Life During Lock-down

As I write, Victoria is witnessing record numbers of new COVID-19 cases in the so-called second wave of the pandemic. Even as the State Government maintains the Stage 3 lock-down in Greater Melbourne (and most recently mandated the wearing of masks), some members of the public are trying to challenge these restrictions, while others have to keep being reminded to comply with the pandemic measures. Frankly, the way I have been feeling about the latest events, I don’t know whether to laugh, scream or cry.

The Village of Eyam – Image sourced from National Geographic

Laugh, because I can’t believe how crass or stupid some of these refuseniks are. Scream, because I am so angry at the State Government’s failure to properly manage the hotel quarantine programme (which has led to the widespread community transmission), and the delayed decision to require masks in public. Cry, because the whole situation is incredibly sad, given all the people who have lost loved ones to the virus, and the many more who are experiencing financial hardship.

The Premier keeps saying that now is not the time to debate the whys and wherefores of who is responsible for the failure in hotel security arrangements, what caused the community transmission, or why so many people continued with their normal routines despite being symptomatic or while waiting for coronavirus test results. OK, fair enough – the Government’s main focus is on protecting public health (and shoring up the local economy), but hopefully there will be plenty of time for analysis and debate once the virus is under control (and hopefully well before the next State election, due in 2022…).

Meanwhile, I don’t know why politicians and health administrators are so surprised when members of the public fail to “exercise common sense”. Maybe the public kept hearing the Government was doing a such a great job (hey, remember Lock-down Pt. I?). Perhaps they over-compensated after a few weeks’ social distancing, became complacent and let down their guard. Or maybe they took their lead from public messages about “returning to normal” – and going to the footy and getting on the beers again….. Perhaps there is a sizeable portion of the community who can’t be trusted “to do the right thing” (or maybe they just don’t trust politicians, public servants, health experts or mainstream media).

As for why those people carried on as usual (despite being symptomatic or awaiting test results): there may be economic factors at play (to be discussed another day, but if that doesn’t include a debate on a Universal Basic Income, it will be a lost opportunity). It could be a lack of information and awareness. It could simply be human nature. But for a culture that celebrates “chucking a sickie” (indeed, one former Prime Minister even suggested it would be a point of national pride to do so following Australia’s success in the Americas Cup), something has gone wrong somewhere if people don’t feel any responsibility or obligation towards the health of their fellow citizens.

In my more existentialist moments (and I seem to have so much more time for that these days…), I can’t help thinking the pandemic is a three-fold challenge to the future of the human race: 1) the virus is nature’s way of inoculating itself against homo sapiens; 2) it will prove Darwin’s theory of evolution (survival of the fittest) by exploiting our weakness as social creatures – it’s figured out how to get us to spread the virus on its behalf; 3) the reduced levels of human activity and pollution will give the earth some time to heal (at least for a while).

At other times, I think about Talking Heads’ song “Life During Wartime”* – especially the line “I got some groceries, some peanut butter to last a couple of days”. With the need to limit shopping trips, the various shortages, and the focus on being prepared for a total lock-down, is it any wonder we may feel some anxiety? Of course, we could be in a far worse situation than what we are currently experiencing in Melbourne, both in terms of the number of cases and the breakdown in social order we see elsewhere. Yet that just underscores how inconsiderate and selfish those people are who can’t bring themselves to wear masks, or observe Stage 3 restrictions. Yes, the restrictions are inconvenient, and at times tedious, but they are hardly onerous compared to a full scale health crisis. And if anyone wants to discuss public sacrifice in the face of a virulent disease, I suggest they do some research on the village of Eyam in Derbyshire, England.

For myself, I know I have been very fortunate so far (probably thanks to some “compound privilege”). I have been able to work from home since March (although as an independent contractor, my monthly income has been reduced), but I have not seen any friends or family face-to-face either, and I won’t be traveling overseas next month for a family wedding, or to visit elderly parents. I am able to walk each day in the nearby park, but apart from food shops and the post office, I’ve not been inside any other retail premises. I haven’t been to pubs or restaurants, but I try to support the local hospitality sector by ordering prepare-at-home meals about once a week. I can’t get to see live music, but this has forced me to revisit my own music-making. And I don’t have to do any home-schooling, but I have friends and relatives who work in the health and education sectors.

My biggest concern, apart from the pandemic itself, is that we miss the opportunity to re-think the large areas of the economy that need restructuring. Politicians keep talking about “jobs, jobs, jobs”, as if the archaic labour structures inherent in the traditional master and servant relationship is the be-all and end-all of social economics. But where are these jobs coming from? COVID19 shows we can consume less, make do with less stuff, and so it can’t just be a demand-led stimulus. Nor should it just be a construction-led recovery (more “Big Build”), unless it is combined with innovation, sustainability, hi-tech, smart cities, etc. There is definitely a need to think about national self-sufficiency, and figure out what to do about supply chains, manufacturing and renewable energy.

Somehow, we have to turn this uncertainty and these challenges into positive outcomes.

Next week: The Limits of Technology

* The whole album, “Fear of Music” is the perfect soundtrack for the nervous paranoia and unease of the pandemic…..

Counting the cost of Covid19

Here in Melbourne, we are nearly two weeks into Covid19 Lock-down Pt II, and as we know sequels are rarely as good as the original. The State Government of Victoria has also decreed that anyone under the Stage 3 restrictions has to wear a mask whenever they are outside their home. The irony is that relative to other parts of Australia, Victoria went harder and earlier under Lock-down Pt I, and was later and slower in opening up – in fact, we hadn’t got that far before the second Lock-down was announced.

Some of the details about mask wearing are still a bit vague (what about when I’m driving my car, or playing golf, or in a self-contained space where there is no-one else?), so good luck with the enforcement process. And what significant information do we know now that we didn’t know back in March under the first Lock-down, that somehow made it OK to NOT advocate or require wearing masks four months ago? Could we have made even better progress in suppressing and/or eradicating the virus if we had all covered our faces from the start?

Of course, the major failings by the State Government are evidenced by the apparent human errors associated with the lapses in the hotel quarantine programme, the failure to fully understand the nature (and extent) of key clusters (cruise ships, abattoirs, schools, aged care facilities, fast-food restaurants, logistics centres, public housing towers, and even health care staff), and the inadequacy of community consultation early in the pandemic.

There is also a suggestion that the public became complacent, due in part to the way the politicians and civil servants were telling us how good a job they were doing. No doubt the initial measures were successful in containing the numbers and flattening the curve. So some people over-compensated when Lock-down Pt I ended, and not only disregarded social distancing measures, they started gravitating back to social gatherings, pubs, restaurants and shopping malls. Plus, the undue focus on getting professional sport back on TV helped to suggest things were back to “normal” (even though no games are being held within Victoria).

Some Government spokespeople implied that certain Covid19 conspiracy theories had taken hold in the community, resulting in people not taking the virus seriously. This commentary (that the virus is a hoax, that it is all a plot to curtail individual freedom, and that the “experts” were pushing an authoritarian agenda) has also been linked to anti-vaxers, anti-5Gers and regular members of the tin foil hat brigade. In particular, some conspiracy theories suggest that the pandemic is an attempt to distract us from other issues.

There is a huge human and economic cost to the virus (the number of cases and fatalities, the restrictions on daily life, job losses, business closures and trillions of dollars of government and corporate debt). It will cost a lot more before the pandemic is over and/or we have a viable vaccine. But there has also been a huge cost in terms of public debate and intellectual rigour. Language has become a weapon, science has been politicised (i.e., it shouldn’t get in the way of a political agenda…) and experts have been undermined. Possibly not since Galileo and heliocentrism has science been so poorly debated, irrationally challenged, arrogantly dismissed and badly defended by our leaders – even as some of these same leaders and those around them caught the disease. (OK, the political debate on climate change is another case in point…) If trust in politicians was already at a low, the pandemic is taking a further toll on our democratic institutions. Which suits autocrats, populists, demagogues, fundamentalists and radicals alike in their hatred and contempt for liberal, pluralistic and secular societies.

Choosing to not wear a face mask has apparently become an expression of individual freedom and civil liberty. Whereas I thought wearing a mask during a pandemic caused by a respiratory disease was both common sense and a courtesy to other people.

Next week: Life During Lock-down

 

 

Fact v Fiction in Public Discourse

In an era of fake news, alternative facts, deep state conspiracy theories, absolutists and populists, “political truths” are wielded like linguistic weapons. Any form of dissent (or contrary evidence) is branded as “unpatriotic”, “undemocratic”, “unconstitutional”, “disloyal”, “treasonous”, “elitist”, or “subversive”.

“The Treachery of Images” (Painting by Rene Magritte, image sourced from Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

Experts are treated with scepticism, scientists with suspicion, relativists with disdain, pluralists with apoplexy. Anyone seen to be challenging the status quo is dismissed as an “enemy of the people”. The public is being co-opted/coerced into buying wholesale certain political claims and party agendas (often hidden), without any opportunity to subject them to independent scrutiny or fact-checking.

Facts and logic are often the first victims in this abuse of language in the exercise of public discourse. Political slogans don’t even bother to avoid or deny accusations of propaganda: “Yeah? So what?” is often the response.

With that in mind, let’s play semantics and semiotics! To begin with, some opening statements:

1. This is a red car. (Observation, and a Fact if we agree on what is “red”) *

2. Red is the most popular colour of car. (Statement of Fact, if proved statistically) **

3. Red cars hold their value more than green cars. (Opinion, but also a Fact if it can be proved statistically, and we agree on what “value” means in this context)

4. Red cars are better than green cars, but blue cars are better than red cars. (Judgement tending towards a display of bias and prejudice)

Depending on the positioning and messaging, #1-#4 could be used in various marketing and advertising campaigns to sell red cars (or in the case of #4, sell blue cars).

Now, here are two reasonably uncontroversial propositions:

  • “Traffic laws are important to the functioning of society.”
  • “Good government relies on the democratic will of the electorate, and adequate funding of public services via taxation.”

We can see from the way language and truth are mangled in the service of current political debate and social commentary, that “statements of fact” can be easily positioned as “expressions of opinion” (and from there manipulated into pejorative and derogatory accusations or subtexts):

1. Red cars are involved in more road accidents than any other colour of vehicle
(Anyone who drives a red car is more likely to drive recklessly.)

2. People who drive red cars don’t observe the speed limit.
(Anyone who drives a red car is either a libertarian or an anarchist.)

3. People who drive red cars fail to pay their taxes.
(Anyone who drives a red car is anti-government.)

4. People who drive red cars are subversives.
(Anyone who drives a red car is a terrorist.)

5. People who drive red cars are law-abiding citizens.
(Anyone who drives a red car is a conservative. OR: Anyone who doesn’t drive a red car is a criminal.)

6. People who drive red cars give to charity but people who drive blue cars give more.
(Anyone who drives a red car is a better person than someone who drives a green car but not as good as someone who drives a blue car.)

The combination of sweeping generalisations and over-simplification in public discourse can obviously distort meaning and generate distrust. For example:

1. What if all taxis are red? That might mean they spend more time on the road, and therefore are more prone to be involved in traffic accidents.

2. What if more sports cars are red than any other colour? That might mean their drivers are more likely to speed. Or that their owners have more money. Or they are status conscious.

3. What if people who drive red cars come from a specific socio-economic, sectarian or ethnic demographic? Even then, they won’t all agree on the same issues, and they will likely display a similar range of divergent, opposing and contradictory views as the drivers of any other colour of car.

Unfortunately, the current environment for political debate and public commentary is being reduced to a binary state, where nuanced and subtle argument is being sidelined in favour of polarised and partisan politics, where facts are not allowed to get in the way of some convenient diatribe. If only politicians were accountable to voters under the Trade Practices Act – although we may soon see election campaigns subject to misleading and deceptive conduct legislation.

* Colour can also depend on context, as these experiments demonstrate: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FFC7EyR1lhU

** It’s not actually true: https://www.whichcar.com.au/car-news/most-popular-car-colours

Next week: Business as Unusual  

Who fact-checks the fact-checkers?

The recent stoush between POTUS and Twitter on fact-checking and his alleged use of violent invective has rekindled the debate on whether, and how, social media should be regulated. It’s a potential quagmire (especially the issue of free speech), but it also comes at a time when here in Australia, social media is fighting twin legal battles – on defamation and fees for news content.

First, the issue of fact-checking on social media. Public commentary was divided – some argued that fact-checking is a form of censorship, and others posed the question “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (who fact-checks the fact-checkers?) Others suggested that fact-checking in this context was a form of public service to ensure that political debate is well-informed, obvious errors are corrected, and that blatant lies (untruths, falsehoods, fibs, deceptions, mis-statements, alternative facts….) are called out for what they are. Notably, in this case, the “fact” was not edited, but flagged as a warning to the audience. (In case anyone hadn’t noticed (or remembered), earlier this year Facebook announced that it would engage Reuters to provide certain fact-check services.) Given the current level of discourse in the political arena, traditional and social media, and the court of public opinion, I’m often reminded of an article I read many years ago in the China Daily, which said something to the effect that “it is important to separate the truth from the facts”.

Second, the NSW Court of Appeal recently ruled that media companies can be held responsible for defamatory comments posted under stories they publish on social media. While this specific ruling did not render Facebook liable for the defamatory posts (although like other content platforms, social media is subject to general defamation laws), it was clear that the media organisations are deemed to be “publishing” content on their social media pages. And even though they have no way of controlling or moderating the Facebook comments before they are made public, for these purposes, their Facebook pages are no different to their own websites.

Third, the Australian Government is going to force companies like Facebook and Google to pay for news content via revenue share from ad sales. The Federal Treasurer was quoted as saying, “It is only fair that the search ­engines and social media giants pay for the original news content that they use to drive traffic to their sites.” If Australia succeeds, this may set an uncomfortable precedent in other jurisdictions.

For me, much of the above debate goes to the heart of how to treat social media platforms – are they like traditional newspapers and broadcast media? are they like non-fiction publishers? are they communications services (like telcos)? are they documents of record? The topic is not new – remember when Mark Zuckerberg declared that he wanted Facebook to be the “world’s newspaper”? Be careful what you wish for…

Next week: Fact v Fiction in Public Discourse