Human lessons

When a person is burnt, it is not just their skin that is affected. It is not just the muscle or bones or tendons, the nerve endings that are deadened and become numb. In an immolation, the lungs are also damaged. These respiratory injuries are hugely painful. They are caused by the inhalation of heat, steam and whatever chemicals a person might have been doused with before they were set alight.

This is the condition of the lungs of at least one of the asylum seekers who has contracted Covid-19 in the Park Hotel detention facility in Melbourne. His situation is a perverse expression of the cruelty of immigration detention. He was held on Nauru indefinitely and in a terrible act of protest set himself on fire. Now, he is among those to suffer coronavirus because the government will not release him from hotel detention. He is vulnerable three times over.

Last year the hotel’s windows were sealed shut. Reportedly, airconditioning is still circulating the air between rooms. A refugee with the virus was given a Panadol when he complained of his condition. The Australian Medical Association has said these people should be let out into the community to limit the chance of transmission. So have advocates. At least 15 detainees now have coronavirus. All of these people have health conditions: it is the reason they were brought back to Australia from offshore detention.

Earlier this week, the Department of Home Affairs denied ambulances were being turned away from the hotel. It released a statement that seemed to blame asylum seekers for their vulnerability. “As in the community,” it said, “detainees are free to make personal decisions regarding their vaccination status.”

But the first vaccines were not available to these people until August. They had been at risk for more than a year before then. The federal government was aware of this risk: it had been warned several times over. Rates of vaccination are as low as 13 per cent.

As always, the government arithmetic has nothing to do with these people locked up in Carlton. They could as well not exist and the same decisions would be made. Their suffering belongs to the subset of inhumanity known as deterrence. It is in this subset that the government has always trafficked. A man who was first on fire and is now struggling to breathe is only a lesson.

Both times, the government was responsible for what happened to him. They had been warned: about the conditions on Nauru and Manus, and then about the conditions in these so-called alternative places of detention. It would be wrong to say they were indifferent. The decisions are too deliberate for that. What they are is callous and barbarous and, on the evidence of three straight elections, successful. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 23, 2021 as "Human lessons".

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