As the first pints in months were pulled last week in Australia’s greatest city, the people of Melbourne began to emerge from enforced hibernation – frustrated, muscles stiff and eyes wincing. And quickly, we were reminded that the things uniting us are far stronger than those that divide us. While the AFL season ended last week, sadly the people of Victoria will remain a political football in the Covid blame game for a while yet – but only if we let it. It is compassion and empathy and love that has gotten us this far, and it is this humble bar owner’s opinion that there is one very important step to take before this city truly becomes Melbourne again…Open the clubs Dan!

There was one nightclub story this year that really summed up the feelings of frustration and sadness I had been feeling since March. Analysing it really put into perspective the confusion and the futility of the arguments taking place in newspapers and news feeds throughout Victoria’s Covid crisis.

Thirteen people were killed in a stampede at Thomas Restobar nightclub in Lima, Peru on August 23rd. Police raided and used tear gas to disperse an illegal party, causing a 120 person press leading to the venue’s only emergency exit that had become blocked. 12 women and 1 man all under the age of 30 were trampled and crushed to death by their dance floor friends on a balmy Saturday night.

This story really shook me as an events organiser. It is one of your biggest fears – an incident out of your control leading to the loss of life. Immediately you start to think about where the fault lies in an incident like this – who is liable for this loss of life.  And the conclusion I came to was that depending on which way you look at it, everyone involved is responsible.

The attendees definitely bear blame, breaking lockdown restrictions in a country that had already lost 30,000 people to covid is incredibly irresponsible.

The organisers and owners- without a doubt, they would bear the legal liability for breaking the law just to try to make a buck.

The police too sure had their role to play – they are taught to prevent incidents like this through crowd dynamics. You cannot even comprehend why they would use weapons like teargas to break up a party.

 And the government of Peru of course should take some responsibility – they had recently relaxed some restrictions due to pressure from business groups. This easing may have signalled to the party goers that it was okay to come out of hiding. Over 200 people were dying per day in Peru, so the loss of an extra 13 isn’t much in the numbers game – but these “covid related deaths” stuck out in a pandemic that is only meant to affect the sick and the elderly.

How do you even figure out where the responsibility lies here? How do you apportion who is to blame for this tiny drop in an ocean of death? The situation is fucked no matter which was you look at it – you can blame everyone. Or you can blame no one.

You don’t blame the party goers – they’re not high risk and can you really blame them for seeking some human contact after months of lockdown. You don’t blame the nightclub for opening their doors to try to stave off losing your business in a country with much less economic support than Australia.  You don’t blame the government dealing with a public health crisis. You don’t blame the police for attempting to enforce a policy designed to save lives.

The final bit of wrongness from this sad story – 15 of the arrested party goers tested positive for covid. You could argue that putting a stop to it saved lives in the long run. An absolute shit fight.

Nightclubs get a raw deal in the media. You only hear about them when some public figure has done something wrong in one  -and it’s usually the club’s fault. Recently, it was  ‘Eddie McGuire slammed for going out with his son at Gold Coast nightclub’ (who the fuck cares) or it’s ‘police arrest 10 in nightclub drug dog operation’ (you would get the same result taking a sniffer dog down Collins street on a Friday at 5pm). Dance floor focused venues aka rave parlours aka nightclubs aka those dirty hedonistic hell holes for risk takers were the absolute first businesses to be shut down as covid lockdowns were instituted across the world and they will be the last to reopen. It shouldn’t be the case.

Nightclubs play a role that’s as vital as it is unrecognised in society – especially in cities with “high cultural value” like Melbourne. They, along with bars, are the only places people still go to meet strangers. The subsequent meeting of differences of opinion and melting pot of different beliefs with a diverse mix people of differing cultural and racial backgrounds leads to a magic that people from other places can’t really understand.  You don’ read about it in newspapers but you hear about it from the people. Melbourne’s eternally strong nightlife put to bed any remaining intercity rivalry after Sydney made the disastrous decision to introduce lockout laws (now quietly being rolled back).  Melbourne’s number 1 Uber destination is Revolver for a damn reason.

Much is made of Melbourne’s laneway culture – whatever that is, but let’s be honest what makes Melbourne great boils down to the fact that you can go out for dinner on a Saturday night and still be dancing come Monday afternoon without ever having to go home. AND not be judged for it (well not too much). 

The beautiful nonsense you hear in a nightclub’s smoking area is akin to a Jackson Pollock painting. It’s abstract, random, ridiculous and colourful but it sums up the culture of a city because it is a product in real time of real actual people throwing real ideas at the canvas to see what sticks.

 Sadly the lack of this intermingling of people and ideas during the Covid lockdown has led to a breakdown of what makes our city great. The blame game in Victoria made lockdown so much harder than it needed to be. Evil forces in the media sought to use a global pandemic to divide a population at a time where they needed to come together.

Covid is a mother-fucking heat seeking thermonuclear missile that is decimating societies large and small. Almost no one is handling it correctly on even their second or third goes. Government policies are largely based on guesswork trying to balance health advice with economic implications, combined with a whole lot of luck about how things play out. On a personal level it’s been wrecking lives and entire careers. And yet Victoria has, for the moment, conquered it. Victoria made Covid its bitch. That is something to cheer about. And this was done despite powerful elements of the media, and politicians trying to turn the whole thing into a game of trying to make the other side look bad. Politicians and news outlets begged and pleaded for Victoria to fail and for its people to tear each other apart – it was one of the saddest things to come out of 2020. Disastrous mistakes were made, of course Hotel Quarantine was an absolute fuck up but what’s important to the people of Australia is what happened afterwards. To blame one single politician for that is as ridiculous as trying to blame any single group for what happened in that nightclub in Lima.

The players in the blame game do not come from a place of goodness – it’s aim is to divide a populace when they are at their most vulnerable. It’s aim was to cause a stampede of self interest – to push people frightened and confused into harming each other. It undermined the health response by propping up anti mask wearing agendas against scientific evidence. It supported fringe anti lockdown viewpoints, again against scientific evidence. Thankfully for the most part, Melbournians fought against this.

What’s needed instead? Compassion. An article from earlier this year in medical journal The Lancet claims that empathy is not enough. It called for a restructuring of society based on compassion. Covid has disproportionately affected those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and countries with subpar health infrastructure. While the Pandemic has brought societies together and brought greater appreciation for the health and safety of each other, it has only done so due to selfish reasons.

“We feel regret and feel terrible about those who are suffering, in no small part because we can imagine that suffering being our own.”

The focus on laying blame for hotel quarantine, rather than the net effect of this global pandemic has been tragic. For far too many people, covid anger started and ended solely where the virus affected them personally. The lack of empathy shown in the covid culture wars was astounding and while this sort of thing is nothing new, with nowhere to thrash it out except social media – shit got heated. The confusion and loss of control in people’s lives led to an understandable vacuum that was filled by forces of disunity, personal agendas and political partisanship. But fuck all that. Melbourne is on the way back. Former keyboard enemies will hug it on the dancefloor and over copious shots at the bar. Despite all the setbacks, soon we’ll be having laybacks.

You don’t find much more compassion than on the dance floor. As recently admitted by the premier, hospitality venues are a better covid controlled environment than people’s homes where the real super spreading occurs. If done safely with the support of the government, clubs and bars should start to open up more quickly than is planned. And we need to. The unifying force of love that Melbournians have for our shared culture and now shared experience of 2020, will bring this city to life in a way never before seen. Finding the common good and compassion for each other should have been the name of the game all along. Instead of trampling on each other we need to lift each other up. To do that, we need to ignore the noise, and listen to the music.
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