Skip to main content

In Islam we consider niyat, intention, in all acts.  I’ve heard Wurundjeri elders refer to womenjeka also as an expression of intention.  What is the intent of these performances? It seems that public health is a measure that requires a distancing that is indeed not merely physical, but social.  Western science requires data, costume, and gestures to make us feel safe.  But this pandemic doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and so neither can those intentions.  Performativity has material consequences.

My wife and I entered Sunshine hospital in late March and left a handful of days later with a little baby, a city locked down, and a world that felt, interrupted.  

A lingering anxiety had set in that summer. Our bub was underweight.  We had inhaled bushfire smoke for days in our home here in the Western suburbs, visiting my parents in Sydney, working out of Canberra, and travelling for a few days in the Blue Mountains.  His gills were struggling. 

Adding to my anxieties was a cold that had set in before the date they would induce him.  That week I had developed some symptoms: a cough and a fever.  “It couldn’t be coronavirus, could it?” We nervously played out some scenarios with us both deciding that I needed to be her support person during the birth despite the concerns.  My frequent trips to the bathroom while she underwent contractions were muffled coughing fits.  The first sight of blood I saw during her labours, were surprisingly, and concerningly, from my lungs. 

The hours that followed were nightmarish for all of us.  I’m often perplexed by how easily it is for me to slip out of my body through crisis.  I remember watching them carrying my wife away to emergency as though I were in the third person.  It was simple to be a passenger to the momentum of the crisis, until they pulled him out. In that moment, my wife’s body was opened up and critical, our son wasn’t breathing, and they needed to cart him off, and everyone needed a decision from me: to stay or to go.  I was back in my skin for the first time in hours and struck with inaction.  Her trusting eyes looked up at me and said, “you need to go with him.  He needs to know his people are with him.” 

Aside from my own general out-of-body experience, the thing that struck me about the hospital was how theatrical it all seemed, and as we plunged further into crisis the more performative it felt.  It seemed all of a sudden there was a whole ensemble of people who had appeared from backstage to perform their roles.  Anaesthetists, obstetricians, doctors, nurses, midwives, pharmacologists, students, ‘orderlies’. Everyone had a role and a costume, everything appeared sanitised and surveilled, except for the infection in me, except for my wife and son, both struggling for life.  With all the people who were there, we were, ostensibly, a community, and yet there was no one to relate to. 

When we left the hospital, over the coming months, performances became more and more evident to me.  Here I’m thinking of a wide body of interdisciplinary work referring to the iterability of norms, but also the geography and theatricality of these norms. These performative, spatial, and dramatic dimensions, operating through the technologies of power, leave us as audience members to our own lives.  

With COVID there are performances in data: the daily count in Victoria, the death count, the reproduction numbers. There are performances in acronyms: COVID-19, R, PPE, CHO, WHO. There are performances in shapes: graphs which show curves, bubbles that keep us safe, and the invisible spherical entity with spiky crowns that lurks everywhere.  There are performances in costume: the masks and the variations of masks, the PPE, the tracksuits and pyjamas we live in.  There are the actual performers, who divert our attention from the real and authentic: the Tiger King and of course his orange counterpart, a Matryoshka doll who represents statecraft at its most entertainingly sinister.  And of course there is the physicality of performance itself: the elbows on traffic lights, the elbow greetings, the exaggerated distancing in the supermarkets.  

In Islam we consider niyat, intention, in all acts.  I’ve heard Wurundjeri elders refer to womenjeka also as an expression of intention.  What is the intent of these performances?  It seems that public health is a measure that requires a distancing that is indeed not merely physical, but social.  Western science requires data, costume, and gestures to make us feel safe.  But this pandemic doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and so neither can those intentions.  Performativity has material consequences.

The imprisonment rate under the Andrews government is higher than any government in the 20th century and one in ten people in a Victorian prison are Aboriginal.  Our prisons, are also supported by data, costume, and gesture, and they disproportionately imprison black and brown people.  Before and after those people are restrained in cells, their livelihoods and their abilities to thrive are restrained.  The fines system, sometimes described as part of the carceral archipelago or the prison industrial complex, also punishes black and brown bodies.  Almost 20,000 COVID-19 related fines have been issued by Victoria police in recent months and these fines have been disproportionately issued to First Nations people and South Sudanese people.  These are things I see on a daily basis, not just because I’m a resident of the Western suburbs and a person of colour, but I work in a community legal centre that sometimes bears witness. 

We’ve seen black and brown people disproportionately targeted for breaching the public health orders.  I felt that all-too-familiar unease when two police cars followed me in Sunshine, to be eased momentarily, only until seeing the police targeting people younger and darker than me on the street.  We’ve seen in our work that people who experience gender-based violence have far fewer spaces to seek protection.  We’ve seen a reduction of women of colour seeking our services. We’ve seen that the poorest suburbs in Melbourne have the highest rates of infection.  We’ve seen those people blamed for spreading the virus when they are trying to survive on the permanent precarity of casualised labour.  We’ve seen police guards outside of every floor of public housing towers police people’s movements.  We’ve seen police lights flash of an evening because people are outside of their homes after 8 pm.  The permanent state of surveillance penetrates the bones and triggers muscle memory – it takes me to my parents recollections of the tangible terror of the permanently hidden footprints of the Savak in Teheran.

Our service sometimes bears witness: my concern is all of those times we don’t bear witness.  Across the sector there has been a retraction of services.  Even in other jurisdictions, my colleagues tell me that they continue to primarily work offsite, and make COVID-safe plans such as putting up perspex barriers and limiting the amount of clients that attend on-site.  The interesting thing around the performances of the epidemic is the contrast with the things that remain unseen.  The perspex creates an almost invisible barrier between lawyer and client, but what actually remains invisible, so often to the lawyer, is how their privilege and their relational power affects their representation and forms a part of the technology of regulatory power.  In fact, we too have data, costume, and gestures which surveil, anaesthetise, and control.  

Looking at my 6-month old, I’m reflecting on which performances will allow him to breathe, and which intentions will continue to reduce the possibilities for his world.  

Back to top

Sarouche Razi is a principal lawyer at Westjustice in Western Melbourne and volunteers at Kimberley Community Legal Services. Sarouche is a friend of IPCS.

Tags

ASD Sarouche Razi

Share

Other Articles

9 Oct 2020

Whither India?

The Indian state under the current ruling political formation has over the past few years been pursuing a virulent campaign of a populist anti-intellectualism, targeting the humanities and the social sciences in particular.

9 Oct 2020

Muzzling Voices

For roughly seven years from around the middle of 2013, a very substantial section of the mass media in India has become overtly supportive of the Hindu nationalist, right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Narendra Modi.