Toxic Masculinity and Political Footballs

As of writing on 11 May the Cedar Meats cluster of COVID-19 cases numbers at least 75 (it is difficult to confirm exact numbers) with at least 59 of those being people who have worked in the facility. According to the business operators around 400 people have worked there recently, so that means that around 15% of workers have been infected. The remainder of cases are contacts (family and friends) of the workers.

I found the press statement and video from Cedar Meats to be emotional, and I feel for the owners as well as the workers and their families.

The emotion is there because it is continually stressed that Cedar Meats is a “family business”, and of course the emotion contained in that is entirely within the adjective and what we all personally value in “family”.

The events around this cluster have become extremely political as Victorian Premier Dan Andrews has shown an inclination to pressure the Federal Government in the COVID-19 pandemic to act with greater caution. In recent days there has been discussion about whether the Victorian Government and the business acted as it should have when it was informed. It now appears that it took the business a few days to respond.

I know nothing about the business, and there have been some reports of prior worker dissatisfaction, which if true would be disappointing, but I would suggest that it is perhaps understandable that it took the business managers a couple of days to come to grips with the gravity of the situation. After all, it took Prime Minister Morrison a long time to accept it and act – his assertion that he would attend the first round of the NRL, only to have to go into self-isolation when Peter Dutton was confirmed to be infected, will long be remembered.

It is a real shame when ordinary people and families get caught in the middle of political stoushes. And just like our Federal Government and the US Federal Government should not deflect attention from their own shortcomings by questioning the actions of others in this pandemic, which made a geopolitical football of my friend Dr Shi Zhengli, unfortunately the need of the Morrison Government to sling some mud at Dan Andrews has meant that this family business has been collateral damage.

For me, the Cedar Meats outbreak is incredibly instructive. It is a clear demonstration of just how quickly this pandemic can reignite in cool conditions favourable for virus spread. It also demonstrates the clear potential for clusters of infected people to exist in our community right now undetected

The emotions around the incident, obviously heightened even further due to politicisation, goes to the heart of juxtaposition between economic and human cost and why we should all want as few people to be infected by COVID-19 as is possible.

From early on in the pandemic, before it was even named a pandemic, I wrote about the conflict between economic and human cost that decision-makers would experience.

I have to admit that when I wrote that post I envisaged only countries with a strong ability to coerce ordinary citizens to take risks with their lives in order to “produce” for the greater good, i.e. those under autocratic governments, or poor countries where the citizens will otherwise starve, would largely open up with the virus still circulating.

I profess to being surprised and utterly disappointed by especially the Anglophone elected officials for working at coercing people to “produce” in spite of persistent community transmission of COVID-19 and my view on the reasons for this will be the subject of my next post.

For this post I wish to just concentrate on the devastating impacts of the disease, the deaths and financial stress that it places people under, and of course, how the politics around these are playing out.

From early on in the pandemic, the right wing elected officials (yes, I remain resolutely averse to calling them leaders because they are not) of the major Anglophone countries continually shirked measures needed to arrest the spread of COVID-19 for fear of the economic consequences, and even some scientists or medical officials felt the need to speak of their concerns over economic impacts although such issues are well beyond the scope of their expertise.

In an effort to counteract growing concern for “human costs” as the loss of life and impacts on families directly from COVID-19 became apparent globally, those inclined to prioritise higher minimising economic costs began to emphasise that there are human costs to economic impacts (which is something that I stated would occur in my early writings).

This is an esoteric and rather nebulous area that makes definitive arguments in either direction challenging – which is perfect for political purposes.

Last week, however, The Conversation ran an article which found that in an Australian context measures towards eliminating COVID-19 were overwhelming supported on the basis of an analysis of human costs. That is, “far fewer lives would be lost by continuing restrictions than would be lost by ending them now”.

By inference, that means that far fewer Australian families, be they business owners, workers, or retirees, will be torn apart by the loss of loved-ones.

Of course economics do have a relationship to health and death in rich developed countries as well as developing, and while the devastation of that has been exposed in the COVID-19 pandemic, it has always been obvious to those prepared to acknowledge it. All one had to do to confirm it was watch a documentary on inequality in the United States to see families torn apart by financial hardship placed on them due to sickness of one or several family members.

The point is this, when confronted with the loss of a loved-one families are prepared to do whatever it takes, to bear whatever economic cost is entailed, for a chance to save that person.

So here is the question, say in 3 years hence, when the pandemic has passed, if we went to the families that lost loved ones with COVID-19 and asked them then what they would have preferred priority given to, economic activity or to saving lives, what do you think they will say?

The advantage that politicians seeking to prioritise the economic impacts above human costs have is that the families that will be impacted do not yet know it…

The elected decision-makers of the major Anglophone countries, Australia included, have approached the pandemic with the same mindset – to minimise impacts on the economy, even if that meant large numbers of people dying, and try to supress the political pressure to save lives for long enough to ensure that the pandemic has progressed to a point of no return, where elimination with stringent biosecurity and restrictions was no longer possible.

The problem that PM Morrison has, from his way of thinking, is that COVID-19 did not spread widely from imported cases, quite likely due to lower transmissibility due to it being summer, and the political surge to clamp down on the pandemic – having seen what occurred in the northern hemisphere – meant that our response was reasonably effective and thus we have seen a low expression of the disease within our population.

Now Morrison does not wish to be patient and throw everything at elimination because he wants to ease impacts on the economy as soon as possible.

For Morrison, the chance of eliminating the coronavirus from Australia, and therefore ensuring very low human impacts of it on our society compared with many northern hemisphere countries, is outweighed by the economic consequences of keeping the economy closed for another let’s say 2 months to eliminate the coronavirus. So Morrison, together with some elements of press similarly active in other major Anglophone countries, i.e. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, has created a great deal of momentum around re-opening the economy and an expectation of greater freedom of movement and interaction within the population which ties that momentum to significant political risk for State politicians, such as Dan Andrews in Victoria, to counteract.

There is not doubt in my mind that if Australia goes on to experience a severe pandemic in winter 2020 then, just as has been stated that Trump is culpable in deaths of Americans, so too will Morrison be culpable in the deaths of Australians.

The warped and deterministic logic within the momentum to open up the economy that the Morrison Government has generated is encapsulated within the following irony:

the price I must pay for there being more people at my funeral is the increased chance of me dying much earlier than otherwise in a hospital alone!

Before concluding I will just provide a few extra thoughts on impacts on Australian families of stringent social distancing/isolation measures in addition to what was discussed in that article in The Conversation discussed above.

I have been giving a great deal of thought to the impacts on Australian families and in many ways this post can be seen as a companion to my next which I have now chosen to entitle “Your Life: Something The Elites Have Always Been Prepared to Sacrifice For Their Ends” instead of setting a more optimistic tone.

Firstly I would suggest that some people actually feel better under the lockdown conditions, as has been written about in various places, such as people with some specific anxieties and phobias, and isolation within society is not uncommon and some may actually be less isolated under these altered conditions. Moreover, introverts are not rare in society and many will be quite fine with a certain level of solitude.

Being a stay at home parent, and specifically a male, I lead a reasonably isolated existence, so I would count myself in this category of those who are certainly no worse off in mental health terms than when not under stringent social isolation measures. I would also say that there is at least one other person in my immediate family who was experiencing extreme pressure before these stringent measures were introduced, and I believe that this period of family togetherness has been a net benefit to this person. The other two members of my immediate family have expressed no deleterious impacts on their mental health and have settled in to their new normal well after the initial grieving process. What was key to this was giving honest messages that this is unlikely to be solved quickly and we may need to maintain isolation for an extended period.

I note that Morrison said similar things BEFORE reluctantly agreeing to the introduction of stringent isolation measures, but of course that changed at the first sign of success at limiting the number of new cases.

Of others that I know well, including extended family, while their clear preference would be for things to return to conditions before the pandemic, to a person they agree that the sacrifices involved in stringent measures are worthwhile and they show no signs of negative impacts thus far while one other close family member with ongoing mental health issues has probably improved.

Furthermore, I believe I would not be the only one whose heart has been warmed by seeing all of the families walking around together in the early evening. It is not difficult to imagine that families that manage and are fortunate to not experience severe direct impacts from this pandemic may well be enriched by the time spent together and I imagine that many children will be enjoying a great deal more attention from adults which will have positive long-term benefits and easily outweigh any moments of frustration that all parents feel when taking on additional parenting tasks such as additional responsibilities with schooling.

I do understand, however, that some will be worse off under stringent isolation measures but what I am pointing out is that there is always a spectrum regardless of what conditions prevail.

To be clear in no way do I discount the impacts of financial hardship on families because it is something I understand well. However, it is also important to note that at least some of that hardship can be lessened by Government, not just by temporary measures, but by strong leadership and with long term commitments.

What do I mean by that? Every thinking person realises that the issue of automation and/or artificial intelligence replacing jobs, along with the proliferation of “Bullshit Jobs”, has been creating additional worker anxiety and that needs to be addressed. The introduction of a Universal Basic Income seems to many to be inevitable, and clearly what has already happened around the developed world in responding to COVID-19 may well be the start.

If leaders begin to discuss this openly then that will ease some of the pressure on the unemployed, understanding that this is a shift that will happen anyway and critically that support is not temporary. Moreover, that does not preclude people from upskilling to get a higher paying job even if the number of hours worked is less than what we currently consider is employed full-time.

I appreciate that this is a discussion that is unlikely to hit the mainstream with the current elected decision-makers in the major Anglophone countries, who prefer to sell the mantra of never ending “aspiration”, but leading in a way that says that wealth accumulation is not the most important yard stick for success in life, in fact that it is a poor one, would be invaluable.

Again, any thinking person knows that mindless consumption on a planet with finite resources is entirely unsustainable and must be addressed.

Finally, leaders could create a far more a positive attitude by encouraging people to dare to rethink how we live life, instead of insisting that we must risk a “snap back” to exactly the way things were before, so that when we can come back out of this we can make things better than before. Of course a major impediment to this is that powerful vested interests are very satisfied with the way things were, thank you very much.

So it is clear that there most definitely are different approaches to handling this pandemic to those with the mental acuity to consider alternate approaches.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, PM Morrison is hell bent on opening up our economy as soon as possible regardless of what new information emerges domestically or internationally.

We were fortunate to have a second chance at eliminating COVID-19 from Australia after PM Morrison dithered on closing the borders to international travellers in February and early March. I strongly doubt that we will be fortunate enough to be able to say “third time lucky”.

Saving lives minimises impacts on families and as the experience of the family business Cedar Meats shows, families are at the centre of everything that is important to us human beings, including PM Morrison who took his family on a holiday during the unprecedented Australian bushfires this past summer.

Now PM Morrison has Australian families on a collision course with severe impacts from COVID-19. He cajoles family leaders, the parents whose focus is most intently trained on the protection of their children and/or their elderly parents, to get out from under the doona.

This is toxic masculinity at its most virulent to intimate cowardice toward anybody who would wish to continue to lead their family to shelter in place until the path of the COVID-19 pandemic as Australia enters winter is more clear. This is a message to other males to shame them in their caution, essentially inferring that any male is gutless and not a real man if he continues to choose to shelter in place with family. It is a message that does not respect individual choice or recognise that we all have different attitudes to risk and risk tolerance. And by putting schools front and centre in the debate it puts cautious Australian families on a path to anxiety and conflict with State Governments over obligations to send children to school while there is emerging evidence of spread and serious disease in children associated with infection by this coronavirus.

Again, this is not leadership befitting the actions of the elected top decision-maker of a nation.

It is not leadership at all. It is weakness. It is dumb. It is careless and heartless. Most of all, it is dangerous.

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© Copyright Brett Edgerton 2020

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