‘The true measure of any society is how it treats its most vulnerable members’. These are the words of Mahatma Gandhi, Indian lawyer and social activist who pioneered the principle of Satyagraha – resistance to tyranny through mass nonviolent civil disobedience. I thought of him as I watched the footage of the Freedom march in Sydney over the weekend and contemplated what he might have said about our current situation. The question here is something of a conundrum. Are the lockdowns (in Australia) and public health measures tyranny? Or is it simply a democracy attempting to protect their population, in particular the vulnerable, from the tyranny of a pandemic?
In India 421,000 people have died from COVID-19. People in urban slums and those who live in close contact with each other in poorer villages, without access to the kind of sanitation, or healthcare that we take for granted, are the most likely to contract the virus and die. Many of India’s covid deaths go unreported as many don’t test for the virus and infections and subsequent deaths could be two to three times higher than what is recorded. They suspect the 421k death toll is a tenth of the real toll. That’s what it looks like when SARS-Cov-2, and its variants, rip through a vulnerable population. It’s a form of socio-economic culling. While the rich and poor are both at risk, it’s the infirm, the disabled, those living in poverty – the vulnerable – who fall victim most often.
From the footage I saw of the various Freedom rallies on the weekend, ‘the vulnerable’ were certainly not present. For example, I didn’t see one person in a wheelchair.
I think we who boast of our healthy immune systems with emojis and memes need to focus less on our needs and more on the needs of the vulnerable. I wonder how the vulnerable feel when we refuse to wear masks, when we operate in defiance of public health orders? Do they feel more at risk? Unvalued? Do they feel cut adrift? Do they feel even more marginalised by a society that has decided that their value is ‘less than’.
There is a point of view, as iterated by those on social media, which declares COVID-19 is ‘just a flu’ and that the subsequent deaths are a form of natural selection. Meaning that the strong, the young and the healthy get to inherit the Earth.
But at what cost? In order for us to have our ‘freedom’ (from public health restrictions) we offer up the immune compromised, the disabled, the elderly, those who have had organ transplants, and those who have had any sort of compromised health. We build our city on their bones.
This brand of freedom is more like Social Darwinism. Social Darwinism, aka, ‘survival of the fittest’ has been used to justify imperialism, racism, eugenics and social inequality for well over 100 years. And incidentally it was not what Darwin’s theory was all about, it’s a misrepresentation that’s vehemently opposed by scientists. Is it also how we now choose to transact our ‘freedom’? This is not the basis of a compassionate society. To live in a caring community might sometimes come at the cost of small individual liberties – like wearing a mask in the post office for ten minutes while you complete your transaction.
Maybe our governments have to start viewing us all as the vulnerable. Many of those who marched on the weekend have become radicalised through what they perceive as government spin and mismanagement, as lack of leadership, through loss of hope and a very real fear for the future. It makes them easy targets for an extremist narrative.
I think somehow Gandhi would have navigated this complex territory with peace and love and great care for those whose voices often aren’t heard by the rest of us.
I think Gandhi would have worn a mask. Even if he didn’t want to.