Victoria Shipp discusses the difficulty the Australian government faces following recent anti-lockdown protests.
Throughout 2020 Australia was lorded as a Covid success story, with the government even outlining a plan to achieve ‘Covid zero’. However, in the present, the country has made international news for vast anti-lockdown protests, which resulted in over 200 arrests on the 22nd of September alone. These protests provide another case study of how Covid, coupled with the wide-reaching impact of social media, has led to a more divided society and limited options for the Australian government.
This is because these protests are the perfect example of how social media has made tribalism over Covid worse. The catalyst of the current wave of protests was the enforcement of vaccine mandates for construction workers. However, anti-vax and right-wing extremist groups hijacked the cause online, using sites like Facebook to bring more like-minded people to the protests. The Secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Sally McManus, claimed that the protests have been targeted by far-right groups and have been coordinated by extremists. Furthermore, Dr Kaz Ross, an expert in far-right extremism within Australia, states that there were definitely Nazis at the protests.
However, to dismiss the protesters as far-right nutters is to try and isolate the effect that social media has had, by segregating people into the extremists and everyone else. The problem with this is that it misses the point that vaccine misinformation and disinformation have turned perfectly ordinary people into sceptics, fearful of government overreach. A study in May showed that a third of Australians felt they were unlikely to get vaccinated. The most hesitancy came from women and non- English speakers, who don’t exactly fit the stereotype of an extremist. This highlights that those protesting are only the boldest of a much wider group in society, one which spans from slight sceptics to complete extremists.
What is needed is a better awareness campaign about the vaccine, as well as a balance of carrots and sticks to motivate vaccine uptake.
To be fair to Facebook, this problem is not solely their fault: the relatively low rates of Covid in the country, combined with the shut borders, have meant that 21% of Australians asked did not feel any pressure to get vaccinated. Therefore, in some ways, Australia is the victim of its own success. Why take on the risks being associated with the vaccine that are being spread online if you don’t have to? Thus, it seems clear that any vaccination drive will have a lot of work to do. Perhaps opening the borders in November will give an incentive for getting vaccinated, but there are only so many people that this will incentivise. For example, 50% of those who are hesitant about getting a vaccine blame nerves about side-effects which suggests that letting some go on holiday, while arresting others, will not solve the problem.
However, the government will not have to convince all Australians to get vaccinated. The BBC has reported that millennials were very keen to get vaccinated. This is not the only divide, whilst some protest over-reaching Covid measures, others in Queensland and Western Australia don’t want Covid measures to lessen at all. This puts the government in a bit of a bind; whatever route they take will be the exact opposite of what the other tribe wants. Therefore, although arrests are right for the violent, to create a less divided society we need listening and understanding. What is needed is a better awareness campaign about the vaccine, as well as a balance of carrots and sticks to motivate vaccine uptake. Most importantly, the government needs to provide stability and prove that no matter which path it takes, no Australian needs to think it will be the end of the world.