In Episode 4 of our Race in Society series, Associate Professor Alana Lentin and I spoke with three health experts to unpack how racist ableism drives the management of lockdown and healthcare during the pandemic. Ableism is the discrimination of disabled people, based on the belief that able-bodied people (people without disability) are superior, and the taken-for-granted assumptions that able-bodied experiences are “natural,” “normal” and universal. Racist ableism describes how ableism intersects with racial discrimination (unfair treatment and lack of opportunities, due to ascribed racial markers such as skin colour or other perceived physical features, ancestry, national or ethnic origin, or immigrant status).
In “Lockdown, Healthcare and Racist Ableism,” we explore the ways in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living with disabilities can be better supported in the health system, how to establish cultural safety during the pandemic, and what an anti-racist response to healthcare might look like.
First, we spoke with June Riemer, the Deputy Chief Executive Officer of the First Peoples Disability Network. She discussed the Network’s advocacy on the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability, and the impact of COVID-19 on Aboriginal people with disability. Second, Associate Professor Lilon Bandler is a Principal Research Fellow for Leaders in Indigenous Medical Education Network. She spoke about cultural safety and the imposition of heavier restrictions on racial minorities during lockdown. Finally, Dr. Chris Lemoh is an infectious disease expert and general physician at Monash University Health. He discussed his advice to the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services, after the Department put nine social housing towers in Melbourne under heavily armed police lockdown. The majority of these residents were migrants and refugees. No other neighbourhood was policed in Melbourne in the same way.
These patterns are now being repeated in Sydney. Eight multicultural suburbs have been put into a “hard lockdown,” including visits by police and military personnel. To see how our guests’ work still resonates in the current context, watch our video, and read a summary below.
Without warning, on 3 July 2020, the Victorian Government placed 3,000 people living in nine social housing towers into a police-enforced lockdown. They aimed to contain the spread of COVID-19 infection by targeting disadvantaged migrants who were in a dependent relationship with the state (social housing tenants live in buildings owned by the Government). Ultimately, this racial targeting did not work. The entire state of Victoria was still placed into lockdown, which lasted almost four months.
The Melbourne example shows police-enforced segregation of multicultural communities is an ineffective public health model. It is therefore profoundly concerning that such recent history is currently being repeated in Sydney almost exactly one year later.
Announced suddenly on 30 July 2021, police and the military have been deployed into eight multicultural suburbs in South West and Western Sydney, to enforce lockdown through door-to-door visits. Military personnel are not mandated to be vaccinated. This show of state force was not used in previous outbreaks involving white, middle class people in the Northern Beaches, or at the start of the present lockdown, in Bondi.
Heavily policing public health in places where Aboriginal people, migrants and other working class people live sends a damaging message to those communities. There are potential health risks with this plan, including to mental health and safety.
Let’s reflect on some of the lessons from Melbourne, and then explore how racist ableism is operating in the current “hard lockdown” of select multicultural suburbs in Sydney.
Three states in Australia are presently under a strict COVID-19 lockdown: New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia. New South Wales is experiencing a major Delta variant outbreak, which is highly contagious. It has spread to the other states through working-class workers, who do not have the luxury of working from home. Similarly to what happened in the harsh Melbourne lockdown in 2020, residents in migrant communities have been placed into a tougher lockdown relative to others, even as they are required to continue working, and submit to COVID testing every three days (“surveillance testing”).
In Episode 3 of Race in Society (video below), Associate Professor Alana Lentin and I lead a panel about how mainstream media create sensationalist accounts of the pandemic, and the proactive ways in which Aboriginal people and Asian people in particular lead their own responses. We spoke with Dr Summer May Finlay, a Yorta Yorta woman and Public Health Researcher at the Universities of Wollongong and Canberra. In our video below, she details how Aboriginal community controlled health organisations have effectively dealt with COVID-19 using social marketing campaigns. We also chatted with Dr Karen Schamberger, an independent curator and historian. She covers the history of Australian sinophobia (the fear of China, its people and or its culture), and how anti-Chinese racism plays out in media reports on racism and the COVID-19 pandemic. This issue remains pertinent, given that the suburbs currently under strict lockdown in Sydney have relatively large Asian populations.
Even though we filmed this discussion 10 months ago, the commentary illuminates the current COVID-19 crisis.
Almost 530 researchers (including me) have signed the Open Letter Against Racism. Critical race theory is an academic field under uninformed and unwarranted political attack in Australia and in other nations. See an excerpt below and please read the full letter.
Ending discrimination against gender and sexual minorities requires major social transformation. Institutional change is paramount. As you keep fighting to make your organisation accountable, here are three small but impactful things you can do at your workplace to end this form of discrimination.
Before the year ends, here’s a couple of things I forgot to cross-post here: an interview about interracial friendships; my work on applied sociology translated into Italian and Farsi; and my analysis of race and the management of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Episode 2 of Race in Society, Associate Professor Alana Lentin and I are joined by Jill Gallagher, Chief Executive Officer of the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (VACCHO), who are leading COVID-19 pandemic responses in Victoria. She discusses how the pandemic amplifies existing health and social inequalities. Also on the panel is sociologist, Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson, who is Professor of Indigenous Research at RMIT University, and author of countless critical race books, including, ‘The White Possessive‘. She demonstrates how her theorisation of Aboriginal sovereignty disrupts how the pandemic is currently understood. Finally, we also speak with sociologist Dr Debbie Bargallie, Senior research fellow at Griffith University, and author of the excellent new release, ‘Unmasking the Racial Contract: Indigenous voices on racism in the Australian Public Service.’ She talks about how Aboriginal people are excluded from social policy, which has compounded poor decision-making on public health during the pandemic.
Associate Professor Alana Lentin and I are both sociologists and we’ve launched a new webseries called “Race in Society.” The first season is dedicated to “Race and COVID-19.” In this first episode, we cover the inspiration for the series and why we are focusing on the pandemic.
In the video below, Alana explains how our idea for Race in Society came about. We were noticing an increased interest in critical race studies among academics, students, and the broader public. Much of this discussion replicates ideas of race from North America, which is not necessarily applicable to Australia.
It is still Reconciliation Week, and Australia is undergoing two major court cases where police have shot dead young Aboriginal people. Yet non-Indigenous people remain wilfully oblivious. We are collectively spending more energy in feeling morally superior to other countries, rather than acting towards national change. Specifically, Australian media lead with stories of “violent unrest,” “violent protests,” and “mayhem” in the USA, instead of focusing on police violence against Black victims and protesters, and providing insightful analysis on similarities to Aboriginal deaths in custody in the Australian context.
Australian social media and public commentary are preoccupied with either dismissing current events as unique to other societies (“only in America”), or posting aghast (rightfully) over police brutality overseas. We do this despite not engaging with long-running campaigns led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. It’s not that we should disengage from world events; #BlackLivesMatter is an important movement that resonates globally and deserves attention. The issue is the disproportionate focus on the USA by Australians. This maintains our perception that police brutality is an American quirk and allows non-Indigenous Australians to ignore local racial justice movements led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
This post will illustrate how non-Indigenous Australians “other“ national racism, as if it is the abhorrent opposite of our national culture. This is easier than taking the steps we need to address police brutality and racial injustice right here and now.