Black lives matter. So do all other lives. Black Lives Matter protests around the world have galvanised countries and communities. But an inherent conflict exists in Australia. There is a desire to protest on behalf of black people, as well as the requirement to obey laws that exist to prevent further outbreaks of the deadly COVID-19.
The conflict has erupted on social media, as both sides voice their opinions on this contentious question.
I have friends who are Noongar women. During my work as a nurse at Jigalong Aboriginal Community, I lived and worked with Martu people. My empathy and respect for them resulted in a book, Other People’s Country.
My husband and I are in our eighties. We count ourselves in the vulnerable group. For three months of self-isolation, we kept to our apartment. We left only to walk for exercise every day. Our children brought our food until we were able to place online orders.
Background to Black Deaths Matter
On 25 May 2020, George Floyd, an Afro-American, was allegedly murdered in Minnesota by a police officer. The killing, watched by three other officers, was an atrocity. All four have been charged. Floyd’s death sparked protests and riots in the USA. They spread to other parts of the world.
Australia has its own issues with the deaths of black people in custody. In spite of the findings and recommendations of the Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Royal Commission (1991), over 340 black people have since died in custody in this country. White people also die in custody. Aborigines make up a greater proportion of prison populations.
Protests over the weekend in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide attracted tens of thousands of protesters. Smaller groups rallied in country towns. Organisers have planned a protest to take place in Perth next weekend.
These protests occur against a background of a once-in-a-century pandemic caused by a novel corona virus.
For eleven weeks from mid-March, Western Australians cooperated with the State Government to curb the spread of the deadly virus. We self-isolated. Leaving home was limited to work, essential shopping, exercise and support of vulnerable people. These include older citizens and those with chronic illnesses or compromised immune systems..
The vulnerable group also includes many Aboriginal people. They experience life-style diseases like diabetes, kidney and heart diseases. On average, they die younger than the general population.
What we did
We washed our hands like never before. Physical distancing became the norm. People with slight symptoms presented at clinics for invasive testing. We did not visit family or friends. No one hugged or shook hands. Neighbours and strangers rallied generously to support each other.
The government poured money into prevention of the spread of the contagion. They financially supported affected businesses and individuals. Hospitals and intensive care units prepared. Staff stood by.
Governments proclaimed and enforced intrastate and interstate borders.
The Australian Government enacted emergency restrictions on entry to remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. They aimed to slow the spread of the virus. These restrictions were made under the Biosecurity Act 2015 and remain in place until 17 September 2020.
Families, unable to visit loved ones across borders, mourned. Never has Australia been so divided.
The number of cases of COVID-19 and deaths from the disease remain relatively small. Infections were mostly related to returning travellers and contagion on ships. There was little community spread. These results were due to great restrictions and cooperation.
However, businesses crashed. Livelihoods disappeared. Individuals joined the dole queues in droves. The country faces enormous debt. Recession, if not depression, looms.
Slowly, many restrictions have been lifted. Life has returned to some semblance of normal. Groups of people can now gather, if they remain 1.5 metres apart and provide information so contact tracing can be carried out in case of new cases.
But the threat of COVID-19 has not gone away. Senior Health Officers warn that they expect a second wave of infection. Or at least spikes and clusters of illness.
Black Lives Matter questions
Against the background of COVID-19 restrictions, the Black Lives Matter protests raise serious questions.
- Restrictions still exist against large uncontrolled crowds. Black Lives Matter protests attract tens of thousands of people. How can we justify this?
- Health authorities consider Aboriginal people ‘vulnerable’ to COVID-19. Can we gather in large groups at the risk of infecting them?
- How can we protect all vulnerable people if we gather in large groups?
- How else can we show support if we do not attend protests?
My world turned on its head over the past few days. My discomfort includes my whole-hearted agreement with a statement by Australia’s Finance Minister, Mathias Corman and disagreement with one by West Coast Eagles football player, Nic Naitanui.
I rarely agree with the ideas of Mathias Corman. However, in response to a question about the Black Lives Matter protest planned for Perth next weekend, he said:
The issue is a very legitimate issue and I understand the depth of feeling, but if we want to impose restrictions across the country to the point where people are prevented from attending the funeral of their loved ones, then surely we got to have some consistency here. We can’t at the same time essentially force people into unemployment in order to protect the health of the community, to save lives, and at the same time say it is fine to have tens of thousands of people gather in the way that they have gathered in recent days.
On the other hand, Nic Naitanui tweeted:
All love from my end but saying all lives matter is like going to a cancer fundraiser and saying there are other diseases. Yes every life matters and is of equal importance/significance but right now we are highlighting black lives. That’s just my opinion as a black man.
In the end, as with all ethical questions, everyone must bring their own understanding of the issues and their own values to create an opinion. There is merit on both sides of the question. No absolute right or wrong exists.
The community in which I live has worked hard and sacrificed much to contain the spread of the virus. I owe them a duty of care to continue to protect them.
Because of this, my position is that the risk of enabling severe illness and deaths through the spread COVID-19 outweighs the possible longer-term gains that might come from attendance at a protest.