Civil unrest in Melbourne

Melbourne: Anger Stirs in the City with the World’s Longest COVID-19 Lockdown

In early 2020, the Coronavirus pandemic began its deadly propagation around the world. Governments plunged entire cities into lockdowns with stay-at-home orders, and businesses closed their doors. Over a year later, vaccines have become accessible, and many cities have relinquished the lockdown approach and returned to a relatively ‘normal’ post-Covid life (the most notable example right now is Norway).

However, this has not been the case for Melbourne, Australia. If the city’s lockdown ends as planned on October 26th, Melbourne’s residents will have spent a total of nearly 9 months in hard lockdown since March 2020. A ‘hard lockdown’ gives citizens only 5 reasons to leave home: to shop for food and supplies, to exercise (limited to 2 hours), for caregiving purposes, authorised work or education that people cannot complete at home, and to get vaccinated. The city now holds the status of the most lockdowned city in the world, surpassing Buenos Aires by 22 days.

Orange border around a white box with black text of cities with the longest lockdowns
Image Source: Alice Blunden

The emergence of the rapidly spreading Delta strain compromised the Victorian Premier’s ‘zero case’ goal, instead forcing the view that we must now live with the virus. However, the government will only end the lockdown on October 26th if 70% of Melbournians are fully vaccinated.

Impact of the vaccine rollout on extended lockdown

A blue-gloved hand holds a small jar of COVID-19 vaccine
Image Source: ama.com.au

Australia has been slow to roll out the vaccine compared to the rest of the world. In Melbourne’s case, the vaccination rate is now the only barrier in the way of a lockdown-free life.

Problems with UQ and AstraZeneca

In September 2020, the Australian government ordered a total of 85 million doses of AstraZeneca (AZ) and the locally manufactured University of Queensland (UQ) vaccine.

Health department secretary Brendan Murphy said ordering vaccines made locally was critical in ensuring sufficient supply to the Australian population.

However, doubts were cast over both of Australia’s potential vaccines within a few months of ordering. The future stages of the UQ trial were abandoned after some volunteers falsely tested positive to HIV. Australia’s vaccination strategy now rested exclusively on AZ. 

This year, the first signs of a rare but potentially life-threatening blood-clotting disorder emerged in March, with scientists linking it to the AZ vaccine. This information fuelled qualms about vaccine safety, and 8 in 10 Australians reported concern about the possible side effects.

Vaccine hesitancy and the media

Professor Murphy attributed much of the AZ vaccine hesitancy to the media:

‘I think the biggest impact on hesitancy is, frankly, sensationalist media reporting.’

The risk of blood clots from the AZ vaccine is 0.0004% compared to 0.05% from birth control pills, 0.18% from smoking, and 16.5% from the COVID-19 virus itself.

Picture graphic showing the risks of blood clots from the AZ vaccine, birth control, smoking and COVID-19
Image Source: Twitter

The Former Secretary of the Department of Health of Australia, Jane Halton, emphasised the importance of better public health messaging to ameliorate people’s concerns and clarify herd immunity’s importance.

Difficulties with distribution

Under the government’s vaccination plan, local GPs were to have a primary role in distributing doses to the public. However, many doctors report that retrieving the vaccines was unpredictable. Australian doctors have reported an increase in AZ appointment cancellations.

This slow start to the vaccine rollout has set Melbourne back from its global neighbours. It stands in the way of a lockdown-free life. But with the Pfizer vaccine now being distributed, the vaccination rate is steadily increasing and the end of stay-at-home life glimmers on the horizon.

The construction worker protests

As Melbourne settles into its ninth – and hopefully final – month of lockdown, protests rage across the CBD as angry ‘freedom fighters’ soak the streets.

Protesters gather outside a biege market bulding holding a 'freedom' sign
Image Source: Getty Images via The Daily Mail

(I might note here the irony in protesting for ‘freedom’ on land that was stolen from Australia’s First Nations people. The vocals for Indigenous People’s ongoing imprisonment and isolation in this settler-colonial nation certainly don’t seem to be as loud).

Around the 17th of September, the government mandated COVID-19 vaccines for all construction workers and closed the building industry for two weeks following a small outbreak of cases. Construction workers protested against lockdown restrictions and having their tea rooms closed for morning breaks by setting up plastic chairs and tables in the middle of the streets.

Birds-eye-view of construction workers wearing hi-vis gear sitting at white tables in the middle of a city road
Image Source: Twitter via The News Daily

Hundreds of these workers wearing hi-vis gear stormed the CBD a few days later and protested against new mandatory vaccination rules while chanting ‘fuck the jab!’ Many believed that most of these protesters were not construction workers but rather ‘right-wing agitators’ who bought themselves $2 hi-vis hoodies. Others say there is little evidence of this so-called conspiracy. 

Jack Houghton for Sky News writes:

‘An attempt to blame the totality of Victoria’s construction worker protests on “right wing agitators” only demonstrates the extent our media class has failed’.

Conflicting stories

A man wearing a mask marches down a Melbourne CBD road holding a flare up in one hand as other protestors walk beside him
Image Source: Mamamia.com.au

The media presents conflicting stories. On the one hand, some news outlets emphasise the ‘conspiracy’ aspect. They focus on the violence of certain protesters ‘pretending’ to be construction workers. Other news outlets focus on the ‘outright tyranny’ of the police who fired pepper balls and stringer grenades at protesters.

Dr Kaz Ross, an expert in the far-right and conspiracy-theorist movements in Australia, said:

‘Anyone who thinks that it’s a good thing having special operations police looking like they’ve just stepped out of a war zone in Afghanistan walking around Melbourne is nuts.’

Many protest attendees argued the lawful right to protest has been quashed. They believe the rules force them to live in a society divided between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. One protester yelled, ‘The Australian people do not negotiate with terrorists,’ and another shouted, ‘You’re all fucking dogs.’

How the media frame Melbourne’s lockdown

A group of men clash at Melbourne's CBD
Image Source: BBC

Questions remain as to who was behind the pandemic protests: was it for workers’ rights or the far right? However, one certain thing is the media’s unilateral framing of these protests overseas. For example, the UK media frame Melbourne’s anti-lockdown protests – rather one-sidedly – as violent, war-like events. Elsewhere in the world, COVID-19 protests and events are highly sensationalised with a focus on violence and hysteria.

Take the following headlines, for example:

‘Covid: Melbourne construction sites shut after violent vaccine protest’ (BBC NEWS)

‘Violent protests erupt in Melbourne as government shuts down all construction work over vaccine mandates’ (Independent.co.uk)

‘Anti-lockdown protesters in Melbourne branded ‘fascist morons’ after violent clashes’ (Telegraph)

And similarly, in the US:

‘Far right blamed for fuelling mobs in Melbourne vaccine protests’ (Washington Post)

(Recently, I saw a video on TikTok of American’s gathering in NYC chanting ‘SAVE AUSTRALIA! SAVE AUSTRALIA!’ But what do we need saving from? It makes me wonder about the extent of this sensationalised media reporting…)

Locally, the Australian media produces similar headlines:

‘Melbourne descends into chaos as police arrest 62 and fire rubber pellets at anti-lockdown protesters’ (The Guardian)

Mayhem and sadness in a week Melbourne finally snapped’ (The Age)

A single story cannot accurately capture a multifaceted reality

The article headline that might accurately reflect the situation is the ABC’s ‘At Melbourne’s anti-lockdown protests, everyone has a different version of the truth’. Certainly, we cannot understand the reality of a story in full told through the lens of media institutions who frame issues according to their political agendas. The stories of protesters and police are diverse and multithreaded. But journalists need to produce a unified and compelling report with a single, easy-to-follow storyline. This storytelling process usually omits other details; a unified story offers viewers only one version of the truth. Perhaps, the only way to have accurate knowledge of an event is to actually be there.

According to Kilgo and Harlow, news coverage is essential for a protest to gain visibility and spread its messages. However, research suggests the media continually portrays protests and protesters that ‘challenge the status quo’ negatively (the protest paradigm). 

News coverage is fundamental to a protest’s viability. However, research suggests media negatively portray protests and protesters that challenge the status quo (social scientists call this ‘the protest paradigm’). This pattern is also responsible for a lot of the sensationalised, one-sided news reporting we see in the media.

The importance of citizen journalists in media dissemination

Black and white image of a group of people holding up their phones to record
Image Source: locovida via The Medium

Citizen journalism refers to:

‘Ordinary individuals who act as journalists during some part of the process of creating content for mainstream journalism coverage.’

As trust in traditional media reaches a crisis low, people are beginning to trust citizen journalists over conventional reporters. Supposedly, this ‘democratic journalism’ enables the communication of reality free from the political message moulding that the media sometimes carries out.

Videographer and self-dubbed citizen journalist Rukshan Fernando has been a key documenter of Melbourne’s protests. He has a large far-right following, and his live streams reach thousands of viewers in Australia and overseas. He says:

‘…what I’m trying to show you guys is the way that the media and the authorities have manipulated this entire thing with their false narratives [. . .] I always tell people, my audience … they shouldn’t look at me, or anyone, as a single source of truth. They should consume my content, they should consume mainstream media content, and use that to make up their mind.’

The downsides of citizen journalism

However, citizen journalists like Rukshan may not always distribute raw, unfiltered messages. Belinda Barnet, a senior lecturer in media and communication at Swinburne University, argued that Rukshan Fernando’s live streams were not entirely raw and unfiltered:

‘It [the livestream] is accompanied by a narration, so he’s kind of narrating the events, and he’s also choosing what to film and what not to film [. . .] So, for example, in the recent riots he was quite big on filming police ostensibly being aggressive but didn’t seem to want to film the protesters being aggressive back.’

Whether this is done subconsciously or not, many citizens remain inherently selective. In this way, they convey messages infused with pre-existing beliefs and political stances to the public. However, the varied perspectives of citizen journalists are still valuable in diversifying the media. They can challenge the dominant narratives told by major news companies.

The mental toll of Melbourne’s lockdown

Cartoon illustration of a girl wearing a yellow sweater hugging her knees with mini coronavirus cells scattered in the background
Image Source: Timesofindia.indiatimes.com

Melbourne’s 9-month lockdown has fostered a discreet outburst of mental health issues, quite literally behind closed doors.

Lockdowns distance many people from the things they would ordinarily use to protect and support their mental health. For example, most doctors suggest that connecting with others is a key protector of positive mental health. Additionally, playing team sports can promote confidence and mental wellbeing. But most of Melbourne’s public health orders restrict these activities. The loss of agency and autonomy and limited connection to family and friends have produced an experience called disenfranchised grief.

Research published in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that Victorian COVID-19 restrictions in July and August 2020 were associated with almost double the state’s prevalence of moderate to severe depression and generalised anxiety symptoms. Around the same time the following year, Lifeline (a 24-hour crisis support hotline) received over 3000 calls on a single day.

Interestingly, a Monash University study found that mental health problems were more closely linked to lockdown restrictions than a fear of virus infection. Certainly, lockdowns have killed small businesses and people’s entire livelihoods at a much higher rate than the virus itself. The risk of dying from COVID-19 is comparatively low at around 0.002% for children and 1.4% for those aged 65 (slightly increasing with age).

The COVID-19 lockdowns have seen a huge increase in the demand for mental health services. The Victorian Government invested a record $3.8 billion in mental health and wellbeing for the 2021-2022 State Budget.

The longest – but not the worst ­– lockdown

Melbournians have been locked down in one the most liveable cities in the world. Four out of five residents live within 400 metres of some sort of open green space (such as a park), and there is a correlation between proximity to green spaces and lower stress levels. Human-nature connections can also help with feelings of loneliness and isolation. Even during Melbourne’s harshest lockdown stages, residents could still leave their houses for exercise or to walk their dogs. During lighter restriction stages, picnics swamped parks as people gathered in small groups under the sun.

Clusters of people gather in small circles in a park
Image Source: Getty/Asanka Ratnayake

Furthermore, while lockdowns unearthed a significant outpour of mental health concerns, 75 per cent of Melbournians have high or very high access to suitable health infrastructures to address some of these problems. Take, for instance, the record-breaking number of calls made to support lines. Melbourne has one of the strongest healthcare systems in the world.

Compare this lockdown to Buenos Aires’, where authorities prohibited residents from leaving their houses for a walk. In a country where police have a record of abusive treatment – particularly in low-income neighbourhoods – the brutal policing and management of Buenos Aires’ lockdown has captured the attention of media outlets and local human rights groups. In 2020, the National Human Rights Secretary reported receiving 531 complaints of police violence between March and August, 25 of these complaints involved deaths. Undoubtedly, proportionate lockdowns can be effective public health protectors. However, without proper oversight and a lack of accountability for those enforcing it, lockdowns like those in Argentina may become a slayer of human rights and health.

Will we ever return to ‘normal’ post-lockdown?

A man wearing a mask marches across the road in Melbourne with an image of the Coronavirus cell edited into the background
Image Source: 7NEWS.com.au

There is talk of a return to ‘normal’ life on October 26th for Melbourne residents. This chatter is based on the assumption that vaccines will eliminate the virus. People assume that open shop doors represent the elimination of COVID with the heavy-footed parades of normality. Unfortunately, however, these idealistic visions couldn’t be further from the truth.

Just like influenza and HIV, COVID will become another fatal virus that the world has learnt to live with (not eliminate). But some sacrifices of our old lives will be necessary for this co-habitancy. For instance, working from home is often more cost-effective and efficient for businesses. Therefore, it is unlikely that post-COVID work-life will reset to its pure office ways. School could be a little different, but most recognise the importance of face-to-face interaction for children’s development.

The pandemic’s harsh realities have triggered expansive thinking. Many people have challenged their conventional beliefs on the economy and society. For instance, we are seeing more vocal voices on the future and sustainability of capitalism and industrial policy. The country’s approach to global problems such as pandemics and climate change has put a harsh spotlight on the government’s actions. Citizens are increasingly interrogating leaders.

In a post-COVID world, perhaps we will think twice before blowing out the candles on a birthday cake that everyone is going to eat.

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