Activism in the time of COVID

Oakley Germech was nervous when he got his first COVID-19 vaccination. Aged just 24, in a ‘non-essential’ job and a healthy medical history meant he did not yet qualify for the jab. He was also told it could kill him.

He is not usually a rule-breaker, but at the height of the furore surrounding AstraZeneca in June 2021, Germech knew the risks were overblown.

“I’d read all the numbers and I knew I was about as likely to get hit and die from lightning as I was to die from this jab,” Germech says. “But I was a bit scared, too, because of that relentless onslaught of media scare-mongering.”

Germech had been a precocious 15-year-old when he began studying science at the University of Melbourne, frequenting the Dean’s Honours list and getting a first-class Master of BioSciences before his 23rd birthday.

Chatty and articulate, with neat ringlets framing an expressive face, he identifies as gender fluid and alongside his passion for science is always keen to discuss society, culture and current affairs.

Germech never considered himself an activist, but felt a duty to help his community make sense of the confusing and often contradictory public health messaging. He started tweeting his perspective on restrictions, case numbers and vaccinations, quickly gaining a modest following, with some reaching out to thank him for demystifying the “vaccine media fiasco”.

“I definitely felt empowered to do it. But I also felt kind of obligated to do it … some of the politicians’ health messaging was so bad,” Germech says.

Melbourne had been in lockdown for 173 days, and a wave of the highly contagious Delta strain was building in Victoria. Less than five per cent of Australians were fully vaccinated – 13 million doses behind the government’s self-imposed schedule – and health advice had grown more conservative, limiting AstraZeneca to over-60s.

So, after seeing a Twitter tip-off about a clinic defying this age limit, Germech walked in and got the jab the next morning – becoming one of the first young people to opt-in to AstraZeneca in Victoria.

“I would have loved to have just waited and avoided that miniscule risk. But it very much was about wanting to push the message for people.”

He was pleased when the story was picked up by the media and spread to a wider audience: people said they’d booked a vaccine appointment thanks to him, and that his message had reached the very top – used to brief then Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

“I’m sure there were a hundred slides, but my interviews from The Today Show and ABC were in the presentation. So, in some very small way, I ended up being part of the communication that was used to get the Prime Minister to announce that people with informed consent could get this jab,” Germech says.

Indeed, less than a week after his vaccination, Morrison announced that AstraZeneca could be accessed by under-40s.

Germech is one of many young Melburnians who found a public voice at a time of intense social and physical isolation. Their stories demonstrate a willingness to make private sacrifices made for common good, but also illuminate a clash of old and new civic ideals.

What makes a good democratic citizen? Commentators often point to two groups of action.

One side is ‘conventional’, involving traditional markers like voting on election day, supporting a political party, reading the news and following the law.

The other side could be termed ‘social-movement citizenship’ – based more around particular issues and causes, involving things like protests, volunteering in the local community and taking part in activities that promote human rights or help protect the environment.

A common theory as to how and why political engagement is changing in Australia suggests that young people are leaning more towards social-movement based politics than generations before. Research suggests young people feel unrepresented and unheard by traditional institutions, so while they may be less likely to enrol to vote or join a local party branch, they will rally around issues that matter to them.

Climate change activist Ruby Bourke fits the mould of this new generation of engagement. Cynical about politicians, her feelings intensified by successive governments’ lack of leadership on climate.

“When I started doing climate change action I just realised, ‘God, these people in power can really make decisions that don’t even need people’s approval’”.

If Bourke was cynical about politics, her approach to activism was anything but. On a family trip to Bali aged 16, she begged her parents to let her stay to attend an alternative eco-school for the last two years of high school. They relented, and Ruby became a boarder at Green School Bali, learning special programs like permaculture, environmental science and ‘Green Studies’.

A jar containing 10 months’ worth of Ruby Bourke’s rubbish after she vowed to live as a minimalist. Image supplied: Ruby Bourke

Bourke speaks about her experience in a 2018 TEDx talk. Animated and heartfelt, she describes her decision to buy a jar and “vow to never throw a piece of trash into the landfill again”.

Living as a ‘minimalist’ helped her deal with frustration at the culture of consumption and waste she saw in Australia, and helped her feel “truly connected” to the world around her.

She signed environmental petitions, painted placards for protests, volunteered, wrote earnest social media posts, and generally lived up to her self-described status as a “crazy passionate environmentalist”.

When I speak to Bourke during the city’s sixth lockdown in late 2021, however, her fervour had slipped.

“I came back to Melbourne without any sort of established friendship group or a sense of who I was. It was this really awkward phase,” she says.

At the beginning of 2020, a 19-year-old she had just moved into a Coburg sharehouse with three strangers before being plunged into lockdown.

“It was my first time actually renting a place with my own money in Melbourne. So, you know, it was supposed to be a really exciting time.”

Bourke’s job at a no-waste store was deemed essential, but fears of contamination meant reusable containers were banned. She was forced to realise how expensive no-waste living could be.

“I had access to so many zero-waste things but I just didn’t have the money for it. It was a bit ironic, the wage I was on wasn’t enough for me to live on what I actually work to sell.”

Suddenly, her ‘no waste’ work seemed to feed the system of consumerism she had rejected, and it was challenging to adjust to living out of home.

“I ended up in this kind of isolated cave … I had a sense of wanting to know people more during lockdown because I feel like I’m so deprived.”

Not long after lockdowns began, Bourke signed up to volunteer with Climate for Change – a charity aimed at building social and political will for climate action through organised conversations with family and friends. This climate activism felt different, and not just because it was all online. Her motivation was slipping.

“Previously, my activism had always been because of a sense of political responsibility … I felt like I was contributing to a bigger picture rather than just trying to hang on to my own mental health and sense of identity.”

Climate for Change was her way of trying to charge her batteries. It didn’t work.

“As soon as it stopped, it was like, ‘ah, nope. Not getting involved again. Not for quite a while’.”

It was not long after this decision that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its sixth report assessing the latest climate research. The report shows we are all but certain to shoot past 2 degrees warming this century without immediate and deep emissions reductions, the UN chief calling it ‘a code red for humanity’.

“The current IPCC report – I haven’t looked at it at all, I refuse to. It’s just too depressing … I used to be that person who would condemn that behaviour, the ignorance. But honestly at this point, it feels like I’m just trying to keep my sanity.”

Once a passionate environmentalist, Ruby Bourke was left drained by lockdown. Image supplied by Ruby Bourke.

Nor is Bourke a minimalist.

“I still love the whole idea of it. I just don’t think it works for me anymore. We are living in really unprecedented times, and I feel like I rely on the exact things that I said I wouldn’t ever rely on. Like buying things and having a sense of, like, ‘Oh good, something to look forward to! Something’s coming in the mail’.”

The COVID-19 response in Melbourne prompted a strengthening of many conventional citizenship markers. Thousands tuned into daily press conferences. Those paying attention received a crash course in federalism – delving into the complicated dynamic of state and federal powers, and turning premier Daniel Andrews into a household name. Trust in government rose: the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer found public trust in the government, media, NGOs and business in Australia jumped from 47 to 59 per cent – the biggest increase in the 27 countries measured.

The shift led some to breathe a small sigh of relief. For years leading up to the pandemic, many political researchers and commentators have been quietly sounding the alarm about a democracy in crisis.

A 2020 report on global satisfaction with democracy coming out of Cambridge University shows Australia is at its highest ever levels of democratic dissatisfaction, up by a fifth since the mid-90s. Party membership is in decline and voter turnout for the 2016 federal election was the lowest since compulsory voting was introduced.

Anxiety around weakening democracy is often concentrated on younger generations. Depending who you speak to, kids these days are being failed by schools’ poor civics education, are disengaged, refuse to look up from their phones, are poisoned by social media, individualistic or don’t understand the dangers of communism or fascism. They’ve lost sight of their civic responsibilities, are rebelling against unjust institutions, they ask too much, or simply ask differently, expressing their politics in ways foreign to their parents and grandparents.

The Cambridge study shows satisfaction with politics dropping over time for all generations, but also intergenerationally; each growing more unsatisfied than the generation that came before.

While some markers of democracy seemed to strengthen during lockdown, Australia’s pandemic responses intensified many of the reasons young people feel dissatisfied with the current state of affairs, highlighting inequalities in work, wealth and housing.

These inequalities sparked a deep sense of injustice within James McVicar.

Before COVID-19 hit, he was – like most university students – vaguely aware of Socialist Alliance. At the University of Melbourne, where he studied science, members of the activist group often camped in front of the main library, encouraging passers-by to take a pamphlet or sign a petition. McVicar had never taken much notice.

But as the pandemic took hold in early 2020, he found himself locked down with time to spare, reading about things he never had before.

“I just realised the world is really fucked,” says McVicar. “The world’s run for profit, you know, a small number of people own everything. And we’ll never have a fair world until that system has been done away with.

“I realised, ‘Yeah, I’m a socialist. Yeah, I want to do something about it’. And that was it.”

McVicar now volunteers daily for Socialist Alliance – organising protests, engaging new members, and discussing policy. For two years, this was done almost entirely from his bedroom.

He believes the political system has “less and less” to offer young people who are priced out of the housing market, expected to have more qualifications for less stable jobs, and left with stagnant wages.

During the pandemic, James McVicar became heavily involved with Socialist Alliance. Image supplied by James McVicar.

“I’m a citizen, as much as Clive Palmer as a citizen,” he says. “I have a right to vote as much as he does, but we don’t have anything like the same sort of power in society.”

In early 2020 McVicar – recently returned from a stint in France – had moved back in with his Mum and was working full time at Chemist Warehouse while figuring out his next steps.

It was not long into the pandemic when his hours were cut back dramatically – at the same time, Chemist Warehouse bosses paid themselves $454 million in dividends thanks to demand for PPE driving a strong uptick in sales.

More than his own experience, however, it was learning about refugees detained inside a Melbourne hotel that he credits with sparking his political interest.

Now rebranded as the Park Hotel, the Mantra was a hotel quarantine facility for COVID-19 patients. Some refugees had been detained there for nine years, before growing attention to their plight saw them released in April 2022.

“I don’t think we really have a democracy,” McVicar says. “Most people don’t think refugees should be locked up indefinitely. The two ruling parties in Australia do think that. And when it comes to election time, you have a choice between those two.”

When much of Melbourne seemed exhausted by almost two years of ping-ponging in and out of lockdowns, James remained energised. He stands by Socialist Alliance’s position that restrictions were lifted too early as governments buckled under pressure from big business.

McVicar is particularly proud of the counter protests he helped organise against the anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine movements swelling across Melbourne late last year – rallies that reached a bloodthirsty crescendo when anti-vaccine protesters dragged an inflatable dummy of Daniel Andrews onto makeshift gallows in front of Victorian Parliament mid-November.

“We’re basically the only organisation in Australia that’s put up any sort of resistance to this,” he says. “It seems like everyone else is ignoring it or exhausted.”

Australia is not alone in experiencing a ‘crisis’ in democracy – it’s a trend that’s been observed in several Western countries including the US, the UK, Canada and New Zealand. The Cambridge study puts forward two theories to help explain this malaise in previously ‘exceptional’ democracies.

The first is that the confrontational two-party style of our politics, coupled with the algorithmic magic of social media, works to sort people into increasingly siloed groups. These us-versus-them ‘tribes’ are more polarised, less willing to compromise, and less empathetic to other viewpoints.

The second explanation is that rising inequality is hurting democracy. They discuss inequality both in terms of wealth and social divide: between cosmopolitan elites (think inner-city latte sippers) and those who feel left behind by changes in technology, values and national identity.

Take this hypothetical about two different people. Ada is someone who likes the same things you do: she votes along similar lines, reads the same books, and has the same thoughts on hot button topics. Zack is the complete opposite: you find his politics deplorable, lifestyle unappealing and taste vulgar – at least as far as front-lawn ornaments go. Zack is your neighbour, while Ada lives on the other side of the world, in London or New York. Who do you feel more connected to?

When Covid restrictions limited Melburnians to a 5km bubble around their homes, it forced many to focus on the local in a way they never had before.

Bourke felt lockdown connected to other Melburnians in an indelible way, having gone through a shared traumatic experience. She began to identify less as an Australian, and more as a Victorian.

“In my mind, ‘Australian’ means something that Scott Morrison would expect people would do under lockdowns. But a Victorian would be someone who’s a real community-based person, they’re really interested in taking care of their community,” Ruby says.

McVicar enjoyed hearing his neighbours living in parallel during the long lockdown days.

“You’re both spending way more time at home and you can hear these sorts of goings on that you never used to…my neighbours just dropped us off a big bag of plums, which is nice,” James says.

McVicar believed political rhetoric painted a more negative picture of Australians’ civic-mindedness than was reality. “It was generally being portrayed as Australians, Melburnians, being fed up with lockdown. But any survey that came out showed that the majority of Australians were happy to be in lockdown, provided there was basic social welfare, he said.”

“Like, yeah, it was crap living through lockdown. But I think it showed a lot of people showing solidarity with people around them: you put your mask on, you stand away from them, you don’t go to crowded areas without being vaccinated,” he said.

Oakley Germech says the excitement of baking wore off quickly after lockdown number one, giving way to isolation and depression.

While Oakley Germech longed for more community, he felt a dark side of Melburnian culture was revealed during the pandemic.

When the second set of lockdowns hit in mid-2020, Germech had just moved into a large apartment block in Parkville. The plan had been to live with his sister, but when border closures stranded her in regional NSW he found himself living alone, with few friends in his 5km radius. Despite hundreds of neighbours, he felt a new kind of loneliness.

“It was really isolating, my depression got worse,” he said. “Even though lockdown felt like an eternity, it’s just compressed into one day in my mind. I honestly couldn’t say what it was like because it’s just some horrible hazy blur, all by myself. All the subsequent, smaller lockdowns that have come and gone have just left me in this permanent state of flux and panic.”

As someone who took covid restrictions very seriously, Germech toed the line between physical distancing and watching out for community. He would cross the street to avoid groups of people, but also tried to linger nearby fellow birdwatchers out on walks if he thought they’d like to chat.

At the same time, he felt his frustration grow with certain friends and local media personalities revealing what he calls an “amazing” authoritarian streak.

“People have really been getting off on this obsession of: ‘This one person got Covid; why aren’t they being punished?’ We’re forgetting it’s not a normal situation we find ourselves in where one person getting sick can bring a whole state to its knees,” Germech says.

He thinks the pandemic forced many Melburnians to look at disadvantage as more than an abstract concept – it often being amongst meat factory workers, delivery drivers, or residents of over-crowded commission flats where clusters would break out.

He disliked the instinct he saw in otherwise left-wing progressives to jump to anger and policing in response.

“It’s been showing the level of divide that I think we have racially and economically across the country … I definitely feel even less aligned with the dominant Australian values than I did before.”

As a system of government democracy relies on shared values, and new challenges emerge as society becomes more diverse and complex. The state of Australian democracy is a hard thing to measure, and harder still to write about with any certainty.

Since lockdowns eased, there have been some good signs – Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has pledged to “change the way” we do politics, making commitments to stronger climate targets and a First Nations voice to parliament. The wave of independents ushered into parliament in May’s federal election suggests a public engaged in policy debates and interested in more diverse and accountable representation.

Other signs have been more worrying. Voter turnout in May 2022 broke 2016’s record for lowest turnout since compulsory voting began. Victoria, Tasmania and New South Wales have introduced stronger anti-protest laws. Trust in government is declining again, and integrity crises in the Victorian and Queensland parliaments have revealed troubling depths of toxic cultures within political parties.

What we can reflect on is the commitment many Melburnians had to expressing their public selves during an intensely isolating time. Young people were asked to make deep personal sacrifices for the health of the community, and they overwhelmingly did.

The experience of lockdown was in many ways dehumanising. People were cut off from basic liberties, loved ones, community, and nature.

But, in optimistic moments, it also revealed enduring humanity; a collective willingness to invest in the common good and find new ways to engage with public life – whether that be organising mass movements, or handing a bag of plums over the back fence.


This story was supported by the May and Romeo Schiavon Journalism Fund.