We have all been duped, like in a classic Rob Mariano double-cross maneuvre in the Survivor series my family is currently binge watching.
At the end of July, and early in the latest outbreak in Melbourne, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said his aim was now “aggressive” suppression and when pressed on what that meant, clarified that as zero community transmission.
It must have felt right to him to give this message to fearful Melbournians uncertain of what lay ahead.
Now the fissures in the conservatives are being exposed since the blow torch is being applied in the public glare first by the ultra conservatives exemplified by Tony Abbott’s recent comments in the UK – no doubt trying to impress his populist-leaning future employer – and now by business elites, traditionally strong supporters of the conservatives.
From these groups Morrison is under enormous political pressure to back away from his commitment to zero community transmission, and instead to have lesser measures which would minimise impacts on businesses.
That is how we arrived in recent weeks at Morrison attempting to try Premier Palaszczuk in the court of public opinion, especially when a young woman was prevented from attending her father’s funeral due to Queensland’s strong biosecurity measures. Cynically he used the emotion surrounding one funeral – incredibly traumatic and stressful for the people impacted – to put political pressure to force a reduction in biosecurity measures which as a consequence would increase the likelihood of more funerals being held than otherwise, and thus many more people grieving for the loss of loved-ones.
For Morrison zero community transmission was apparently just a thought bubble for that moment in time, but he has never really gotten the idea behind “People Before Money” which the majority of Australians naturally support.
If, on the other hand, he did finally find his road to Damascus and realised that minimising human impacts was the humane path to follow, he has wilted as the blow torch was applied.
In either case it is a less than acceptable performance by Morrison.
While the prescience of my writing on COVID-19 is undeniable, I do not suggest for a moment that my record is perfect – it is just closer than any “expert” or any other person who has had the courage to utter their views publicly from early on (obviously in this tongue-in-cheek comment I am guilty of not being sufficiently modest, but if you read my R U OK day post then perhaps you might agree that I have earned the right to grandstand a little, even if from the outset of the pandemic I had wished that I was wrong).
The two areas where I have been most wrong are related. Like the Swedish epidemiologist who advocated for developing a herd immunity strategy, I made several assumptions automatically of which I was not aware until developments revealed them because they were wrong.
Firstly, in those first writings in early February, I thought that all wealthy developed countries would do everything in their power to minimise loss of life. As a former animal biosecurity policy analyst I knew that our health officials would have plans in place to deal with this eventuality, and I just assumed that national decision-makers would automatically implement them.
Secondly, and flowing on from the first, I considered that closing of land borders between states and like-minded countries would not occur. In other words I thought that ring fencing would be more localised and dynamic\adaptive (bearing in mind that the level of granularity on measures would necessarily need to reflect the wide degree and large number of uncertainties with a pathogen known to mankind for only a short period of time).
Because the first assumption was not met, and balancing economic impacts with human impacts has fallen on sharp ideological political lines between right wing conservatives and left wing progressives, the importance of these borders demarcated by political jurisdictions has grown in importance in biosecurity risk management to those who have prioritised minimising loss of human life.
Let me be clear, I am tough on politicians – I know that – but the world has been crying out for good leadership for a very long time, including in Australia. Still politicians are human beings, also, and in a crisis nobody will be perfect.
What is important, however, is from where the motivation for actions come – if at their very basis is a deep love for humanity, or whether it is driven by greed and aspiration for personal power and advantage.
Most human beings have a reasonably good antenna for detecting that motivation.
One additional motivation in Australia that has existed for decades, but is rarely discussed in terms of costs to the nation, is the imperative to stay in good stead with the United States. Over the decades this has led to Australia taking part in US conflicts which were thinly justified for the US let alone Australia. Now in the COVID-19 pandemic we have a US president who has chosen to not protect human life as he could, and is extremely sensitive to being shown up – especially by comparison to other English-speaking countries – for doing a better job at protecting their citizens. It is perverse now that a factor to be considered especially by like-minded conservative politicians is not earning the ire of the US President for being seen to better protect our citizens.
With retrospect, it is hardly any wonder why Trump has gotten particularly provocative towards China over the origin of the virus given how China showed how to get on top of the pandemic and protect its people so that over the last month there have been zero cases of community transmission in mainland China and the official death toll stood at 4,743 in mid-September as the US’s closed in on 200,000. In a population of over a billion people, coming from where they were with the limited knowledge they possessed on the virus in those first few weeks of January, this is a remarkable effort. I have never discounted the likelihood of some level of management of official data in China, but equally I have been clear that I understood that virtually every country has the potential to do likewise, and likely has to varying degrees. Nonetheless, it seems clear that the scale of the catastrophe in the US is far, far worse than in China.
The reality of the matter is that now that the economic data is rolling in from around the world, the anticipated economic benefit of lesser social isolation measures by some countries has not materialised. Moreover, it is becoming clear that the economic impacts on nations is somewhat proportional to the degree of human impacts (i.e. in terms of lost lives). In other words, countries that have fought hard to stop the spread of the virus (with strong social isolation measures, etc) and thus minimised human costs have experienced lesser falls in economic growth than countries where the pandemic has spread widely and caused larger numbers of deaths. Again, in retrospect this should be of no surprise as common sense says that the greatest fear for anybody is death – it supersedes all other fears – which highlights the extreme short-sightedness of those with an eye on “confidence” by arguing against the use of face masks as just one example.
Summing it up well is this passage from Milton Friedman’s famous doctrine “The Social Responsibility Of Business Is To Increase Its Profits“:
WHETHER blameworthy or not, the use of the cloak of social responsibility, and the nonsense spoken in its name by influential and prestigious businessmen, does clearly harm the foundations of a free society. I have been impressed time and again by the schizophrenic character of many businessmen. They are capable of being extremely far‐sighted and clear‐headed in matters that are internal to their businesses. They are incredibly short sighted and muddle‐headed in matters that are outside their businesses but affect the possible survival of business in general.
In the face of this emerging evidence, clearly politicians and others still arguing for reduced measures on the grounds of national economies have alternate motivations.
I believe that the key to those other motives are found in the plethora of articles reflecting on the simpler lives being led in the COVID-19 era, as I pre-empted early in the pandemic in “The Great Reset” and which I discussed in several articles would frighten the incumbent business elites.
This fear is highlighted by the following comment on an ABC.net.au post inviting people to reflect on how the pandemic has affected their spending habits:
Conservative politicians the world over through the pandemic have used the mental anguish of those in social isolation to garner support for reducing and minimising biosecurity measures. I understand from personal experience that mental health is a serious issue but it misses the point that to choose to ameliorate this by loosening the measures is the same as treating the symptom and not the cause.
Young Australians have increasingly been feeling despondent for their prospects in the lucky country before the pandemic. A far more compassionate and better approach for these people who are the future of our country would be to use this pandemic-induced paradigm shift to authentically address the inequities and other issues which have long held them back from feeling that their future is as bright and full of optimism as earlier generations enjoyed.
Politically intractable issues such as equality and equity, affordable housing and environmental issues must be central to confidence-building reforms.
There needs to be a bright spotlight shone on the fact that many do not want things to simply return to the past, because that is depressing in itself.
Instead of concerning himself only with the optimism of business, Morrison should concern himself with the optimism of our future – young Australians – and while protecting their health he should open his mind to a program which can lead to a genuinely bright future rather than trying to take everyone back to the “Truman Show” nirvana built on nothingness.
It is a very great pity that PM Morrison has chosen to politicise state Government responses, pitting state against state, and especially using harsh comparisons of the Victorian response in relation to the NSW response which has been placed on a pedestal. This only serves to increase the pressure on first line responders who are doing their best, both in Victoria and NSW. It also increases the political capital invested in the continued success of those NSW contact tracers, and thus incentivises a reduction in transparency should these data become less flattering (so that its public release is obscured, delayed or worse).
It is becoming apparent that what the conservatives fear most from the pandemic is not serious impacts to the Australian economy. What they really fear is the end of their ideological paradigm – the end of laissez faire greed is good, walking over anybody is justified, win at all costs, nothing is ever enough, toxic aspiration.
Through this pandemic it has been a common refrain of right wing conservatives to say that people who are for strong measures aimed at minimising loss of human life are driven by a desire to pretend the virus does not exist. In fact it is the opposite, and it is those who continually argue for minimal measures and quick re-openings who are guilty of continually making that mistake. Whenever such a course of action has been followed, the reality of the pandemic quickly asserted itself and people’s reaction to the escalating human cost either forced a rapid reversal or at least people’s behaviour has produced the same result.
For example, in recent days Jamie Dimon, long-term CEO of US investment bank JP Morgan, incidentally known as a Democrat supporter (I have to admit that I consider very few Wall Street professionals to be genuinely left of centre), has insisted that his employees begin to return to their offices but that was dealt an immediate blow when one of their traders in New York was found to be infected and the office was shut. Moving into winter such efforts in the northern hemisphere will be very problematic.
These are not unintelligent people and surely are well aware of Einstein’s definition of insanity. Thus it is difficult to escape the conclusion that what is being defended is not national economies but an ideology on what constitutes contemporary capitalism.
I was prepared to accept Mr Morrison at his word when he said that his aim was for zero community transmission. However, it appears that I repeated my error of believing that decision makers would naturally want to minimise human impacts.
Addendum: This article by Ian Varrender on ABC.net.au quotes a McKinsey review which supports the assertion that economic activity can be best protected in the pandemic by strong measures to protect human life.
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© Copyright Brett Edgerton 2020
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