Staying Together While Keeping Apart During COVID-19: Part One

Staying Together While Keeping Apart During COVID-19

In light of the Coronavirus pandemic and the rapid shift to physical distancing the Green Institute hosted a webinar on 19 March 2020 titled Staying Together While Keeping Apart. Green Agenda is now publishing transcripts of the speakers of the webinar. This week we are publishing the talks from Nicola Paris, Tim Lo Surdo and El Gibbs. Read Part Two.

Nicola Paris

I would like to also acknowledge country. I am currently on Wajuk Country, part of the broader Noongar Nation. That’s in Western Australia. I was in Melbourne in the last couple of weeks as this all unfolded at scale in our part of the world, although it’s been happening elsewhere.  I’ll finish with a little story of my fun times of trying to get tested for coronavirus.

Being on a call with this many excellent people, I was a little overwhelmed and stuck with thinking about the things I wanted to say.  We’ve got some really good brains in this space.  One thing I’d really like to acknowledge is that in the last week or so I’ve seen more collaborative thinking and generosity and sharing of resources across sector than I think I’ve ever seen. This is an opportunity where we can actually find the best in each other, we can see what’s working. One of the repeated comments I keep seeing is people with disability who have been saying “we’ll we’ve been asking for accessible conferences and accessible resources for all of this time, when you said it wasn’t possible, but now look it is.” My challenge to anyone on this call who is working in organising spaces is that we take those learnings forward, even when things may go back to normal or comparatively normal. I think we’re all going to learn a lot in this time.

I wanted to make a few points. Some big picture stuff and a little bit of small picture. One of the things that I think that we need to be really careful of and one that I’ve been really struggling with negotiating myself is that, as an activist, and someone who monitors repression and patterns of policing and patterns of legislation that is designed to physically close down political space that we can operate in as activists, we’ve seen an absolute intensification of that in recent years, in particular in the climate space. It felt very counterintuitive to me to actually be advocating for not having meetings, events or rallies, and being really concerned with what the government could do in the time in which we are all physically limited. So that’s a really big one.

What I think is really important is how we manage that physical limitation and it’s really only limited by our creativity. I’m already seeing some great creative digital ideas, and people talking about meeting their MPs with mass Zoom meetings for example, and all kinds of other stuff. I do think it’s important we continue to think about ways we can intervene where we see overreach. So how do we push back against that?

One of the answers that I think is obvious is that if many people are working from home — and that’s a privilege in itself — we’re actually going to have more time in our lives in some ways. For people who are homeschooling that is more challenging. We’re going to have more time and for some people, more money. So we can think about how to use that really actively in solidarity. I personally would love to call out to people — particularly people without kids — because they have the advantage of time, to actually put aside some of the time that you would have spent traveling to work and socialising with friends to actually take political action for people who are having a hard time. I think that’s one tangible way we can actually schedule in political action.

One person did mention that it would be really good to socialise the term ‘physical distancing’ instead of ‘social distancing’ because we actually do want to see social collaboration, and social cohesion. Social solidarity. Because that is how we are going to get through.

I haven’t seen my neighbour, I was a little bit sick. But I texted him. Something I’ve been working on prior to this happening has been getting out of my comfort zone a bit. I’ve been quite shy with new people, so trying to talk to my neighbours was a big thing. So he looked after my plants while I was away, and I texted him to say I was a bit sick and I didn’t want to see him just yet but I just wanted to check in on him, and this guy that I don’t know very  well texted back and said, “that’s great, community is the only way forward”. That was a really lovely thing to hear.

Other points of solidarity I would encourage is that we really need to be looking out for people who are losing out in this equation. What I’d actually love is to hear some ideas from other people and maybe we could create a list of people we can provide solidarity to. But some of the obvious ones are musicians, anyone in the arts is having a horrific time right now. So, how do we support them? How do we put aside some money that we would have spent going out to buy their music online, to pay to do house concerts and things like that.

I have seen on the little end of things, I’ve seen a heap of hope. If you’re feeling really crappy about the state of affairs I’d go and have a look at the many mutual aid sites that have popped up. Also as someone who agrees a lit with the ideas around anarchists, it secretly delights me that a lot of people are using anarchist organising models to essential circumnavigate the state and are building community by doing that, which I quite love. Some of those mutual aid sites, it can really cheer you up.

I’ve written a blog where I’m talking about some of the things I’m talking about. I think there are some really good and some also less effective ways you can go about mutual aid. So that’s giving me a lot of hope.

The last thing I would say is to be just be really kind to people online. I was actually incredibly sick, more sick than I’ve ever been. And I had some timing to make me think I’d been exposed to coronavirus. So I self isolated for a week. Being in a city that wasn’t mine that was really eye opening. Quite quickly I felt quite exposed and quite emotional. It would have been so much easier to be in that situation at home. But what I want to say is that going through that process of being tested actually gave me not only a huge insight, and I’ve written up the whole detail of the whole process in another blog, but also how wonderful the doctors and nurses were. Even though they were overwhelmed how amazing they were at explaining to me all the detail, all of the different scenarios, but yeah, I was just so impressed.

I’m not impressed with our government but I am impressed with our health workers and with our communities and how we’re working together on this. I think there’s definitely a lot to be hopeful.

Tim Lo Surdo

I’d like to acknowledge that I am on Aboriginal land that we are all on stolen lands. I am on the stolen lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation, and want to pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging, and acknowledge that sovereignty was never ceded.  Like every issue we’ve ever faced this issue is going to disproportionately impact indigenous people. I believe when the Swine flu was a thing, back in 2011, indigenous people made up 11% of cases and died at a rate 6 times higher than others. That’s because of system discrimination and injustice in this country, and how our health system treat indigenous people in denigrating ways. We’re already seeing this, there have been calls from some people to cut support payments for indigenous people in this crisis. We’ve seen a whole bunch of other announcement around gas that will have terrible implications for land rights that have been passed under the cover or smokescreen of this. Like with every issue, we live in a structurally racist society, and like with every issue indigenous people are going to be disproportionately impacted, and so we need to keep that front and centre in our minds.

The main message I want to talk about tonight is sort of related to that. I want to talk about how COVID-19 impacts different communities in different ways. I want to talk about communities of colour, because that’s who I work with. I want to talk about it in three main ways.

First, I want to talk about how the narrative of COVID-19 is racialised. From the beginning we’ve seen a narrative that’s pushed out this idea that all Asians are a disease risk. There have been calls to ban Chinese immigration from the start. That is disproportionate to calls for bans from other countries. Italy, as we know, is a country that has been hit hard by this. That travel ban came way after the ban for Iran and for China. There’s been this narrative that has blamed Chinese people for the virus by saying that they are unhygienic or uncivilised, falling back onto old tropes. We’ve seen Donald Trump call it the Chinese virus. Just today we saw Ray Hadley, in an interview with Peter Dutton, specifically mentioned Asian Australians as a group that is panic buying and going into rural communities to panic buy. This was in the context of a conversation about criminal syndicates profiteering off criminal buying, so there was a radicalised connection there. I think there is a very real risk as this goes forward and we start to look for people to blame for the situation we’re in right now, that our current power holders are setting things up in a way where they will establish a community to blame, and there are some very dangerous implications for that. From the very start of this back in December and January there were hoax health alerts advising people to avoid suburbs that had high Chinese populations. There have been major newspapers who have labeled this a “Chinese disease”. These are all examples of people using a public health crisis to justify racist beliefs they already had.

In the context of all of this I think it’s important to remember that Australia has a very long history of xenophobia and that the first piece of legislation passed after federation is what we now know as the White Australia Policy. That was explicitly designed to stop Chinese migration in the context of the Gold Rush. Now 100 years later we have a very feverish political discourse that evokes fear about anything Chinese, whether it be immigration, technology or land ownership. The point here is that we have this radicalised discourse, and it’s not an accident, it’s historical. This country has a very long history of xenophobia, and that is not an accident either, it’s part of a very long history of colonisation and disposition and genocide towards first nations people. The reason I’m saying is that because words and narratives mean things and a racialised narrative around coronavirus enables racism against Asians. We’ve already see spikes in racial abuse and violence in social media, the streets, workplaces, public transport, you name it. It has an economic impact, we’ve seen as people start to boycott Chinese businesses. Chinese business owners have reported drops in sales of up to 80% and have been forced to let staff go.

Undocumented migrant workers are a big vulnerable group. It’s difficult to know how many undocumented migrant workers are in the country. There was some research done a while ago that said there were 50,000 undocumented migrant workers just in horticulture and there’s a significant community in Victoria, and the rest are spread out across southern NSW, South Australia and Queensland. These people are especially at risk. They’re not going to go to a hospital as they will do a visa check. There are many places where that has happened in the past and people have been detained at the hospital. What this means is that we need a firewall between the immigration department and the health department. We need a commitment from the health department that there is going to be no communication between the Department of Home Affairs and the Health Department, and what we broadly need is to demand that the Department of Home Affairs will not do enforcement work during this crisis. Their enforcement, policing and detention activities are a public health risk. Excessive policing just causes people to panic, to hide and to run away, and what we need right now is for people to present themselves freely and to feel like they can do that without having their status threatened in any way. So that is the work that we’re doing at Democracy in Colour and we’d really appreciate support around that. That’s 50,000 people just in horticulture who are not going to present their health conditions. That’s not just a huge justice issue but it’s also a huge health risk. Talk to any organiser at the United Workers Union who organise farm workers. When they go out and do this organising work they’ll find eighteen people living in a three bedroom house. How are you supposed to physically distance in that context?

Another issue is incarcerated people. How are we carrying out duty of care for people in prisons? Today we saw that an immigration guard tested positive for COVID-19. I can’t imagine the fear that people who are in detention — both domestically and in Manus and Nauru — are feeling right now. We need to be leveraging this moment to push our demands for the end of both onshore and offshore detention. I think there have been some reports in Victoria of bail provisions being suspended for 12 weeks, so basically people being locked up for longer than is needed for administrative reasons. We that our justice system disproportionately targets people of colour, particularly black people and first nations people.

The last thing I want to finish on to summarise is that people who put profits before people, people who put profits first, use moments like the one we’re in to rewrite the rules in their favour. We’ve started to see that already. But I think conversely we’re in a moment where the normal rules of politics don’t apply. We’re going to be in a lot of pain. Capitalism has created an environment where we think about our own pain first. But I think it’s integral that we think about the shared pain that our communities are going through and the shared hope we have and the shared solidarity we can use to emerge out of this with the foundations for a more just, sustainable and fair future.

To wrap up for real, just in a summary, I think it’s really important to think intersectional about this. It’s really easy to get caught up in our own world. It’s in these moments when justice and activism are no longer hobbies, it’s more critical than ever to thing intersectionally about how other communities are experiencing this. I think it’s really important to promote leadership that embodies cooperation. It’s really important to join your union. The only way we can hold bosses to account in an environment where they see opportunities to exploit workers is through your union. If you have discretionary cash it’s important to donate. There are a lot of small grass roots organisations that are already under threat that are going to disappear through this if they’re not supported. This is a time to donate more. The last one is to think big. In moments like this we are conditioned to think small and to think insular. But in a moment like this the usual politics don’t apply but I think we have a moment to re-envision a society that cares for people and prioritises care for people over profits.

Thanks folks. 

El Gibbs

I’d like to acknowledge that I am on Durag and Gudungurra land and it always was and always will be aboriginal land. In in particular want to acknowledge the work that is going on with Aboriginal and Torres Strait island people with a disability. There is a lot of work going on! Thank you everyone.

I am the director of media and communications at People With a Disability Australia (PWD). We’re the national peak disability rights organisations. We’re a DPO – a disabled persons organisation — which means we are run by disabled people. We’re not a service provider or a carers organisation. We’re run by people with a disability.

A little bit about people with a disability. We’re already at a significant disadvantage. I sometimes think that people don’t know these things, so please excuse me if you do. 40% if people on Newstart are disabled people or people with a chronic illness, only half of us have a job, compared to 83% of non-disabled people of working age, we make up 40% of people in prison. Most of them are aboriginal and Torres straight islander people with a disability. At the last hearing of the Disability Royal Commission it was into health care, we heard from people with an intellectual disability and we heard about the kind of barriers people face in accessing health care already, even before this happened, and how they die 25-30 years before non-disabled people. So, we are already feeling that things are hard before all of this happened.

At PWDA we’re hearing from disabled people from all over Australia. Today only I’ve spoken to disabled people from everywhere except SA and the NT, and the same stories are coming up everywhere. The systems that we use to survive and thrive in a world that doesn’t like us very much and aren’t built for us, are really being overwhelmed at the moment and are becoming mostly not available. We’re hearing from people with a disability that they can’t get food. Like they haven’t had food for three days, their support services are walking away from them, and we also are hearing a really disturbing amount of stories of people being subjected to an increasing amount of restraint. So that means people being locked into group homes, being locked into their rooms, and people in boarding houses being denied services and food. This is also happening in aged care. Watching patterns of constraint, it is certainly happening in our community right now.

We put out, with 8 other national disability rights organisations today a list of asks. We are finding that people with a disability are being ignored in the national response, so we’ve sent out a detailed list of our concerns and our ideas to solve the problems, particular for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with a disability. Our colleagues in our First Nations People with a disability network have organised ideas around doing a significant amount of outreach to get on the phone, call people with a disability and find out how they are.

We’ve got ideas and we’ve been presenting those to Government and also poking some private companies — retailers in particular — to try and get systems in place so that people with a disability aren’t left without essentials. People with a disability are really scared. I’m really scared too. I am one of those people who are at a significant risk, so this is happening to me too. However, there’s also a really amazing amount of work going on. I’m seeing people with a disability doing incredible things. We already use things like mutual aid groups and do the kind of interdependence groups our lives rely upon. I’m watching people build on the networks that we already and reach out into their communities far and wide to try and get support and resources. There are a few of us who got together last weekend to develop a mutual aid group and we’ve got nearly 1,000 people already talking and help each other.

I just wanted to say while you’re thinking about what happens next, include us. Include us in campaigns and events and perhaps even let us lead some of them. We’re really good at this. We’re really good at creating a lot with a little and creating community when times are incredibly hard and we’re really good at doing campaigns where we’re physically distant. So I work from home myself. I’m often housebound. I often don’t leave my house for weeks and weeks at a time. Seeing everyone almost move into my space has been really interesting and if you’re having any problems and you’re finding it hard in any way I’ve got lots and lots of ideas that can make it a bit easier to cope with. So feel free to get in touch.