Lessons in Lockdown
Is Covid-era Australia a 'teaching nation'?
Since the middle of 2020, I’ve been teaching English literature to Chinese teenagers in Australia.
It’s strange, interesting work – a mixture of language, literature and cultural communication. My students are in their early teens, the children of first-generation immigrants to Melbourne and Sidney - very different from the British students I used to tutor at GCSE and A-level in London. The classes, which are on top of their usual schooling, are based around the study of a book. My initial suggestion of Jane Austen was knocked back in favour of Brave New World - ‘That is very good book’, said my client - and since then we’ve compromised, shifting between dystopian literature and E M Forster.
Of course, in a timely echo of Forster’s The Machine Stops, the little-known dystopian short story that shot to fame in 2020, the classes are held on Zoom. To my surprise, teaching over The Machine has not been as bad as I feared: Chinese students tend to be well behaved, and there’s none of the chaos of the one adult Zoom party I attended during the first British lockdown. On the contrary, they need encouragement to speak, even putting their hands up for permission to answer a question. Thankfully, like all teenagers, they still express themselves and use the technology to make visual jokes. Zoom backgrounds change regularly, and sometimes a set of teeth, a comb or other incongruous graphic appears on the head of the class clown.
The experience has given a sideways glance into Australia’s response to Covid-19. My first student, who started with me around the same time the country was being lauded in the UK for its judicious closing of borders, was upbeat about life under a short, local lockdown. ‘It’s nothing!’ she said, with all the bravura of a thirteen-year-old. ‘You just stay home!’
A year later, with Sydney under lockdown since June, it’s a different story. ‘Have you been outside today?’ I ask a class which, after a month’s confinement, has become uncharacteristically unresponsive. ‘Barely,’ groans the class clown. ‘What’s the point? We’re in lockdown.’
A few weeks later, and the decline in the children is marked. Faces I’ve known for months, a year, look different. Some are blank and expression-less, while the eyes of others hold a grief I’ve only seen in recently-bereaved adults. They don’t seem to remember material we covered only the previous session and often fail to hear my questions. Sometimes I manage to re-kindle their interest and get them back to the world of the book we’re reading, but at other times it’s as if they’re in a kind of fog where nothing matters.
It’s not surprising. In recent months, the island nation has become increasingly frenetic as its dream of eradicating Covid by keeping people from entering and locking down for a single case disintegrates. Stay-at-home orders, with the wearing of masks required even for outdoor exercise, have been followed by ever-stricter injunctions from the authorities. In July, a broadcast in which New South Wales’ chief medical officer Kerry Chant forbad people to speak to each other at the supermarket went viral. Meanwhile, video clips circulate on social media, showing police helicopters hovering over gardens and playing fields, issuing military-style instructions to the people below and cops on the streets wrestling individuals to the ground.
In August, South Australia launched a trial of a home-quarantine app combining facial recognition and geolocation. If texted by the authorities, residents have fifteen minutes to send them a picture of themselves at home; those failing to do so can expect a visit from the police. In New South Wales, alcohol is being rationed, with locked-down residents having their care packages from relatives searched for unauthorised gifts.
Dissent is suppressed. Recently, Sky News Australia was suspended from YouTube for a week for broadcasting ‘misinformation’. Protestors at a recent demonstration in Melbourne and Sydney were met with pepper spray, fines and arrests, while a leading figure in Australia’s anti-lockdown movement has been given an eight-month prison sentence.
I think grimly of a Covid-era joke about dystopian novels becoming the textbooks the western world no longer needs, since the blueprint they outline is now being implemented perfectly. And, as a lifelong believer in the power of literature to promote empathy and understanding, I wonder what went wrong. Why didn’t dystopian literature – as the art of prophetic warning - work? Have we in the west been bad students?
Meanwhile, in my new semi-nomadic life in Portugal, I am meeting people who have left Australia over the past year. Since 20 March 2020 those wanting to leave the country have had to apply for permission. It is not lightly given. There is Cris, a Portuguese woman who lived there for 29 years until her mother in Lisbon fell terminally ill - it took three weeks and some wheeling and dealing to be allowed to leave.
Then there’s Tom, one of my temporary housemates in Lisbon. A British Australian full of good-humoured energy, he had to apply twice – a desire to return to Europe wasn’t considered an adequate reason, but saying he was unemployed and a drain on the state went down better. In our first conversation, he cautions me against Twitter. ‘That’s like crack, isn’t it?’ he grins. ‘Not good for you.’ He doesn’t follow the news much himself, figuring that someone will tell him if something’s important.
A couple of weeks later, he’s on the phone to his brother in Melbourne. ‘Oh my God!' I hear him say as he paces around the kitchen. 'I've heard stories, but I didn't believe them. That's scary. I’m so glad I’ve left.’
In locked-down Melbourne, he tells me, police are everywhere, going up and down the streets, knocking on doors. Armed officers are stationed at playgrounds, where only one adult is allowed to accompany children going out to play - a recent concession from the state. Their carers may not remove their mask at any time, even to have a drink. The police shout at anyone committing an infringement through their megaphones.
The western media has largely been silent about what is going on in Australia. But now, with almost 60% of the country under lockdown and no clear end to the crisis in sight, more thoughtful commentators are considering the implications of its approach for the western world.
‘At best, we are a cautionary tale about government excess. But at worst, the Australian experience may point to something more sinister in 21st-century governance — what we once thought was a temporary aberration in the norms of our liberal democracy is slowly becoming a permanent dynamic,’ writes Gideon Rozner of the Australian Institute of Public Affairs. ‘At a time when the political and cultural elite have never been more indifferent to the centuries-old traditions of liberal democratic governance, we may be seeing in Australia the first glimpses of the “post-democratic” state.’
Is Australia still a liberal democracy? asks Conor Friederstof from California, a state with some of the strictest Covid measures in the United States. As countries around the western world wrestle with the question of when to lift restrictions or whether to impose new ones, Australia illustrates something which all democratic countries need to confront: how long can the suspension of basic rights be considered an emergency measure?
From my perch in Europe, inspired by my antipodean teaching, I have my own set of questions. Is Australia teaching the rest of the western world a lesson? Is the country - as dystopian literature has always done - showing us an exaggerated version of what we are doing ourselves, of what our societies could become if taken to the extreme? Is it acting out what we have failed to learn? Could its (negative) example help us to make choices for the future?