It was a nice sunny day on the weekend and I was walking the dog with my parents in Pyrmont and around the Harbour. It should have been calm, eezy breezy and quiet; the new norm in the CBD when most people work from home. But I heard the sirens and I saw the riot squad vans and police cars, all racing across the Harbour Bridge past us. There were even a few individuals who were running away from Broadway, past us which I thought was odd. So I stopped and opened up Twitter, my favourite breaking news source.
“Thousands protest in Sydney’s CBD, against lockdown.”
My feed was full of righteous indignation and rage. One person said there were 15,000 protestors, how could so many people be so stupid? So selfish and reckless as to endanger the population? How dare they, when their actions could potentially undo the preventative measures taken against covid?
Everyone was furious. When I got home after taking a detour to avoid the protests and police, I checked Instagram and my stories were mostly the same thing; screen caps of Twitter threads and infographics explaining why the protests were wrong. The thing about social media is that it gives us our own echo chambers. Spaces where the algorithm knows exactly what content you like the most and continually spoon feed it to you. Validating your beliefs and reaffirming what you already know; you are in the right. And I fell straight into it. It wasn’t until I was lying in bed that night that I really thought about it and unpacked my own thoughts. I have no doubt that the anti-lockdown protests we saw in July were dangerous and had the potential to spread covid. I think it's worth noting that we did not see a covid spike as a result, likely because it was outdoors, but it was an unnecessary risk. And I have no doubt that there was a heavy extremist presence with anti-vaxers, neo-nazi’s and other shitheads taking advantage of a difficult time to spread their agendas. But I do want you, if you haven’t already, to stop and consider what drives regular people — most of whom are not extremists, to do what we saw.
Nationals MP George Christiansen stands out, outspoken against lockdowns, masks and vaccines. Prominent Liberal MPs have banded together against mask mandates and NSW’s treasurer Dominic Perrotet as well as our Deputy Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce have both expressed their belief in the ‘let it rip’ method of dealing with Covid. That is the idea of simply letting covid rip through the population, killing the vulnerable, the elderly and anyone else who is simply unlucky. This is the strategy we saw and widely condemned in the US as it killed hundreds of thousands of people. I want to call out these politicians, these figures of authority who people trust and who we validate by giving them political office. We cannot criticize lockdown protestors without talking about the role our own government has played in creating them and in radicalising its own population against vaccines, masks and lockdowns. “Why won’t anyone get vaccinated?” says the government which told young people for months this year that AstraZeneca would kill them. Says the government which will not hold its own members accountable. Vaccine hesitancy has been encouraged all year, subtly with Scomo saying people could wait for Pfizer over Astrazeneca, and obviously, with George Christiansen giving a speech in parliament about lockdown, masks and vaccines not working. Our health minister Greg Hunt said that people could simply wait if concerned about AstraZeneca. The problem with this is that if people are waiting, they are not getting vaccinated and the government is validating this attitude and encouraging vaccine hesitancy. At the time he said this, one woman died from AZ, but she had other serious health conditions which impacted her. The risk of clotting is incredibly small and does not kill healthy people who have access to effective healthcare. In other words, unless you have been specifically advised not to get AZ, you should get it.
In times of crisis, our most vulnerable populations are the ones who will be hit the hardest. Over one million Australians were excluded from covid disaster relief payments due to being on government allowance. Despite the fact that 600,000 people on welfare have jobs and have lost that income, they are still not eligible for this assistance. When protests happened, these payments were also insanely low, not fully supplementing the incomes of people without work. Staying home for your community and the greater good is a nice thing to do, but when you can feel yourself slipping below the poverty line because of sheer government inaction, what else can you do other than protest?
Commonwealth Bank is predicting that soon 1 in 10 people in Greater Sydney will be unemployed. Businesses close every day and people are predictably becoming desperate.
Yes, lockdowns work and they protect the population from covid, but they simultaneously have ruined people’s lives. It is easy for me, an unemployed university student who has been relatively unaffected to characterise protestors as being selfish conspiracy theorists, without considering why people do things to begin with. I would also contend that this dismissal of people’s genuine fears and concerns further alienates them from their society and if they are engaging with conspiracy content, likely pushes them further right. To brand every lockdown protester as a selfish “covidiot” only polarises us more and stokes radical ideas.
Sky News and Fox feed off of the paranoia they create in their audiences. Marketing themselves as honest people who don't care about the ‘woke folk’ and are anti-establishment, our media is dominated by figures such as Peta Credlin and literally everyone on the Outsiders. You cannot overstate the role that the Murdoch media has played in the rise of conspiracy theories, the propagation of anti-government sentiment, and fuelling the anger and hate of protesters. Branding Dan Andrews “Dictator Dan” because of lockdowns in Victoria, Murdoch media outlets have consistently expressed the view that lockdowns are akin to living in an authoritarian police state and that this is our future.
In the Australian Financial Review, our former Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer wrote a column named “democracy eliminated by leaving restrictions to health experts.” George Christiansen responded to the protests occurring with this “looks like thousands upon thousands of Sydneysiders are protesting against the removal of freedoms under the guise of the pandemic.” And Scott Morrison condemned the protests as selfish but defended Christiansen (who also participated in a protest in QLD) as utilising his right to free speech. Alan Jones finally lost his Daily Telegraph Column after publishing anti-vaccine and anti-lockdown comments but it took years. Our news platforms provide anti-science sentiment with a platform, legitimising harmful and factually inaccurate ideas.
A Foreign Influence
Globally, we have seen ‘Freedom Rallies’ in places like the UK, France and Melbourne. These are undoubtedly influenced by prominent conspiracy theories which are fuelled by racism, antisemitism and the weird obsession which members of the Alt-Right have with Bill Gates. People who have those beliefs genuinely disgust me, but they market themselves as being pro-freedom and anti-lockdown. This is where conspiracies collide with and take advantage of desperate people.
But Australia is not the only country to be negatively impacted by covid. The UK, France and the US are all regions where people have suffered enormously, experiencing health and economic crises. Globally, there is general dissatisfaction with how our governments have handled the pandemic which has resulted in general social upheaval.
So, what makes a Lockdown protestor?
Considering the economic, social and political conditions, protests were inevitable. In a society where people are lied to by their trusted MP’s and their supposedly unbiased press, without any censure from our Prime Minister or media outlets, it should come as no surprise that people will believe what they see as credible information. In a society where people are neglected by that same government and locked up indefinitely with no financial support, it should come as no surprise that people are desperate. People need an income to live, if their essential needs are not being met, it is guaranteed that they will express their dissatisfaction regardless of lockdown.
People do not break the law easily, they don't risk thousands of dollars in fines easily or risk police brutality and condemnation from their wider community. It is easy to dismiss people as one-dimensional idiots spreading covid because it is simpler than actually investigating the society which has created them. When people are disaffected and unheard, they will find an outlet for their anger regardless of if social media condemns them or not.
Every day our politicians and our media publications give speeches and publish headlines expressing the same views as protestors. I think this is incredibly telling and a sign that the real blame for this clusterfuck we find ourselves in does not lie with average working-class Australians, but with the predatory institutions taking advantage of their fear and uncertainty.