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COVID and the Contemporary Struggle for Freedoms

Rose Jackson

When, as Australian External Affairs Minister, promoter of the UN Declaration of Human Rights and fourth Chairman of the United Nations General Assembly, Dr. H.V. Evatt championed a global framework for human rights, I doubt he envisioned the extent to which the concept of “freedom” would be weaponised globally by reactionary and far-right activists to undermine public safety and security.

The COVID pandemic did not germinate this globalised far right movement, its roots trace back to the economic dislocation of our globalised economy, increasing economic inequality, Trumpism, the impact of the free movement of labour and more. However, there is no doubt that the pandemic has provided new energy and content (or indeed discontent) for these activities.

For those of us who broadly identify as progressives committed to international human rights, this appropriation of concepts like “freedom of speech” to justify racism, “freedom of movement” to justify anti-lockdown activity and “freedom of bodily autonomy” to justify anti-vaccination agendas can be exasperating but ultimately cannot go unchallenged.

To start at the beginning, the emergence of a new SARS COVID-19 virus from Wuhan China in late 2019, and its spread into a global pandemic in early 2020, led to a noticeable and concerning rise in anti-Chinese racism across the world.

At first the reports were largely anecdotal. Newspapers covered individuals subject to abuse or harassment on public transport, Chinese restaurants and businesses saw customers dry up. These observations were later quantified here in Australia with a landmark survey of the Chinese-Australian community by the Lowy Institute which found nearly one in five had recently been physically threatened or attacked because of their Chinese heritage.

To be clear – the emergence of a scary new virus from China did not create the nasty xenophobia on display during this period, it merely provided a new outlet for people who already held these prejudiced views to openly express them. Australia has for centuries battled with this ugly undercurrent of our otherwise tolerant multicultural society – from the anti-Chinese sentiments of the Gold Rush, the White Australia Policy, the Yellow Peril, Hansonism in the 1990s and attacks on international students more recently, there is a long and sad history of Asian Australians being targeted and ostracised by their fellow citizens.

The outburst of racist activity linked to COVID was merely the latest iteration of this consistent struggle Australia has with living comfortably alongside our Asian neighbours. Responses from decent political leaders were predictable and welcome – condemning this behaviour, supporting Chinese small businesses with personal patronage and advertising campaigns, standing alongside local community leaders to express their friendship and support. The response from political leaders who would seek to harness this racism for their own benefit was also predictable, and often involved appeals to freedom of speech – “people are entitled to have an opinion, people have a right to be bigots”.

The challenging relationship between freedom of speech and the enthusiasm of some on the far right to use that speech to say racist things has always been something decent and progressive people have struggled with. Where is the line between the important and necessary freedom to speak and the fact that words and language can offend?

Racism is not only hurtful and harmful to the individuals involved here in Australia, but also damages our international reputation. We don’t want to be seen as a country intolerant of others, but that’s exactly what behaviour like this and its tacit (and sometimes overt) adoption by some fringe political elements does – contributes to a sense that we aren’t a welcoming place, for students, for skilled workers, for international business. So, it’s in our interest as caring people who reject racism and also as pragmatists who want to see our country find a way to balance freedom of speech with anti-racism.

The reality is that it is impossible to precisely draw this line, to articulate exactly where it sits, and as we look forward to the world in which platforms for speech have exploded in ways unimaginable by Dr. Evatt and his fellow early United Nations activists, perhaps the best we can do is continue to be forceful advocates for both the freedom of speech and a proper understanding of its potentially harmful consequences. It is not beyond us to couple the idea that we want people to be able to speak freely with the idea that we want people to understand their responsibility to their fellow citizens. It won’t be one political statement or one advertising campaign that achieves this – it will be constant and ongoing conversation had everywhere, from individual dining tables to the halls of Parliament House, about the type of community we want to live in.

It isn’t just this balance of rights and responsibilities in relation to free speech that has been challenged by the COVID world. We have also seen concepts like freedom of movement and association appropriated by individuals who reject state-imposed lockdowns. To be clear, no one (or almost no one!) likes living under lockdown and subject to movement restrictions. We all want to see family, see friends, support local small businesses and travel freely. Most of us accept, however, that temporary and targeted restrictions on those freedoms are necessary to keep ourselves and other people safe.

Some within our community, however, have not accepted this – or did accept it for a short period, but as lockdowns came and went and came back again, and dragged on for extended periods, this acceptance disappeared. For progressives who are usually the ones marching down the street in protest – on issues like peace, climate change or workers’ rights – it has been confronting to see these mass protest tactics, and the language of human rights, used by those challenging what many of us consider obvious and necessary government decisions to keep the community safe.

Alongside the use of freedom of movement to challenge lockdowns and restrictions, freedom of bodily autonomy has more recently been added to the extremist mix of preferred human rights to oppose vaccination mandates. Particularly difficult for progressive women has been the use of women’s reproductive rights pro-choice slogans such as “My Body My Choice” to justify refusal to get vaccinated.

Just as with an ongoing and national conversation about the contours of freedom of speech, so too must progressives be willing to engage in a dialogue about other freedoms. We must resist reflex dismissal of anti-lockdown protests – it is important in a society like ours that people can gather to express opposition to government policy, even if we don’t agree with them. What is not acceptable is bringing gallows and nooses, making death threats and threats of sexual violence. This is a conversation we have to participate in, not scoff at.

Human rights have always needed defining, articulating and defending. They needed advocates like Dr. Evatt in their early years of formulation into UN documents and covenants. They have needed tribunals and lawyers and politicians and activists over decades to make them real to the people they intended to protect. Even then, many times the international community has failed.

The critical thing for progressives here is determination and balance. We can draw inspiration from Dr. Evatt, who was never a dogmatist and promoted complexity in his life and his work. He saw the work that needed to be done in the law, in politics, in the arts and in the international realm. He was a complicated man living in a complicated world, who could not be neatly “boxed” and neither can human rights.

He was also doggedly determined to pursue his vision of justice (possibly his favourite word) in the face of challenges and setbacks and so must we be. Evatt knew the importance of making a case, of arguing his brief. Our brief is to defend a world in which racist speech is shunned and rejected, where people accept their obligation to keep others safe with a sense of pride in the solidarity we show each other in our shared society.

Evatt was a strong believer in the open and robust contest of ideas. In this context he was fond of quoting John Milton “let truth and falsehood grapple, whoever knew truth put to the worst in a free and open encounter?” In the modern world of fake news, social media, opportunistic politicians and deepening polarisation, perhaps Milton and Evatt seem naive. Does truth always triumph these days? Sadly, perhaps not in every encounter, but that makes those of us willing to stand by her side even more determined in her defence.

We can be a friend of truth and still promote the idea of temporary and changing restrictions and responses as necessary in a challenging and complex world. There isn’t space for dogma, but that doesn’t mean we have to abandon foundational concepts like true and false. Restrictions will be needed on fundamental human rights – that doesn’t make them any less fundamental. These restrictions mustn’t be normalised, they must be expressed as proportionate and temporary, if we are empathetic and willing to engage, we can make this case.

We must be clear and full-throated also in making the case that far-right extremists are not particularly interested in human rights for everyone, that they have opportunistically associated themselves with anti-lockdown and anti-vaccination movements to try and shape a world in which they can do what they like, when they like, to whom they like, without consideration of the consequences. This is not the world Evatt imagined when he participated in authoring our foundational global human rights documents – in fact, it’s closer to the fascism he roundly denounced.

COVID has tugged at many loose threads in our pluralistic, democratic society in the past 18 months. It is easy, when we observe some of the ways things dear to progressives have been twisted and darkened in recent years, to feel despairing about the prospects of humankind. We must, in these moments, remember Evatt’s words: “at times the condition seems impossible...then black despair suggests the struggle for humankind avails naught. But victory may be at hand if only courageous leadership and loyal devotion both remain”.

Courageous leadership is willing to listen, to engage, to make difficult decisions and to defend them, with loyal devotion to human rights, to truth, to nuance and fragility and complexity. With these concepts in mind, we might achieve the original inspiration for Evatt above, from a poem by Arthur Hugh Clough (and included in a short extract distributed at Evatt’s funeral): “say not the struggle naught availeth”.


Rose Jackson is a member of the NSW Legislative Council and President of the Evatt Foundation.


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