Features Australia

Caught with their pants down

National Cabinet’s Faustian bargain

14 August 2021

9:00 AM

14 August 2021

9:00 AM

For a population of 25 million, Australia’s Covid-19 record of fewer than 37,000 cases and just 940 deaths looks pretty good. And after 18 months it is. However it has been achieved through the brutal quarantining of the nation.

It is a move applauded by the seventeen per cent of workers who are in the public sector and others whose jobs are secure or who are financially independent. But for a growing cohort now suffering joblessness, financial distress, deteriorating mental health and the loss of loved ones through suicide, surrendering their freedoms to achieve this outcome seems like a Faustian bargain.

Nearly a third of Australians are now under mortgage or rental stress. Their despair is reflected in Lifeline fielding more calls than at any time in its 58 years and in surges of domestic violence and substance abuse. The impact on children is severe.

Crucially, Australia sealed its international borders early. Being an island nation gave authorities time to scramble. That surely explains why Australia’s chief medical officer, Paul Kelly, warned that Australia’s ‘best case’ scenario would be five million infections and 50,000 Covid deaths: rather than offering considered scientific advice, he was playing politics to protect an exposed health system from being overrun.

This mindset continues to drive Covid policies. To keep pressure off ICU beds, the first resort of state premiers is fear followed by a cycle of heavy-handed, police-enforced lockdowns. Personal responsibility is viewed as a threat to state authority so adults are treated like children. However, fear only works when people trust the fear-mongers and the medical advice being offered from National Cabinet members and their health officers varies and is, at times, obviously baloney.

As well as trust, respect has been shaken. It’s hard to respect leaders who welcome celebrities and footballers to their states one day and deny Covid-free relatives, desperate to farewell dying parents or attend funerals, the next.

Indeed, the pandemic has exposed Australia’s health establishment, which was once held in highest esteem, as flatfooted and deeply flawed.

Take ATAGI, the nation’s peak advisor on immunisation. It changed its mind on the suitability of AstraZeneca’s vaccine for younger age groups, three times in five months. Queensland’s chief health officer, Jeannette Young, warned young Queenslanders they could die from an AZ jab, repeatedly arguing it be reserved for the over-60s. Overnight she did a backflip, stressing the urgency of getting all people vaccinated. Younger Australians sensibly decided to wait for the scarce Pfizer alternative.

Yet even with demand reduced, there has been a shortage of AstraZeneca doses thanks to federal authorities inexcusably tying themselves to one manufacturer. Prime Minister Scott Morrison downplayed the slow rate saying, ‘It’s not a race’.

That wasn’t the point. The shortage of jabs disarmed the nation at a critical time, exposing it to a more infectious variant and a health system paranoid about resource limitations.

Despite this, National Cabinet made no case for ivermectin to be part of Australia’s medical kit. Compelling multi-country evidence confirms this cheap, safe and available drug is highly effective in reducing hospitalisations, yet the TGA, the nation’s top medical regulator, still refuses to approve it.

The Cabinet has also been silent on the standard of Australia’s health bureaucracies. The NSW Health Minister, Brad Hazzard, oversees a department found by the inquiry into the Ruby Princess debacle to be culpable of ‘serious’, ‘inexcusable’ and ‘inexplicable’ failings which continue to facilitate calamitous outbreaks. Victoria’s shambolic health system, responsible for 90 per cent of the nation’s Covid deaths, still blunders on with embarrassing ineptitude. The nation is paying  an enormous price for this bungling, yet there appears to be no accountability.

Mr Hazzard blames repeated ‘mistakes’ on a ‘once in a century’ pandemic, forgetting the 2009 Swine Flu which infected 1.4 billion people and the 1981 Aids pandemic, which accounted for 35 million lives.

And it’s not as though a pandemic was unforeseeable. For years, prestigious world summits have listed it as the number one global risk. As recently as September 2019, the United Nations secretary-general was warned of a ‘very real threat’ of a pandemic sweeping the planet, killing up to 80 million people. But complacency prevailed and the warnings were ignored. No extra ICU beds or ventilators were in readiness. No new quarantine facilities built. Instead, hotels in city centres had to be commandeered. Lack of training and the absence of supervised protocols, saw outbreaks escalate into disasters.

Now, a four-stage plan to ‘return to normal’ has been unveiled. It seeks to ‘suppress’ the virus through snap lockdowns and vaccinations. The Prime Minister has changed his tune and wants to race the clock and ‘go for gold’. Incredibly, the National Cabinet has decided that until 70 per cent of the eligible population of each state and territory is fully vaccinated, current policies will remain. Yet Australia stands 36th out of 38 OECD countries and only Iceland has achieved 70 per cent full vaccination

Even at 70 per cent, lockdowns ‘are still possible’. A ‘greater step back to normal life’, including the opening of international borders, will have to wait for an improbable 80 per cent vaccination level.

Britain, with only 58 per cent of the population fully vaccinated, has removed most remaining coronavirus restrictions, putting the onus on the unvaccinated to take personal responsibility. In Australia, even at 70 per cent, those details are ‘still to be worked through’.

National Cabinet’s latest decisions are based on Doherty Institute modelling which, in turn, relies on the Cabinet’s objective of protecting the health system. It means short, sharp, lockdowns, possibly for 20 to 40 per cent of the time, with no end date. That may suit Cabinet’s priorities but it ignores the reality that the virus’s endurance may outlast an already weakened nation’s capacity to withstand further crippling pain. Meanwhile, policy incoherence prevails with the only certainty being National Cabinet’s propensity to micromanage other people’s lives.

It’s what they do best.

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