Opinion Zoe Daniel: Our leaders are using COVID to divide us, let’s not keep taking the bait
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Zoe Daniel: Our leaders are using COVID to divide us, let’s not keep taking the bait

Zoe Daniel COVID
While most Australians will soon be vaccinated, that won’t mark either an end to the pandemic, or the divisive politics that goes with it.
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Our leaders have used a pandemic to divide us, and we have taken the bait.

Public health is now a pawn on a political chessboard as Australia’s major parties seek to wedge each other over whose fault it is that much of the eastern seaboard remains locked down and under-vaccinated, and whose strategy is better.

The timing of the forthcoming federal election is entirely linked to COVID, and whether there will be enough vaccine in arms to allow liberty to return before Christmas, or whether the Festive Season will come with a huge spike in hospital admissions.

That would be bad optics.

Meanwhile as our politicians, with an eye to saving their political lives, gaze into a hazy crystal ball, the community is divided, confused and in some cases, frightened.

As accusations fly about whether vaccine has been unequally distributed under the table it is state versus state and mate against mate. There will be no winners.

Political gaslighting

“This is not about politics. This is about putting the lives of Australians first, no matter where they live,” Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt wrote here on Thursday.

So, we’re now being subjected to gaslighting as well.

And it’s not just the federal government. State premiers are taking the opportunity to grandstand like there’s no tomorrow.

This conflict has come about due to politically driven rhetoric about lockdowns, a botched vaccine rollout followed by lack of transparency and the inability (or refusal) to agree on a planned route out.

After a year and a half of uncertainty, this is making an exhausted populace anxious. Trust is in short supply.

America is like a collection of different countries under one flag.

Roughly drawn, the New England, Northeast, South, Deep South, Florida, Texas, the desert states, California, the Pacific Northwest, the Rockies, the mid-West, and the Appalachia have different favourite foods, accents, cultural make up and political and social attitudes.

Geography and class have been increasingly politically weaponised.

That’s happened here, too, over the years, to a lesser degree, but living there, I saw the level of division as a key difference between our two countries.

Perhaps that was naïve.

I grew up in Tasmania where north-south parochialism ran deep, but other than some friendly interstate rivalries and a few attempts by independents to mobilise the fringe I wouldn’t have described Australia as a ‘divided nation’.

Yet here we are.

Particularly on social media, frustration and worry has spilt over into anger at each other. This will reach boiling point as states that are riddled with COVID begin to re-open against the wishes of governments in those that are virtually COVID free.

All of this will form the backdrop to a forthcoming federal election.

The Trump experience

Having recently emerged from the experience of covering the Trump administration, the deployment of division as a political tool should not be a revelation.

Trump expertly mobilised division pitting Americans against each other using a gamut of themes, including immigration, race, gender, social and political views, economic status, and COVID.

He also expertly manipulated information to stoke anger and fear. We know how that ended in January of this year, if it did end, which of course it didn’t.

Once stoked, anger and division tend to simmer.

And while most Australians will soon be vaccinated, that won’t mark either an end to the pandemic or the divisive politics that goes with it.

Let’s not keep taking the bait.

Zoe Daniel is a three-time foreign correspondent and former ABC News United States Bureau Chief. She was based in Washington, DC from 2015 to 2019, was the ABC’s Southeast Asia correspondent from 2009 to 2013 and Africa correspondent from 2005 to 2007. 

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