Australia’s sting in the COVID-19 tail was coaxed into existence by a worryingly predictable series of policy mistakes and came accompanied with hints about the baffling ignorance of at least some of the most-affected state’s leadership. If nothing else, the ability of some in positions of power to make decisions based on false premises explains why a comparable disaster is brewing in the climate crisis.
Laurence Davison Head of Content and Editor KANGANEWS
We are of course still learning about SARS Cov-2, and in particular how it spreads through communities. Our knowledge was even less at the start of the pandemic – it is easy to forget the weeks we spent wiping down parcel deliveries while at the same time virtually no-one was wearing a mask.
In time, no doubt, we will know more – including some isolated areas in which we may technically have overreacted to the threat of the virus. It already appears that outdoor transmission may be so low that some of the restrictions we have endured in the open air could have been avoided had we had full knowledge of the virus’s behaviour throughout, for instance.
At the same time, it should be abundantly clear that fast, decisive action is the only way of reliably containing spread. Michael Ryan, director of the World Health Organisation’s health emergencies programme, made this amply clear in comments made on 13 March 2020 based on his experience of dealing with multiple Ebola outbreaks.
“Be fast. Have no regrets. You must be the first mover – the virus will always get you if you don’t move quickly,” Ryan said. “If you need to be right before you move, you will never win. Perfection is the enemy of the good when it comes to emergency management. Speed trumps perfection.”
Last year provided ample evidence to support Ryan’s unequivocal language. The UK watched and waited as COVID-19 tore through continental Europe, finally locking down on 23 March – two weeks after Italy extended its lockdown nationwide. By the time the UK did act it was experiencing nearly a thousand new cases a day and more than 50 daily deaths – numbers that would peak in the nation’s third wave at 67,000 and 1,800.
We may never know exactly how much those fateful days of inadequate action cost the UK. But the country undoubtedly paid a high price for fiddling while Rome burned – as it did again when it rushed to reopen its economy in mid-2020.
“The seeds of hubris had been sown. Australia achieved eradication, at least temporarily, without its federal leadership having to commit political capital to doing so.”
With new case numbers still around a thousand every day, the UK progressively reopened schools, nonessential businesses and hospitality venues. The virus stubbornly failed to respect the British government’s desire for a return to normality and quickly got back on its path to killing 500 or more of the population every day by late in the northern hemisphere autumn.
It is not as if Australia does not have a local example of the consequences of failing to act fast enough. Clusters of new cases began emerging in Victoria in mid-June last year but the city of Melbourne did not go into full lockdown until 7 July and the state did not subsequently enter its hardest period of lockdown until 2 August. Victoria did not record a day of no new cases or deaths until 26 October.
Despite Victoria’s shocking experience, in general Australia has been positively evangelical about its success in managing the pandemic. Despite explicitly not following its neighbours in New Zealand into an elimination strategy, Australia managed effectively to eradicate the virus from its shores by late 2020.
The seeds of hubris had been sown. Australia achieved eradication, at least temporarily, without its federal leadership having to commit political capital to doing so. The same leaders elected not to improve a hotel quarantine system that was not fit for purpose from the start and was blatantly insufficient to cope with the increased airborne transmission of new strains of the virus. Meanwhile, the biggest error of the whole affair could be – and was – casually ascribed to the other side of the political aisle in Victoria.
NEW SOUTH WALES, SAME OLD MISTAKES
Let’s go back to the WHO’s Ryan to set the scene for 2021’s disaster. At the same briefing as his urging to act fast, Ryan added: “The problem in society we have at the moment is everyone is afraid of making a mistake. Everyone is afraid of the consequences of error. But the greatest error is not to move.”
New South Wales (NSW) discovered patient zero of its latest COVID-19 outbreak on 16 June. The state entered what its leadership appears to believe passes for a lockdown 10 days later, initially for two weeks. By mid-July, the lockdown has been extended to at least the end of the month and most experts seem to think it will eventually have to run for a minimum of 8-12 weeks if the outbreak is to be controlled. It may already have spread back to Victoria, too.
Once again, and despite all the evidence suggestion swift, decisive action is the only way to control outbreaks, a crucial period of dithering is proving to be – literally, in a growing number of tragic cases – fatal. This is where the false dichotomies come in.
There still appears to be a substantial group of people, including many in state and federal government, who believe the policy options in the early days of an outbreak are to lock down and damage the economy or to stay open and try to preserve activity. This is demonstrably false. In fact, the choices are to lock down and accept significant but short-term economic harm or to take an unacceptably high chance that the outbreak will grow. If it does, the lockdown will be longer and more damaging – and, of course, many people will get sick and die.
The latter option simply is not a sensible actuarial conclusion even on its own terms. Western Australia has experienced three quarantine breaches in 2021 and has locked down almost immediately twice (the third breach came during the lockdown caused by the second) for a total of less than two weeks. NSW avoided lockdown on all its previous quarantine breaches, accepted the congratulations of the federal government for its “gold standard” response, and will now be in lock down for perhaps two or three months.
It is as if the NSW government has elected not to pay a home-insurance premium for several years, instead taking the population of the state out for a fancy dinner in a top-end restaurant, and is now standing on its front lawn in its pyjamas watching the house burn to the ground while saying: “But if we’d paid for the insurance we wouldn’t have had such nice dinners.”
Boggling the mind further, in early July it emerged that members of the NSW cabinet had at least been mooting the idea of abandoning lockdown entirely. The thinking here, apparently, was that since the population of NSW could see the rest of the (vaccinated) world returning to normal they couldn’t be expected to follow lockdown rules just because not doing so would inevitably mean thousands of deaths from COVID-19.
Maybe those taking this line didn’t think of the deaths bit. It is true that Australians will be vaccinated at some future stage, so perhaps the likes of health minister Brad Hazzard just thought they could turn July 2021 into March 2022 by sheer force of will.
“Australian governments have simply adopted an alternative narrative under which confronting climate change carries negative consequences of equal weight to the positive ones.”
It is this type of thinking – defining difficult decisions in inaccurate terms to serve a different agenda – that props up Australia’s climate-change policy disaster. Instead of recognising that climate change will be catastrophic on a global and national level, and therefore that it needs to be addressed even if doing so is costly and challenging, Australian governments have simply adopted an alternative narrative under which confronting climate change carries negative consequences of equal weight to the positive ones.
Historically, doing this required a narrative under which climate change is not that bad or even not really happening. Hence Australia’s government making superhuman efforts to convince Unesco not to put the Great Barrier Reef on its list of endangered world heritage sites. What use is a national treasure if it goes against the national interest as defined by a government with a small majority on a three-year re-election cycle?
Despite a valiant rearguard effort by previous administrations, however, the path of outright climate-change denial is narrowing. In its place comes performative federal-government fury about the impact of measures needed to combat climate change on ‘the economy’.
Poor pandemic response fetishises the economy in the sense of refusing to lock down until outbreaks are out of control because of a desire to maintain activity, even though it should be clear that this is not the real choice being made. The situation is the same with climate change: yes, Australia could move to renewable energy, but what about the economy – meaning, in this case, jobs in fossil-fuel industries.
The premises are equally false. The economy cannot remain open while a lethal virus rages around an unvaccinated community – the only questions are when it will shut down, how hard and for how long. Likewise, Australia’s fossil-fuel economy will not survive a global transition to net-zero emissions that seems increasingly inevitable.
In this case, the questions are whether Australia wants to get ahead of a change that is coming, and perhaps take advantage of it, or drag its feet for as long as possible, wringing the last dollars out of dying industries and simply hoping still to be relevant on the other side.
The federal government may have been willing to insist Australians wear masks over their mouths – or at least let state governments make such mandates – but it continues to wear its own mask tightly over its eyes when it comes to climate policy. There is no shortage of charts showing the path of the pandemic to provide a cautionary tale about what happens when leaders wait too long to respond to an irresistible force.