In his book The Fear and the Freedom – Why the Second World War Still Matters, the historian Keith Lowe writes about how the nations and individuals who survived through war coped with the emotional consequences of their trauma.
They did two things. First, they tried to forget what had happened. Then, what they couldn’t forget they created myths about. The myths and stories they told themselves might have an element of truth, but they were just as likely to be a consequence of individuals wishing for something to have occurred, when in fact it didn’t.
The “Spirit of the Blitz” is one such myth. As is now well -known, in 1940 there was no coming together in the face of shared hardship, rich and poor alike, of the British people in the face of the Luftwaffe’s bombs. The wealthy fled to the countryside or sought refuge in their private bomb shelters while vast sections of the population, particularly in London, were left unprotected.
When King George VI visited the East End in September 1940 he was booed. An intelligence report of the time from the Ministry of Information recounted the widespread sentiment of East End residents – “it is always the poor that gets it”.
As 2020 draws to a close, many Australians have indulged in their own forgetting and myth-making about how the nation responded to the crisis of COVID-19.
To begin with, the claim “we’re all in this together” is not true – and never was. The loudest supporters of community lockdowns and business closures weren’t affected by any of the policies they were demanding be implemented. At the same time as Australians working in the private sector were losing their jobs at the rate of 3500 positions a day, the government was employing the equivalent of an additional 100 public servants daily, while ABC employees were voting themselves a pay rise.
During 2020 there wasn’t much notion of equality of sacrifice. The soon-to-be $1 trillion of federal government debt, most of it incurred to pay for the costs of shutting down the economy, won’t be paid for by the current generation of taxpayers.
In 2020 many Australians revealed themselves to be willingly obedient to the arbitrary and draconian actions and decisions of politicians and public servants.
In Victoria, Parliament was suspended, basic democratic rights such as freedom of speech were abolished, and the police force was politicised.
The suggestion from much of the Melbourne media that what occurred in the state is somehow a triumph of the collective spirit of Victorians is laughable. The Victorian government presided over the biggest public policy failure in peacetime in Australian history and then required Melburnians to be locked in their homes for 23 hours a day. The mental health toll of what happened in the state will not be known for a decade.
This week the Victorian Ombudsman came to the blindingly obvious conclusion that at 4pm on July 4, when 3000 Victorians living in public housing towers were told without any notice or warning whatsoever that from that moment they were forbidden to leave their apartment, that those residents’ human rights were violated. Some of those residents were confined to their apartment for two weeks.
The cruelty of the border closures imposed by the Queensland and West Australian governments was a price voters in those states have seemingly been willing to pay.
When Queensland’s Chief Health Officer, who after all is nothing more than a public servant, admitted she ordered schools to be closed to make a political point, even though as she said “evidence showed schools were not a high-risk environment for the spread of the virus”, her remark passed largely unnoticed.
In 2020 Australians discovered that when governments sacrifice children’s education for the sake of “messaging”, to use the term the Chief Health Officer used herself, they will be rewarded with electoral success.
Not everything governments did in 2020 to manage the COVID-19 crisis was wrong and unnecessary – but the reality is that there is a lot more to regret, if not to be ashamed of, than to be proud of. When the story of 2020 is told Australians deserve the truth – not myths.