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Sydney lockdown protests condemned

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NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian described the protests as "heartbreaking" (Image by Dan Jensen)

Politicians, academics and celebrities have voiced their frustration over lockdown protests which could make the situation even worse, writes Dr Binoy Kampmark.

PANIC AND FURY. A sense that things have gotten away. This was the feeling on Sunday morning, 25 July, with the vision of COVID Zero vanishing in a country that had boasted of suppressing the virus and its disease.

With the Greater Sydney area having been in four weeks of lockdown, protesters took to the streets with venom and frustration. Similar events were also organised across the capital cities of other states. 

It began in Camperdown’s Victoria Park, advertised as a “rally for freedom” and a “Sydney CBD takeover”. A miscellany of themes was on show. Anti-vaccination groups were out in force. Doomsday placards referenced ‘Revelations’

Those who moved onto Sydney’s central business district were treated to a show by comedian Jon-Bernard Kairouz, whose claim to social media fame was receiving the state’s COVID-19 case numbers before they were revealed by the authorities. Dubbed TikTok Guy in the flotsam of social media, Kairouz called himself the “People’s Premier”. Showing a sketchy awareness of numbers, he suggested that there were something in the order of “over 50,000 people here today”.  (A more modest estimate put the numbers at 15,000.)

In the scuffles with police, barriers were breached. A group charged mounted police officers. Horses were assaulted. Potted plants and bottles were thrown. Some witnesses, while not embracing the cause of the protestors, noted ‘some intense police brutality’.

In all the excitement, 57 people were arrested.

The State Police in NSW promised to identify the thousands who attended the gathering using a dedicated group awkwardly called “Strike Force Seasoned”. To date, two arrests have been made: a 33-year-old man charged with affray, having joined in or continued in unlawful assembly, committing an act of cruelty upon an animal and breaching COVID-19 directions; and a 36-year-old man charged with assaulting an officer in execution of duty, committing an act of cruelty upon an animal and not complying with COVID-19 directions.

The protests were merely part of a broader dysfunction in a city supposedly in lockdown yet witnessing an inexorable growth of infections. Residents continue to have gatherings. Rapidly evolving health directives, requiring translation in over 63 languages, have stretched translators and caused confusion.

The refusal by the NSW Government to provide consistent and clear definitions of essential work and essential services has done its fair share of bamboozling. Clothing stores and white goods retailers continued to operate during the lockdown, and the Berejiklian Government resisted encouraging “click and collect” services.

Cumberland councillor Kun Huang gave a sense of this with an online Q&A session held with members of the Chinese community on 10 July. The session saw 643 participants and over 100 questions.

Huang asked:

“If there was no confusion with the Government’s message, why did so many people come to the session?” 

Movement continues to take place across various local government areas, despite the directives and urgent calls to stay home. There are insufficient incentives to do so, given poor financial assistance from government coffers at both State and Commonwealth levels. The assistance that is on offer is hard to access. And paid work of the type that cannot be done from home is still being sought. 

Dr Michelle Ananda-Rajah looked at the epidemiological crystal ball and saw poor omens: 

‘NSW will not return to zero. It will seed Delta through the rest of Australia.’

Internal borders, while remaining closed, would not prevent incursions as vaccination rates rose. Australia had to accept that COVID-19 was here to stay. Nancy Baxter, head of the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, also contemplated the prospects of seeing Sydney ‘in lockdown till the end of the year’. The rest of the country would see ‘intermittent lockdowns’ arising from periodic incursions.

Professor Peter Doherty, Nobel Laureate and insatiable social media wonk, returned to that theme of half-baked, piecemeal lockdown measures. NSW had been too slow with imposing lockdowns and when it did, the measures were uneven and inconsistent across Sydney and the state. While Victoria maintained a consistent regime of lockdown rules, closing big retail, NSW stubbornly kept the chains open.

Professor Doherty wrote:

‘Delta is much harder to control and if some parts of a big city are locked down differentially, there’s a danger of bleeding across from affected areas. The protests could do that.’

Former Australian soccer captain Craig Foster railed against the protestors with a spray of rhetorical questions:

‘Freedom to infect others? Freedom to cause fellow Australians to die? Freedom to put at risk and overload frontline and medical professionals? Freedom to affect/infect other states to ensure millions more Australians must lockdown?’

Then, the press conference in Sydney. Start time, as always: 11 in the morning. Premier Gladys Berejiklian stepped up to address the media, looking more worn with each day. This is to be expected.

The ritual is clear: mention the number of testing numbers — another record. The number of infections today: 141. Two had died, including a woman in their 30s. But it did not do much to dispel the shock from Saturday’s numbers of 163.

She condemned the protests, saying they broke her heart:

“Each of those people who protested illegally — I’m sure have loved ones. They are going to go home and risk passing that virus onto the most closest people to them.”

And many more besides.

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Cambridge Scholar and is an Independent Australia columnist and lecturer at RMIT University. You can follow Dr Kampmark on Twitter @BKampmark.

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