Gaming the Virus: fighting the last war cannot win the next one

Gaming the virus in NSW: how fighting the last war will not win the next one.

One of the few extraordinary benefits for sociologists of the pandemic must be the real time experiments it generates in the relation between social theory and social practice – or put succinctly, how class continues to be an issue in contemporary Australia, most sharply in neo-con libertarian jurisdictions, less so but still there in more social democratic communalist states. Alan Kohler has pointed to the failure of conservatism (he is too hopeful) while Ross Gittins sees the pattern of infection as a reflection of class (too absolute though getting there). Age, race, and gender were called out early on. The virus is alert to the best social space for its transmission to accelerate, where crowding at home, at work and travelling, poor communication, and a mobile population produce the optimum hosts. If trust fractures so that the capacity of the social order to protect people from the virus is undermined, then that social order can rapidly follow. The social remains only a step ahead of chaos, imbued with the ever-present imagined tension between individual and communal well-being.

As the public imaginary has become saturated with metaphors for the “battle” against COVID19 Delta, so the real-world takeover of the key cities in Afghanistan by the Taliban has dominated the real politik. Just as the American Maginot line at Kabul was overwhelmed by the Afghan anti-imperialists, COVID is surrounding and breaking through our defences. The Taliban is a social movement, the impact of which on modern social values and relations we may well abhor. COVID Delta is a social disease, the impact of which on our social sinews – trust – we should rightly fear.  The moment Trump decided to get out (almost the same strategy he propounded in the USA against COVID in 2020) the idea of a single line of resistance that could be sustained by the Kabul government was undermined. Giving up on COVID Zero has a similar smell about it. We must learn to live with them both, some of our leaders now pronounce.

Returning to the COVID battle, there have been calls to refresh the ANZAC spirit, stand together, and face the foe (though Gallipoli was just a better version of the Kabul withdrawal – better planned and executed but in essence the same). We have been told we will be “throwing everything at it”, and sending in our best and bravest. Instead of generals fighting the last war (though we have some of them), we have scientists, grim faced, calling on the citizen soldiers to stand firm, obey orders, and suffer for the greater good. Uniforms abound in the battle lines – police, nurses, military – some with boots on the ground, some with needles in our arms, some now with pepper bombs. Arm-chair strategists and tacticians (including yours truly) argue the toss, seeking to decipher the war plan of a now enshrined and variously interpreted Doherty Report.

Meanwhile cells of guerrillas jump the lines, acting as carriers for the virus as it seeks out the least socially integrated and most distrustful populations as its primary vectors.  It breeds too in the densely settled and impossibly crowded parts of our cities, as well as in the least well-defended outstations of urbanity. The emotions of fear, anxiety, and desperation multiply, while the elites in their palaces announce nostrums that simply erode the capacity of the key weapon, trust, to do its work of building resilience and security.

Sticking with the perhaps overworked metaphors, our best weapon against the virus remains the same one that so escaped us in Afghanistan, on the ground, people-based Intelligence. Intelligence is based on thousands of pieces of information, carefully collected and assessed, integrated and tested, applied and projected. In Afghanistan “our side” allowed our fantasies to supplant our science. Ditto in NSW as our troops chase around the landscape, always in arrears, always behind the ball.

Let us return to the claim “we are throwing everything at it”. We didn’t in Afghanistan and we are not doing it here; we fight with one hand behind our backs because we do not trust the people who are taking the brunt of the attack. We have little or any intelligence of where the virus will crest next – all we know is what has happened, not where we need to be to stop the spread. We have no real idea of how the affected populations are withdrawing from the battle, misleading us into believing that what we see is what is real.

We operate as though we need to placate the as yet minimally affected allied populations to keep them happy with the elite’s management of the war, rather than being smart and breaking the onslaught where it is weakest, while containing it where it appears strongest. We fail to ask the simplest question of our multicultural population – who are you and how do we help you to join the battle for what we call “freedom”?

In the year since it became clear that ethnicity was a proxy for many other dimensions of vulnerability (another echo of Afghanistan) , we have tested millions of Australians, many over and over. Had we at that time normalised requests from people being tested for data on language spoken and country of birth, we would have a heat map of communal vulnerabilities, and systematic guidance of where the enemy was moving, and where we should have a sense of looming threat. It took ages for this awareness to penetrate the consciousness of our strategists – in November 2020 Victoria began to see the value of this data, In February the Commonwealth began collecting the data. Neither of these jurisdictions release this information as they fear it will be used by the anti-vaxxer movement (a fifth column for the virus) to stigmatise ethnic minorities – a common enough practice without the data, and brought to a high art in the naming and shaming of ethnic neighbourhoods in west and south west Sydney. However New South Wales refuses to do so, despite the widespread affirmation from communities caught on the front line that such information would help them respond immediately and directly to the threats their people are experiencing.

In a recent Lancet article,  Daniel Pan and his colleagues explored the issues associated with the higher incidence of COVID and the poorer outcomes in the UK for Black and Asian ethnic groups. The group is trying to work out whether the social inequality(such as those identified in this article)  affecting non-Whites produces this ethnic effect, or whether there are bio-social factors that predispose non-White races to infection and severity of outcomes. In the UK they are able to ask these questions as the data is there – in Australia the data is not there in NSW, where the ideology of individual “freedom” squeezes out the reality of social impact . Even where some race data is available, as with Indigenous communities in western NSW, it was only after the virus reached the vulnerable groups that a reaction was instituted. However, the Health people could tell very quickly that Aboriginal Australians were being attacked, because they collect the data on Indigeneity, even if they did nothing about checking their low participation in testing and vaccination in the lead up. 

My approaches to Minister Hazzard have been ignored; my contact with the Premier’s office were originally treated with intense interest, and then frozen. My interactions with senior Health officials have generated tirades, suggesting I undervalued all the work their front line people had done talking with “ethnic leaders” and helping the communal pop-up clinics to operate. Yet every one of my ethnic community contacts in those areas of the battlefront are bemused and then dismayed to realise there is a weapon (collecting, processing and using ethnic language data by post code in testing and vaccine booking)  that could have helped them protect their people, and yet it has been dismissed without even a try-out. Moreover when you hear the NSW government ministers claim they have done everything possible that NSW Health has advised, remember where the opposition to testing is strongest- in NSW Health. What war are they fighting? What game do they now need to change?

Cui Bono – who benefits from the current decline in China/Australia relations?

The dramatic decline in Australia China relations has paralleled the rise in the anti-China rhetoric from the Trump administration, capped by its naming of COVID as “the China virus”. Who benefits from this situation? Hint: it’s not China and it’s not Australia.

A recent article in The Australian by Paul Kelly, hailed as insightful by China Matters (the consultancy  defunded by the Morrison ministry as too pro-Beijing) pointed out that while Kelly agreed with almost every step that the Government had taken, the consequences were a mess and boded ill for the future. The reason Kelly proposed lay in its incapacity to articulate a clear set of goals other than an inchoate “national interest”.

Ten years ago  I argued that immigrant societies always face tensions for the loyalty of newcomers (for instance, from China) between their identification with their origin countries, and their commitment to their new country. In receiving societies (for instance, like Australia) with a history of racism and race hatred, people of colour may be attracted by the willingness of their new country’s government to actively protect their human rights, especially in relation to any continuing racism. In Australia this willingness by government has been declining.

As well, China I suggested would be anxious to maintain the loyalty of Chinese immigrants to the greater transnational community of Hua Ren, led by the vision of Beijing – today guided by Xi Jinping thought. In his speech of 2015 marking the 70th anniversary of the end of the global Anti-Fascist War  Xi proclaimed that China was dedicated to peace while noting “an ancient Chinese saying goes, ‘After making a good start, we should ensure that the cause achieves fruition’.” Fruition for Xi is a developed society which can never again be threatened with disruption, foreign invasion, or the horrors of regional war-lordism. It does not, he claimed, seek any hegemony nor desire to impose on other societies the horrors that China endured during a hundred years of foreign incursions and invasions, from Europe, the USA and Asia.

In order to achieve this peace, China in 2015 announced a sequence over fifteen year for expanded rings of influence and security. The first “ring” encompassing the South China Sea, has reached initial fruition, with the seeding of the southern waters with Chinese land bases, frustrating its neighbours and causing regional powers to push back, somewhat ineffectually. The current year marks the beginning of the next phase, pushing into the Pacific, and the implementation of the next five year economic plan, announced in May.  The lock step between foreign policy and economic policy is no accident, reflecting the sense of imminent threat that China has experienced for nearly two hundred years. This explains its strategic use of economic capacity to bind partner nations in the next zone in ways they cannot avoid.

Australia has noticed the effects of these plans on the Pacific nations which it had previously assumed sat comfortably under its own hegemonic umbrella. When China butts up against the USA zone of influence in the Pacific (as Japan did in its attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941) current tensions are likely to become even more inflamed than the Trump administration’s calling out of China’s economic hooks into America has achieved over the past four years.

However the warnings are clear – as Yale University’s Jason Stanley noted in his discussion of contemporary fascism on the UTS VC’s Democracy Forum (1 October 2020), fascism is a process of ensemble practices rather than a thing. So all the players in Venn diagram in which Australia is trapped use some fascist and anti-humane practices to advance their regime position. Australia’s finesse in holding asylum seekers at arms length in torturing situations has psychological reverberations with earlier regimes’ intimidation and torture of people they wished to deter or expel – Jews in pre-war Nazi Germany for example. That doesn’t make Australia a fascist state though to some Australians (many young Indigenous men or asylum seekers) it may be experienced as exactly that.

If we step back a bit and review the current apprehensions constantly stoked by the conservative elites (both prompted and echoed by some leftist nationalists such as those at the former Fairfax press), the Trumpets in security and defence, and the stalwarts of the Institute of Public Affairs, China has been construed an appalling though rational fascist state seeking to extend its hegemony over populations which wish to escape its grasp. Some escapees wish to pursue religious alternatives to the state ideology – including Muslims in the North West and Christians and democrats in Hong Kong. Others are democrats willing to put up with the more chaotic life offered by Western societies while hopefully prospering in less authoritarian regimes. Many immigrants from Communist China in Australia are seeking a degree of freedom, clean environment and economic opportunity hard to find in the old country. Others though are apparently potential spies, saboteurs and agents of the malign forces based in Beijing. Those forces, we are told, have infiltrated everywhere, watching us, influencing our views and seeking to erode and corrode our fierce sense of independence and autonomy that is the essence of Australian identity and morality.

Only the forces of Good can protect us, and anyone who resists is either a fool or an agent of the regime, even if they are not aware of their collaboration (Clive Hamilton on Jocelyn Chey as an example). In particular, anyone who suggests that the critique of the Chinese government and the Communist Party simply disguises a White Australia prejudiced loathing of the Mongol race, plays into the hands of the highly manipulative Beijing scriptwriters.

While this summary might be interpreted as a caricature of the real and subtle complexity of a constantly evolving situation, it does capture most of the talking points that pepper the rhetoric of the “beware” community.

There is a competing narrative that is given short shrift in the Australian media, well cowed by the trumpet players. China has dragged itself out of centuries of Euro-American imperialist impoverishment, and learned to play the games of global capitalist wealth accumulation through a state prism. One thing Chinese rulers have taken from their own detailed analysis of history – fed but not drowned by the insights of Leninist studies of imperialism – is that no one will look after their national interest (or their own place in the elites/ nomenklatura) other than themselves.

This lesson has been reinforced by the performance of President Trump, who correctly recognised that China had been playing the US economy as a rigged roulette wheel for years, to its advantage and the US’s real cost. China (and maybe also Trump)  recognises that capitalism without a state plan has been prone to massive fluctuations as the business cycle regularly pushes tsunamis of growth and contraction through the economy: dirigisme would most likely trump neo-liberalism over the medium to long term. Possibly the most important indigenous lesson learned was that the empire/Middle Kingdom would collapse if regional war-lordism were allowed to break out again (as experienced post 1842 and the Opium Wars and then 1912 to 1949). Taiwan for Beijing is a war-lord enclave not yet subdued, Hong Kong has been a war-lord enclave now being subdued, Tibet was a war-lord enclave well subdued, and Xinjiang was threatening to become such an enclave and there it’s all out to subdue resistance.

Moreover the alternatives of neo-liberalism offered by the West have been demonstrably incapable of handling the accelerating Gaia crises – COVID, global warming, water shortages, wildfires, hurricanes, ocean warming and rising,  and environmental pollution. Also Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan are not exemplars of how democratic states successfully resolve the rise of irredentist religious anti-regime movements, the feared and not unrealistic potential outcome in China of Xinjiang Muslim autonomy movements. Boris Johnston and Donald Trump provide salutary lessons of what happens when under-educated self-interested socially-unaware populations “choose” incapable leaders who sacrifice their own populations (Brexit, COVID) due to their ineptitude and lack of social concern. It is not only China where the emphasis on Law and Order neglects the third key element – justice.

Throughout Chinese history a principal strategy of successful regimes has kept a buffer zone of dependent-supplicant economically-productive states/ cultures/ tribes/ regions between the heart of the empire and the barbarians beyond. The Belt and Road initiative reflects this world-view amplified through an appreciation of globalisation and its threats and benefits. In the Chinese view, collaborations between Chinese ingenuity, management and strategic vision, with subordinated or partner governments offering local resources, energy and logistics, would create a win-win with China on top while aiding a lot of other populations floating upwards to become extended consumers in a global Chinese supermarket.

Thus we have seen the Africa push, the Pacific push, the Europe push and indeed the Australia push. Pity though about Huawei, which freaked out the trumpets with its imaginative or imagined access into the heart of the Australian future; its banning means Australia will slip even further back into remaining a mine and pasture, with a rump of sheltered-workshops “making things because that’s what Australia does”, now that the two other industries – tourism and education – have been on the one hand wrecked by COVID and on the other trashed by the trumpets. 

So, who benefits from the current mess in Australia / China relations? It does China no particular good to have to keep swatting at the Australian fly buzzing at it. It is now clear that the ham-fisted raids in Australia by the trumpets on Chinese journalists led to the “please explain” interviews with the Australian journalists in Beijing. The Australian media accepted government advice to pull “our” journalists out of China, a sensible move in the short term, but now a guarantee we are without independent thoughtful analysis of the current Chinese situation. I would not like to trust the hysteria of the IPA to provide the nation with a compass into the future.

In Australia there were raids on an Australian politician, Shaoquett Moselmane, and his Chinese born advisor John Zhang. Moselmane’s career and reputation have been trashed, but he has been declared of no further interest, and no crimes have ever been alleged against him, let alone taken to court or proven: practices remarkably like those of other authoritarian regimes anxious to suppress internal criticism.  The trumpets then had the Australian government ban a number of Chinese academics who had specialist knowledge of Australia, just at the time this knowledge (rather than fevered propagandised prejudice) was needed in China – a really smart move (not). The Chinese had banned two trumpet politicians (not smart but hey, they are a pain) and two leading academics who are PRC regime critics. In the meantime a tit for tat series of dumping claims riddle the inter-nation trade situation.

The only interest that is served by the current state of affairs is that of the Trump regime, and its Australian trumpets, who show many of their own signs of being undeclared agents of a foreign power. In this case the USA (in its Trump incarnation) has undermined much of the Australian relationship with China. We know Trump uses disruption as a tactic while pursuing a more shaded longer term strategy: viz at even the inter-personal level his shouting over Biden in the first Presidential debate, the effect of which (until Trump was laid low by COVID and then returned resurrected and youthfully invigorated by the virus treatment) was potentially to reduce the interest of moderate US citizens in voting at all. A similar effect is emerging following the urging of the trumpets on Australia’s relationship with China, demonstrated through our disengagement, apprehension and reduction in real knowledge interactions. 

Hopefully the relation can be resurrected, but only if we recognise that both China and the USA are gaming us, and not for our benefit.  The basis needs to be a rational appreciation of the societal values that Australia espouses, the reality of how we actually implement those values, and the distances we need to travel to draw them together.

We should not have any illusions about the Chinese government and its ruling party, though we might be rather more respectful of their circumstances.  Similarly we should have no illusions about the USA, or the cabal that runs its government.   Empires have their own logics, which may work well for the metropoles but rather less well for the periphery. As a peripheral nation we will continue to be a small but precious (to us) circle in the Venn diagram of imperial contestation in the Pacific over the next century. 

Two Strongs don’t make it Right

During May 2017 two national inquiries were calling for public submissions to strengthen what an outsider might think sounded like the same policy challenge in a multicultural democracy such as Australia. On the one hand the Senate wanted to understand what action might be required to strengthen multiculturalism, while on the other the Government wanted to strengthen citizenship. The Senate inquiry is continuing and has taken public evidence, including for LyLy Lim  and myself, based on our written submission (Submission 8). The Government one barely stopped to take breath at the closure date, refused to make the submissions to its consultation public, and announced through Minister Dutton soon thereafter increased restrictions and constraints on gaining and retaining citizenship.

However the inquirers each defined “strengthen” in rather different ways, to the point where the word came to represent a totally opposing set of values, world views, and social priorities. In a period of political chaos, post-truth and Trumpet rhetoric, any claim to strength must necessarily suggest assumptions about the causes of the weakness to be supplanted, and the dynamic driving the moral erosion set to be removed.

The Senate inquiry dates from November 2016 when the Greens decided to push for a more robust multicultural policy, in particular one that would bring in national legislation to create a legislative basis for multiculturalism, a proposition last floated by the ALP in 1989 but never enacted or reintroduced by any government since the rise of the Howard opposition. The ALP went along with the Green’s initiative, as the reorganisation of the multiculturalism shadow policy was only starting to take shape. Meanwhile GetUp was moving towards its own firmer strategy on linking with culturally diverse communities, an initiative that would be first tested early in 2017 in the struggle to stop the proposed government changes to Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

The Inquiry was launched on the International Day for the elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, in Australia known under its vanilla alias as “Harmony Day”. Any publicity hoped for at the launch was overwhelmed by the Government’s own statement of Multiculturalism, which carefully bypassed all the issues raised in the Senate reference. The senators identified issues such as the adequacy of data on racially motivated crimes, the impact of vilification and discrimination, and the impact of media and political stigmatisation of minority communities on bigotry and harassment. It looked for ways that might improve public discourse and recognise the contribution of immigrant groups. Centrally it wished to consider legislative underpinnings for the currently rootless amalgam of provisions that count as Federal multicultural policy, last put into the public arena for (inconclusive) debate in 1989.

For the Senate then to strengthen multiculturalism appears to entail building a stronger legislative base, improving the information about the impact of xenophobia on minorities, and extending the human rights base for multicultural practice.

The Citizenship inquiry, despite its wattle and gum tree green discussion paper, was framed by consultations initially managed by Sen Concetta Fierravanti-Wells and former Immigration minister and now human rights ambassador Phillip Ruddock. They reported that there was a widespread fear among older multi-generation Australians that potential terrorists and other ne’er-do-wells were finding it too easy to get citizenship, and that not only should the access be toughened, but the loss of citizenship should be more readily used to punish miscreants. The second of those measures, the cancelling of citizenship for terrorists with dual nationality was enacted early on. Raising the bar by lengthening the time people need to prove their commitment to Australia (by volunteering at school tuck shops among other proofs), increasing the level of English required to the equivalent of a year 10 school-leaver, and swearing to uphold a set of values yet to be defined, makes citizenship (and the voting rights that come with it) a much more challenging exercise for humanitarian entrants and both older and less well-educated applicants from non-English speaking backgrounds.

Thus strengthening citizenship is concerned not with bolstering the quality of the process of citizenship achievement for the applicants, but rather in quietening the concerns of the most xenophobic elements in Australian society. That is, the process in place is designed to increase the stigmatisation experienced by minorities, normalise low levels of racist discourse and moral vilification against immigrants, while increasing the sense of marginalisation and exclusion for wide sections of the community. Such concerns about exclusion were once voiced by former Liberal MP Petro Georgiou, who almost alone stood against the Howard government’s last round introduction under then Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews of the first Australian values and ‘strengthened’ English language test. He commented sadly that his parents, proud Greek Australians, would never have made it through the hoops then being applied.

By strengthening citizenship in the way it is proposed, whether intentionally or uncaringly, the sense of exclusion widens, the possibilities of achievement lessen, and the value of the future citizen is adduced from their class rather than their character (think perhaps Asian billionaire vs rescued Yasidi grandmother). Asserting a human rights perspective provides a more reliable basis for strengthening social cohesion than does an approach that merely toughens the rules. For loyalty to Australia will ultimately depend on the recognition and respect paid to its aspiring citizens, not their performance of ritualised elements of culture which is far more complex than Minister Dutton and his black shirts are able to recognise.

 

 

When it comes to Whiteness in Australian media, we are still telling the same story: Professor (((Andrew Jakubowicz))) on ABC News Radio with Tracey Holmes

First posted 19/12/2016 14:14:52 ABC News Radio