Last week, Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane were rocked by hoards of unmasked protestors demanding an end to the COVID-19 restrictions in place across the country. Coming from all over the regions, people gathered in city centres to proclaim a broad range of anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine views.
The opinions on display ranged from mundane frustration with lockdown to wild conspiracy theories claiming a ‘great reset’ is at hand, with world leaders conspiring to wipe out large sections of the human race.
Numbers ranged from self-proclaimed “50,000” to NSW Police Minister David Elliott’s “3,500 boofheads“.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison called the protesters “selfish” and “reckless” but stopped short of criticising Coalition colleague George Christensen, who promoted and spoke at the protest in Queensland.
NSW Premier Glady Berejiklian said that the scenes were heartbreaking and expressed her “utter disgust” at the protestors.
Protest groups have stated that they will continue with further protests over the coming weeks, with another demonstration planned for Sydney on Saturday.
“If you hated yesterday, we’re working on the next national protest right now,” one protester was reported as saying last Sunday.
This time around, Berejiklian isn’t taking any chances. The Australian Defence Force has been called in — ostensibly to door-knock COVID-19 positive cases and close contacts — and will no doubt be on hand if another protest happens.
As NSW recorded 170 new locally acquired cases, Berejiklian warned in her press conference today that anyone undertaking “illegal activity and protesting” risk giving their loved ones “a death sentence”.
Even Alan Jones, who has recently been booted from The Daily Telegraph for his anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine comments in his column, has told people not to protest.
We’re all frustrated, we’re all tired, we all want this lockdown to be over as fast as possible. So why did thousands of people take to the streets last week and why might more continue to do so this weekend? Here’s what we know.
It’s a broad church
While much of the media branded the protestors as “far-right” extremists of those from working-class backgrounds, the reality is far more nuanced. As mentioned, people coalesced from a wide range of backgrounds with a single purpose of stopping the lockdowns and can’t be categorised under a single banner.
The protest drew anti-vaxxers, QAnon conspiracy theorists, and other sceptical acolytes of course, but you also had hardened libertarians, left-wing ‘wellness’ types, and people from all cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. There were even teachers — people tasked with educating the next generation — from wealthy, selective private schools on the march.
The protests were a globally aligned effort to demonstrate what was known online and in secretive Telegram channels as a “worldwide rally for freedom”. The originators of the movement appear to be a German cell from the city of Kassel called World Wide Demonstration with links to far-right groups who organised 129 simultaneous marches across the globe.
They used a series of “Sepia-toned, Instagram-friendly” images to call people to action but this doesn’t necessarily mean that all those in attendance were far-right extremists.
In Australia, a man by the name of Brady Gunn took up the call, merging his own ‘A Stand in a Park’ movement with the protest last Saturday. Gunn, who started his own protests several months ago, has stated that he now has a network of “700 active stands” taking place every week across 14 countries.
“It was obvious to most of us that [the pandemic] was a scam pretty early in the piece,” Gunn said in one video posted online.
A lack of leadership
Dr Josh Roose, Senior Research Fellow at Deakin University, told SBS that the protests have been allowed to flourish in the vacuum of political leadership in Australia.
“It’s easy to ostracise and make fun of the protesters. Of course we’re all angry about [the protest],” he said.
“But the fact that this is emerging, and it’s so new, and taking on brand new forms, indicates a much deeper-seated problem around trust, around engagement with communities and around people who feel alienated and disempowered.”
Poor communication around the vaccine rollout, the lack of targets, and mixed messaging from state and federal leaders as well as conflicting reports from health bodies has created “a perfect storm for anti-vaxxers,” Roose explained.
“[Protesters] are saying, well, one side is saying this, the other side is saying that, and they’re all lying, and they grow their movement through that.
“There’s got to be consistent bipartisan political messaging in the national interest.”
A lack of support
In previous lockdowns, people have had access to good financial support. When JobKeeper and JobSeeker programmes were at their height in 2020, most people were far more capable of staying at home without fear of financial collapse.
This time around is different. The government has categorically ruled out a return to the JobSeeker and JobKeeper of old and instead offers much less comprehensive support structures for those who have lost work or who are unable to work.
If you’re a tradie living in one of the eight local government areas of concern in Sydney, you’ve been out of work for several weeks. If you’re a business that has had to shut shop, there is barely enough to hang on, let alone keep your staff paid at their normal rates.
Unemployment in Greater Sydney is skyrocketing and Commonwealth Bank forecasts predict that one in ten workers in the region could soon be out of work.
Desperate people do desperate things. While this in no way excuses the reckless behaviour we saw at the weekend, it does offer some context as to why these people feel they have been driven to the picket lines.
Lockdown in Sydney has been extended for another four weeks. While this is deeply necessary, the lockdown measures are only going to work if they are effective. While Berejiklian has called in the military, the restrictions are nowhere near as harsh as they were during the lockdown last year — or even close to what Melbourne had to endure.
This isn’t to say that those out there were protesting for greater restrictions, far from it, but there is a perception that government incompetence in dealing with the pandemic will only drag this out further and that people have had enough of it.
Some argue we should open up and let the virus rip. At some point, we will have to do this. Our vaccination rates, as they stand, are still far too low to consider this a safe or smart option.
But Australia had such a strong head start on the rest of the world with the vaccine rollout that seeing it completely thrown away has demoralised some people to the point that they no longer respect or care for the ongoing health orders. If they couldn’t sort it out before, what makes you think they will be able to now?
More broadly, lockdown has a powerful psychological effect on people that can’t be overstated. It makes us edgy, angry, stumbling around in a sea of confusion and frustration and its endless nature can incline people to radicalism.
With more protests planned for this weekend in Sydney, the NSW Police have warned the events will be “heavily policed” and “that behaviour will not be tolerated again”.
Most of Sydney is behind those sentiments. Dr Timothy Graham, a senior lecturer on social media analysis at the Queensland University of Technology, noted the general public took an “overwhelmingly negative and critical” view of the protests when they unfolded.
“On the day, it was like Twitter erupted. The vast majority of people tweeting about it were critical of it, and all these controversies came out of it on the day — such as the [alleged] horse-punching incident,” he told SBS News.
Crime Stoppers was overwhelmed, with 10,000 people ringing in to complain about the protestors. While the vast majority of us are grudgingly doing the right thing, it seems like a huge slap in the face that others can’t just sit still.
However, cracking down, ridiculing, and ostracising people is only going to further isolate those who need the most information.
Experts say arrests and threats alone is not enough to curb deeper issues of growing frustration, influence from far-right groups, and the growth of unregulated conspiracy theories on private communication channels.
Sections of the population appear to have simply lost faith in government and really, who can blame them? We need leadership and accountability if we are to see the public brought back onside.