The Queen Victoria Market in Australia’s second largest city, Melbourne, is usually a thriving affair. Like any ancient agora, people travel to meet there, purchase fresh produce, and natter. The fruit and vegetable vendors are all colour, a profusion of smells and noise. The meat market heaves with patrons keen to snap up deals; the deli dazzles with kaleidoscopic seduction.
The noise, usually towards the latter part of the day, is a din of offers. “One-dollar bag! One-dollar bag!” Over the course of the latest lockdown in Victoria – its third since the coronavirus pandemic began – calls for the one-dollar bag have become rarer. There is little stomach for the vendors to gather their produce from out of the city, unpack it at the market, and then sit in a boredom bordering on the lethal. Weariness encourages dark thoughts.
Towards the Peel Street side of the market are a Turkish couple who have held a spot selling peppers sweet and hot for years. Fruits and various marrows also feature. Since the pandemic, their wallets have been gradually emptying, a frittering process that has induced melancholy desperation. The produce is simply not selling. The colourful stalls are left untouched; the crowds, battered by months of restrictions, are reluctant to make an appearance. In the wake of this Pavlovian experiment in public health, rivers of people have become trickles.
During the latest five-day lockdown, the couple, along with many fellow vendors, had decided that it would hardly be worth making the trip. The 5 km rule of limited travel would mean that many regulars would fail to make an appearance. The stalls lie abandoned and neglected, with customers and sellers spectral.
The snap lockdown, described by Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews as a “circuit-breaker”, had one target in mind. Hotel quarantine had again been breached, this time at the Holiday Inn at Melbourne Airport. The UK variant of the novel coronavirus was fearfully suspected as having made it into the community. The infectious cluster gave initial signs of thriving, though the total number turned out to be a mere 19. Till then, the state had not seen a local infection for 28 days. “There was simply no alternative but to follow the advice provided,” Andrews explained. “I am very proud of every single Victorian for the work they’ve done, and the sacrifices they’ve made.”
That advice, designed to halt the particularly “hyper-infectious” British strain, was brutal. The entire state was put into a Stage 4 lockdown February 12. The same conditions that had governed last year’s 112-day lockdown affecting Melbourne were imposed across the entire state. Andrews had his justification in order. “I don’t want to sit here in a week having ducked the difficult decision today, only to have to report that the only thing that will work is not a five-day shutdown but something that has to last much, much longer.”
Whatever estimation has been made about Andrews in responding to COVID-19 outbreaks in Victoria, the move to impose a state-wide lockdown indifferent to geography and locality was not well-received. While he generally commands significant support, the Andrews fan club is starting to thin, its following becoming slightly tarnished. Within his own Labor Party, members are feeling the surliness of their constituents.
Certain opposition MPs have decided that the lockdown had only one purpose in mind: to crush small businesses. Liberal MP Bernie Finn, in addressing an online event organised by the Facebook group Reignite Democracy Australia just prior to the lifting of the lockdown, thought he had the answer. “Hardline socialists don’t like small businesses … maybe, just maybe it is all about that.”
Chair in Epidemiology at Deakin University, Catherine Burnett, was blunt in assessing Andrews’ calculus of risk. “Andrews said a five-day lockdown is ‘infinitely better’ than taking a chance and ending up with a five-week lockdown or worse. But in truth, we don’t know for sure what that chance is.” She quickly gets down to business, trying to see some good in the whole snap effort. Victoria’s “contact of contacts” tracing had yielded “rich data” on how the testing and tracing regime would withstand more infectious strains and “multi-case seeding” events. “Mapping and contract quarantine timing and overlaying this with various transmission scenarios will allow us to learn more from this contained outbreak.”
Peter Collignon, an infectious diseases physician based at the Australian National University, queried the rationale of such short, savage lockdowns. “The average incubation is five days and really if you think there’s cases out there, you really have to do it for 14 days or even 28.” The measure suggested that the Andrews government did not “have faith in [its] testing and contact tracing.”
Andrews, for his part, is holding to the line that Victorians are generally understanding on what is at stake. “I think nearly 40,000 people coming up and getting tested because we have asked them to would indicate that the community knows and understands how significant this is.” He has dismissed much criticism of his policy as a case of “point-scoring”, mere signs and graffiti spray that make little difference to the march of the virus.
Unfortunately for such agencies as COVID-19 Quarantine Victoria, questions have to be posed. The body prefers to keep to its own experts while boxing the contrarians. The quarantine program it oversees did not follow the same infection control standards recommended by a Personal Protective Equipment taskforce. This meant that people who had not tested positive for coronavirus were to be treated as a separate case to those who had. The recommendation that N95 masks, face shields or goggles, and disposable gowns, be used across all sites was ignored.
For the Turkish couple at the Queen Victoria Market, such matters are mere details, the minutiae of policy. The wizened lady, fingers gnarled by years of toughening labour, was contemplating selling up before the third lockdown was announced. The heavily moustachioed husband pretends to be indifferent, though there is an air of the last stand about him. The rent is crushing. Breaking even is becoming almost impossible. The most depressing thing of all, claims the wife, is packing up the produce and carting it back. Heart breaking and crushing, their world is closing in.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: email@example.com