid close attention to these activist fights, it was invariably to malign them despite an incredible degree of organisation. People rallied across Australia as part of the Black Lives Matter movement last June and, notably, Melbourne had anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 people hitting the streets.

These activist-led rallies remain the best-coordinated COVID-era events I’ve seen. No sports match has done half the job that Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance did in coordinating Melbourne’s enormous rally. Everyone in attendance knew not only the risks of the virus, but the dangers posed by cops surrounding them. And watching news media cameras.

Organiser efforts to distribute masks, sanitiser and maintain COVID-safe measures were so effective that nobody in that entire, enormous event transmitted the virus. Several comrades in Melbourne remarked to me they could count on both hands the number of people they saw there without a mask.

This amazing feat offered a starting point for a really useful conversation about coronavirus containment. We never had that conversation. Instead, the rallies were used as a punching bag for a conservative media bent on making up garbage about how it could have spread a virus.

Other activists distributed food, medical supplies and groceries to people who couldn’t leave home, like people with disabilities or the elderly in housing estates, some of whom were left behind by a patchy early pandemic response.

Some time last year, I transferred a Woolworths gift card from a friend who didn’t need it to one of these people and that meant $100 of groceries went to a housing estate in Western Sydney. We’re not talking about an organisation here — I mean one guy who ducked cops on the way in to drop off shopping for someone who was in desperate need. Community care wasn’t on the list of reasons to be out of the house then, so if he’d been caught, he’d have been arrested.

I’m only talking about some of the efforts I was privy to in Australia — a drop in the ocean, really. But even these grassroots efforts yielded a world of difference. Activists taking groceries into housing estates fed people whose needs weren’t being addressed, who therefore survived lockdowns.

The distribution of food, medication, services and support on a local level meant that mutual aid groups saved lives. Hundreds of thousands of people marched in solidarity with history’s largest-ever anti-racist mass mobilisation and, somehow, minimised risk so much that nobody got infected in a pandemic.

And the tireless struggle of Refugee Solidarity Meanjin activists forced Defence Minister Peter Dutton to release some of the asylum seekers in Brisbane and Melbourne hotel detention. (He said it was a cost saving measure, but that’s garbage — the real costs come in fighting activists who won’t give up.) These struggles have paid off.

Well over a year on now, many of the mutual aid groups have waned. I’ve not seen any more crayon rainbows in windows. But left activist communities continue to wage battles where they can, however they can. They cop fines and police brutality for their troubles. They make constant difficult decisions not to venture into the streets despite their activist instincts, or if they do, they do it with radically different tactics.

These fighters are usually ignored in Australia in the mainstream, so these stories aren’t often told at all. Instead, we’re drip-fed press conferences and announcements instead by a government increasingly prone to getting it all wrong. But the various struggles above are bound to a core thread of community care and mutual aid and they are part of a much grander story. I am grateful to have witnessed these fights during COVID-19. Whenever this pandemic is over, I think a powerful new grassroots force will take the streets.

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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