News World Garry Linnell: Empathy is dead and it’s time for us peasants to make way for profits
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Garry Linnell: Empathy is dead and it’s time for us peasants to make way for profits

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It did not take long after the disease arrived for the bodies to begin piling up.

They found some of them in the fields; others were curled stiffly on the dirt floors of their shacks, bodies hollowed by starvation, their mouths frozen in a final grimace of pain.

But there was something even more macabre waiting for those collecting the dead during The Great Famine.

Many of the victims had died with the green of Ireland inside them.

In 1845 a fungus-like microorganism began working its way through the tired Irish soil and turned the only staple food source for the poor – the Lumper potato – into a putrid black mush reeking of rot.

As the death count rose and their prayers went unanswered, the hungry turned to the ground beneath their feet. They were buried with green-stained mouths, their guts lined with undigested grass and soil.

The microorganism that created so many years of despair throughout Ireland – and would force more than two million to flee to other parts of the world – bears no biological resemblance to COVID-19.

But if you listen hard enough, you can always hear the echoes of history.

These scenes were common in Ireland during the years of the potato famine and the evictions in the middle of the 19th century. Photo: AAP/Mary Evans Library

The English overlords and land barons who ruled Ireland with an iron fist in the 19th century may not have created the poison that destroyed the potato crop, but they could have prevented the worst of the famine.

They just chose not to. Profit took precedence over lives.

There was no shortage of food in Ireland – those rolling pastures produced enormous amounts of wheat and beef.

But most of it was destined for lucrative trade and the dinner plates of the London aristocracy.

Diverting it to the starving Irish masses was unthinkable.

Besides, what was the point of helping all those weak and vulnerable peasants? They were expendable and would probably die anyway.

The potato blight was the judgment of God and an “effective mechanism for reducing surplus population,” wrote Sir Charles Trevelyan, an English bureaucrat appointed to oversee famine relief.

“The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.”

So the business of plundering Ireland’s soil came first.

Two years into the famine thousands of Irish poor – no longer able to afford their rent – were turned out of their homes in a series of mass evictions by their powerful English landlords.

Can you hear history’s echo? It’s the sound of coffers filling, of fortunes being made, of rich men mocking the poor, of a ruling class laughing and, yes, even revelling in their lack of empathy and compassion.

It’s a sound becoming more familiar by the day.

Destitute people in Ireland often lay dead for days without burial as the rate of death was so high and resources so few. Photo: AAP/Mary Evans Library

Fractured by coronavirus along state and ideological lines, the chasm has now widened between those demanding the end of lockdowns and the resumption of business – and those preferring a safer, lives-first approach.

Just look at the predictable pile-on over Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews’ “roadmap” for the state’s exit from its second wave of COVID-19.

It takes too long, say the critics. It’s way too cautious. It’s filled with absurdities, inconsistencies and double standards, not to mention a gross infringement of civil rights.

According to the CEO of the Victorian Chamber of Commerce, Paul Guerra, it’s a “kick in the guts … we can’t continue to let business and jobs be decimated on the way to controlling the spread of the virus”.

Wesfarmers managing director Rob Scott is worried that Mr Andrews’ strategy will create “more uncertainty and hardship” and inflict an enormous and incalculable toll “for many people, financially and on their emotional wellbeing, and also for the economy”.

Wesfarmers managing director Rob Scott. Photo: AAP

In other words, time to open the gates, Mr Andrews.

You’re over-reacting. If society ever really was seriously threatened by coronavirus, that threat is over.

Of course, business types would never be so crude as to ask why we are bothering to protect the lives of the elderly and the vulnerable in order to give them a few more months of life.

Or that a certain body count – whatever it might be – is acceptable if it means kickstarting the economy.

They can leave that to the usual sycophantic gang of lickspittle commentators who can always be relied upon to perform on cue as their shrill ventriloquist dolls.

Mr Scott is particularly peeved because the Victorian government had not consulted him on its strategy for business recovery.

Given his eagerness to address matters of serious public policy, perhaps he will now walk away from his annual compensation package of more than $6 million and stand for office.

The Andrews government has certainly failed the people on several fronts, including its dismal attempts at hotel quarantine and its slipshod contact tracing system.

But do these people really think Andrews is such a class warrior that he gets up every morning to plot further ways of driving the capitalist dogs to ruin and undermining the economic welfare of the nation?

The demonising of Mr Andrews is absurd.

But it’s what you expect now in a world where there is no longer any middle ground, where everything is reduced to caricature, where even the President of the United States disparages those who gave their lives in the Vietnam War as “losers” and “suckers”.

Let there be no mistake. This pandemic has created fear, distrust and anxiety. But it has also accelerated that divide between the haves and have-nots, the powerful and the weak, and the right and the left.

If you don’t believe that, have you heard any business leader – just a single one – lashing Scott Morrison and his incompetent aged care department for leaving the front door wide open so coronavirus could take the lives of so many elderly?

Of course not.

Empathy is dead. It’s time for the peasants to make way for profits.

Garry Linnell was director of News and Current Affairs for the Nine network in the mid-2000s. He has also been editorial director for Fairfax and is a former editor of The Daily Telegraph and The Bulletin magazine

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