Even as we knew America was to fare poorly under the pandemic, expectations have been surpassed. Amidst widespread and rising infections, there is political rebellion at all levels of society, with armed uprisings. Wearing a facemask has been likened to burqas and inviting Sharia law, amidst some of the more convoluted responses. It begs the question as to why we never experienced the same in Australia.
It is said that to understand America, one has to understand freedom. It is the belief of the average American citizen that every person has the right to be able to own a device capable of taking human life. Such a concept is alien to the rest of the world, unless one understands where that perspective came from. America was born out of a devotion to the concept that no person has the right to subjugate another, and has spent centuries chasing that ideal.
Australia has done the same. Not for nothing, our unofficial national anthem is about a sheep thief that commits suicide, rather than bow to the corrupt enforcers. Our natural anti-authoritarian stance is globally known – symptomatic, perhaps, in our rapidly changing heads of state. However, if that is the case, why did we fall into line so readily with our leaders? Where were our protests, our debates, our renegade politicians?
There are many reasons why we never followed the same paths as our transpacific cousins. Compulsory voting has helped us minimise political extremism, and we do not have quite the same extent of corporate ownership of governance, whether due to good fortune, foresight or a lack of institutional maturity. But there is a more cosmic issue regarding why we have done what we do – and whether we might in the future.
Doctors are trained in medical school different ways of understanding decisions. One is the cardinal ethics – to see decisions based on autonomy, beneficence (doing good), non-maleficence (doing no harm), and justice (doing right, whatever that is). What’s also drilled into us is that these virtues are often in conflict with each other. A surgeon can not remove a diseased organ without risking a patient’s life with the scalpel. A psychiatrist can not protect a mentally ill person from their own actions without having them locked up against their will. There is no medication that is without side effects and risks. Doctors are trained to recognise that there can not be one way of viewing the world, and that there is no single ideal. That includes freedom.
For whatever reason, as a nation we decided to listen to the doctors. Political decisions have been clearly informed by expert opinion. Is that why we trust our leaders? That doesn’t feel as robust as it should. When we realise that the experts deal with inconsistencies, and have no internal guiding light, will we still trust them? When we recognise that their honesty in the grand uncertainties of what they face limit their effectiveness, when we start to see the repercussions of the interventions they supported, will our protests gain traction as well?
That is still yet to be seen. However, when we see the stories of how the rest of the world responds, one must never disregard our shared humanity – and potential for similar action. We learn something from every person that we meet, and sometimes we learn what not to do.