Lockdown opponents took to the streets of Sydney’s CBD in late July, in defiance of public health orders, to protest the severity of COVID restrictions imposed by the New South Wales (NSW) government. Violence broke out, resulting in numerous injuries and many arrests.
NSW Police Commissioner, Mick Fuller, was quick to brand those who attended the Sydney rally as “anarchists” because they flagrantly flouted health restrictions. Of course, there may have been some who really did seek abolition of all government and to provoke revolution to turn society into a voluntary cooperative … but they were almost certainly a minority.
Similar protests took place in Melbourne as part of the World Wide Rally for Freedom. The Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews quickly dismissed people fighting for their livelihoods as merely “selfish,” while for NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, the protests—which she said demonstrated “utter contempt for their fellow citizens”—provoked her “disgust.”
Yet the aim of the Sydney rally was surely not to overthrow the Berejiklian government but to protest the harshness of the lockdown which has confined people to their homes and neighbourhoods, deprived children of their schooling, and threatened many—such as shop owners and self-employed tradies—with catastrophic loss of income and employment.
And social tensions hidden beneath the veil of normal life will continue to erupt, particularly now that the tough lockdown in NSW will continue until at least the end of August—and possibly longer. The severity of the restrictions on movement, work, and free association between families, friends, and colleagues are now biting the people of NSW very hard.
Further, neither political leaders nor the police are well disposed to those who flout—or even question—their authority.
Yet, the COVID crisis engulfing NSW has, so far, defied efforts by the government to contain the rapid spread of the Delta variant utilizing forced separation, forced unemployment, and severe restrictions on freedom of movement.
With a large swathe of businesses forced to close, economic burdens are beginning to mount as many household incomes simply dry up.
But the financial strain imposed by the failure of businesses and rising unemployment is only part of the problem. There is an emotional toll taken by the isolation mandated by the lockdown on the very fabric that holds society together and it threatens to tear at this fabric.
Essentially the lockdowns target the heart of our civil society—our community— that is represented by a network of voluntary associations, beginning with the family, but which includes community organisations, religious institutions, charities, sports teams, and schools.
Each plays a role in building civic trust, forging bonds between individuals, and holding those wielding political power to account.
However defensible public health orders may be, government-imposed lockdowns are straining these bonds and are weakening the obligations we owe one another.
Although lockdowns and the policy of “zero community transmissions” remain popular with many Australians, there are also many who object to the sudden curtailment of their lives and livelihoods. These people do not necessarily deny the need to respond to COVID, but they object to the draconian decisions made by what they see are unaccountable public health experts.
Defiance of legal and political authority does not automatically amount to anarchy, which rejects the very notion of social order.
Rather, it is a form of civil disobedience, a practice long-established in liberal democracies, whereby citizens can exercise the right to protest against laws or edicts that are perceived as unjust or unreasonable.
The language used by critics of the protests indicates that public health edicts must be obeyed unquestioningly and that calling those edicts into question amounts to both a legal and a moral failure on the part of the protesters.
Yet, such a protest reminds all political leaders to remain accountable to the electorate—and not just at the ballot box.
Those critics also fail to realise that in our society those who protest may feel driven to do so simply because they believe the social and financial price they are being told to pay in pursuit of an unattainable goal is wholly unacceptable.
Peter Kurti is director of the Culture, Prosperity and Civil Society program at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney, Australia. He is also an adjunct associate professor of law at the University of Notre Dame, Australia, and is a fellow at the Royal Society of Arts.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.