Disease and ethnicity are often used as a compelling combination. The fear of unknown disease, the fear of strange or different people are often melded to strong xenophobic effect. Of course, one fascinating element of this combination is that European colonisation was a bringer of disease and so, in a fairly classic case of transference, we place upon others those things we dislike about ourselves. We brought disease when we came to this country – diseases which were absolutely devastating, and now we fear it in others.
The recent combination of Scott Morrison’s comments on refugees and disease, and the debate about the depiction of ethnicity in Home & Away combined to remind me of a storyline that occurred in Home & Away over a decade ago. A refugee boat beaches itself illegally near Summer Bay (let us not worry about the geographically unlikelyness of this) and Duncan finds an (Asian) girl who has escaped detection and brings her food and tries to help her. The refugees however have typhoid, and the Diner has to be shut down because of Duncan’s actions. His humane actions thus endanger his family’s livelihood. The refugee girl becomes a literal Typhoid Mary, a threat to the life and well-being of Summer Bay.
When this storyline aired in 2000, immigration was a point of significant contention within political debate, Hanson had just been and gone from Parliament and refugees arrivals were increasing. Home & Away was, at much the same time, introducing an on-going character of non-Anglo background – Leah Poulos (who has remained on the show until this time). The depiction of Leah, while commencing in over-determined depiction of Greek-ness, actually in time managed to find a balance in its depiction where, in the words of Alan McKee was able to “address [ethnicity] as a narrative issue, and to accept it as a narrative given]” a goal McKee was hoping to see in the depiction of Aboriginality. It has been a long time since I watched Leah, so I don’t know whether he ethnicity has now slipped entirely from the narrative and she has been completely assimilated into the dominant culture, though for some time this was one, very small, bright spark in the depiction of ethnicity.
But, nonetheless, a storyline about disease-bringing non-white refugees managed to feature, demonstrating that helping these people endangered your health and even the rest of your life. This was 12 years ago. What we see from Scott Morrison, is that this storyline might not be completely unacceptable today. The failure of political leadership on all side to address the discourse about refugees and to humanise our attitudes, creates the atmosphere in which a politician like Morrison can feel it is to his political advantage to say something so outrageously offensive. As Contagion demonstrated, if we are worried about disease, we should get rid of free peanuts in airport bars – in fact, shut down any international air travel. People arriving on boats are the least of our worries. It would be nice to think that in another decade we might find that a storyline of this sort, or a political statement of this type, would be see as the abhorrent race-baiting that it is.