One of the many structural shifts that the COVID-19 pandemic has created is the return of the state as a more interventionist actor. After several decades where it has been less inclined to use its weight, the pandemic has forced its hand. There simply could not be an effective response without states using their powers in ways that have not been consistent with liberal societies — and dominant ideologies — but have proved necessary nonetheless.
In Australia, this has come through the use of regional lockdowns in response to outbreaks of the virus, where the only permissible reason to leave the house is for essential trips. This has meant that many public-facing businesses — retail, hospitality, entertainment — have had to cease their operations for extended periods of time. In response, the government has been more generous with its welfare payments, recognizing the effects that lockdowns have on workers in these industries.
However, the state is not omniscient. There are effects of the pandemic and the state’s own responses to it that it cannot see or foresee. But also there are problems that the state simply will not address.
As Victoria has entered its fourth snap lockdown in the past year, there are a number of groups whose lives have become more precarious, and who the state won’t bring itself to assist. One such group is international students, who are usually only entitled to work a limited number of hours a week, and therefore are naturally led toward casual employment in the public-facing industries most affected by lockdowns. Without the ability to draw upon Australia’s welfare services, they are left entirely without incomes, and often have had to make the awful choice between rent and food.
Into this space has stepped Australia’s Sikh community, who have been providing thousands of free meals a day to those whose incomes have been restricted by the lockdown measures. This has alleviated some of the hardships that vulnerable groups have had to face due to both the effects of the pandemic and the government’s response to it.
A central tenet of Sikhism is the concept of seva or selfless service. One of the prime expressions of this is the langar, the free kitchen that exists in every gurdwara (a Sikh temple). The langar housed within the Golden Temple complex in the city of Amritsar, in Indian Punjab, is the largest free kitchen in the world, serving up to 100,000 meals a day. These meals are available to anyone regardless of religion or background.
In recent decades the number of Sikhs living in Australia has seen a substantial increase. The 2006 Australian census recorded around 26,000 Sikhs residing in the country; a decade later the 2016 census saw this number expand significantly to 125,000. The census scheduled for later this year is bound to see these numbers increase again. This is proving to be an overwhelmingly positive phenomenon.
Aside from the contributions these newer Australians make in their professional lives, their dedication to volunteerism provides the country with an additional social service that identifies areas where both the state and the market are failing to produce adequate outcomes and contribute basic human necessities to those most in need.
The growth of the Australian Sikh community presents an example of the value of civil society groups, and important lessons about how we should approach our relations to one another. We should not be reliant on the state to administer relationships, but should instead start from a personal understanding of our collective bonds and the responsibilities we have to each other.
This is not to absolve the state of its responsibilities, but it recognizes that the state is never going to be everything to everyone, that it has certain unbending rules that will exclude some people, and that despite the flexibility it has displayed during the pandemic, it is instinctively resistant to change.
This will always produce some undesirable outcomes that require other entities to cushion.
Yet another lesson that the charitable efforts of Australian Sikhs illustrates is about the personal ethos of volunteerism. Paying taxes that provide services and welfare to others is essential and important, but it is not a direct form of social contribution. Because taxes are unavoidable (unless you are rich enough to avoid them), taxation lacks the agency, intent, and the substance of volunteerism. It’s more arms-length than sleeves-up.
The pandemic has upended many of our prior expectations of governments, as well as the conduct of our everyday human interactions. There is no doubt that this period will create a significant reassessment of the role of the state within the regular contest of political ideas, which should be positive. But this should also — taking our cues from Australian Sikhs — hopefully reinvigorate Australia’s civil society groups with a stronger sense of the informal individual and collective efforts that are necessary to improve the lives of others.