Until Corroboree arrived in Darwin in August, Eric and I were largely unaffected by Covid-19. True, our circumnavigation has been on hold in Australia far longer than we planned. But of all the places on the planet to be stranded, Australia was surely one of the best. Especially because Townsville, Queensland (pop. 150,000), the city in which we berthed from May 2020 to May 2021, did not suffer major outbreaks or endure lockdowns as did the metropolises of Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. Looking back, I believe there were a few capacity restrictions and mask days during our year there. Otherwise, we came and went as usual.
We expected that happy scenario to continue in Darwin, Northern Territory, another city of 150,000. The NT has been extra vigilant in stopping Covid, closing its borders, mandating testing and requiring quarantine as it deemed necessary. With a total population of approximately 250,000 spread across a vast, harsh landscape, the NT was particularly concerned to protect the Aboriginal people and others living in remote communities without ready access to medical care.
The tactics seemed to work. In late October the NT had no active Covid cases. Then an unvaccinated young woman gained access to the NT by lying on her entry form after visiting a Melbourne hotspot. She subsequently became sick and tested positive. It isn’t clear whether she was the sole spreader, but as of this writing, the NT has recorded 43 new Covid cases. As feared, the virus has indeed entered some remote communities and more cases are announced daily. Mask mandates, lockouts and hard lockdowns are in effect in various places, along with a vaccine mandate for workers who interact with the public. On 6 November a rally of 500 vaccine mandate protesters in Darwin turned violent when some of the protesters forced their way through a police checkpoint. Police were assaulted with rocks and chemicals, and nine people were arrested.
A week later, Eric and I found ourselves in the company of a man who had been at the rally. The venue was the marina restaurant where Eric performs at the weekly open mic night, the man is a regular diner there, and we had chatted with him a few times before. The subject of Covid had not previously arisen, but that night when we paused to say “Hi, how are you?” he launched into a bitter complaint about how the vaccine mandate was going to cost him his job. This wasn’t about statistics; he knew that vaccines save lives and lessen the severity of Covid if you do catch it. This was about the infringement of his rights and the injustice of being forced to submit to the government’s will. His bottom line was that it should be everyone’s free choice whether to be vaccinated or not. Since he wasn’t telling anyone not to get vaccinated, no one could tell him he must. Eric and I didn’t argue, just listened.
The next day his refusal to be vaccinated cost Eric and me our jobs.
It came in the form of an email from the volunteer coordinator at the Darwin hospital where, after extensive paperwork, training, references and police background checks, we had finally been cleared to visit patients, offering conversation and companionship as they recuperated from surgery or accidents. Some were in long-term rehab; others were in transitional wards, waiting for a space to open up in a nursing home. Some told us stories of growing up in the outback, cracked jokes, and had a go at their politicians; others were too frail or depressed after a long hospital stay to want any company at all. It was challenging, enlightening and fulfilling. Now the email informed us, all visits were off until further notice.
Okay, so you temporarily lost your volunteer job, big deal. Except it wasn’t just us. Some thirty other volunteers were laid off as well. In addition, the entire hospital volunteer program, which had been shut down due to Covid since spring 2020 and was just being reinstated, has been halted again. Nor are any other outside visitors permitted to enter Darwin’s two hospitals. That means patients will get no visits from friends and family members. Meanwhile, our November housesitting job was likewise cancelled. The couple we were to housesit for had to forego attending their daughter’s wedding in Perth, Western Australia, because all NT residents, vaccinated or not, must submit to and pay for a two-week quarantine period on reentering the NT. The couple couldn’t afford the time and the money. They won’t get to see their daughter walk up the aisle.
Are you starting to get the picture? Nothing you do is in isolation. Every action each one of us takes has consequences with the potential to harm—or help—others. And whereas last year the problem was the Covid virus, this year, with the means to control Covid at our disposal, the problem is you. You and your rights. What about your responsibilities?
If you contract Covid, will you relinquish your place in the hospital to an incoming patient who needs heart surgery or emergency care?
Will you pay your own medical and hospital bills when you could have been vaccinated for free?
If you pass Covid to someone else, will you reimburse them for their lost wages for however long it takes them to recover?
If you pass Covid to someone else and that person dies, how will you feel?
I’m tired of hearing you talk of your rights and your freedoms as if you’re some kind of patriot, acting on behalf of oppressed people everywhere. I don’t buy it. What you’re really doing is promoting selfishness as a virtue.
Nobody likes restrictions. Nobody likes the government telling them what to do. But the government shouldn’t have to. Assuming you have one, your conscience should.