We need Olympic ideals to beat Covid

Tim Costello reflects on Olympic pride, state sovereignty, government protection, and vaccine generosity.

Watching the Olympics excites me. My patriotism swells and I find myself in tears when we win gold.

Why? I am not out in that pool swimming nor am I rowing or running. It has nothing to do with my abilities or owes anything to my virtues. But I am somehow represented by that green and gold and a victory feels like it legitimates me as somebody. Those victories defend my sense of self. My ego is offered some protection, I imagine that is the case for many millions of Australians.

Of course, patriotism works because of love of place and pride when we are noticed on the world stage. But it does not assume we are superior. Nationalism, on the other hand, works less from love and more because of competitive hate. It is the prestige in triumphing that we are the best and a belief that my nation is superior. So when I keep messaging my Kiwi mates to ask how many gold medals they have won I hope it is patriotism not nationalism that characterises my Olympic excitement.

Curiously these Olympics are even more nuanced as it feels like Queensland against the world, given so much of our country’s top talent and their family have been based in the sunshine state to prior to these Games, with live crosses to Noosa to ecstatic families each time a medal is won.

Perhaps I am especially attuned to this in a time of border closures and COVID state rivalry and competition. I was actually relieved when Arianne Titmus after winning her second gold in the 200 metres said “I come from a little town in Tasmania and if I can do it anyone can” as well as the television footage of secondary school students in Adelaide cheering on their alumni Kylie Chalmers in the 100 metres free style.

Both instances thrilled me because it felt like we were at last a nation, with diverse geographical representation rather than a team of Queenslanders, but it gave me pause to reflect on why I felt that way.

As a Victorian my sense of sovereignty and protection has not primarily looked to PM Morrison or to national sovereignty but rather to our state borders, our ring of steel and our state Premier Daniel Andrews’ decisions. I was surprised at my initial umbrage that we were being asked to send our vaccines to Sydney. How dare they? Especially after our terrible lockdowns. But then I realised these are fellow Australians in greater need and how could I be so selfish and be thinking like this?

It could be because Covid had reminded me that the essence of sovereignty is who is protecting me. The state boundary line and the state Premier had become my line of defence.

Maybe it’s because we have a relatively short history of national sovereignty, of looking to a Federal Government for protection. But what about both World Wars?

In both wars Britain still looked after our foreign affairs and our defence. While Australian Federation celebrated a feel-good national identity in 1901, defence policy and foreign relations was left to the mother nation. That is why the fall of Britain’s impregnable defences in Singapore in 1942 was such a profound wake up call. John Curtin made his famous decision to assume a fuller national sovereignty despite the pangs and ties of kinship to Britain.

Covid it is an invisible virus that has penetrated our defences and after closing our national borders (sort of) we have rediscovered the steel of state boundaries and power of state sovereignty in chief medical Officers and immediate border closures. We now viscerally know that sovereignty in Australia actually means less feel-good national identity even in Olympic gold, but more in who is actually charged with protecting us.

The trouble with this virus is that we need global protection and a global sovereignty.

And this protection is both shared and split in our Federation. The Federal Government is responsible for quarantine and securing the vaccines and States for health delivery and getting the jab into arms. But they share responsibility around aged care and hotels as temporary quarantine facilities and economic relief packages.

When shared responsibilities are in conflict we emotionally prefer a State Premier. In Victoria our mean spiritedness to sharing our vaccines with Sydney has something to do with Scott Morrison being perceived as the PM for NSW. Also NSW being praised as the gold standard and Victoria as lockdown trigger happy with incompetent tracers.

But the trouble with this virus is that we need global protection and a global sovereignty. The Delta variant started in India and has penetrated our lives and most rich nations where even high levels of vaccination has led to chaos. With Africa and Asia left abandoned with so few vaccines due to weak spending power in this race we are seeing the result of no one being responsible to protect the poor. And none of us can be safe and free until this ends for all.

The End Covid for All campaign says we have to do more than overcome our state parochialism by sharing vaccines with Sydney. The ethical prerogative is to share with those in greatest need. For poor nations not to be even able to vaccinate their health workers should cause us to lift our affections beyond ourselves. Due to this pandemic never has Noosa had so much in common with Jakarta and never have we needed the purest sense of Olympic ideals to transcend our parochial fears.

Tim Costello is a former CEO of World Vision Australia and a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity. 

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times.