If the past summer’s bushfires brought out the best in our community, could COVID-19 be bringing out the worst?
Everyone is a little bit scared. Everyone is fragile. Everyone’s lives have been thrown into turmoil by these strange times. And everyone wants to protect themselves and those they love from the virus.
However, it’s been shocking to see how virulent some of that conversation has become.
“NO OFFENCE CANBERRIANS STAY OUTA BATEMANS BAY YA NOT WANTED OR F****N NEEDED THERE”, (asterisks mine) reads one Facebook post. It’s not hard to find other posts that call for closing the borders, or make reference to “virus-laden” ACT residents.
Region Media colleagues say if you have Canberra number plates in many South Coast communities, you’re probably risking an egging.
In a word, some of the reactions have been feral.
Here’s the lowdown from Canberra: ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr has been abundantly clear that people should not be visiting their holiday homes on the coast or high country, calling it “extraordinarily selfish”.
His message echoes pleas from Snowy Monaro Mayor Peter Beer, Eurobodalla Mayor Liz Innis and Bega Valley Mayor Kristy McBain.
A message from US to YOU#stayhome#staysafe#begavalley#sapphirecoast? Ruby McBain? Max McBain (Loving Home by Kim Churchill)? Jack McBain
Posted by Kristy McBain on Monday, April 6, 2020
And it is selfish. Regional communities do not have the resources to carry infected people from elsewhere. Everyone should stay home, but not because Canberrans pose a greater COVID-19 risk than anyone else.
The ACT is not a coronavirus hotspot. Diagnoses in the ACT are roughly level pegging with the rest of Southern NSW. There is no confirmed evidence of community transmission in Canberra, where health authorities say the community has been cooperative with new restrictions.
Indeed, the nearest actual COVID-19 hotspot to Canberra is up the road from the Eurobodalla in Nowra, where NSW health authorities have identified an elevated risk of community transmission and subsequently expanded local testing criteria.
So where does this loathing and antipathy come from?
All of us who grew up in Southern NSW recall the lurking dislike of “Canberra people” in rural communities (despite the fact that many of them were our own family members who had gone to the ACT for jobs and education – a trend that continues today).
But in the Eurobodalla, for example, non-residential ratepayers represent around 40 per cent of the rate base, and therefore a substantial chunk of the income that provides services for everyone. People from Canberra, among other places, pay for roads, water, sewerage, parks and ovals with their rates.
Canberrans’ love of the coast often arises from generations of family visits and enduring friendships. In retirement, it’s not uncommon for people to divide their time between the national capital and regional areas, and to become engaged, active citizens in both places.
Just weeks ago, fire-ravaged communities begged people from Canberra to visit the coast. As the whole region suffered through a horrific summer that brought the blazes right to our doorsteps, ACT locals set out as soon as they were safe to do so and brought their eskies with them.
Car rallies were organised to visit Braidwood, campaigns created to fill country town streets with those “yogi-bear” number plates. And had COVID-19 not intervened, there’s little doubt that visitor dollars would be bringing much-needed replenishment to regional business coffers this Easter.
Every day, children from Southern NSW head across the border for schooling and populate Canberra’s universities and vocational training institutes.
And if you are really, really sick somewhere in the Capital region, you will very likely end up in the Canberra Hospital, perhaps even airlifted into Woden.
While there’s a GST allocation that’s intended to cover the disproportionate costs of providing healthcare and, to a lesser extent, education for around one million people from a tax base of half that population, it’s long been a bone of contention whether that funding meets the actual need.
But that healthcare and education provision is as it should be. Why? Because this is a region where we are all connected. The ACT is not an anomalous hole on the map, filled with aliens. We are all a vital part of each other’s communities and we depend upon each other socially and economically.
Many people in Canberra are – like me – from regional NSW, living or working here regularly. We do that precisely because Canberra is the sweet spot between the opportunities of city life and the deep-seated desire to stay connected with your country roots.
When all this ends, there will be more holidaymakers down the coast or up in the high country, bringing their love for the bush and the beach along with their friendship, community support and dollars.
Let’s work together as a region. Let’s resist the fear-ridden temptation to blame “the other” and thus sow division and hatred. Life is hard enough already. Let’s choose to be kind neighbours and friends to each other.