Earlier this year, I was one of the many hooked on The Handmaid’s Tale. There was something weirdly compelling about this dystopian take on life; where humans have lost agency in a society controlled by extremist rule. The Handmaid’s Tale is about the totalitarian power of governance over a population. The series always left me tingling with fear, imagining what it must be like to live a life without freedom. It’s not real, but it felt real. History shows us how quickly this can happen, but from the comfort of my bed with my doona of democracy it was hard to believe that a population would allow such complete subjugation without protest.
That same feeling I had watching The Handmaid’s Tale has settled on me and it hasn’t left. 2020 has turned out to be the most surreal year of our collective lives. A pandemic has hit, it has devastated our ageing population and caused the rest of the population to lose agency – very quickly, for their ‘protection’. I had never considered the profound impact of such an exceptional circumstance; what it means for those in lockdown who are living in a State of Emergency. In a State of Emergency none of the existing rights of a democracy – like the right to gather in protest, or to speak out against the government, exist. This is a new and sudden landscape of law and enforced compliance.
What happened in Melbourne on the weekend has left me feeling conflicted. I am not a conspiracist. To date I have supported the disease control measures. I understand how, without the availability of adequate treatments, wearing masks, distancing and lockdown are possibly our only tools in controlling the rampant spread of this coronavirus.
But I’m starting to wonder, at what cost? Governments focus on economic outcomes as the key measure of how to mitigate disaster and manage its impact. But I think there’s a measure missing. A social measure of our collective wellbeing. A check on the eradication of our agency. I worry that the impact on the mental health of a population in extended periods of lockdown may be enduring. In prison, solitary confinement is the most extreme form of control within corporal punishment. It is used to break people. When an entire population is forced into isolation, it’s going to do the same. Are we going to come out of this pandemic a broken population?
There have never been more rules. Rules that are implemented in the blink of an eye, rules that limit our movement, rules that prescribe some behaviours and prohibit others. Rules that close our borders. Rules that have shut bureaucratic hearts, that have seen new born babies die because of inflexible adherence. I thought the rules were there to save lives, not to end them. Rules that see a pregnant mum arrested in her pyjamas, in front of her children, for posting about a Freedom March on Facebook. This footage is frightening. I do not have to agree with a person’s position to defend their right to express it. This is not a country I recognise.
The Rules have become The Way. State leaders, whose names I previously never knew now step forward to enact paternalistic territorialism to protect their patch, blurring the greater good with their future election interests. Our once united Australia has become factionalised through border control. It’s possible to consider Australia as no longer being one nation but a series of autonomous states and territories.
This is a time for considered governance. Totalitarian and heavy-handed measures use fear to control the many, but will tip others into extremism. This is why lunatics in the US fight for the right to bear arms. We have to be careful not to trigger that mindset. Our government is elected to serve us, not incarcerate us for speaking out. That is not the country where we live. This is a true democratic dilemma; where the choice is between pandemic management incumbent with loss of freedom versus freedom with a rampant virus.
I long for the day we can open our homes, our streets, our shops, our venues and our borders again.
In lieu of the government doing it, I guess it’s back to the oft-repeated refrain from The Handmaid’s Tale: ‘May the Lord Open’.