May 22, 2020

Why We Complied

Australia has undoubtedly excelled at flattening the curve. We have all certainly won some kind of residential lottery to live in Australia during Covid-19. It is disheartening that so many people look at those results and say “we overreacted,” instead of “science worked”. Yet a fascinating conversation this morning had me wondering WHY the measures worked: Was it trust in the government? Was it the enforcement of changing laws? Was it compliance with Doctor’s orders? Or was it the Australian spirit of mateship that ultimately rose up?

It is an interesting question, particularly, in light of the lockdown protests that we have seen in the United States. These were not pandemic deniers, these were people who knew the risks but thought that their North American personal freedom was more important than anything else.

And on paper, it might be. 

In Australia, we are not as rights focussed as our counterparts in the U.S. We do not have a Bill of Rights to act as a contract between our citizens but we do have some common law notions, reference points, of basic human rights. These include things like freedom of association; freedom of movement; and freedom of religion. There is no doubt that the Public Health Orders of Covid-19 transgressed that understanding we have with our government which, as private citizens, restricts what we can and cannot be told what to do. It is also highly unconventional that armed forces, intended for ‘defence’, would be deployed to assist the enforcement of controversial restrictions – but that has happened, largely unopposed in Australia. 

I have to admit, there has been more than one moment where our national political landscape was feeling a little bit more “Handmaid’s Tale” than I am comfortable with, but like many Australians, I chose to comply rather than riot. Why?

Was compliance because trusted Doctors had done such a good job of explaining the medical risks associated with Covid-19? I’m not sure whether in the early days that was accurate, as the illness was reported to be experienced as a mild illness for the large majority of people. 

The reluctance of many Australians to engage with the Covid-19 app has been taken by many as a sign that Australians, perhaps, are more likely to trust corporate empires with their privacy than they are to trust the government. The corporate agendas are transparent and predictable and anyone who watched Zuckerberg’s accountability appearance to the Senate understands that there is some oversight. Maybe we trust our government to watch, but are uncomfortable with the notion of the government being unwatched. Hmm.

Ultimately, I think our compliance has had much more to do with some salient cultural norms that we cherish as Australians, over things like personal freedom and capitalist pursuit. When I think about the spirit that binds us together, it isn’t a history of industrial titans or celebrities on pedestals. This spirit of Australia shared across age, race, and creed is about personal sacrifice and protection of the vulnerable. The history that stirs us is in the stories of the ANZACs, the sacrifice of the Rural Fire Service and the guardians of our coast, The Royal Surf Life Saving Association. 

I don’t have any evidence, it’s anecdotal at best, but I think of all the drivers of our flat curve in this country, I think most Australians made a choice. To walk away to their homes. To shut everything, and to take a step backwards. To follow the rules. That choice was made to protect the sick, the elderly, the vulnerable. And nothing ever felt more Australian.

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