In April 2020, the Disabled People's Organisations Australia wrote an open letter to the national cabinet requesting immediate actions in response to the pandemic. They pointed out that the national conversation had become "inherently ableist - preferencing able-bodied people as the norm" while the needs of disabled people "remain largely forgotten as evidenced by the fact that [they're] rarely, if ever, mentioned in any press conference, media release or government conversation".
Two years later, the rhetoric, especially from our political leaders, has only become more callous.
For most of 2021, Prime Minister Scott Morrison spoke of opening borders, "reopening the economy", focusing on "the road ahead" and returning to "normal". It's unsurprising, then, that he has called so fervently in recent weeks for "living with COVID". Endorsed by NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet, who has claimed to prioritise business interests since gaining the role last October, this approach has seen Australia go from one of the lowest infection rates in the world to one of the highest in a fortnight.
But it's the rhetoric that is most disturbing. Both leaders have sidelined the promotion of government measures like financial support or mask mandates and QR codes in favour of lauding the market and individual responsibility.
While daily case numbers began skyrocketing over Christmas, Perrottet encouraged NSW to get on with it, dine out and visit the regions, while Morrison announced the need "to get past the heavy hand of government [and] treat Australians like adults". When tens of thousands of families spent Christmas in lockdown, NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard declared that "pretty well everybody in NSW at some point will get Omicron". The message was clear: despite the very real threat of a healthcare crisis, we must get out there and spend big so we can all return to "normal".
The Omicron variant - and the "let it rip" response - has been grim. The virus continues to ravage half the country, infecting over 2 million Australians since New Year's Day, causing food and staff shortages, and upending the supply chain. It has been particularly disastrous for those at higher risk. Over 4.4 million - or one in six - Australians have a disability, and another 22 per cent have a long-term health condition. By letting Omicron "rip", these people are left without the support they need. People With Disability Australia president Samantha Connor has called attention to the extreme risk that disabled people face due to a significant shortage of support workers, for example, leaving many with "the impossible choice of putting their lives and health at risk because they can't get a support worker, or putting their lives and health at risk by getting a support worker who may have COVID".
Morrison and Perrottet's callous pandemic response is underpinned by neoliberal ideology, as others have pointed out. Neoliberalism - or the extension of competitive markets into all facets of society - promotes free market capitalism, small government, corporate deregulation and privatisation of the public sphere. Inequality is rationalised as a virtuous reflection of the rich being rewarded for their "merit" while the poor are to blame for their own failures. The mainstreaming of neoliberal ideology since the 1980s has resulted in a deterioration of public services, such as healthcare, all in the name of "freedom". As George Monbiot explains, this is "freedom for the pike, not for the minnows".
Such thinking is evident in Morrison's "can-do capitalist" rhetoric and devotion to the private market. As cases hit record numbers despite many struggling to get tested, Morrison resisted calls to provide free RATs for all Australians, arguing that "the private market ... can now go and stock their shelves with confidence that they won't be undercut by the government". As Chris Wallace so astutely noted last month, "both men are laissez-faire when it comes to whether people live or die from COVID-19".
Morrison is also influenced by his Pentecostal faith. His "if you have a go, you get a go" mentality sits firmly within "prosperity theology", or the idea that piety leads to material wealth. Prosperity theology focuses on individual wellbeing over collective solidarity and asserts that illness is a sign of sin, faith alone can heal, and good health and financial prosperity are markers of God's favour, while the poor and the sick must take personal responsibility for their misfortunes. You'd be right in thinking this sounds eerily familiar - as Antonio Spadaro SJ notes in the Vatican's La Civilita Cattolica, prosperity theology is basically a "theological justification for economic neoliberalism".
Yet both neoliberalism and prosperity theology ultimately derive from social Darwinism, a third pillar of the pandemic response. Social Darwinists interpret the theories of evolution and natural selection as proof that the powerful are better than the weak and that success guarantees superiority. In line with the credo "survival of the fittest", they believe some lives are worth more than others and the "weak" are a burden to be sacrificed. Morrison's proposal of "staring down" the virus while acknowledging many Australians will be infected, and some will die, is a repackaging of this idea. Calling for a "return to normal" implies some groups are expendable and should be sacrificed for the good of the herd.
Social Darwinism, neoliberalism and prosperity theology are three aspects of the same ideology. They share a belief that competition is at the heart of society, some lives are more valuable than others, and success or failure rests with individual responsibility. Prioritising the economy over health during a pandemic ignores the economy's dependence on healthy people and exposes the social Darwinist logic of neoliberalism. Likewise, tying COVID-19 mortality so closely to "underlying health conditions" diminishes the tragic loss of over 1000 Australians since the start of 2022.
As a result, many vulnerable people feel they have been thrown under the bus. Jacinta Brennan, an at-risk Canberran who cares for their terminally ill mother and lives with their sister who has cancer, told me the let-it-rip attitude is "a real kick in the teeth" to vulnerable groups which has undone many of the sacrifices made over the past two years. Before the Omicron surge and after receiving their booster shots, Brennan and their family had been able to leave the house to have lunch or visit a museum, but now they can't even see their brother on his birthday. They've had to cancel medical appointments, and have started cutting their hair at home.
C Moore, a Canberran disability and health consumer advocate who is immunocompromised, has also been severely impacted by this rhetoric, disclosing that they have felt "disregarded and dehumanised by the federal government". The let-it-rip response "has been harmful for vulnerable people both in terms of actual support/services but also for our mental health and self-esteem - because it has said our lives simply are not worth as much as the potential gains for the economy".
Morrison's mantra of "personal responsibility", with clear ties to prosperity theology and neoliberal ideology, displaces blame from the government to the individual. Those who have contracted COVID are to blame for their own infection and even death, ignoring the systemic inequalities that result in some groups being more at risk. Brennan sadly notes they are "confident" they won't survive a COVID infection, but "it won't be because of 'personal' responsibility, it'll be someone else failing to act responsibly". Pushing "personal responsibility" has created a Herculean challenge for vulnerable people to remain safe. Without government support, accessible RATs and PPE, they must now weigh up self-imposed lockdowns with work, return to school and the risk of infection from support workers.
Not only have Morrison and Perrottet failed to understand the everyday realities faced by vulnerable people during a pandemic, they have continually endorsed a neoliberal rhetoric that has caused further harm while deflecting responsibility away from government. We should be angered, not reassured, when we hear the phrase "underlying conditions". The "road ahead" cannot be scattered with the bodies of those sacrificed - any "return to normal" must prioritise the safety and lives of those most at risk.
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