Just before 10am on 19th February 1942, 152 bombers and a fighter escort of 36 Mitsubishi A6M Zeros appeared above Darwin Harbour. A second wave arrived two hours later. To this day, nobody knows exactly how many people were killed in the bombing of Darwin. A report the following month found at least 242 died, but much higher estimates have been offered.
There is a widespread, but probably untrue, belief that the wartime government covered up the extent of the destruction. Early newspaper stories and official statements gave very low death tolls, but these reflected the figures Canberra had at the time. Either way, information was scarce. There are stories of civilian refugees from Darwin talking to people in other cities who had no real idea what had happened.
A faint echo that mutual incomprehension can be heard in the social media sniping between lockdown-traumatised Melburnians and Sydneysiders now caught in their own lockdown. Those of us who lived through one hundred days of confinement were angry and bewildered at news Sydney’s shopping centres were still open; those who’d looked on in horror as Melbourne shut down were appalled that Melburnians were trying to shoehorn that same blunt response onto a very different set of circumstances.
To Sydney eyes, Melburnians had become dangerously trigger-happy, demanding restrictions well beyond the evidence. From Melbourne, pre-lockdown Sydney appeared frighteningly complacent in the face of an existential threat.
The Sydney lockdown has now come to resemble Melbourne’s, and even to exceed it in severity in some ways. You would expect that at some point the demands for a ‘real lockdown’ from south of the Murray would stop. Yet the belief persists that Sydney still isn’t ‘taking this seriously’.
Whatever Sydney does now can never be harsh enough, for the ‘real lockdown’ has long since ceased to be an actual policy prescription. The argument is no longer about specific public health measures, if it ever was. Nor does it track geography, given vocal anti-lockdown sentiment in Melbourne and criticisms of the speed of NSW’s response within Sydney. Like the cities Marco Polo describes to Kublai Khan in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, ‘Sydney’ and ‘Melbourne’ function in these arguments as ideas, not places. They name two competing metaphysics of what lockdowns are, and ultimately, what the pandemic itself is.
Prior to the current outbreak at least, Sydney has pointed to its record of being able to suppress and then eliminate covid without the sort of measures that Melbourne was forced into during its second wave. ‘Gold Standard’ contact tracing and isolation could keep the virus at bay until everyone was vaccinated. At least until the Delta variant came along, this allowed Sydney to maintain a drastically more normal life. Covid was an unusually big public health challenge, but this was a matter of degree, not kind.
This approach implies that Melbourne’s lockdown was ultimately a sort of policy failure, one cleverly avoided by the cousins up north. Yet Melbourne people, or at least a great many of us, didn’t see 2020 that way. Melburnians did not fail, and they were reluctant to believe their government and public servants had either. We dread lockdowns, yet also see them as a necessary and ultimately noble sacrifice of our own temporary happiness for the sake of others’ lives. The Second Lockdown was sacred, in Emile Durkheim’s sense of the word: that which the community places above all else, the one thing so important that it can suspend the commerce of the everyday and mundane.
In the Revelations of Divine Love, the earliest surviving book by a woman in English, the 14th century mystic Julian of Norwich experiences a vision of God thanking her for her sufferings: ‘I thank thee of thy travail and namely of thy youth.’ For Julian, suffering, though meaningless and gratuitous while lived, becomes retrospectively sanctified through divine gratitude.
One city expects to be thanked for its suffering, while the other expects to be congratulated for avoiding it. This was never going to be a good basis for solidarity in a crisis. For one side it looks like the other is demanding pointless hairshirt self-mortification; to the other side it looks like their suffering is being dismissed as useless or foolish.
Both views have something suspiciously self-congratulatory about them. Both cover over as much as they illuminate. The idea of lockdowns as sacred suffering is easier to maintain while being paid to work from home, not struggling to cover lost shifts or risking infection to do a job deemed essential. But avoiding lockdowns requires so many things to go improbably right, and keep going right. To paraphrase the IRA’s chilling message to Margaret Thatcher, the virus only has to get lucky once. That once, it seems, is Delta.
Of course, the whole country’s strategy was to buy us time, by keeping transmission low or absent until we could get everyone vaccinated. In that context Victorians have some grounds to complain the gains they suffered for have been squandered. But then, so does everybody else.
My job is argument, and I would like to settle this one, but I have no idea how. These ugly border skirmishes will continue. We turn on each other because we cannot argue with the numbers or the virus. We’re cut off from the future, for we cannot plan, we cannot anticipate, and we’ve learned not to predict.
But we can still listen, and still love, and prop each other up with whatever’s to hand. And perhaps we can heed Calvino’s Polo on how to escape from suffering ‘the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together’: ‘Seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.’
Patrick Stokes is a Melbourne-based writer, philosophy academic and producer. His most recent book is Digital Souls: A Philosophy of Online Death (Bloomsbury, 2021).