Learning to live alongside Gladys Berejiklian (and Scott Morrison) 

Melbourne, three weeks into a lockdown that began with convicted racist Andrew Bolt – did I mention he’s a convicted racist? – telling people to break lockdown rules in his Herald Sun column, Sophie Elsworth claiming on Twitter that a news helicopter was the cops getting all Apocalypse Now on the city’s closed playgrounds, and a week later the first truly significant gathering of frustrated, shortsighted, unmasked, and Nazi-adjacent anti-lockdown protesters, is not enjoying itself terribly much. Lots of last year vibes going around. And FUCK last year!

80 cases yesterday, 79 today, stableish, maybe, maybe not, hopefully, who knows – but clearly fairing better than we would be without a lockdown in place. The prospect of a September 2nd “freedom day” is looking like a… I’m actually too tired for metaphors after 200+ days of this. Just looking unlikely. Like a stupid thing to do. Not something that will happen. Our public health team is nothing if not practiced at this point, and a politically convenient narrative shift and premature conversation about “living with the virus” is unlikely to sway Victoria’s architects of the rules of outside, of life, and of how much coronavirus death we tolerate. 

Because here’s the thing: whether you favour lockdowns as a longer-term solution to the coronavirus pandemic or not, right now, today, in this present moment, we clearly need them to work as well as they possibly can. And undermining them, either overtly in mainstream anti-lockdown media – like the Herald Sun and alarmingly increasing segments of the ABC – or by sending irresponsible signals through rose-tinted data obfuscation and the promise of things being better as they are clearly getting worse, is a fucked up thing to do.  

Language matters, even when it appears like it’s determined not to – “Have a go to get a go,” huck huck. The public imagination, and by extension what we deem possible, and true, is shaped by the repeated utterances of the powerful. This is why propaganda is so effective, why framing in the Murdoch press is so loaded, why gaslighting is so disconcerting, and why Leigh Sales is so infuriating. And because words matter, Glady Berejiklian’s words, not only now but throughout her 2020 “gold standard” shitting-on Victoria PR campaign, have a habit of undermining the seriousness of these quite serious moments. 

Berejiklian, the “Woman who saved Australia” (from a spring spent outside with friends 🤣😵‍💫🤠😵🤓🙃😭🥴), Premier of NSW, yesterday took the apparently happy occasion of a record case number of 1029 to announce that fully vaccinated people could go on picnics and real estate inspections could resume. Dangling a juicy carrot to get vaccinated is itself a wonderful thing to do, but its positive impact on this outbreak is undone quite a bloody bit by sending the underlying signal to people that hey, maybe this isn’t so serious after all – something her oversized sense of political self-preservation has an unhelpful habit of doing. “More than 60 cases out in the community” she claimed on multiple days when the true number was closer to ten times higher than that. (As of today, the in-the-wild case numbers will not be presented at NSW daily pressers.) 

It hasn’t been said anywhere near enough – the national discourse shaped almost entirely by a Liberal Party-fellating NSW-centric media echo-chamber – but Berejiklian has consistently been a horrendous ghoul during the darkest moments of Victoria’s pandemic experience. She has sniped, undermined, laughed at, and worst of all repeatedly implied the sacrifices made by millions of suffering people for the overwhelming greater good of the rest of the country, now more than 200 days into a numb, blurry, heavily repressed lockdown limbo, were unnecessary. “I fear for Victoria and I worry about what their government may do. I hope we have demonstrated to other states it is possible to manage an outbreak and not shut down a city,” she said, neoliberal mastheads lapping up the Kool-Aid and Victoria’s own anti-lockdown contingent babbling along in frothing, lobotomized agreement. 

Her words are self-serving and unhelpful, not only to her neighbouring states but to her own citizens suffering through her hubris. It’s why it’s so galling to hear her now say “Australia needs to live alongside this virus” while her actions and words have made this future prematurely more likely.

Gladys Berejiklian did not lock Sydney down hard, fast, or wide enough to stop the current outbreak spreading from an international arrival to an unvaccinated limo driver into regional NSW, Victoria, the ACT, and New Zealand. Area-code lockdowns, which previously did not work in Victoria (because getting ahead of the virus works better than chasing it), and generally lighter restrictions than other states applied were implemented while she lied, explicitly and repeatedly, that her restrictions were the “harshest” in the country. At the same time, her remarks at press conferences, for many months, stressed how much more contagious the Delta variant is than earlier strains of the coronavirus – a baffling justification for doing less about it.

On August 14, she proclaimed at one of these reliably infuriating pressers – a routine mix of data obfuscation, blame deflection and gaslighting – that, “for some time, we thought Australia was different to the rest of the world, but we are not.” As one of the 6.5 million Victorians that has experienced the fraying of sanity, wallowed in the misery, the boredom, and strain of trying to protect our community’s most vulnerable, I can promise her very few people here believed that Australian exceptionalism would see us through this pandemic unscathed. If people did believe Australia was “different”, she was a key reason why.

Living with coronavirus and living with the hubris of Gladys Berejiklian are two entirely different things. 

As Australia attempts to move into the next phase of this pandemic, whatever that might look like, Scott Morrison, Croods fan and stone-cold babbling fucking idiot, has turned to pentocostal poetry rather than picnics to instill hope, unleashing a slurry of “horizons”, “dawns”, “tunnels” and “rays of light” on the broken minds of the Australians masochistic enough to still pay attention to him. Keen to move the nation’s ire away from a disastrously slow but speeding-up vaccine rollout and its extraordinarily leaky and inconsistent Novotel-based quarantine system to the concept of lockdowns more generally, his words are a political solution as much as they are a pandemic one. 

[The previous paragraph’s reference to Scott Morrison as a “stone-cold babbling fucking idiot” isn’t deceptive framing – it is a clearly expressed opinion, repeated here for both this disclaimer’s sake, media literacy education, and because in 2021 petty thrills are all that remain for me.] 

On August 17, Morrison preached about the “tunnel” the nation finds itself inside and its vaccinated path out of said tunnel. On August 18, he referred back to the previous day’s metaphor, resting on unremarkable laurels, confusing the imagery by giving the tunnel structural problems: “273,000 jabs yesterday. That’s 273,000 rays of light in that tunnel I talked about yesterday”. By August 24, the tunnel became a cave, specifically the cave from the 2013 Dreamworks animated film The Croods. 

“Now it’s like that movie The Croods,” said the actual real Prime Minister of Australia. “Some wanted to stay in the cave and the young girl wanted to deal with the challenges of living in a different world. Covid is a different world. Covid is a different world. We need to get out of there and live with it. We can’t stay in the cave.”

Eight years after its cinematic release, Scott Morrison has become the world’s first political leader to compare the coronavirus pandemic to The Croods, or even mention it while in office. 

Outside the cave-tunnel, specifically the one from The Croods, a new dawn awaits us. “It is always darkest before the dawn,” Morrison said this week, cribbing from either 17th century English theologian Thomas Fueller or Harvey Dent/Two Face from The Dark Knight (2008). “And I think these lockdowns are a demonstration of that. But the dawn is not far away. And we are working towards that dawn and we are hastening the dawn. We should not delay it. We should prepare for it. We should not fear it. We should embrace it. And we should move forward together.” 

These agonising analogies are of course designed to paint a “living with covid” future in a more favourable, more inevitable light: no one can stop the dawn, everyone wants more light, and very few people want to stay inside the cave (from The Croods) indefinitely, least of all the little girl (from The Croods). The implication here is that this new dawn is one that should not be delayed – delayability not typically a feature of dawns, but what-fucking-ever at this point – by state premiers concerned about the lives of the nation’s 5 million unvaccinated children and their ability to spread the Delta variant and its ensuing shittiness to the rest of us. 

Why this is so difficult to stomach, or even believe, particularly for Victorians after 200+ days of lockdown hell, is because the PM has consistently wanted to let the coronavirus “rip” anyway. He repeatedly urged Daniel Andrews to open up last year and “live alongside the virus” as hundreds of new cases were recorded. The result would have been more like everywhere else in the world: significantly more death, more economic ruin, more misery. The few months of semi-normal bliss Victorians experienced at the end of 2020 were won by ignoring his advice. If people in Victoria are having a hard time accepting this narrative pivot to “we must live with the virus” it’s because (a) we gave up an awful lot so we wouldn’t have to do that and (b) that’s what all these ghouls have wanted the entire time anyway. If Delta has changed the likelihood of successfully eliminating covid from a region, it has not changed the Prime Minister’s underlying position. Skepticism is understandable.  

As Katherine Murphy from The Guardian points out: “There’s political brinkmanship here of the most obvious kind. Morrison is setting up a blame game. If the country doesn’t reopen once we’ve hit 70% vaccination rates, the Prime Minister wants frustrated people to blame the premiers.”

Buried beneath the dawns and tunnels and caves (from the Croods) lies the now-contested Doherty Report and its 70-80% vaccination rate for a more-lockdown-free future. As with everything uttered by Morrison, much of the talk around this report appears fudged and skewed. This 70-80% figure does not include anyone under 16, so the modeled rate of inoculation is in reality closer to half the population of Australia, and estimates of death and case rates at the 80% “open-ish” rate cut-off at only 180 days of a wave before the curve peaks – clearly underestimating both these figures. Can we do better than this? We are literally talking about life and death.

Doherty Institute’s modelling of daily new infections with 80% vaccine coverage 🥴

Scott Morrison, Gladys Berejiklian, and compliant media’s recent narrative shift in the face of Delta, the NSW Government’s failure to contain it within its own borders, and a disastrously slow vaccine rollout, is galling. Politics in this country is an unmitigated trashfire, as is the media, each entity’s rot enabling the other’s. 

Where Morrison is looking to deflect blame, to redirect the nation’s bubbling rage and frustrations with questionable modelling and questionable poetry, state premiers are being left with the task of keeping their citizens safe. And it’s hard to imagine the covid-free kingdoms currently enjoying blissfully normal existences willingly signing up to the uncertain future facing NSW. You can sense Morrison’s rage at his powerlessness to force Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania into his plan.  

There’s no neat ending to this piece, or this moment in time. The sense of powerlessness that comes with being an ordinary person in 2021 as the powerful toggle various levers, as often for political outcomes as pandemic ones, is debilitating. But Victoria is still trying to beat this back, again, and everyone of every political persuasion should be doing everything they can to help make that happen. The alternative is unthinkable. Words do matter, so get vaccinated as soon as you can, follow the rules – which have worked many, many times now – keep looking after your local communities and everyone you love, and don’t read the fucking Herald Sun.

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