Whose side are we on?

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I’ve long thought of Albert Camus’ The Plague as an allegory that fits our times.  Then, Covid-19 rocked along and really made it so.

The Plague is the story of a fictional Algerian town and its struggle to endure through and overcome a bubonic plague-like outbreak.  Camus shows us how plagues (or pestilences) play out in the heads of people, their actions, and their interactions. 

Fiction?  Or, non-fiction?

In one of the novel’s high points, Jean Tarrou, a visitor who is stuck in the town when it goes into lockdown and decides to throw his whole being into efforts to save its citizens, declares:

“All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences”.

Perhaps the key here is Tarrou’s use of the plural in “pestilences”. For what plays out in the pandemic in Oran reflects what we see in Australia today: acts of kindness, care, support and remarkable selfishness and cruelty.

Tarrou is really telling us, that pestilences manifest themselves in everyday life.  And when we fail to side with people (or beings) who are getting a raw deal, we inevitably slip into siding with a pestilence. It is a metaphor fit for many areas of our lives, that manifests in many ways.

This week’s call from our nation’s Prime Minister for visa holders (including students and workers) “who can’t support themselves” to leave the country at a time of great stress and need, picks a pretty clear side in Tarrou’s existential schema. 

Putting aside the fact that many of these workers will not be able to return to countries that have closed their borders, Morrison’s decree leaves good people making significant contributions in a parlous state. It is now up to the rest of us, to respond.

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Australia is fortunate to benefit from the contributions of many hundreds of thousands of workers and students across a range of sectors. They make enormous contributions beyond the purely financial, though it’s worth noting that they pay more tax than many “iconic ‘strayan” companies.

These people make a dazzling array of contributions – I don’t want to trivialise the work of fruit pickers, cleaners, hospitality workers; right up to medical personnel.  What I can do is share some experiences from my time working in higher education.

I have been working in universities now for the last four years. This has given me some insight into the lived experience of international students, teachers, lecturers and professional staff from across the world. This includes both Americas, Asia and Europe.

These universities have skilled, caring staff who work hard to support students and staff that are here on visas.  

And still, what I have seen and heard, has often moved or shocked me.

The challenges international students and staff from overseas take on in setting up lives in Australia (whether or not English is their native language) are challenges that many of us would gladly shirk.

Before I go any further, I will anticipate a predictable response: “they chose to come here”.

A few points need to be made here:

Firstly, as dirty as the terminology sounds, education has become one of Australia’s biggest export industries, worth more than $30bn to the economy in 2017 alone. Our prosperity relies on students from around the world choosing to come and learn here.

In other words, we as a society (under successive governments of varying persuasions) created the conditions and explicitly invited this choice. Therefore, we collectively hold responsibility.

Secondly, the growth in international education has been fostered by remarkable recruiting campaigns around the world.  Students, PhD candidates and researchers come to Australia on the basis of huge promises that are (or aren’t) delivered to varying degrees.

At its best, these stories are of shared growth, friendship and memories that will last a lifetime. The worst stories of unfilled promises are simply harrowing. This is our international reputation being shaped through lived experience.

Thirdly, and most critically, people who work in Australia and live here on visas are human. If you, or your son or daughter, mates or relatives, are at university or TAFE then they will learn from, learn with and develop friendships with people who are here studying and/or working in Australia on visas.

Herein lies an awful paradox. We are very happy to take money from people that come here with student or working visas. We are happy to take the economic, social and knowledge-based contributions they make to our society.

But, when the need escalates, when the human face is revealed, where are we in response?

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It’s worth making a few points on the circumstances that incredibly bright Masters students, PhD candidates and academics have related to me, and my observations. These are in no way relate to my employers, but to the lived experience of a whole system.

Firstly, some of my brightest students have come from overseas. They take on a Masters degree in a second language, and take on the task with a spirit of wonder, enquiry and good humour. They are tough, resilient, humble and ready to make a contribution to better themselves, the country they have come to, and the world.

Secondly, many students, PhD candidates and staff face precarious housing situations. They are in home environments where it is very difficult to function, let alone study. Likewise, many can’t simply “go home” when they have made home of a type here.

I wonder how consistent this is with the vision of the life that awaited them in Australia when boarding the plane?

Many of these PhD candidates also teach – imparting the benefits of their experience and knowledge so generously as part of already heavy workloads.

Thirdly, once the housing minefield is negotiated, the effort that has to go into navigating new cities and sprawling campuses is tremendous. Social isolation, missing family and loved ones, is real and hard to deal with on top of the pressure of high-level study.

The levels of anxiety and pressure would break many of us. The support systems can be surprisingly brittle, the holes in safety nets surprisingly cavernous.

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If you want to obfuscate and exploit, cast people as faceless. If you want to see the real nature of things, reveal their human face.

I have seen some of the deep anxieties that remarkably intelligent, compassionate and capable people are confronting.

I have also seen the kindness, ingenuity and spirit of compassionate inquiry amongst scholars from around the world, and their will to make a positive difference here and in their home countries.

I have enjoyed the victories that students, researchers and workers from around the world have in building better lives for themselves and a better world for all. Those wins, however small, reverberate.

I have seen friendships formed, stories shared, lessons learned, projects rise and enormous contributions made that never find their way on to financial balance sheets.

Like any big crisis, covid-19 has been talked about as a tipping point. The ugly spectre of xenophobia raises its head. It, too, is a pestilence, about which we must all make conscious decisions.

Now, international students, researchers (likely including those working on Covid-19 vaccines), doctors, nurses, cleaners, service workers and friends need the support of the society they have so generously contributed to.

Many a sage has observed that a society can be defined by how it looks after its most vulnerable. In The Plague, Camus makes this a question of how we live and so define our own lives.

Our collective empathy (or lack of it) as a nation, of our institutions and of ourselves, will not just define whether or not we side with the pestilences. It will also define our economy’s capacity to recover. Most importantly, it will shape whole lives.

My thoughts are with present and past scholars I have taught and colleagues I have worked with at this time. This piece is one step in my advocacy.

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