We are sent here by history
The lighter gave fire, and was present at the burning
The burning of the republic
Burnt the names, burnt the records, burnt the archive, burnt the bills
Burnt the mortgage, burnt the student loans, burnt the life insurance
An act of destruction became creation
—Shabaka and the Ancestors, ‘You’ve Been Called’, We Are Sent Here by History
The memory feels like a million years ago now, even though it was only January: toxic levels of smoke blanketed the country, forcing people to take refuge in their homes and don face masks, shuttering their doors and windows.
Periods of self-isolation come and go, until they don’t.
At some point, we risk assimilating to a life that has become merely a series of cataclysms, each new disruption requiring increasingly permanent states of isolation.
It does not have to be this way.
The impacts of climate change and of COVID-19 are mutually informative. Like the recent bushfires, COVID-19 is a crisis contributed to by human action, with devastating effects on our welfare. These crises have revealed the obligations that we owe, both to one another and to the larger environment in which we live.
Surveying the Landscape: Oil and Social Distancing
In my dream scenario (and I emphasise the word dream here), the government would take the collapse in oil prices as an opportunity to phase out fossil fuel subsidies ($29 billion annually, according to the IMF). The money would then be invested into assisting those most at risk from the pandemic. You can find them trapped inside the cells of for-profit prisons. They are the asylum seekers sitting in detention. The temporary and undocumented migrants upon which Australia’s food supply chains rely. The homeless. Those living in dense public housing or overcrowded conditions. People experiencing domestic violence (rates of which have risen globally since self-isolation measures were enacted).
These are the people who face the greatest difficulty in safely practicing social distancing and self-isolation.
Many First Nations fall into one or more of these categories. We account for one in four of the adult prisoner population and are at greater risk of dying due to underlying high rates of chronic disease, an epidemic that long predates COVID-19. Issues such as overcrowding (including situations in which Elders live among several generations of family) and literacy rates also disproportionately affect First Nations in both urban and remote settings, making it harder to share information and contain the virus. The government’s strategy of encouraging Aboriginal people to return to their communities is worsening overcrowding.
First Nations in remote areas face additional challenges. Delays in test results. Difficulties in accessing testing. Health services operating at capacity. Reliance on fly-in-fly-out staff (many of whom are from New Zealand, which has imposed quarantine restrictions). Language barriers for those who do not speak English as a first language. The fact that not everyone has access to media.
And there is a grim irony in all of this: as First Nations know, outbreaks of deadly viruses are not a new phenomenon. They have marked life since the 18th century, when ships first arrived carrying novel diseases.
Indeed, First Nations around the globe still live at the coalface of colonisation. Our Pacific neighbours—who face untold disruption due to climate change—confront dilemmas similar to those of communities here, owing to a lack of medical and other resources. We understand that the destruction of country contributes to pandemics, to ecological crises.
We have survived the devastation of that truth many times over.
Isolation and Body Bags
In the closing days of March I come across a video of Edna O’Malley.
Edna is an Elder from Wijilawarrim-Molly Springs, a remote community near Kununurra in far northern WA.
She was speaking out, trying to draw attention to what was happening in her community:
As a small community 35 k’s out of town, we were beaten to the shop to get food, we were never supplied any, we couldn’t even get any cleaning stuff. […] Why are the government giving us body bags first, and not our cleaning stuff? […]
And we gonna be survivors here, we’re a bloodline for this long country, and we’re not gonna die, so please don’t send us the message that we’re gonna die, send us our cleaning stuff, that’s all I can say. And please, take care, this virus got no countrymen.
News of these body bags being sent to remote First Nations in Western Australia recalls the impact that swine flu had on First Nations in Canada in 2009. It recalls what happened as you were writing this piece.
That night, revising for the last time, your social feed whispered to you.
Pictures of body bags for community on Turtle Island.
Pictures of body bags where pictures of medical supplies should have been.
The incandescent threat of another genocide.
I have seen reports of undertakers in Madrid having to don rubbish liners as a safety measure while working.
And begun to realise how, in systems built on respect for power and privilege, the labour of care undertaken by community and medical services can be treated like garbage.
I leave the house on Good Friday and the world feels remade. A man is brushing his dog on the lawn. The image seems so wholesome you wonder if someone is paying him to do it. Your eye searches for the camera he must surely be arranging each strand of fur for. But no: just a man, in the sun, brushing the sort of dog you might see in a meme saying henlo, y r u so smol?
Down the road a couple are playing mini-golf. The local pie shop is full of people gathered in the sun.
Three young women, blonde, decked out in sunglasses, navigate the street.
And this is where I cross my fingers.
Of course they’ll be fine, in all probability. Only three of them. And not looking like the type police would normally target.
Social media is filled with stories of suspicion and racism. Abuse toward people of ‘Asian appearance’. Glares and anger directed at the Gumbaynggirr woman in the supermarket queue buying extra supplies.
It was for people in her community.
But who was to know?
Forests and Flat-Packs
Like its 2003 predecessor SARS, as well avian flu and swine flu, COVID-19 represents the meeting of capitalist agriculture and urbanisation. In its drive to extract profit from the land, agriculture invades local ecosystems, placing animals in ever-closer proximity. Diseases are encouraged to take a zoonotic leap of faith across the species barrier from animal to human. They then spread rapidly and widely through systems of overproduction.
You can picture them all out there, our cheerful wayfaring microbiological neighbours, thumbs cocked and ready to hitch a ride aboard worldwide commodity chains, to vector outward through flows of labour migration. That cheap flight emitting tonnes of carbon not only wrecks the biosphere but provides a quick and easy mode of transport for viruses eager to get out and see the globe. Indeed, air pollution may itself increase the spread of disease: by lowering immunity, and acting as a carrier.
And if the forests logged for flat-pack furniture ultimately lead to more viruses and more hazardous climates, then what was it all for?
I walk the streets with my partner and the atmosphere is galvanic. Every house recalls an absence.
A laid-off worker. A migrant unable to return home.
The homeless. The invisible.
In Barkly Square there are more police than people. Many small businesses are shut but McDonald’s remains open.
My partner sends money to her grandparents. She is worried they could lose their electricity.
If that happens her grandmother, who is on life support, could die.
Sometimes it feels as though everything is changing.
The debt ceiling lifted. The purse strings freed.
A window of relief from extractive capital has been opened—one which, if we are vigilant, will not need to be shuttered as soon as the current crisis ends.
The greatest debt, however, remains planetary.
Reports have suggested that people are beginning to chafe against the restrictions. When will we return to normal? they ask.
Is it normal that Australia was on fire for months? Normal that the Amazon, the world’s most biodiverse rainforest, spent most of last year alight? Normal that Britney Spears, quoting a queer Chinese-Australian artist, Mimi Zhu, implored her 23.7 million Instagram followers to redistribute wealth and strike? (Hopefully that last one at least might become normal. It’s certainly more cheering than listening to celebrities quarantined on superyachts or in rose-filled bathtubs.)
According to Professor Albert van Dijk of the Australian National University, last year was ‘probably the worst in a century or more’ for the environment. ‘You start to see ecosystems fall apart and then struggle to recover before the next major disturbance.’
Normal at present is nothing if not a constant struggle for us to try and recover before the next disturbance.
The problem is this: can we navigate a just recovery?
Imagine the End of the World
I am staring at a picture, and nothing is out of place.
Pasta. Rice. Soap.
Everything is so ordinary.
It is a picture from IRL Infoshop. They collected and redistributed food and medicine to people with compromised immune systems and others who, due to health or loss of income, struggled to access what they needed.
The picture represents what is, for many, the greatest health and economic crisis in living memory.
But it is more than that, too.
It is a promise to the future.
To those not yet born, it says: when this is over—when this has all become a memory, when even those who remember it have all vanished—we will look back and know that we came together.
If state intervention, scientific advice, and grassroots action are effective in dealing with the virus, the same principles should be applied toward the ever-present threat of climate change and ecological devastation. Governments have long recognised these dangers, but taken little action. Economic growth has assumed centre-stage. The pandemic has ruptured that narrative, and cast a glimpse into the possibility of another world. No longer can we be so sure, as philosopher Frederic Jameson opined, that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.
Now is an opportune moment for social, economic, and ecological change. For maximal demand.
There are limits, of course. Economic and psychological stress from the fallout of the pandemic are vitiating the energies that could be spent on reflecting and organising (even as businesses are able to lay off workers and buy time to think).
But that is why people power matters. For all of Australia’s reliance on government—a situation stemming, as Gray Connolly observes, from people having historically looked to the Crown as ‘a helper not an oppressor’—First Nations have rarely been able to depend on or trust the settler-colonial state.
‘Why Are You Here?’
I won’t deny that improvisation and solidarity have their limits. They cannot manufacture hospital equipment from thin air when supplies are limited.
Nonetheless, increased flexibility and adaptability are necessary at the community level, especially in harnessing people’s capacity for self-organisation. Any actions taken now will reverberate beyond the current moment.
Lots of mob are already doing great work. First Nations groups like Firesticks Alliance use cultural burning to improve the biodiversity and environmental resilience which centuries of extractive settler-colonialism have plundered. Seed Indigenous Youth Climate Network are empowering local communities by building capacity and skills, particularly among young people.
It is said that even viruses leave records in our genes.
If that is true, then the future will be decided by what we do with their uneasy inheritance.
‘Why are you here?’
This is the question a respected young Yorta Yorta and Dja Dja Wurrung man posts on social media.
Why are we here?
When the pandemic hit, I heard my uncle went out and bought food and supplies to donate to his neighbours.
He had discovered a sense of purpose from the crisis.
Organisations like Anticolonial Asian Alliance and Undercurrent Victoria are offering advice on mutual care. Teaching people not to rely on police when they are in trouble or see something suspicious.
To not put their trust in institutions that target and criminalise people. To work together.
To care for each other, as a community.
All Hell Can’t Stop Us Now
The novelist and critic James Bradley last year described the height of Australia’s bushfire crisis as a time when, for many people, ‘denial finally stopped being an option’.
In fact, it never was.
Denial should have been outed a long time ago for what it actually is: the failure to act.
We are witnessing an increasing awareness of our own ecological collapse; of systemic environmental and economic trauma hastened by the dominating impulse of capital. Planetary habitability will remain a deadly pressure on the existence of all forms of life long after the virus passes—to say nothing of the fact that human impact on the environment will continue to create conditions for more novel viruses to emerge.
I hope we listen to author Sisonke Msimang, who called for 2020 to ‘persuade the already-converted to do more, to push harder, to hang in there for longer.’ Not least of all because nature abhors a vacuum—and the powerful will rush to fill those opening before our eyes if we do not.
In the words of activist and writer Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, speaking with Naomi Klein and Astra Taylor during an online teach-in watched by over 14,000 people around the globe:
In these moments that create opportunity for the forces of reaction, there are also opportunities for ordinary people to transform these conditions in ways that benefit the mass of humanity. The scale of the coronavirus crisis is so profound that there is now also an opportunity to remake our society for the greater good while rejecting the pernicious individualism that has left us utterly ill-equipped for the moment. The class-driven hierarchy of our society will encourage the spread of this vicious virus unless dramatic, previously unthinkable solutions are immediately put on the table.
Or, to paraphrase the great Zach de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine: change has to start somewhere. It has to start sometime.
What better place than here? What better time than now?
Declan Fry is an essayist, critic, and proud descendant of the Yorta Yorta. Born on Wongatha country in Kalgoorlie, he received the Tom Collins Prize in Australian Literature in 2009 and was a joint winner of the Todhunter Literary Award in 2013. He currently lives and writes on the land of the Wurundjeri and Boon Wurrung peoples of the Kulin Nation. Their sovereignty has never been ceded. @DeclanFry1
Illustration by Stephanie Ochona @thecreepycheese