The first person in Australia to die with COVID was James Kwan, a 78-year-old man from Perth, on 1 March, 2020. He was a passenger on board the cruise ship Ruby Princess. The ship later became infamous as the single biggest source of infection in Australia, a symbol of administrative failure.
From a leading independent news site, Crikey, a story titled Ship of Fools:
“State and Federal governments are busy telling citizens to be accountable, be responsible. That’s OK, but it cuts both ways. Someone must be held responsible for allowing infected passengers off the Ruby Princess cruise ship, and someone must be held accountable for the Centrelink meltdown. Last Thursday, in an act of negligence bordering on the criminal, 2700 passengers were waved off a cruise ship — despite their status as floating incubators of disease — and onto the streets of Sydney.
“Since then, 130 Ruby Princess passengers have tested positive for coronavirus. It was the equivalent of giving Typhoid Mary the key to New York City.
“Ever since, the NSW and Federal governments have been trying to blame each other. That’s just a start. Australians need leaders who lead — and own up to their mistakes.”
By the19th, international flights had been cancelled. Departing international flights suspended. All non-citizens and non-residents were banned from entering Australia.
By the 23rd, registered and licensed clubs, licensed premises in hotels and pubs, entertainment venues, cinemas, casinos, nightclubs, indoor sporting venues, gyms and places of worship were closed in tough stage one restrictions announced for all Australians.
By the 25th, in another raft of announcements, family gatherings such as barbecues, birthdays and house parties were banned. Tattoo parlours, community and recreational centres, amusement parks and arcades, fitness centres, yoga, barre and spin classes, casinos, gambling and adult entertainment venues, galleries, museums, libraries, all shut down.
The Oak Flats demographic of tradies, electricians, plumbers, tilers, truck drivers, school teachers and nurses do not like or trust the nation’s politicians, and to a man and woman pay more or less no attention to the media.
Old Alex was their token journalist. They’d never met one before. It was this demographic that swung to the conservatives at the previous election, fed up with being disenfranchised from the left’s leitmotifs of identity politics, social disadvantage, climate change and refugees.
They were also the demographic most likely to be impacted by the massive social and industrial transformations being inflicted on the population under the cover of COVID.
While they unknowingly held the fate of the nation in their hands, their purchasing power, the quality of their own lives and the lives of their communities had been deteriorating for years. Paid attention to by the greedy oligarchs and their political wet boys only at election time, the slow-motion destruction of traditional working-class cultures was creating rising tensions.
And by peculiarity of vision and circumstance, Old Alex was there to watch a signal collapse and rearrangement of society.
While Angus Deaton and Anne Case wrote their landmark book Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism in the American context, the parallels with Australia, and most particularly this demographic, were uncanny.
“Those who do not pass the exams and graduate to the cosmopolitan elite do not get to live in the fast-growing, high-tech, and flourishing cities and are assigned jobs threatened by globalisation and by robots.
“The less-educated are devalued or even disrespected, are encouraged to think of themselves as losers, and may feel that the system is rigged against them.
“Poorer prospects make it harder for people to build the life that their parents had, to own a home, or to save to send kids to college. The lack of well-paying jobs threatens communities and the services they provide, such as schools, parks, and libraries.
“Jobs are not just the source of money; they are the basis for the rituals, customs, and routines of working-class life.
“Destroy work and, in the end, working-class life cannot survive. It is the loss of meaning, of dignity, of pride, and of self-respect that comes with the loss of marriage and of community that brings on despair, not just or even primarily the loss of money.
“Robin Hood was said to have robbed the rich to benefit the poor. What is happening today is the reverse of Robin Hood, from poor to rich, what might be called a Sheriff of Nottingham redistribution. Political protection is being used for personal enrichment, by stealing from the poor on behalf of the rich.”
Despite all the evidence to the contrary, at the last election Australia’s tradies and labourers bought the line that the conservatives were good economic managers.
That is, the toffs won and the tradies celebrated.
Now, totally betrayed, many of those same people were facing the dole queue or months without an income. Under extreme lockdown laws reminiscent of totalitarian states, much of the population was bewildered, confused and embittered. Smash the bonds of the herd and create panic, prey on the weak, standard tactics of sublimation. All of this was now happening in Australia.
There was an evil afoot. You could feel it in the air.
At the Lakeview there was a final drunken evening before the local watering hole closed.
One tradie began spitting mouthfuls of beer on his mates, just because he could, just because he was drunk and couldn’t have cared less, just because no one really feared the virus. It was just another hardship in a hard place; or more bullshit from a government which had never shown the slightest interest in the likes of them.
There was an unsettling sense that nothing would ever be the same again.
None of these people were trust fund babies, only some had mortgages on their own homes, most worked for casual wages and lived from week to week.
As he left, Old Alex said to the doorman: “What’s going to happen to these people? How are they going to survive? How are they going to find work?”
The doorman shook his head: “I think it’s sad.”
“I do too.”
Scott Morrison’s political ascendancy came despite the pundit’s best efforts. He was loathed by the nation’s intelligentsia across the political spectrum. But in the mainstream media his Animal Farm caricature of a face festooned the nation’s televisions and somehow beguiled or confused the public into supporting him.
Already by March the government’s critics were in full flight, and Alex was more than happy to report on them in a new publication, A Sense of Place Magazine, he had established.
He wrote: “The coverage has been excoriating. And so it should be. Australians have been abandoned by the political establishment. In a time of crisis, they’ve been doubly abandoned. There has been a catastrophic loss of faith in democracy, and all their malfeasance has come floating to the surface, plain for everyone to see.
“Government messaging has been absurdly confusing and contradictory, as if it was deliberately trying to sow panic into the population: Some of you will lose your jobs. Some of you will die. But don’t panic.”
Queue societal wide panic.
While firefighters literally fought and died on the frontline of the cata- strophic bushfire season of 2019-20, which burnt through more than 18 million hectares and destroyed more than 2700 homes, Australia’s Prime Minister had infamously been caught out holidaying in Hawaii in $3000 a night accommodation.
Scott Morrison seized on the pandemic as an opportunity to redeem his battered reputation.
Old Alex assumed, no doubt like many others, that as queues snaked around the block and the Australian welfare agency Centrelink fielded literally millions of calls, the pandemic would prove his undoing.
An Australian writer whom Alex admired without always agreeing with him, Richard Flanagan, world famous author of that magnificent Man Booker prize winner The Narrow Road to the Deep North, wrote: “What is clear is that Morrison is also doing his level best to keep us all confused.
Tuesday night’s press conference was the prime minister at his bumbling, inept worst.
“As the prime minister drifted back and forth in his rambling comments, shopping centres around the nation were closed early on in the presser, only to be reopened fifteen minutes later.
“The prime minister wanted to be clear and the nation could agree on that much at least. But the problem is that every time he speaks nothing is clear.
“The government has been hapless in communicating to Australians the seriousness of the pandemic and the seriousness of its resolve. Faced on Monday with the gravest crisis of unemployment in a century, the Minister for Government Services, Stuart Robert, joked. This attitude is no small failure.
“The inconsistency of message, the contradictory measures and an approach that too often seems only semi-committed, has left much of the nation frightened, confused and angry, and some of it careless and uncaring. And all of this is dangerous to us.”