The Victorian Premier reassures the public that strict lockdowns are merely a reflection of him putting lives before the economy, but his plan to reopen has made it clear that that non-material goods have little place in the roadmap back to ‘COVID normal.’
Lockdowns have undermined almost every civil society institution in this country. They mandated the emptying of places of worship and that volunteers cease to perform work in many instances. The financial hardship that resulted from this policy drained the pockets of donors and the charities they support.
Relief cannot come soon enough for civil society groups. But in the road map laid out by the Premier, preference has been given to material and metropolitan values over non-material and community ones.
Since 16 September, regional Victoria has been under step 3 of the road map which means services such as beauty therapy, tanning, waxing, nail salons, spas, tattoo parlours and massage parlours can reopen if they adhere to hygiene practices such as the 4sq m rule, cleaning, signage and record keeping. Community activities however, such as book clubs or craft groups, were limited to ten people and only in outdoor venues.
Last Sunday, the Premier announced further opening to allow Libraries and toy libraries to open up to 20 people indoors, but there was no mention of non-government community spaces.
Even more concerning is the treatment of places of worship. Step three restrictions, allow restaurants, bars, cafes and pubs to open for indoor dining of up to 10 people (or even 40 for some venues) and up to 70 people for outdoor dining. Compare this with the restrictions put on religious organisations, which are restricted to private worship only. Private worship is defined as a household or a household bubble (up to five people from that household) plus a faith leader. Public worship can only be conducted outside and with a maximum of 20 people.
There appears to be little public health justification for the inequitable treatment. If anything, the hospitality industry is a more likely vector of this virus given that no one can eat or drink with a mask on and waiters go between groups to deliver food. Conversely, most religious services can be conducted without contact and with a mask.
This is not to say that commercial activities shouldn’t open up, but that religious and community groups should be treated the same way.
If there has been anything positive to come from the COVID-19 experience, it is that there has been a reassertion of federalism and state-based experiments in public policy. If Victoria wants to know how to manage an opening up of both the private economy and civil society (and particularly places of worship) it should look across the border to New South Wales.
When NSW started to ease the lockdown restrictions, everything from cafes to churches were to open provided they had a COVIDSafe plan. These are online forms that take 30 minutes to fill out and demonstrate how basic practices such as the 4 sqm rule and face masks are going to be enforced on the premises to prevent the spread of the disease. There is no reason why Victoria can’t provide this kind of instruction.
Civil society needs to be granted the freedom to be a separate and distinct entity from the state.
People need meaning and connection as much as they need material comfort. A road back to ‘COVID normal’ that does not include religious observance and other civil society organisations is not a return to normal at all.