Flat White

Tough Love: Covid-19 and the racism of low expectations

7 September 2021

4:00 AM

7 September 2021

4:00 AM

A regular series of rules for life by Pete Shmigel, a former senior state and federal political advisor and CEO of Lifeline Australia.

Covid-19 has seen some parts of our community yet again display what Noel Pearson calls “the racism of low expectations” — and it needs to be challenged both at the policy level and the individual level.  

We have now seen countless media reports and statements from some of the Blue Tick Brigade decrying the Covid-19 vaccination program as it applies to Indigenous people. Much of this outcry has been focussed on the largely Indigenous community of Wilcannia in the far west of NSW, which now has approximately 100 cases from a population of some 800 people. The allegations made against the Morrison and Berejiklian governments in particular range from administrative incompetence, poor judgement, lack of compassion, and downright racial prejudice. 

In fairness, putting aside the obvious political agendas and biases of some commentators, part of the concern is reasonable. The government-administered vax roll-out for Indigenous people has been sclerotic and untimely, and could potentially give rise to unnecessary human damage. It should be noted that Maari Ma Aboriginal Health Corporation, a very successful service out of Broken Hill, had been requesting specific measures some 18 months ago and, apparently, received no replies from those in authority.   

(It remains, however, an open question as to whether the underperformance in Indigenous communities has been exceptional – no less intentional — as opposed to people in the bush or even the general population.) 

What’s less reasonable and much more disappointing is the tenor of the commentary about Indigenous people themselves. A predominant note – too often echoed by the mainstream media – is that Indigenous people are basically helpless victims. It’s an understandable trap to fall into given many of the very sad realities of Indigenous relations for more than 200 years. 

But I worry that, when we publicly remonstrate about the fate of Indigenous people and constantly misrepresent them as somehow helpless and hopeless, we may be doing it more to meet our own needs than theirs.  

What we shout down as injustice in society may in fact be a cry from some unresolved part of ourselves. It may well be our clumsy and projected attempt to heal our own pain rather than that of people who may be experiencing it much more directly. None of us like pain; some of us project it outwards to ward it off. That’s a generous way of looking at it. 


Less generously, it could frankly be suggested that it’s “white privilege” — and white privilege by some of those who most use that phrase to shame and blame people.   

I’m not certain. But I do venture that, at best, it’s fundamentally not respectful and lacks the practice of empathy. At worst, some may be operating with a blind spot (“unconscious bias” in progressive-speak) that amounts to sneaky racism of its own kind, albeit one that passes in polite circles. A curious lack of self-awareness from those who, again, embrace that term.  

Such an approach – possibly driven by unresolved, white, and middle-class angst and given a vocabulary by Leftish politics – isn’t just morally problematic. It’s completely unrealistic about real Indigenous people living real lives – rather than Indigenous people as some convenient and often online repository of our modern alienation.  

As Lifeline’s CEO, I once sat with five people in a community space in Wilcannia. It was an honour in that it was the first time they’d decided to come together as “survivors” of suicides by their loved ones; spouses, siblings and offsprings. Some had had multiple deaths by suicide in their families. 

I heard the tragic stories. I heard the search for causes and the guilt that comes with not having “seen the signs” (which is the case in the vast majority of suicide deaths). I tried to acknowledge and hold the sadness and the grief. 

As the conversation went on, and perhaps as our trust for each other grew, it began to shift. My hosts began to speak of what good had come from the lives of the lost and their unique contributions. To the lessons to be learnt going forward. To the practical things that members of this group were doing to prevent suicidality in their community.  

One member told of volunteering at his grandchildren’s school. He had seen some Year 2 pupils holding a “mock funeral”, perhaps as a way of processing some of their circumstances. The gentleman – and he very much is – told me about gently talking to the kids and asking them what was important about Sorry Business, and what they learned from it about how to live. 

Fundamentally, that discussion on that day in a town that some dismiss as some hellhole that somebody must be blamed for, completely challenged my assumptions and preconceptions. I have to admit that I had come to talk about death; this group of wiser people had come to talk about survival, resilience, struggle and life. They were not to be defined by suicide and tragedy, but from moving through grief and onwards.   

Yes, their town and their community has much suffering and the stats are shocking; but, yes, the people of that town and that community are not to be defined or characterised by only that aspect. 

And that is in fact the case for many if not most Indigenous people; their on-the-ground and daily resilience and indeed success against tough odds is everywhere to see if we are open to it.  

Instead of looking only at one-off examples like Wilcannia and other regional and remote communities, we might also look at the fact that 80% of Indigenous people actually live in metropolitan areas. Instead of looking only at Indigenous poverty and the awful imagery that accompanies it, we might also look at the fact that the majority of Indigenous people are actually gainfully employed and that university graduations and small business ownership is fast rising. Instead of pointing the finger at someone for a lack of vaccinations, we might also look at the fact that Indigenous people are informed, proud and capable in Covid-19 as much as any circumstance.  

I hope I’m not too provocative: the very real and still present Indigenous experience of violence and discrimination may in fact help Indigenous people to better process our current circumstances than those of us who grew up in wealth and with smug confidence that the world is a happy place. I don’t really know. 

I’d have to ask lots of Indigenous people to get some insight rather than arrogantly assume. To arrogantly assume is to make the same error as we regretfully see being played out. Perhaps, an alternative strategy: 

Show ourselves self-compassion

It’s totally okay to have pain in and amongst Covid’s complexity. It’s the teacher of many lessons – lessons we avoid when we freeze, fly, or fight it. When something screams “injustice” inside us, it’s good to ask: why is that coming up for me? 

Act with practical empathy

Rather than posting online, post a check (or the digital equivalent) to a worthy organisation that’s Indigenous-led and making a positive contribution in remote and regional Indigenous communities. (And don’t buy another political mythology of how badly run they all are – as it’s factually false.) Or whatever other cause you deem appropriate.  

Operate with a wise mind

It’s estimated that 80% of our responses to the world are emotional and intuitive. That’s fine, but it does leave those responses as incomplete and not fully sound. By introducing another 20% that is the rational – such as real facts about real people’s lives – we come to the wisdom that best guides our choices and behaviours. 

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