Jimmy Yan discusses the role of Australia’s political establishment during the COVID-19 crisis, and the response of workers and minorities to their racist, nationalist approach.
Australians greeted 2020 with masks, a global and increasingly universal symbol of human suffering. Frontpage photos of masks shielding lungs from bushfire smoke in January merged almost seamlessly with images of Australians in masks amidst the Coronavirus pandemic.
As facets of the Anthropocene, both climate change and Coronavirus are disasters on a planetary scale that refuse to recognise, and indeed call into question, the primacy of ‘national’ borders.
Yet far from facilitating the dissolution of “the nation”, both crises have led to a hardening of ethno-nationalisms, xenophobia and border ideology across the globe. Our demands for health and ecological justice during this convergence of crises, in Australia and elsewhere, are inseparable from a challenge to emerging disaster nationalisms.
There is very little about this story that is exceptionally ‘Australian.’ Indeed, the futility of borders during a global pandemic, and the divergence of responses to it across borders has featured heavily in the critiques of both governments north and south of the Irish border.
Although the impact of the crisis in Australia has been far less severe than in Ireland, the UK, the US, China, Italy or Spain, the same sequence of events has unfolded here in slow motion. Since January, almost 7000 people have tested positive to the virus. Almost 100 have died. Many more will test positive in the months ahead.
As in much of the rest of the world, a right-wing government has responded to the crisis with a momentary reprieve from neoliberal economics through a strategy of physical distancing and lockdowns.
Unemployment benefits have been temporarily raised. Limited wage subsidies have been introduced alongside a nominal ban on evictions. Cleaners, healthcare workers and retail workers have – without precedent – been acknowledged by Liberal Prime Minister Scott Morrison as “essential” to the running of society.
Physical distancing measures are both necessary and defensible during a crisis in which we are all vectors of transmission but as in other countries, calls to ‘stay at home’ rang hollow in the absence of guaranteed housing, income and social support for all. The question of who can ‘distance’, and where, remains politically contested.
Health Before Borders
The momentary reprieve does not extend to Australia-first style nationalism. In some ways, the closure of Australia’s national borders – and even state borders – marks the realisation of a longstanding fantasy within Australian nationalism of autarkic self-sufficiency.
The lockdown and travel ban have, in welding border ideology to the imperatives of public health, revivified the myth of “Team Australia.”
Far from the image of ‘togetherness’ that the Australian establishment seeks to present, however, COVID-19 in no sense affects ‘everyone’ equally. Recession is impending and over a million jobs have already been lost. Airline workers at Virgin and Qantas, retail workers and university casuals have been sacked en mass, many by email and text.
The Liberal Government’s $320 billion stimulus package has largely been a handout to business, unaccompanied by any economic certainty for workers. A politics that claims to safeguard the health of “the people” can ultimately only be judged by who it excludes from “the people.”
While the Liberals have largely avoided the Malthusian language of ‘herd immunity’, their calls for “individual responsibility” have amounted to blaming marginalised groups for the virus in the absence of structural supports for social distancing. Prisoners have been refused access to mass testing, while the Redfern Legal Centre found that police have used their expanded lockdown powers to harass Indigenous people and African migrants.
The Race Filter
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Australia’s colonial past and present, ‘race’ remains a perennial fixture of ‘nation’ in Australia and provides the most readily available filter for inclusion and exclusion in the age of COVID-19.
Over 1.1 million “non-citizens”, including international students and migrant workers, have been told to “go home” by the Morrison Government. Many undocumented workers have, upon being excluded from both Medicare and coronavirus income supports, been left in complete destitution.
The border crossing features within the nationalist imagination, as synonymous with contagion itself. Refugees in the Mantra Hotel detention centre in Melbourne, ‘medically evacuated’ from Manus Island only to be confined in conditions comparable to Ireland’s Direct Provision centres, have been staging daily protests asserting their humanity.
The ship, once a symbol of global mobility, is now a prison. Over 8,500 international seafarers remain stranded off the coast of New South Wales without medical support.
Normalisation of border ideology from the top has already unleashed a new wave of everyday racism against people of “Asian” appearance, as long-entrenched anxieties about “China”, and “the Chinese”, have gained a new lease of life.
In a dog-whistle to ‘Wuhan Lab’ conspiracy theories, the Liberal Government have called for an “independent inquiry” into the “origins” of the virus.
This racialisation of the virus, stemming from an obsession with national “origins”, has been expressed in the spray-painting of the slogan “COVID-19 China Die” on a suburban home in Melbourne, and an ongoing survey has recorded over 300 incidents of COVID-related racist violence since the beginning of the crisis.
While undoubtedly amplified by ongoing US-China tensions, the ideology of “race” runs deeper in a settler-colonial society with a history of racial exclusion than any simple ‘reflection’ of current imperial conflicts. Much like existing racisms including Islamophobia, corona-racism dehumanises via supposedly fixed “cultural” traits: “you are the virus” runs through the more subtle claim that “you eat bats.” Not all masked faces equally qualify as ‘human’ under nationalism.
Early signs of a ‘flattening’ of the curve in Australia emboldened calls from the political Right for an “exit strategy” from physical distancing and a return to “normality.” Morrison explicitly conceived the re-opening of schools as a trojan horse for the re-entry of workers into “the economy” at large.
As a piece in the Australian Financial Review insists, “term two must start as normal so that schools can also resume their critical role in the normal operation of the economy.” Yet the canard that young people “don’t transmit” the virus began to unravel with the closure of a school in Sydney after a student tested positive.
We can anticipate the mobilisation by the Liberal Party of “normality” for an ideological offensive against the continuation of Coronavirus supports. Scott Morrison has pledged a “snap back” to budgetary austerity at the end of the pandemic.
But no amount of gas-lighting and denial can undo the unmasking of neoliberal common-sense during the pandemic. It is now abundantly clear that there has always been money for unemployment support. There has always been money for schools, hospitals and universities. It has always been possible to put lives before profit. The fight for COVID support to be made ‘permanent’ remains a live field of contest.
If “normal” is understood as a return to the neoliberal consensus, then “normality” is what got us here in the first place. The casualisation epidemic has created a disposable, if “essential”, workforce. The chronic underfunding of higher education has now come full circle with the impending collapse of universities reliant on fees.
Although open-air political gatherings have largely been deferred with the disappearance of public space itself, episodic struggles for COVID justice point towards the possibility of contesting the crisis on our terms.
The right not to transmit forms the primary terrain of political antagonism under Coronavirus. Teachers’ Unions, including in Queensland, have resisted the reopening of schools. Trade unionists held car convoys on May Day demanding an income guarantee for all.
Members of the National Tertiary Education Union workers are preparing a rank-and-file industrial campaign to save higher education in defiance of demands to trade away pay and conditions. Small victories are entirely possible. Warehouse workers and stevedores have held work stoppages and won PPE and safe working conditions. Housing activists in Sydney organised and stopped the eviction of a student through a campaign of postering and online organising.
All purely “economic” demands in the current conjuncture either implicitly endorse or reject the logic of nationalism. True to their racial protectionist past, prominent figures within the Australian Labor Party have reached for ‘Australia First’ nativist slogans. Labor immigration spokesperson Kristina Keneally – a former New South Wales Premier whose sole political legacy was the privatisation of that state’s electricity grid – recently drew praise from the far-right politician Pauline Hanson for scapegoating migrant workers on temporary visas for rising unemployment.
Such nationalist theatrics directly undermine efforts elsewhere within the union movement to defend undocumented workers. A more encouraging development has been the emergence of new trade union internationalism grounded in the reality of a multicultural working class. The large and active United Workers’ Union, representing warehouse, hospitality and farm workers, have demanded a visa amnesty and an extension of coronavirus supports to all, with #NoWorkerLeftBehind.
As the Casuals Network at the University of Melbourne have argued, “migrants and international students are members of our society, not so-called ‘cash cows’ …, their humanity and safety are irreducible to their “economic” contribution and visa status.”
There can be no end to the crisis without an end to the global pandemic itself. Even with the partial reopening of “the economy”, the Australian continent will remain largely cut off from the rest of the world for the foreseeable future. “Normality” is, within the disaster nationalist imaginary, an island-nation fantasy.
The response of the left to the crisis must, within this refusal of ‘normality’, begin from a defence of lives as well as “livelihoods.” Our defence of the possibility of social struggle during the crisis does not entail advancing a left version of corona-contrarianism. Calls to “end the lockdown”, including in Australia, are overwhelmingly the political terrain of the far-right.
The “curve” in Australia may well be at its tail-end, but the ideology of disaster nationalism has only just been unleashed. Racist attacks, refugee detention and police violence against indigenous people will persist into the aftermath of the crisis alongside homelessness and rising unemployment. Demands for economic justice in the age of COVID-19 are inseparable from an anti-nationalist politics that recognises the multicultural character of the working class as it exists.
Perhaps the mask could, within this new reality, symbolise the possibility of continued international solidarity in a time of converging planetary crises. It was, after all, also the icon of the Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters. For the time being, our struggles will largely resume on zoom. But there is no going back to “normal.”