What seems to matter more is how wealthy or free we are compared with other people. As a general rule, we’re more miserable being millionaires in a land of billionaires than having more modest means when everyone else does, too. To use the jargon, it’s not deprivation that gets to us so much as relative deprivation.
The problem is that relative deprivation creates a sense of injustice. Already you can hear this in the complaints of some affected people that their particular suburb shouldn’t be among those locked down, or that they’re being threatened with fines despite not having done anything wrong. You can criticise them for failing to understand the epidemiology or the reasons a system of fines might be necessary if you like, but you can also understand why they’d feel they’re now a separate category of people apart, no longer of us.
So, consider the damage that would be done if those of us lucky enough to have escaped this fate for now choose to stigmatise the people in these suburbs. We’re seeing a version of this in the various attempts of commentators to find people to blame for these clusters.
We’ve seen published reports of unconfirmed stories that a Muslim family celebrating Eid generated one cluster. That sort of storytelling then led to commentary that multiculturalism is to blame for the outbreak – from precisely the kinds of voices that were once arguing we shouldn’t be messing about with lockdowns anyway because of the economic cost.
Then there are those blaming Black Lives Matter protesters – initially alleging they would spread the virus directly, until, when the numbers said otherwise, switching to a more social-psychological argument about the message that the mass gatherings sent to the community. Sometimes these people had only recently argued the whole COVID-19 thing might be a little overstated.
None of these assertions is knowable. It’s likely that our governments’ communication with multicultural communities about the virus has been inadequate but we don’t know if fixing that would have made a difference here. It’s possible that the image of mass protests encouraged people to relax social distancing but it’s also true this happened when our shopping centres were already bursting with crowds and when we were celebrating the return of contact sports on our television screens.
What seems quite likely to be a factor is the possibility that infectious people were going to work or refusing to get tested because they don’t have sick leave, earn low incomes and felt they couldn’t afford to stay home. But that’s being far more rarely discussed.
We’re left with a general sense of there being something negatively special about the people in these newly locked-down suburbs, as though they are being punished for their unique carelessness. To read of a parade of locals being interviewed by media, not wanting to give their names because they don’t want to be associated with the outbreak, is to discover people who feel stigmatised.
“No one has come up to my face and said, ‘You are causing coronavirus,'” one woman told The Guardian. “But it’s little things. It’s the things you see online and little comments that are made.”
“It felt almost like our suburb has done something terribly, terribly wrong,” said another. “It’s difficult to understand that, ‘Yes we have overstepped a boundary,’ because most people feel like they have been doing the right thing.” That strikes me as the language of people who feel regarded as moral failures; idiots who didn’t take the disease seriously.
As though the rest of us are. As though there aren’t people hugging and shaking hands all over the country, sanitising less than they used to, neglecting social distancing practices they briefly upheld. As though countless people outside these suburbs, or even Victoria, aren’t guilty of precisely the same things that led to clusters in Melbourne’s north and west.
I think this is dangerous for two reasons. First, we all need these people’s sacrifice right now. As Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews made clear, these lockdowns are there to save everyone else having to do the same. This isn’t punishment. It’s service. It’s civic sacrifice. The best response to that is not disdain or judgment but gratitude and empathy. And if they feel punished, suspected and derided, my guess is that makes rebellion and non-compliance far more likely, leaving everything to heavy enforcement.
But the second, and possibly greater, danger is that our real motivation for assigning blame to these people (aside from tired culture wars) is to preserve a certain mythology that this pandemic is somehow within our control. That it strikes the blameworthy. That if we just do the right things, then we will enjoy a steady, mostly uninterrupted pathway out of this pandemic.
That’s a more comfortable thought than what is probably the truth: that these things will happen, that this is anything but over and that even though we can point to mistakes being made – like with Victoria’s hotel quarantining – there’s just about nothing we can do to guarantee this doesn’t happen elsewhere. That we’re playing a game of postcode lottery and any of us might be next.
Waleed Aly is a regular columnist.
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Waleed Aly is co-host of Ten’s The Project and is a lecturer in politics at Monash University.