Securing White Australia: Borders, Viruses, Lockdown
Some twelve plus months into the Covid 19 Era, by numerous reckonings, Australia can be regarded as having done well. The number of cases is incredibly low: Australia, with a population of 25million has only 30,000 cases and only some 800 deaths. The Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think tank, places the nation eighth on the list of performers against Covid, below Iceland and above Latvia. Melbourne, which regularly makes the top of ‘most liveable city’ according to The Economist, was the city where Covid spread, comprising most of the nation’s cases. The spread of Covid amongst aged care homes, compelled the Premier (Daniel Andrews) to instigate a three-month long (111 days long) Lockdown during the southern Winter.
The Pandemic disturbed many of the presumptions that have maintained the charade of comfort and political complacency. ‘Australia’, as an island, is capable of defending itself against ‘disease’. We’re an island nation that loves going to the beach and having fun. The national motto may as well be: “she’ll be right, mate”, i.e. “don’t make a fuss. The trouble will go away. It’s not a problem.” And of course, the Northern hemisphere-centric, Asia-blind, commonplace observation is that ‘the rest of the world is so far away’. Our distance was going to buy us time and safety from the threat of the Pandemic. Slam! The borders were shut. Money from Chinese tourism, investment and student enrolments, which have combined to propel the Australian economy, came to a screeching halt. Racists and Xenophobes were as happy as pigs in mud: the Virus is ‘foreign’ [China!] and not only have ‘the boats’ [of refugees] been stopped, so too have in-bound commercial flights been reduced to a trickle of the usual rate. Some 35,000 passport holding Australians are stuck ‘overseas’ in a year-long queue trying to get back in. Good luck if you’re from anywhere else.
The (white) nationalist efforts at containing the spread of Covid have drawn on the strategic use of state borders. The borders which define the States of settler-colonial Australia are anachronistic artefacts of British colonialism. The boundaries between States, so rarely-felt as something material, have become one of the nation’s trump cards against this ‘indiscriminate, highly contagious virus’. These borders are tools of ongoing colonialism which deny the agency and sovereignty of First Nations peoples of the Australian continent. Police set up patrols at the borders of Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia. During the height of Melbourne’s Lockdown, a mythical ‘ring of steel’ was placed around the edge of the city: meaning, all roads leading to regional Victoria were cordoned off by place. But Victoria is not Victoria. Melbourne is not Melbourne. It is the sovereign lands of the Wurundjeri people: whose rights, land, health and ecosystems have been systematically attacked since the 18th-19th century onwards. Privileged, sports-loving, coffee-snob Melburnians complained about the severity of Lockdown, the five kilometre radius law and claimed that the heavy presence of policing throughout the city had the accoutrements of a police-state. These are similar practices that have long-been deployed against First Nations peoples were now being temporarily applied to Melburnians.
That the virus has Chinese origins is an uncontested discourse in Australia. The Wuhan wet-market is accepted as the Ground Zero of Covid. That is where the science is pointing. The grandstanding of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and foreign minister Marise Payne to launch an investigation into Covid’s origins – i.e. a thinly veiled and brief campaign of ‘we’re gonna make China pay for this!’ – not only spectacularly backfired against Australian business interests, it also further strengthened position Australia’s reputation as a tactless, racist, ignorant British colonial outpost of Asia. This characterisation was popularised by Mahatir Mohamad way back in the 1990s and is continually renewed and updated by myopic, chauvinist prime ministers: Howard, Abbott and Morrison. Mandarin-speaking and foreign policy expert former PM Kevin Rudd may well have been a bit smarter in avoiding such confrontational and fruitless megaphone diplomacy. The virus as biological threat is as old as the arrival of the British invaders of 1788, applauded as the First Fleet in uncritical Australiana. The quick spread of viruses aided the invaders in the death of countless First Nations peoples who didn’t have built up resistance. Disease brought by the British into the lands of the Wurundjeri in the Melbourne area accounted for 60% of deaths. The White Australia Prime Minister, excoriates China for the virus, while celebrating the arrival of his beloved First Fleet and wilfully ignoring the efforts at genociding First Nations peoples.
Covid precipitated another chapter in the fantasy of the White Nation of Australia, where “non-White Ethnics are merely national objects to be moved or removed according to a White national will” (Hage 2000, p.18). Inner-city housing commission flats were occupied by the police and occupants were subjected to compulsory Covid testing. No warning was given. Muslims in the city’s north and west were also considered to be contributing to the Second Wave: for (apparently) not regarding Covid as something serious and for holding multi-generational family gatherings to mark the end of Ramadan. The news-hungry public were provided with clearly marked maps of the city of Melbourne of where case numbers were rising and falling. The ‘Muslim’ as ‘other’ quickly became a fully functioning threat to both ‘our’ health (through spreading the virus) and ‘our’ safety (by, of course, being a terrorist in waiting). In White Australia, it’s always someone else’s fault. The euphemism of ‘diverse communities’ was brought into play. The translations of health advice weren’t good enough. This was clear enough: they don’t even speak our language! And a new law has changed the English language requirements for partners. I wonder what the Woiwurrung word is for ‘hypocrisy’.
I’m not sure if Australia is doing well at combatting Covid, or just doing brilliantly well at settler colonialism. The last year has a been a boon for racism, xenophobia and wilful misreadings of this continent’s histories and presents. The compliance of Melburnians in following heavy lockdown protocols was suggestive of a well-pacified polity. Perhaps, a slight degree more political agitation could help in disturbing the everyday comforts and injustices of settler colonialism. If only we could bare to turn off the footy, cricket or tennis for just a moment.
Andy Fuller is a member of the SACRASEC research project and the SoSCo research group of the Cultural Anthropology Department at Utrecht University.