Operation Soteria

The Victorian Government gave the infamous hotel quarantine program the code name, Operation Soteria. In light of the disastrous outcomes from the program, ‘goddess of rescue’ is hardly a suitable name; Eris seems far more appropriate. 

The city of Melbourne is slowly emerging from the worst disaster in her 185 year history. The past six months has revealed Melbourne’s heart and the diagnosis is not altogether positive. Good has been uncovered and also much that should concern anyone who knows that a malfunctioning heart is likely to cause future grief. 

The Covid 19 pandemic in Victoria has thus far resulted in over 20,000 cases and 781 deaths. In terms of global statistics these numbers are relatively small, but of course in June the State was approaching almost zero cases, following a small first wave. Something like 90% of all Victoria’s COVID-19 cases and almost all the deaths have occurred in the second wave. Since July 100,000s of VICtorians have lost their jobs, 1000s of businesses may never reopen, the economy is bleeding a $1 billion every week. The impact on individual lives can scarcely be measured. The pandemic has compounded mental health issues, children’s education impacted, churches closed.

Victoria, especially Melbourne, is living with the greatest restrictions imposed on personal liberty and social freedom that has ever been witnessed in Australian history. A strict curfew has been enforced for months and Melbournians cannot leave a 5km radius from their homes. Schools are shut and most of the workforce must work from home. Churches have not met since March and may not for some considerable time. Families and friends are not permitted to mingle, either indoors or outdoors. 

The pandemic and how it has been handled in Melbourne reveals human nature in ways that we may find uncomfortable. Once the second wave has left our shores, I imagine millions of Melbournians wanting to move on and to leave behind 2020 as we would an awful nightmare. Relief is a powerful medicine, albeit a placebo. I want to offer three observations about how the pandemic is revealed our societal health.

1. Self Preservation or Self Sacrifice?

The pandemic began with hoards of people rushing to supermarkets and emptying shelves of essential goods. The situation deteriorated to the point that supermarkets set aside the first hour of each day for our senior citizens, so that they would not go without because of the surge of people fighting over toilet paper and grabbing the final bag of rice or pasta.

We became a state of dobbers. In May alone, Victorian police received 80,000 calls from Victorians who were reporting on their fellow citizens for allegedly breaking restrictions in one way or another. I am not excusing those who foolishly think they can live in disregard for the law. Yes, there are cases of people being ignorant of the rules, but more often this exposed a selfish impulse. However, the fact we have accumulated 100,000s of complaints over the course, and that the Government urged us to betray our neighbours, is quite telling. Personally, while I am irritated by people who think they can live above law, I find it sad that we were so quick to dob on our neighbours to the police.

In the meantime, many other Victorians worked tirelessly to fight the virus and keep people alive. Working long hours and putting themselves at risk in order to care for the sick and for those who are most vulnerable. 

There is a telling disparity between those who preference self preservation and those who choose self-sacrifice.

2. Fear or Love?

Whether we like it or not, the base motivator that has been used to control peoples behaviour during the pandemic is fear.  Government press conferences and newspaper articles have been primed with scaring people into submission. 

Let it said, it is foolish to think that COVID-19 isn’t a serious and deadly disease. It is no Spanish flu or Bubonic Plague, but the virus is nonetheless highly contagious. The Corona Virus is a life threatening disease for the elderly and for people with certain preexisting medical conditions. Without diminishing these facts, it has been interesting to watch the narrative used to force compliance. There is little talk about loving our neighbour, instead many threats have been made and cataclysmic proclamations given to funnel the population into ‘doing the right thing’. 

Fear can be a useful tool. We should not discount it altogether. Even the Bible speaks of fear as being the correct response to particular scenarios. However, what does this prevalent public narrative say about our society? What kind of city are we living in and raising our children in where the threat of punishment rather than compassion has become the normal modus operandi?

3. Suspicion or Trust?

This leads to a third observation, who do we trust. On the one hand, reactions to the Government’s position on COVID-19 soon fell into political partisanship and conspiracy theorists were not going to let this opportunity slide either. Yet overall, Victorians have followed the restrictions. This may be a sign that we trust the Government or that we’re afraid of fines and even longer lockdown (I suspect the truth is a mix of both). 

The speed at which Victorians gave up basics freedoms was interesting to watch. The willingness in which the people have filed away the State’s Human Rights Charter probably speaks to a combination of self sacrifice and fear. Once upon a time we would look at the world’s most authoritarian regimes, perplexed at how people give up freedoms to the State. A question for Victorians is now, for what other reasons are we prepared to accept rigid limitations on personal liberty? Are there other scenarios in which we would lay down our freedoms to associate, work, play, and live? My underlying observation is that while we have built our nation on certain myths, these are more fiction than fact, and among them is our belief in independence and self making. 

While there is certainly an air of trust in Government directives and following public health warnings, the COVID-19 response was not be built on the premise of trust, but of suspicion. The Government anticipated that people won’t follow best medical advice and that people won’t follow reasonable measures (ie social distancing). Their suspicions have some warrant. 

Suspicion can be a powerful delusion and for others it is a source for angry repose. In some circumstances it can also serve as a wise friend. Unfortunately, our suspicious minds have led to an ‘all or nothing’ dichotomy. This absolutism has controlled much of the rhetoric causing needless divisions  in the community and had the effect of pushing aside reasonable and respected voices from the medical fraternity and from the Melbourne world of law, business, and economics.

Take for example this new Bill that the Government is brining before the Parliament, ’COVID-19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures) and Other Acts Amendment Bill 2020’. If it passes any citizen can be appointed and given the authority to detain any fellow citizen who is suspected of having COVID-19 and whom authorities believe may not fully comply with quarantine.  In theory, as an untrained citizen who is not a police officer, I can be employed to report, check on, and even detain fellow citizens in a manner reminiscent of the Stasi. 

A significant number of QCs and SCs have written a letter outlining concerns about this Bill, including Retired High Court judge Michael McHugh and former Federal Court judges Peter Heerey and Neil Young. They explain,

Authorising citizens to detain their fellow citizens on the basis of a belief that the detained person is unlikely to comply with emergency directions by the ‘authorised’ citizens is unprecedented, excessive and open to abuse”.

“The bill would also allow any person the secretary considered appropriate to be authorised to exercise emergency powers”.

“There would be no requirement that persons authorised be police officers, or even public servants.”

As astonishing and dangerous as this Bill is to a free and democratic society, the Government not only has the gall to argue for it, but many Melbournians I suspect will be okay with it.  I suspect this doesn’t bode well for the future.

Choosing suspicion over trust works both ways. I’ve noted voices making unrealistic expectations and unsympathetic calls, condemning any and all mistakes. This fails to appreciate the nature of this pandemic; it is new and scientists are still trying to understand how the virus works and what is the best public approach. We may not know for another year which nation stumbled into the most advantageous roadmap. There is also a difference between mistake and incompetence. In the swamp of news conferences, tweets, and inquiries, discerning the truth is not always easy. 

The Victorian people deserve to know the truth of what happened in the Melbourne hotels which has crippled our State, and yet it seems increasingly likely that we will remain in the dark. 

Just today, Health Minister Jenny Mikakos fell on her sword, the morning after her boss stabbed her in the back. Sure, there have been apologies for “Operation Soteria” and even admissions of mistakes made, and yet when it came to the Inquiry no one it seems knew the answers to key questions. Instead, there was lots of blame shifting. It is quite extraordinary (and sadly predictable) that in the case of the worst disaster in our State’s history no one is taking responsibility. How can the State expect its people to behave with integrity when its leaders play blame games in order to save their own political skin? 

This has been a difficult year for everyone. For those who have lost loved ones the pain is excruciating. For those who face financial ruin, the road ahead is long and uncertain. If anything, 2020 is a rehearsal for times that are yet ahead, and challenges that will shake our city to the very foundations. 

We need a better rescue plan

“Operation Soteria” has proven to be an ironic an even sardonic name. The rescue turned out to be a sinking ship. 

To be fair, what COVID-19 is revealing about Melbourne  did not begin with the pandemic, rather it shone a light on our preexisting condition. To build relationships on trust, to do right out of love, and to self sacrifice: these are noble virtues and they are far too rare and absent in our city.

During the inquiry into the hotel quarantine the Bible was held aloft, and yet sadly its message is all too often ignored. Instead of making promises on the Bible perhaps we should open its pages, then read and follow what it says. On the sacred page is a story of the original and best, Operation Soteria. It’s not another Greek myth or Melbourne fiction, but the account of the Son of God whose trust triumphed over worldly suspicion, whose love conquers all fear, and who laid down his life for the sake of his enemies. 

Melbourne has long turned its gaze away from the person of Jesus Christ. As we seek to recover surely it’s time to revisit him and to discover the One who truly rescues. As our city has faced the pandemic our foundations have been proven frail. I suspect that as Summer arrives, in our desperation for normalcy we’ll try to forget the year that has been. I understand the sentiment, but there are harder and deeper lessons to learn, ones which require us to look beyond even health and economic issues and into the very soul of our city.