The rallies of thousands against lockdown in Sydney, Melbourne and other cities on Saturday show how the pandemic and governments’ responses are driving many people to breaking point.
In Sydney, four weeks into a lockdown that has put many out of work, a crowd of at least 5000 people gathered.
But the protests were led by conspiracy theorists and other reactionaries and offered no solutions.
The marches, called under the banner of “Worldwide Rally for Freedom”, united those who believe the pandemic is a scam and who oppose COVID testing, vaccinations and masks.
Supporting organisations included Reignite Democracy Australia, the Informed Medical Options Party (anti-vaxxers) and Operation Phoenix. The turnout represented a significant opportunity for the far right to try to extend its influence.
These organisations talk of “freedom” but were nowhere to be seen when tens of thousands took to the streets for Black Lives Matter, Invasion Day and refugee rights or against university cuts over the past 18 months in the face of intense police and media hostility.
Those protests showed it is possible to organise mass rallies where COVID safety is taken seriously and there is minimal risk of transmission.
On Saturday, however, the conspiracy theories that dominated meant most people were unmasked and there were no COVID-safe measures.
In a sign of the real hurt felt by millions, the protests also attracted people driven to desperation by economic disruption.
Many would have been small business people but others were workers who had lost jobs or hours.
As one woman said on Facebook: “We’ve been locked down five times and still no cases. I have no income again. The cure is worse than the risk of the virus … it’s not right!”
A left-wing observer of the Melbourne rally wrote on Twitter: “Some people are definitely out there for a grift, especially the organisers. But there’s also just a lot of working people who have been through a traumatic experience and no one else is offering either material support or an outlet for their frustration.”
In Sydney, many in the crowd were young people from the south-western suburbs who have been stigmatised for high levels of virus and put under heavy policing.
A building worker was videoed shouting about the impact of the construction shutdown in Sydney.
The pain created by shutdowns and border closures is real. But the rally organisers were offering no solutions except “freedom” and letting the virus rip.
That is why the unions and the left need to mobilise for a working class response to the lockdowns and government attacks.
We know that casualisation means that many fear missing hours even more than they fear the virus, enabling COVID to spread.
We know that too many essential workers have no choice but to travel across suburbs, sometimes being bullied by employers to work without PPE and other health and safety measures.
Scott Morrison’s disaster payments for those who’ve lost work due to lockdowns are a maximum of $1200 a fortnight, far below the minimum wage or last year’s JobKeeper rate.
And almost 400,000 people locked down in Greater Sydney alone are not eligible for weekly disaster payments, despite many losing work in areas like retail and hospitality, because they receive a social security payment, however small.
We are all paying for the failure of the Morrison government over the vaccine rollout and its reluctance to fund stand-alone quarantine facilities.
But criticising Morrison isn’t enough. We need a real fight for full sick pay for casual workers, special leave to stay home for test results without loss of pay, more secure, permanent jobs and a minimum of $80 a day for those on JobSeeker and other benefits.
Workers urgently need a training blitz on COVID safety at work, with the power to stop work and enforce measures like skeleton staffing, proper ventilation, staggered start times, social distancing and hospital grade PPE.
Two hundred cleaners at Westmead Hospital in Sydney showed the way last week, refusing to enter the hospital’s COVID-19 unit because they said they were being denied access to PPE.
Workers at the Annette Kellerman pool in Enmore in Sydney, members of the United Workers Union, have launched a campaign for pandemic pay after having been stood down.
Too often, however, unions are held back from organising resistance because supporting harsh lockdowns is seen as “progressive”.
But lockdowns are a sign of the underfunding of the public health system and the failure to ensure that workers at risk can work safely or be paid to isolate.
The profit logic means that businesses cut corners and refuse to be COVID-safe unless they are absolutely forced to.
Workers’ industrial power can challenge that logic.
We need to fight for solutions that are neither draconian lockdowns enforced by quasi-military policing operations, nor QAnon-fuelled attacks on public health.
By David Glanz