Benny Zable has lived in Nimbin on and off since 1973, when he arrived in town for the Aquarius festival – the event that seeded counterculture and escapist lifestyles into the northern rivers of New South Wales.
The 75-year-old artist and activist is a storied figure in this part of Australia, now a heartland for alternative health and wellness advocates, and notorious for low immunisation rates. He was also the first person from Nimbin to show up for a Covid-19 vaccine.
“I’ve had people – they were just nasty, really nasty, getting stuck into me,” Zable says. “There’s all kinds of alternative people, a lot of them through their life history they don’t trust the system, me included.
“A lot of people don’t trust any of it. A lot of people have been disillusioned with the government. My friends who are getting stuck into me because I got the vax, you can have to-and-fro about it that gets nowhere, they’re so entrenched with it.
“I’m not 100% on these vaccines either. But the thing is the nurses and doctors they give you the information, you read through it. What they give you is not going to give you a disease. So you’ve got to trust that and think about future generations.”
Child vaccination rates in the northern rivers are Australia’s lowest. In the Byron shire, 68.2% of one-year-olds are fully immunised, compared with 94.9% across the country.
In the hinterland town of Mullumbimby, locals say they have been banned from cafes for raising concerns that staff are not wearing masks. Businesses have placed signs in shopfront windows asking vaccinated customers not to enter under the misapprehension they could shed the virus.
“The pandemic was always going to come to the northern rivers,” says Mark Swivel, who runs a community legal clinic in Mullumbimby.
Last week Covid arrived in the guise of a real estate speculator from Sydney. The man and his teenage son have since been charged with breaching NSW public health orders.
Out with authority
Swivel says compliance with restrictions in the region has “actually been quite high” and that pushback has abated significantly.
“I think the problems here are real but overstated,” he says. “There’s a noisy minority who adamantly oppose vaccinations and Covid restrictions. There’s a significant spectrum of opinion from legitimate hesitancy right through to paranoid dystopian delusion.”
He believes this opposition to rules and vaccines is “an expression of fear, primarily”.
“There’s a huge sense of threat among a lot of people who have chosen certain alternative lifestyles,” he says. “Everyone up here is anti-authoritarian.
“There’s a fat streak of nonconformism across the community, whether you’re poor, rich, or whatever you believe. What you see in anti-Covid actions is a particular strain – image intended – of that strong theme.
“The fear that’s being expressed by many opponents of vaccines and Covid restrictions comes from a sense of encroachment on the refuge of the paradise of the northern rivers.”
That encroachment has been writ large for years as Byron Bay and its surrounds have become a playground for celebrities and rich tree changers. The median house price in Mullumbimby has just increased beyond $1m.
“It is a very wealthy town now,” Swivel says.
Liz Elliott, a former emergency department doctor in Mullum, says a “strong element” of the community – she estimates between 40% and 50% – are “suspicious of the whole orthodox response” to Covid. She’s one of them.
“It’s not so much that we’re suspicious of authority, it’s that authority has shown itself to be unable to deal with the challenges of this century over and over again,” Elliott says.
“People always point at dissenters as if we are the problem. The problem is we’re not looking at the long term of our society. Covid has been used as an enormous fear generation [mechanism] … the same as with September 11.”
Elliott says constant media messaging supporting vaccination has induced a sort of “mass psychosis” about vaccination and that she will consider the vaccine when more is known about its long-term effects.
She says her concerns include that there has been little public discussion about “alternatives to the vaccine” and cites the drug ivermectin (while trials are ongoing, ivermectin is not approved for use as a Covid treatment in Australia and current scientific evidence does not support its use).
“We’re actually all going a little mad and a lot of that is the insistence of talking about jab, jab, jab, jab,” Elliot says. “I am suspicious of the entire situation.”
She says the “sheep and the goats argument” is starting to become unpleasant.
“Even in our personal life there are friends who won’t talk to me. People equate being obedient as being good. There’s a sort of a moral thing going on and a lot of judgments.
“My personal opinion is you wear a mask when you’re face-to-face with a shop assistant and that in August … that’s a good idea. The micromanaging of people’s personal lives is a problem.”
Some views – like Elliott’s – are rationalised and nuanced. Others appear formed by blatant online misinformation and paranoia, in a way that resembles the rightwing QAnon conspiracy.
Down the social media rabbit hole, a picture emerges of an organised resistance to Covid restrictions, vaccinations and masks in Mullumbimby, Byron Bay and other parts of the northern rivers.
A few months back, an information sheet headed “Please familiarise yourself with the following points” was circulated among residents, advising them they could get around mask mandates by claiming a medical exemption. Locals in Mullumbimby say the content is repeated daily by dissenters in the same way politicians spruik daily talking points.
Some shopfronts in Mullumbimby bear signs advising customers they will be allowed in without a mask “no questions asked”, and assumed to have a medical exemption.
At the other end of the spectrum, the St Vincent de Paul charity shop has closed its doors several times when customers have refused requests to wear masks.
This week local farmers’ markets could have continued through lockdown as an essential service but organisers said they had decided to close – the “only option” given difficulties they have had ensuring compliance with public health directives.
Last month Mandy Nolan, a columnist for the local paper the Echo, wrote about the ungluing of the Mullum community over Covid restrictions.
“Covid-19 has ripped our rainbow flag in two,” she wrote. “Our beliefs have been polarised to such an extent that there no longer is a middle ground. Our tolerance of each other has faded. Our mountain of goodwill has gone.”
She told Guardian Australia: “It scares me when a society loses its empathy and compassion to care for its vulnerable. That’s the most powerful thing we do.
“We are talking about a very loud, shouty and quite aggressive minority. I called them cults without compounds.”
She is hopeful that in a year from now, once vaccination rates are high, the conflict becomes a distant memory and “stuff on the fringe again”.
“But the government’s inability to get people vaccinated has meant we’ve amplified the space for the kind of conversations that I don’t believe would be there if they’d done it quickly,” Nolan says.
“The slow vaccine rollout has meant a very fast and prolonged rollout of conspiracy. And the more the government fucks it up, the more [conspiracy] has been allowed to thrive.”
Calls for cooperation
Over and over, many locals tell a similar story. Three women who spoke to Guardian Australia said they had chosen not to vaccinate their children but that the Covid pandemic had shifted their views.
What is perhaps most remarkable about the situation is the way the individualism that has drawn people to the northern rivers has also come to foster a sort of groupthink.
“I moved here because everyone was accepted,” said one woman, who did not want to be named. “Increasingly people have come to this area thinking its a new age area, then it became this almost judgmental thing. What yoga type you do? Do you shop at the Woolies or the IGA? That sort of thing. It’s not something new.”
Another said: “I can’t believe the nastiness around something as harmless as wearing a mask.”
One of the most prominent pushers of Covid dissent in Mullum is a man otherwise known for his activism as a conservationist. On social media these days he praises the climate-sceptic rightwing politicians Malcolm Roberts and Craig Kelly.
“Funny where the truth is coming from these days,” he wrote above a link to a speech by Roberts complaining about limits on personal freedoms.
Zable posted a photo from his vaccine appointment on social media. He was accused by some folks of being paid to “shill for Big Pharma” and that he had “sold out man”.
He says nothing could be further from the truth. His decision was based on the same set of ideas that underpinned the Aquarius festival and transformed these valleys.
“The Age of Aquarius, it’s an invention,” he says. “It’s no cosmic thing. It stands for cooperation.
“There’s these two basic theories in society. One is that the human species is a cooperative species when push comes to shove. The other is the survival of the fittest.
“Every scientist in the world is screaming that we’ve got nine years [to deal with climate change]. This is what we should be focusing on. This is the test. Are we cooperative or we are just in it for ourselves?”