As we now enter the fourth month of enforced state of emergency measures, the mood of most of us is now one of cynicism rather than optimism.

Across the state, most of April was spent under so-called ‘stage 3’ restrictions, where trips outside of the house were permitted only for essential shopping, exercise, medical care and care giving, and work. Some 40 suburbs across 12 postcodes have since returned to these restrictions.

Last week’s announcement—which outlined 10 postcodes which were declared to have had more than five cases of COVID-19 and a transmission rate more than twice the state average—was deeply distressing. It took a single announcement to shatter the last vestiges that ‘we’re all in this together’, with the state government letting the burden for its disastrous hotel quarantine scheme fall on marginalised communities in Melbourne’s north and west.

Forever a creative leader, Premier Daniel Andrews promised a tough police response in these suburbs. Since March, Victoria Police has issued some 6,200 fines totalling more than $10.3 million, more than those issued in every other state and territory combined, with concerns that areas of lower socio-economic status (SES) were being targeted.

In Flemington, Kensington and North Melbourne today, 3000 public housing residents have been forced into a hard lockdown following the detection of 23 cases. Compare the intense police effort there with their scant presence on the Mornington Peninsula in March, despite a couple returning from the United States who refused to quarantine upon their arrival that led to at least 35 cases of the virus being acquired locally.

According to the state’s police chief, it’s your fault for not understanding why these restrictions were being reintroduced. You’d “have to have been on Mars,” he said. Here on Earth, you’d be forgiven for thinking we’ve been subject to mixed messages galore since the middle of March.

‘It’s for your own good’-ism

Gaslighting is a psychological term to explain a very specific form of manipulation. In 1996, psychotherapist Theo L. Dorpat defined gaslighting as “convincing the victim that [their] thinking is distorted” and “persuading [them] that the victimizer’s ideas are the correct and true ones”.

When the Premier announced a return to stage 3 lockdowns for 10 postcodes in the middle of a Saturday afternoon, it came with a grace period. One week later, there was no such luxury for the residents of public housing in North Melbourne, Flemington and Kensington. Around 4pm on Saturday the police arrived unannounced and, without warning, some 3,000 residents entered an indefinite lockdown period. Would residents have supplies to last at least five days, if not longer? Would there be work after all of this? For the government, those questions could wait until the following morning. Actions first, thoughts later.

In the context of the high-rise lockdown orders, to the rest of us the state government can be seen as acting in the residents’ best interests by preventing them from a ‘second wave’—one undoubtedly exacerbated by the failed hotel quarantine system—while subjecting them to punitive measures no other Victorian has faced. If anyone dares question this, particularly those on the inside, they might as well be crazy.

I’ve decided to call this particular phenomenon ‘it’s for your own good’-ism. It feels like the type of thing someone in the eastern suburbs would say while they’re eating dinner on the weekend, a meal probably delivered by a driver earning less than $15 an hour on average. From it, we can conclude three truths:

  1. That we, like the government, should accept that a suppression strategy is fair and just because it allows some people the freedom to visit the pub, and we’re still ‘all in this together’ as you enter your second month of enforced stay-at-home measures
  2. That we, like the government, should ignore the harm that policing has done to marginalised communities because they cannot look after themselves, and
  3. That we, like the government, should avoid talking about the fundamentally broken parts of our society and how these permeate stereotypes about people on or close to the margins.

I want to focus on that third point. This pandemic has shown that many of our norms fail people, and they fail a greater number of people than some in Spring Street or Canberra care to acknowledge. If social housing, like aged care before it, poses a significant risk to the livelihood of its occupants at this time, it is not fit for purpose. If casual workers are forced to continue to risk their health—and the health of others—in order to pay rent, the system is not fit for purpose.

What good is a ‘COVID safe’ economy—whatever that means, anyway—if it results in more people deciding their health is less important than food and housing?

This is a responsibility of government that cannot be solved by funding more police, and I no longer have faith that the Andrews Government can lead us through the next phase.

Photo credit 📷 Benn McGuinness