All posts by Binoy Kampmark

State of Pandemic Disaster: Melbourne Moves to Stage Four

MelbourneBeing in control of a sinking ship is not enviable.  Regulations previously passed have a museum feel to them, distinctly obsolete.  Directions, once dictated with confidence, lack timbre.  Coronavirus is serving as that most wily and cheeky of agents, with the most appropriate of accomplices: Homo sapiens.  Human beings are fed up, munching on conspiracy tales, wondering when a vaccine will arrive, and generally fatigued.

Globally, people are exhausted, disgusted, deluded and dying.  Somewhere in that cocktail of ill-taste are those who think they are doing their best and abide by regulations with understanding obedience.  They are told about a science that is altering. They are told that they must stay home and avoid going to work.  If they are infected, they must undertake measures of self-quarantine, irrespective of whether they have support or income.  Stiff fines and penalties follow in cases of transgression, including the shaming howls of social media junkies.

The language of political authorities in a state of desperation is ominous, paternal, judgmental.  For Daniel Andrews, premier of the Australian state of Victoria, this is starting to seem natural.  “Where you slept last night is where you’ll need to stay for the next six weeks,” he revealed in his statement on Sunday.  Modest dispensation is permitted for those “partners who live apart and for work”.  A curfew operating from 8 in the evening to 5 in the morning is now in place for six weeks.  “The only reasons to leave home during these hours will be work, medical care and caregiving.”  Exercise is confined to an hour a day within five kilometres.  People, at most, can move about as couples.

Like locusts, purchasers have been swarming the aisles, trolleys heavy, and emptying them of meat, vegetables and fruit.  The obsession with lavatory paper does not seem as pronounced this time (purchase limits have been maintained), but people are stocking up on certain food items knowing that their access is stifled by both time and geography.

What is in place is similar to the elimination regime used in New Zealand, though it is not articulated as such.  It might best be described as suppression with an eliminating spirit, a somewhat more brutal approach.  The Melbourne model is even more onerous: no curfew was imposed in New Zealand, or the compulsory wearing of face masks between March 26 and April 27, or a time limit on exercise.  But the view from across the Tasman is that merely applying such a regime to Melbourne is not sufficient.  Valuable time, suggests University of Auckland academic Siouxsie Wiles, has been lost.  The less restrictive Stage 3 level that came into force on July 8, applying only to Melbourne and the Mitchell Shire “provided too many opportunities for the virus to spread.”  From this less oppressive environment bloomed 7,000 active cases of coronavirus, 2,000 of whom are still a mystery to contact tracers.  Wiles’ suggestion?  Imposing Stage 4 restrictions across the entire state, thereby giving “Victoria the best chance of success, rather than setting it up to play an endless game of COVID-19 whack-a-mole.”

Pandemic politics is also proving to be a nasty business. On the state opposition benches, Victorian Liberal MP Tim Smith continues to hyperventilate and fantasise about the ultimate demise of the Labor premier.  “These ministers and Daniel Andrews have blood on their hands,” he spluttered on Sydney radio station 2GB.  “They have so monumentally failed the people of Victoria.”  Smith sees the crisis as an opportunity for political harvesting. “We are so sick of this man… we’re so utterly sick of him.  In the name of God, would he just go!”  On Radio 3AW, he was truculent.  “We can’t suspend democracy, accountability and the basics of a free society just because we’re dealing with a global pandemic.”

Smith’s demagogy is proving rather rich fare, even for those on his side of politics. The federal treasurer Josh Frydenberg preferred giving his party colleague a wide berth. “They’re not words that I would use,” he admitted to radio host Neil Mitchell.  “Daniel Andrews is obviously operating in a very difficult environment.”  For the moment, grievance and disagreement had to be put aside.  “My message would be, to Tim and to everybody else, let’s work together towards that one single objective, namely to reduce the number of cases and to get the virus under control.”

Frydenberg might well think so, but other party members do not.  Craig Kelly, a federal Liberal MP who can always be counted upon to dynamite the waters of moderate contentment, has mounted his own quixotic crusade against the Victorian premier.  His particular pet project of late is praising the merits of the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine, and sniping at those who disapprove and ban its use in treating coronavirus cases.  Should that disposition, he asked over the weekend, mean that Andrews face 25 years in jail?  This drew criticism from shadow health minister Chris Bowen as being positively Trumpian, but a clumsy sidestep from Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who refused to “get into what people talk about on Facebook on a day like this”.  This, from a leader keen to take Facebook to task for content extreme and extremist in nature.

The clock has been reset; the gains of the last three weeks regarding the coronavirus annulled.  Many businesses were already on the road to ruin during the previous phase of lockdowns. Many more will now assuredly perish.  Mental health will atrophy.  The death toll will continue to rise.  Other states are monitoring and adjusting their responses.  The measure of grief and concern just went up.

Crossing the Creepy Line: Google, Deception and the ACCC

Belief in Google’s promises is much like believing in virgin births.  For a company so proud of its pursuit of a transparent information environment, it has remained committedly opaque about informing customers on the way it gathers user data.  Statements from the company over the years have not been reassuring, and should foster prolonged scepticism and dread.  “Google policy,” former Google executive Eric Schmidt explained with flesh-crawling discomfort in 2010, “is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it.”  Don’t bother typing at all, he claimed. “We know where you are.  We know where you’ve been.  We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.”  Always a charmer.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is yet another regulatory body that has thrown itself into the fray, taking its second case against Google in the Australian Federal Court.  Central to this action is the claim that will come as little surprise to watchers of the Silicon Valley scene: the instance of “deception by design”.

In the words of ACCC chairman Rod Sims, Google need merely have said “if you agree to this, we’re going to combine the personally identifiable information we have on your Google account with your browsing activity on non-Google sites, if you agree.  If you agree, here’s the benefits and here are the issues, but make it really clear.”

According to the ACCC media release, Google “misled consumers when it failed to properly inform consumers, and did not gain their explicit informed consent, about its move in 2016 to start combining personal information in consumers’ Google accounts with information about those individuals’ activities on non-Google sites that used Google technology, formerly DoubleClick technology, to display ads.”

Prior to June 28, 2016, Google’s privacy policy noted that it would “not combine DoubleClick cookie information with personally identifiable information unless we have your opt-in consent”.  On June 28, 2016, that statement was erased and confined to the digital dustbin, replaced with something far more equivocal: “[d]epending on your account settings, your activity on other sites and apps may be associated with your personal information in order to improve Google’s services and the ads delivered by Google.”  The “I agree” notification the company posted that day was said to be misleading as consumers “could not have properly understood the changes Google was making nor how their data would be used”.  That discrepancy in impaired any prospect of giving informed consent.

Instead of clarifying matters, as Sims puts it, Google indulged in using adtech in a rather sneaky way, thereby connecting the activity of the user with third party sites.  “Google significantly increased the scope of information it collected about consumers on a personally identifiable basis.  This included potentially very sensitive and private information about their activities on third party websites.”  Once done, the information enabled the forensic targeting of advertisements without the expressed informed consent of consumers.  “The use of this new combined information allowed Google to increase significantly the value of its advertising products, from which it generated much higher profits.”

Google’s response has been tyrannically snooty.  The change in the company’s policies on June 28, 2016 was made clear to users by means of “prominent and easy-to-understand notifications”.  (Condescension is second nature in such pronouncements.)  Users who did not consent to the update were left with “their experience of our products and services”, according to a Google spokesman, “unchanged”.  Typically, Google generates the idea of the mythical, all-knowing user, aware of preferences, informed of choices, and fully appraised of the environment they inhabit.  It is a fiction that has lost much ballast over the years.  The consumer is as an oblivious as a date consuming a spiked drink.

The ACCC should be congratulated for its persistence, though it remains short on returns.  In October 2019, it commenced its first, and to date unresolved action, against the company, chastising it for misleading consumers in making on-screen representations about how they collected and used local data during 2017 and 2018.  The central problem in Google’s alleged conduct was how the site continued to collect and use personal data, irrespective of consumers’ wishes. As Sims explained at the time, “We are taking court action against Google because we allege that as a result of these on-screen representations Google has collected, kept and used highly sensitive and valuable personal information about consumers’ location without them making an informed choice.”  Cockily, he also called the venture “a world-first case”.

The concise statement filed last year alleges that Google “represented to users of the Android Operating System that it would not obtain data about their location, or that where such data was obtained it would only be used for the user’s own purposes.  However, Google did obtain and retain such data and used that data for Google’s purposes.”  Misleading or deceptive conduct and false or misleading representations were thereby made on the Location History function.

The confidence of the ACCC seems misplaced, bringing meek conventional weapons to a thermonuclear party. Google has the deepest pockets to draw upon, and is happy to duck and weave through the legal processes of most countries to adapt.  Even if fined, its transgressions will continue.

The first federal court case is still dawdling away.  Justice Thomas Thawley, wishing to speed things up, vacated two case management hearings scheduled later in the year.  By August 3, he has ordered the ACCC and Google to file a statement of agreed facts, and a final document on issues with which the parties are in dispute by August 7.  The proceeding will also be referred to mediation commencing on November 2, 2020.  The indiscriminate information gathering colossus that is Google will hardly be shaking.

Julian Assange’s Political Indictment: Old Wine in Older Bottles

The book of hours on Julian Assange is now being written.  But the scribes are far from original.  Repeated rituals of administrative hearings that have no common purpose other than to string things out before the axe are being enacted.  Of late, the man most commonly associated with WikiLeaks’ publication project cannot participate in any meaningful way, largely because of his frail health and the dangers posed to him by the coronavirus.  Having already made an effort to attend court proceedings in person, Assange has come across as judicial exotica, freak show fodder for Judge Vanessa Baraitser’s harsh version of Judge Judy.  He was refused an application to escape his glass commode when he could still attend in person, as permitting him to descend and consult his defence team in a court room would constitute a bail application of some risk.  This reading by the judicial head was so innovative it even puzzled the prosecutors.

What we know to date is that restrictions and shackles on Assange’s case are the order of the day.  Restricted processes that do nothing to enable him to see counsel and enable a good brief to be exercised are typical.  Most of all, the ceremonial circus that we have come to expect of British justice in the menacing shadow of US intimidation has become gloomily extensive. On July 27, that circus was given yet another act, another limping performance.  As before, the venue was the Westminster Magistrates’ Court in London.

During the proceeding, Assange did appear via video link from Belmarsh Prison, albeit it an hour late, and only at the insistence of his legal team.  The Guardian report on his presence reads like an account of a sporting engagement.  “Wearing a beige sweater and a pink shirt, Assange eventually appeared from Belmarsh prison after an earlier attempt was aborted.”

Others were alarmed.  During his call-over hearing, noted Martin Silk of the Australian Associated Press, “neither the Australian, nor his guards, were wearing face masks.  I don’t understand the reason for that given we have to wear them inside shops.”  This point was also made by Assange’s partner, Stella Moris: “Belmarsh hasn’t provided Julian with a face mask throughout this #covid crisis.  The prison guards he interacts with don’t wear them either.”  WikiLeaks supporter Juan Passarelli also felt that Assange “was having trouble following the proceedings due to the Judge and lawyers not speaking loud enough and into the microphones.”

Arrangements for the hearing for observers proved characteristically sloppy.  Freelance journalist Stefania Maurizi was unimpressed by being on the phone for two hours during which she “couldn’t understand more than 20 percent of what has been discussed.”  She was adamant that “UK authorities don’t care at all about international reporters covering” the Assange proceedings. “Dial in system is, as usual,” agreed Passarelli, “a shambles!”

The topic of discussion during this administrative hearing was what was announced by the US Department of Justice on June 24, namely the second superseding indictment.  That document proved to be a naked exercise of political overreach, adding no further charges to the already heavy complement of eighteen, seventeen of which centre on the US Espionage Act.  The scope of interest, however, was widened, notably on the issue of “hacking” and conferencing.  Assange is painted as devilish recruiter and saboteur of the international secret order, a man of the conference circuit keen to open up clandestine governments and make various reasons for doing so.  “According to the charging document, Assange and others at WikiLeaks recruited and agreed with hackers to commit computer intrusions to benefit WikiLeaks.”

Edward Fitzgerald QC, in representing Assange, fulfilled his norm, submitting that the recently revised document did little to inspire confidence in the nature of clarified justice.  “We are concerned about a fresh request being made at this stage with the potential consequences of derailing proceedings and that the US attorney-general is doing this for political reasons.” Fitzgerald reminded the court that US President Donald Trump had “described the defence case as a plot by the Democrats.”

This should have been obvious, but Baraitser’s court would have none of it.  To admit at this point that Assange is wanted for political reasons would make it that much harder to extradite him to the United States, given that bar noted in the US-UK Extradition Treaty. Whilst it was good of Fitzgerald to make this point, he should know by now that his audience is resolutely constipated and indifferent to such prodding.  Assange is to be given the sharpest, rather than the most balanced, of hearings.  Accordingly, Baraitser insisted that Fitzgerald “reserve his comments” – she, in the true tradition of such processes, had not been supplied, as yet, with the US indictment.  This made the entire presence of all the parties at the Westminster Magistrates’ not merely meaningless but decidedly absurd.

Assange’s defence team could draw some cold comfort from Baraitser’s comments that July 27 was the deadline for any further evidence to be adduced by the prosecution before the September extradition hearing.  One exception was permitted: psychiatric reports.

The current chief publisher of WikiLeaks Kristinn Hrafnsson had a few choice words for the prosecutors of Wikileaks.  “All the alleged events have been known to the prosecution for years.  It contains no new charges. What’s really happening here is that despite its decade start the prosecution are still unable to build a coherent case.”  The scrapping of the previous indictments suggested that they were “flagrantly disregarding proper process.”

Assange is facing one of the most disturbing confections put together by any state that claims itself to be free.  Should this stratagem work, the publisher will find himself facing the legal proceedings of a country that boasts of having a free press amendment but is keen on excluding him from it.  What is even more troubling is the desire to expand the tent of culpability, one that will include press outlets and those who disseminate classified information.

To the next circus instalment we go: a final call-over hearing in Westminster Magistrates’ Court on August 14, then the September 7 extradition hearing, to be held at the Central Criminal Court most of us know as the Old Bailey.  Will justice prove blind, or merely blinded?

Total Masking: Victoria’s Coronavirus Response

Melbourne — The Victorian Premier turned up for his weekend delivery of coronavirus infections, gruffly delivering the news.  It has become grim if compelling viewing: the announcement about the next spike in coronavirus infections, the next gruesome statistical spread on transmission.  On Sunday, Daniel Andrews had a pose that has become legend, a cross between plasticine figure and instructive despair.  Stern, humourless, with little to be humour filled about, his role of late is telling people what to do.  With stern command he had a message: All those in the state of Victoria, had to wear face masks.  “Most of us wouldn’t leave home without our keys, we wouldn’t leave your home without our mobile phone – you won’t be able to leave home without your mask.”

The evidentiary account did not quite square with the urgency of the message.  The largest transmissions were taking place in workplaces, not outdoor places of recreation.  But it did not matter.  This was the sledgehammer of public health, being taken to the public for a quarantine system that failed with abysmal effect.  Anyone leaving their home in the Metropolitan Melbourne and Mitchell Shire from Thursday without a mask risk fines of $200.  Not complying with such measures will also encourage the government to take further intrusive measures: limitations on shopping; confinement of exercising to a person’s local postcode.

The measure is indiscriminate, but all absolutism comes with its carved exceptions.  According to the Victorian health minister Jenny Mikakos, surgical masks, reusable cloth masks purchased or made, can be used. “Or if you don’t have one, you can use a scarf or bandana to cover your nose and mouth. Wash your hands before putting it on and after taking it off.”  Those with disabilities who struggle with putting on such face wear and those with breathing difficulties will also be spared the fining wrath of the state.

The catch-all measure casts aside criticism and critics about masking protocol.  Putting on such wear comes with its canonical tips and tried methods.  Avoiding them, and you risk doing greater harm to yourself than otherwise.  Brett Mitchell, professor of nursing at the University of Newcastle, is distinctly apocalyptic in describing the consequences for the sloppy mask wearer, and others.  “The front of the mask will ‘catch’ pathogens.  Every time you adjust or touch your masks, your hands could become contaminated.  Everything you then touch could become contaminated.”

The focus on the face mask remains problematic. It arises from a discipline that was never quite sure about its effective use in coping with pandemic transmissions.  Positions have been upended, adjusted, revised.  On June 9, the Australian deputy chief medical officer Nick Coatsworth explained that vulnerable people who had to use public transport might well use masks, but did not “think that general, healthy members of the community need to be considering wearing masks in that context.”  On June 22, Coatsworth reiterated the point in a press conference, despite “an increase in the absolute number of cases in Victoria”.  In instances of “very low levels of community transmission the value of face masks in the community is limited, and that recommendation has not changed.”

Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Professor Brett Sutton has now come around to the idea of total masking, suggesting that recent evidence showed that wearing a mask “makes a practical difference”.  Those “who wear masks and the settings in which masks are worn has shown that there’s a really significant – two thirds or more – reduction in transmission.”

Sutton would be placing much stock in such studies as those made in the journal Infectious Disease Modelling.  The authors, using model simulations based on data from the US states of New York and Washington, found that “broad adoption of even relatively ineffective face masks may meaningfully reduce community transmission of COVID-19 and decrease peak hospitalizations and deaths.”  Masks were also “found to be useful with respect to both preventing illness in healthy persons and preventing asymptomatic transmission.”

The shifting sands in the advice on face masks can also be found in the assessments of such epidemiologists as UC San Francisco’s George Rutherford and infectious disease specialist Peter Chin-Hong.  For Chin-Hong, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reversed its initial advice in insisting people mask up because of accumulating evidence.  Initially, the CDC was “preaching that the juice isn’t really worth the squeeze to have the whole population wear masks in the beginning – but that was really a reflection of not having enough testing anyway.”  This led to a “false sense of security.”  Rutherford takes a harder line.  “We should have told people to wear cloth masks right off the bat.”

In June, the World Health Organization also reversed its position on face coverings, premised on the basis that encouraging such wear would deprive health workers of essential safety equipment while encouraging a false sense of security.  As the body’s director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus observed, “in light of evolving evidence, the WHO advises that governments should encourage the general public to wear masks where there is widespread transmission and physical distancing is difficult, such as on public transport, in shops or in other confined or crowded environments.”

The trend towards recommending and even mandating masks despite an initial opposition to that policy was already taking place in April.  France’s Académie Nationale de Médecine (Academy of Medicine) took the position that donning such facial wear should be compulsory for outings during and after the lockdown.  Physician turned television personality Marina Carrère d’Encausse did her little bit to sabotage trust in public health expertise by suggesting that the official line against masks was a “lie” initially told “for a good cause”: ensuring that health care workers had adequate supply.

In all of this, it is hard to avoid the feeling that millions of people have become part of an enormous, live experiment in public health, a trial-by-error approach that has already proven to be very costly.  Science is marked by the operation of the falsifiable hypothesis; but with each falsification, notably in the field of epidemiology and disease, can come staggering loss.  The “we are all in this together” message is starting to look a bit tatty.

Vulgar Militarism: Expanding the Australian War Memorial

It was a decision both rash and indulgent.  In November 2018, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, after being nudged incessantly by then Australian War Memorial director Brendan Nelson, committed to a redevelopment project intended to double the exhibition space in Campbell.  The amount for the project would be just shy of a half-billion dollars and would be, Nelson claimed with eye-brow raising plausibility, an exercise of therapy for veterans and their families “coming to terms with what they’ve done for us and the impact [war] has had on them.”

Voices in opposition grew, many not exactly fitting the description of pinko defeatist types.  Former Department of Defence secretary Paul Barrett, author Thomas Keneally and eighty-one others appended their signatures to an open letter claiming that the Memorial was “being given preference over other national institutions, and the money could be better spent.”  Nelson’s aims of giving more prominence to supposedly “forgotten” conflicts while fostering a program of healing veterans were questionable aims: the former had to be seen in terms of proportionality and perspective; the latter was the purview of Defence and Veterans’ Affairs.  $350 million had already been disgorged on the occasion of the Anzac Centenary and the Sir John Monash Centre in France.  “Should further money be spent on these extensions rather than on other needy cultural institutions or direct benefits to veterans and their families?”

On one level, the Memorial expansion project was merely typical of the sorts of fripperies wars encourage.  Commemorations and building programs reflecting on the effects of war often have the unintended effect of glorifying the very thing they are meant to eschew.  To the victor go the spoils and the celebrations.  Besides, good narratives to justify killing or being killed are always needed.

Australians generally do not regard themselves as warlike, yet their leaders have deployed them in every major conflict since the late nineteenth century.  Such decisions have often been as emotive as they have been strategic, the former often taking precedence over the latter.  A survey of these engagements reveal the shedding of blood across virtually every continent on the planet.  Be it Britannia or the US imperium, Australian soldiers will do the bidding of others, and happily so.  Resentment, much as that shown to the Australian War Memorial redevelopment, will be dismissed as the ranting of “special interest groups”, traitors or closet fifth columnists.

Before the Parliamentary standing committee on public works on July 14, the egg heads were particularly testy, with the testiness taking various forms.  Former memorial directors Brendon Kelson and Major General Steve Gower both felt slighted at having been left off the drinks list.  That did not stop Kelson from making the point that the expansion was distinctly vulgar.  “The Australian War Memorial is a poignant tribute to those who died on, or as a result of, active service in the nation’s wars.”  The AWM was “dedicated to their commemoration and a place to pause and reflect on the costs of war, a national icon, unique among the world’s great monuments.”

It did not take long for the narrative of the coronavirus to find its way into the hearings.  It seeps, cloys and will out.  Former AWM principal historian Peter Stanley found Nelson’s argument on expanding the memorial in the name of healing as almost laughable, “the museum equivalent … of hydroxychloroquine.” There had been “no demonstrable therapeutic benefit in traumatised veterans visiting a display of their former weapons vehicles or aircraft”.  Such an argument supplied a “meretricious” attraction, but was unsustainable given the findings of clinical studies.

The medical opposition was also shored up by Margaret Beavis, secretary of the Medical Association for Prevention of War.  The literature on veterans’ mental illness had “no reference to memorial-based therapy”.  The notion of such healing derived “from wishful thinking” and untested anecdotes.

Architect and town planner Roger Pegrum had concerns about the way the expansion was going to be implemented in terms of structural and symbolic integrity.  The character of the building would be affected by the bombastic nature of the project. The memorial was merely meant to be a “simple statement of sacrifice and valour” intended to house small objects to best understand why Australians served in conflict.  “If built as drawn, it is an irreversible and complete change to the memorial”.

The current AWM director Matt Anderson tried to buck the trend in the specialist literature on trauma and healing using a technique politicians are often receptive to:  the scientifically untested anecdote.  He had been “told by veterans and their clinicians” that such acts as signing the Tarin Kowt wall for Australians who had served in Afghanistan had “positive mental health benefits”.  Susan Neuhaus, a longstanding member of the AWM council, similarly voiced the therapeutic line.   She suggested the need for larger displays, illuminating other areas of conflict Australians had perished in.  There was still, she argued, a “fracture line separating the worthy dead and the unworthy dead”.

The Australian War Memorial Council chair, Kerry Stokes, was characteristically dismissive.  Expanding war memorials was exactly what those involved in war memorials ought to do.  If the public want to see weapons, let them.  Stokes also sniffed the sort of hypocrisy that accretes over time.  “Only after the final designs came out did the special interest groups seem to gather their momentum.”  Most of them, in any case, were based in Canberra; most Australians seemed to relish the prospect of war as glory.  “The number of people who claim not to have been involved is very small.”

Stokes may have a point.  War, packed with its uniforms and lethal toys, is vulgar.  This project, should it be envisaged in the form Nelson intended it, promises to be the most vulgar of all.  Commemorative solemnity has its role, but Australia’s ruling classes have little intention to pause and reflect about the losses the country has either endured or inflicted over the short existence of the Commonwealth.  With money being poured into a delusionary defence budget to fight fictional enemies, the distasteful cinematic joke of healing veterans by reminding them of their weapons of death and destruction seems aptly grotesque.

Mosques, Museums and Politics: The Fate of Hagia Sophia

When the caustic Evelyn Waugh visited the majestic sixth century creation of Emperor Justinian, one subsequently enlarged, enriched and encrusted by various rulers, he felt underwhelmed.  “‘Agia’ will always win the day for one,” he wrote of Istanbul’s holiest of holies, Hagia Sophia, in 1930. “A more recondite snobbism is to say ‘Aya Sofia’, but except in a very sophisticated circle, who will probably not need guidance in the matter at all, this is liable to suspicion as a mere mispronunciation.”

In a somewhat cool reaction, Waugh struggled to reconcile the pop mythology, at that point elevated by celebratory brochure and tourist packages, with the sight of it. “We saw Agia Sophia, a majestic shell full of vile Turkish fripperies, whose whole architectural rectitude has been fatally disturbed by the reorientation of the mihrab.”

Such snobbery could not impeach the historical pedigree of Hagia Sophia.  Seat of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, religious edifice of the Byzantine Empire, it became a mosque once Constantinople was successfully captured by the Ottoman forces of Mehmet II in 1453, officially terminating the vestigial remains of the Eastern Roman Empire.  This was a function the structure served till 1934, when the secularist ruler Mustafa Kemal Atatürk ordered its conversion to a museum.  Doing so served to secularize and neutralise a site of religious jostling.

That said, the 1934 decision could hardly be seen as a mark of pure benevolence.  It was a year when Turkification policies were being applied with gusto, best characterised by Settlement Law of 1934 (Law No. 2510).  It was an instrument designed to resettle (or not, in some cases) populations within the state into three zones with a focus on concentrating Turkish populations in some areas, while relocating and resettling populations “whose assimilation into Turkish culture is desired.”

That same year, pogroms against Jews in Eastern Thrace also took place to resolve, in the evocatively sinister words of İbrahim Tali, inspector general of Thrace, the “Jewish problem”.  The Jews, he argued, had not Turkified themselves with sufficient rigour.  They were also economically advantaged while disadvantaging Muslims in lending them money at high rates of interest.

The museum status of the edifice has had its fierce detractors.  The poet Necip Fazil Kisakürek described it in 1965 as “a sarcophagus in which Islam is buried.”  Under the rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Hagia Sophia has been sporadically threatened with a change of status.  In 2004, the Turkish Union of Permanent Vakifs of Historical Monuments and Environment issued a plea to the government to change the standing of the building.  It was politely ignored.  In 2005, the Union petitioned the country’s highest administrative court, the Council of State, to return Hagia Sophia back to its standing as a mosque.   Ever persistent, that same body sought relief in the Constitutional Court, an application that was rejected in 2018.

In November 2013, deputy prime minister Bülent Arinç expressed the view that the approach of treating former mosques as museums was due for revision.  He did so like a mystic, claiming that the structure was speaking to the Turkish state in mournful longing.  “We look at this forlorn Hagia Sophia and pray to Allah that the days when it smiles on us are near.”  Despite stirring up a fuss with the secularists and irate voices in Greece at the time, he had reason to be confident, given the abolition of the museum status of the Hagia Sophia in both İznik and Trabzon.  In both cases, the General Directorate of Pious Foundations, overseen by Arinç, were active and eventually successful.

The effort to de-museum Hagia Sophia have tended to receive billowing encouragement with undesired remarks in foreign quarters about Turkish policies, past and present.  Demagoguery is ever on the permanent hunt for excuses.  In 2015, Pope Francis chose April to use a word illegal in Turkish law to describe the treatment by Ottoman forces of Armenians a century prior.  The deportations, massacres and rapes constituted, in an address by the Pope at a Mass in the Armenian Catholic rite at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, “the first genocide of the 20th century”.  To conceal or deny “evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it.”

The remarks had their shaking effect in Ankara.  Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu dismissed the statement, “which is far from the legal and historical reality”.  It was not for religious authorities “to incite resentment and hatred with baseless allegations.”  Domestically, eyes turned to the status of Hagia Sophia.  The mufti of Ankara, Mefail Hızlı, saw a change as imminent.  “Frankly, I believe that the pope’s remarks will only accelerate the process for Hagia Sophia to be reopened for [Muslim] worship.”  That same month, the first recitation of the Quran for 85 years was made by Ali Tel, imam of the Ahmet Hamdi Akseki Mosque in Ankara.

The wheels were in motion and reached a terminus with the conclusion by the Council of State that “the settlement deed allocated it as a mosque and its use outside this character is not possible legally.”  The 1934 decision ending the building’s “use as a mosque and defined it as museum did not comply with laws.”  A delighted Erdoğan rushed off the decree to the state’s religious affairs directorate enabling the reopening of the structure as a mosque.  The decree was celebrated by AK members in parliament.

As with many sites of religious contestation, conquest comes with grievance and hot tears of indignation.  The Russian Orthodox Church, through spokesman Vladimir Legoida, expressed the view that “millions of Christians had not been heard.”  The “need for extreme delicacy in this matter were ignored.”  UNESCO’s World Health Committee is planning to review the status of Hagia Sophia, claiming it “regrettable that the Turkish decision was not the subject of dialog or notification beforehand”.

Erdoğan’s concerns lie elsewhere.  He has had little truck with ecumenical politics and practises, battering down the secular divides within his country.  His agenda is that of an up-ended Attatürk.  As Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy remarks, “Just as Attatürk ‘un-mosqued’ Hagia Sophia 86 years ago, and gave it museum status to underline his secularist revolution, Erdoğan is remaking it a mosque to underline his religious revolution.”  The ancient monument of emperors and sultans promises to be a stage of much self-promotion, with the court decision coming in time for prayers to take place on July 15, the date marking the failed coup attempt.

To keep matters interesting, the Turkish president is remaining oblique on what will happen to the tourist trade.  (Last year, 3.7 million ventured to the edifice.)  Spokesman İbrahim Kalın has told the Turkish news agency Anadolu that, “Opening up Hagia Sophia to worship won’t keep local or foreign tourists from visiting the site.”  Capitalism and finance are often near neighbours of holiness and spirituality.

Spiteful Authority: Malaysia Goes for the Journalists

Malaysia’s record on letting journalists be is a blotted one.  This month, authorities have been kept busy intimidating the independent news outlet Malaysiakini, with a seven-member federal court panel agreeing to hear contempt proceedings against its editor-in-chief Steven Gan.  Charged under section 114A of the Evidence Act, Gan and his outlet are said to have permitted the publication of over five reader comments critical of the judiciary.

The Committee to Protect Journalists senior Southeast Asia representative Shawn Crispin urges Malaysian prosecutors to “drop the bogus contempt of court charges pending against Steven Gan and stop using legal threats to intimidate the media.”  In Crispin’s pertinent view, “Pursuing an independent news outlet over comments from random internet users reeks of a witch hunt and sends a worrying signal about the state of press freedom under Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s new government.”

Malaysia is facing a season of official pettiness and persecutions.  Boo Su-Lyn, editor of the health news portal CodeBlue, is being investigated under the Penal Code and Official Secrets Act for publishing the findings of an investigation into a fire at the Hospital Sultanah Aminah in 2016 that left six dead.  Her claim is that the report in question had been declassified.

Former ministers have also attracted official attention, including the former women, family and community development minister, Hannah Yeoh.  The MP attracted the interest of authorities after being targeted for supposedly disseminating a remark that the government’s deputy minister of women and family development had been less than keen to deal with child marriage.  The remark, she argues, was falsely attributed to her.

The judicial calendar may well have other additions if the investigation into the work of six journalists working for Al Jazeera sufficiently exercises state prosecutors.  The six journalists, of whom five are Australian, are being investigated on possible charges of sedition and defamation.  Breaches of the country’s Communications and Multimedia Act are also being considered in the possible charge sheet.

The journalists in question are part of Al Jazeera’s 101 East program, which took interest in Malaysia’s treatment of undocumented migrant workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.  The crew had much to work on.  The “movement of control order”, implemented in response to the pandemic, has been particularly brutal towards the undocumented who clean and slop the underbelly of the state.

In May, Malaysian authorities executed four immigration crackdowns and arrested over 2,000 undocumented migrants.  Among them were asylum-seekers and 98 children.  This took place despite the promise by authorities on March 27 that they would not “focus on their documents… the most extreme case that could happen is a 14-day quarantine COVID19.  That is all.”  By May, the National Police Inspector-General Abdul Hamid Bador had removed the gloves and any sense of pretence, readying his forces to arrest and detain any undocumented residents supposedly in breach of the partial lockdown.  “We cannot allow them to move freely while the MCO is still in progress as it will be difficult for us to track them down if they leave the identified locations.”

The policy has been astonishingly self-defeating.  Concentrating such individuals in confined quarters has had the effect of encouraging the spread of COVID-19.  On May 26, Noor Hisham Abdullah, director-general of the Ministry of Health, was grave in warning.  “We have identified detention centres as a high-risk area.”  On May 22, 35 cases were identified at a detention centre.  Within four days, the number had bulked to 227 across three sites.  By May 31, the number had increased to 410 across four sites.

The work of Al Jazeera’s six journalists yielded up Locked Up in Malaysia’s Lockdown, featuring much of what we already know. Al Jazeera does not mince its words introducing it.  “Now, undocumented foreign workers are scared for their future.  Out of work and forced to live in cramped conditions, some are starving and dependent on charities to survive.”  The Malaysian government may have successfully checked the spread of the coronavirus but had “also put some of the poorest areas of Kuala Lumpur behind barbed wire – testing and fingerprinting migrants, and arresting anyone without valid documents.”

The short production raised the hackles of the political establishment, who insist that any tolerable standard of journalism must accord with government policy.  Malaysia’s Defence Minister Ismail Saabri insists that Al Jazeera “apologise to all Malaysians”.  “As international media, we expect Al Jazeera to have high ethics.  But, the report does not seem to contain clear facts and is full of baseless accusations.”  The immigration department’s director general has warned that foreigners making “inaccurate statements aimed at sullying the country” could have visas and work passes revoked.  The hunt for Md Rayhan Kabir, one of the migrants interviewed in the report, has also commenced pursuant to the country’s Immigration Act.

The six staff members were duly asked to present themselves at the Bukit Aman federal police headquarters on Friday.  Al Jazeera’s statement, released on Thursday, affirmed that it stood by “the professionalism, quality and impartiality of its journalism,” warning of “serious concerns about developments that have occurred in Malaysia since the broadcast of the documentary”.  The network also noted how its staff had been “targeted by sustained online abuse, including death threats and disclosure of their personal details over social media.”  Repeated attempts to obtain the government view on the topics covered in the report failed due the refusal to grant interviews.

The obvious is often the most infuriating for authoritarian states, even amateurish ones with airs.  While Malaysia’s abuse of journalists has some way to go before it keeps company with violence of the Philippines, it is making a spiteful effort to climb the charts.  An air of intimidation has set in.

The deep irony in all of this is that the five Australians of the Al Jazeera outfit can count on little genuine assistance from the land of their citizenship.  The Australian government has shown itself to be rather keen in targeting the fourth estate for publishing material it deems in breach of national security legislation.  Dan Oakes of the ABC awaits the deliberations of the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions over a brief by the Australian Federal Police for his role in publishing the Afghan Files.

Any potential prosecution will need final approval of the Australian Attorney General, Christian Porter, who nurses a faux belief in the merits of the free press and his role as its defender.  In Australia, secret trials and investigating journalists for exposing state abuses is all the rage.  The fox, in the form of Porter, is guarding the hen house.  Malaysia’s heavy handed authorities, for that reason, have nothing to trouble themselves over.

The Hypocrisies of Recognition: The Supreme Court, Native Americans and the McGirt Case

The Supreme Court of the United States has barely had time to gather its collective breath this last few days.  Among its decisions, including those dealing with President Donald Trump’s financial records, was that of McGirt v Oklahoma. The case furnishes a detailed discussion on the extent Native American self-governance survived the assaults of the US Congress and the creation of the State of Oklahoma in 1907.

The Creek (Muscogee) Reservation itself arose from circumstances of predation and cruelty.  Forcibly relocated from Georgia and Alabama, “the Creek nation,” wrote Justice Neil Gorsuch, “received reassurances that their new lands in the West would be secure forever.  In ceding their land East of the Mississippi River, a pledge by the 1832 treaty was made that the “Creek country west of the Mississippi shall be solemnly guaranteed to the Creek Indians.”

By the narrowest of decisions, the court found 5-4 against the state of Oklahoma.  The state authorities had claimed that the Creek Reservation did not survive the “allotment era” and had been “disestablished”.  Jimcy McGirt, convicted by an Oklahoman state court of three sexual offences that had taken place on the Creek Nation Reservation in the north-eastern part of the state, had claimed otherwise.  As a member of the Seminole Nation, he submitted in post-conviction proceedings that the State lacked jurisdiction to prosecute him.  The relevant statute was the federal Major Crimes Act, which provided that, within “the Indian country”, any Indian committing certain offences “shall be subject to the same law and penalties as all other persons committing any of [those] offenses, within the exclusive jurisdiction of the United States”.  His initial effort to seek a new trial in federal court failed, leading to the Supreme Court petition.

That period of central government nastiness in the late nineteenth century known as the “allotment era” had a purpose common to other frontier societies: the assimilation of the native intransigents through means designed to wean them off their traditional customs.  As the zealous Captain Richard Pratt opined in 1892, the United States needed to “kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”  Enough with the physical massacres; what was needed was a concerted effort to Americanize and civilise, a form of spiritual genocide.  Pratt envisaged doing so through education, including the US Training and Industrial School he founded in 1879 at Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania.  Out with the “savage” habits: tribal language, identity and long hair; in with the new American, albeit a stunted one with his nerves extracted.  Such education was to be rudimentary or, in the words of President Teddy Roosevelt, “very, very limited.”

In terms of property, the allotment era was trumpeted by the passage of the Dawes Act of 1887, also known as the General Allotment Act.  This entailed breaking up tribally owned reservations and allocating them to individual households, though the process came with a nasty catch: such divided land would initially be held in trust; Native American households would have to prove their competence in exercising full “fee simple” property rights.  The result, in many instances, was also the selling of Indian land to non-Indian purchasers.

In his address to Congress in 1901, Roosevelt gave his boisterous assessment of the statute.  “The General Allotment Act is a mighty pulverizing engine to break up the tribal mass.  It acts directly upon the family and the individual.” The Act had enabled sixty thousand Indians to become US citizens.  It was now essential, Roosevelt suggested, to “break up the tribal funds, doing for them what allotment does for tribal lands; that is, they should be divided into individual holdings.”

The majority, ruling in favour of McGirt, affirmed that the land in question remains a reservation that gives the federal government exclusive jurisdiction over crimes committed on it.  In doing so, the court also confirmed the continuing existence of a reservation stretching some 19 million acres including eight counties and most of Tulsa.

In their skirt through the legislative record, the majority found no statute “evincing anything like the ‘present and total surrender of all tribal interests’.”  The transfer of individual plots, whether to Native Americans or others, “did not disestablish the reservation”.   A body of statutes and treaties over time confirmed the legal standing of the Creek Reservation.  The majority rebuked the argument that States had claimed powers “to reduce federal reservations within their borders”.  To imagine such a power would enable States to “encroach on the tribal boundaries or legal rights Congress provided, and, with enough time and patience, nullify the promises made in the name of the United States.”  Despite various efforts by Congress to intrude upon Creek self-governance, these were not sufficient to suggest disestablishment.  “Oklahoma and the dissent have cited no case in which this Court has found a reservation disestablished without first concluding that a statute first required that result.”

Chief Justice John Roberts, who managed to avoid being in the majority in all 5-4 court decisions this term, was glum about the consequences.  The decision was a torch taken to state governance.  “Across the vast area, the State’s ability to prosecute serious crimes will be hobbled and decades of past convictions could well be thrown out.  On top of that, the Court has profoundly destabilized the governance of eastern Oklahoma.”  The majority judgement had also created “significant uncertainty for the State’s continuing authority over any area that touches Indian affairs, ranging from zoning and taxation to family and environmental law.”

Roberts further bristled at the idea that Congress needed to be wordily explicit in terminating a reservation, having “made abundantly clear its intent to disestablish the Creek territory”.  Just look at the historical record, the chief justice urged.  Congress “supplanted the Creek legal system with a legal code and court system that applied equally to Indians and non-Indians.”  It “systematically dismantled the governmental authority of the Creek Nation, targeting all three branches.”  It “destroyed the foundation of sovereignty by stripping the Creek Nation of its territory.”

Justice Gorsuch, in his judgment for the majority, had little time for such worries.  To suggest an army of inmates rushing to seek new trials in federal courts was “admittedly speculative, because many defendants may choose to finish their state sentences rather than risk prosecution in federal court where sentences can be graver”.  Besides, no actual intention to terminate the legal standing of the Creek Reservation could ever be found.

In all the excitement, it would have been easy to have overlooked the predecessor case of Sharp v Murphy, in which the court heard argument on the same question as that of McGirt.  The case stalled in its tracks in 2018 as Gorsuch had recused himself, having served on the 10th circuit of the US Circuit Court of Appeals, comprising Oklahoma.  Instead of going through re-arguments there, Sharp was restored to this calendar term and duly decided in favour of the inmate Patrick Murphy “for the reasons stated in” McGirt.  Murphy had also committed his crime within the boundaries of the Creek Nation.

Having anticipated the decision, somewhat, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter, along with all Five Tribes affected by the decision, including the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Seminole Nations, issued a statement committing the parties “to ensuring that Jimcy McGirt, Patrick Murphy, and all other offenders face justice for crimes for which they are accused.  We have a shared commitment to maintaining public safety and long-term economic prosperity for the Nations and Oklahoma.”

The decision of McGirt masks the crude realities of institutional, colonial violence.  It perpetuates an illusion, a discredited understanding between Native American nations and the US federal government.  That was the lingering “promise”, as Gorsuch claims, “[o]n the far end of the Trail of Tears”, one that was never kept.  Chief Justice Roberts was very much on to it.  In letting the cat out of the bag on Native American-Indian relations, he suggested that Congress had acted in a manner entirely inconsistent with preserving any semblance of Creek sovereignty.  We are left with the Native American Indian in confused legal dress, trampled, abused, deceived by history but with only a symbolic heartbeat.

The Coronavirus Seal: Victoria’s Borders Close

The state of Victoria is being sealed off from the rest of Australia.  On Tuesday, at 11.59pm, the border with New South Wales will be shut with publicised resoluteness.  It is happening at the insistence of politicians across the country with a panicked urge.  On the way are reminders about the miracle that was federation in 1901.  That a Commonwealth was ever formed from the Britannic nuts and bolts of an invasive penal settlement was remarkable, given the otherwise innate hostilities, not to mention competitiveness, the states had shown to each other.

The last time this happened was a touch over a century ago, when the borders were sealed in a response to the ravages of pneumonic influenza, inaccurately named Spanish flu.  The venture is going to be heavily policed.  Human personnel, drones and surveillance equipment will be deployed.  55 ground crossings including four major highways, 33 bridges, two waterways, various numbers of train stations and airports will be subjects of interest.  Even with this, there is scepticism.  Viruses will find their carriers and unwitting accomplices, however impressive the policing effort.

The closure, according to Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, will be “enforced on the New South Wales side, so as not to be a drain on resources that are very focused on fighting the virus right now across our state.”  Residents in border towns must apply for permits for movement between the states.  As the ABC describes it, “Only permit holders, emergency services workers, freight drivers and returning travellers will be able to cross into New South Wales from Victoria.”  The penalties for breaching such rules are severe: $11,000 in fines or six months in jail.  Businesses on the border face ruin and considerable opacity in terms of regulations.

While that is happening, 3,000 residents in Flemington and North Melbourne continue their quarantine in the public housing towers that have been designated as COVID-19 hotspots.  Promises of assistance made by Andrews have yet to materialise in any meaningful way.  Mental health practitioners and social workers seem few and far between.  The government food supplies remain spectral.  That said, FareShare, despite being a charity, claims to have provided, at the prompting of the Department of Health and Human Services, Sunday roasts, vegetarian casseroles and family pies, supplemented by 3,500 quiches and 1,600 sausage rolls.  The charity has set up, according to The Advocate, “an emergency cool room packed with thousands of nutritious, cooked meals” in North Melbourne, though it is hard to see how these “cater to a range of cultural and dietary preferences”.

The feeling that “prison food” is being supplied to “inmates” is unmistakable, though even that has been in short supply.  As Nine News reported with much fanfare, “A daughter and her elderly mother trapped in Melbourne’s public housing lockdown have broken down in tears, detailing how they have only been given four sausage rolls to eat in more than 48 hours.”  But no matter: this has provided charities such as FareShare with a few good publicity snaps.  The show of false remedies must go on.

While this is taking place, the premier remains convinced that food and toys are making their way to the residents.  “This is a massive task and the message to everybody in the towers… (is)those staff – thousands of them – are doing the very, very best they can and they will continue to do everything they can to support those who are impacted by this lockdown.”

One thing is distinctly not in short supply.  The police, some 500 of them, are out in force on all nine estates.  These armed officers have been shown to be as ill-informed as the residents.  Communal spaces continue being used; movement through the buildings is permitted.  The prospects of mass infection through the tenements seems likely.  Even the healthy stand condemned.

Residents are mouldering in desperation.  Papers with the pleas of “Treat us as Humans: Not Caged Animals” have been pasted against windows.  Malevolent attitudes, many traditionally prejudiced against public housing residents, have been given a good airing.  To that have come good dollops of racial presumption.  It all looks fitting for such critics: the darkies, the ill, the derelict, being fenced by police, monitored less for their safety than the greater good of society.  The diseased, as with epidemics in history, will be walled up.

One of Australia’s most conspicuous reactionaries, One Nation leader and Senator Pauline Hanson, spoke approvingly of such measures.  Never one to shy away from the race card and its impurities, she suggested that the residents in the nine towers were “drug addicts” and “alcoholics”, which was not helped by the fact that they could not speak English.  Even this was a bit much for the good people of Channel Nine’s Today Show.  “The Today Show has advised Pauline Hanson,” came a statement from Nine’s Director of News and Current Affairs Darren Wick, “that she will no longer be appearing on our programme as a regular contributor.”  Perhaps hypocrisy is less palatable in the morning.

The spectacles unfolding in North Melbourne, Flemington and parts of the city convey an ugliness that has become normalised in certain countries.  Public health is not merely a matter for doctors and health practitioners but truncheons.  Another sentiment is also detectable: a certain delight at Victoria being made whipping boy and pariah of the states.  All this shows the power a virus can wield.  To coronavirus go the spoils.

Spiked Concerns: The Melbourne Coronavirus Lockdown

It all looked like it was going so well for Australia and Victoria, in particular.  They could point to the mishandling of the Ruby Princess, a cruise ship that docked in Sydney and whose passengers disembarked chocked with coronavirus, precipitating 700 cases and some 21 deaths across the country.  It had, till now, been the single most contagious incident in the COVID-19 annals of the antipodes.  Victorians could hold their heads hubristically high.

Then, the dreaded spike returned.  Before journalists had time to file, or arm chair warriors time to muster their thoughts, the coronavirus beast had gotten away from an Australian state that had prided itself in reining in numbers and playing the game of suppression.  Victoria’s quarantine regime was seemingly in tatters; COVID-19 had found its way through the channels of community transmission.

Now, nine public housing towers in Flemington and North Melbourne with some 3,000 residents have gone into “complete lockdown”.  Residents are not permitted to leave their abodes for five days.  The police are holding the fort.

The hindsight wizards are all coming out from under the covers, ignoring that old wisdom that pandemic policy is an unruly, fickle thing.  The Andrews government has been accused of incompetence and hubris.  Greg Sheridan of the Murdoch stable of reactionary politics was jubilant at the failings of the premier.  “Daniel Andrews is now clearly the worst-performing, most unsuccessful premier or territory leader in Australia in managing the COVID-19 outbreak, despite being more authoritarian.”  Why, asked Fairfax press correspondent Peter Hartcher on Sunday, did Andrews not respect the plague lessons of old?

A host of problems have surfaced to pull the carpet from under the state government.  Central and defective is the issue of the quarantine regime itself, one that seems to have fallen into a state of ruin.  With a rise in COVID-19 infections in late June, Andrews found himself scratching his confused head.  There were claims that the new outbreak might be traced to an errant cigarette lighter used by staff working in hotel quarantine.  They had kept their distance, claimed the premier “but sharing a lighter between each other”.  There were also “carpooling arrangements between staff, which mean they were in closer contact than we would like.”  A terrible understatement.

It did not take long for the critics to train their interest in the very idea of having security guards supervising the entire program.  Recruits with spotty levels of training, much of it horrendously so, were used to supervise the quarantined guests.  And it showed.  Various transgressions and malpractices took place.  Some security personnel had sexual congress with their guarded quarry, a point that delighted such outlets as the Herald Sun.  The number of guards listed on duty at any one time was inflated as part of an effort to charge more for fewer services.  Personal protective equipment was worn for extensive periods of time without change, and loose supervision meant that quarantined families could still visit each other for recreational pursuits.  Such practices were replicated at various hotels, leading to a spurring on of the contagion.

There have also been increasing numbers of returning travellers and residents who have refused to be tested for coronavirus.  In the rage that has followed, sinister motives and a good deal of malice have been imputed.  Conspiracy theories were underlined.  As Jane Williams and Bridget Haire suggest in The Conversation, such testing never yields “neutral” information.  “People may refuse medical testing (if they have symptoms) or screening (if no symptoms) of any type because they want to avoid the consequences of a positive result.”   Casual workers, for instance, face the perils of few if any sick days.  Jobs can be lost during the course of quarantine.

The Andrews government now faces the coarsest of options, none of them palatable, few of them desirable.  To send armed police to effectively detain a vulnerable population, many immigrants, many with a less than sympathetic disposition to the boys and girls in blue, may not be the most politic of moves.  In this sense, the premier has his hands tied.  Saddled with the moniker “Red Dan” and now having the spectre of the Wuhan experiment of bordering up buildings manifest itself in Melbourne, risk scuppering any credible efforts.  In that most vulgar of terms, Andrews is wedged.  Individuals like Sheridan howl about the “politburo” style of the Victorian premier but would equally object to firm measures if they were not taken.

The reaction from residents in the public housing towers is predictably rattled.  Sudanese national Awatif Taha, who has been a resident in the Flemington public housing flats for 18 years with her husband, paints a troubling scene of crowded tenement spaces, insufficient government services and poor channels of information.  Community leaders were not enlisted in the cause.  “So how do I feel about what happened on Saturday, with us being told we would not be allowed to leave our units for at least five days?  I feel really good, but it was a shock.  I don’t know why they didn’t talk to us before Saturday.”

Sensitivity is being reiterated, but this is becoming a trope on a loop.  Articulating it somehow makes it manifest, but there is no sense yet how each resident in these towers will be given the tender reassurance and compassionate hand when they are also being considered the problem.  The premier has announced a scheme of hardship payments and around the clock support (food, medical and other services).  But these are people being held against their will, for their own good, and they are also being tarnished in the endeavour.  They are also being detained in facilities that are themselves conducive to infection.  As acting Australian Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly describes it, such buildings “are vertical cruise ships, in a way.”  Pandemics, as with other destructive phenomena, fall unevenly upon populations.

There is also a fear that such selective approaches are merely delaying the inevitable, by which time the entire state will find itself returning to the severest of restrictions.  The Victorian government has already designated lockdown restrictions for those in “restricted postcodes“, but this has merely re-enforced perceptions of the suburban unwashed misbehaving in the margins while teasing out fears of a more punitive approach.  The “militarisation and policing crackdown,” warns advocacy coordinator of the Police Accountability Project Daniel Nguyen, “will disproportionately impact communities already weary of being targeted and exacerbate their sense of isolation during this lockdown.”  The prevalent perception is harsh: Stay there, you nasty lot, in the Bantustans of Broadmeadows and Keilor Downs.

The opposition, resoundingly trounced at the last state election, is doing what any aggrieved loser does: find faults in the government with fanatical dedication.  They have had much to play with of late.  But the insistence on using private contractors to deal with public health problems is hardly unique to the current Andrews government.  Unfortunately, and possibly perilously for the premier, the uniformed personnel were not there where they might have mattered most.