The long line of red lights stretching into the darkness ahead of me is a familiar sight. I am on the Hume Highway driving to Canberra once again to avoid the prospect of 14 days in quarantine should the Victorian Premier continue to lock down the State. The drive is hardly lonely; there is a road-train, lit up in bright red and white lights, every few hundred metres, maintaining the essential supplies to our cities and exports overseas despite the Covid restrictions. After a negative Covid test, I am able to work from my Parliament House office, dealing with constituents’ issues and continuing my committee business. I am one of the fortunate ones who can work from home or remotely. Many people cannot, but their plight seems lost in the continuing total lockdown fetish of state premiers.
After months of refusing to say so, the Victorian Premier finally admitted that he has been pursuing a zero-risk approach. We must ‘stamp out this Delta variant,’ he said in announcing yet another extension of the state’s lockdown.
Globally, governments have pursued one of two strategies: a zero-risk approach or a managed-risk approach. Along with New Zealand and South Korea – at least until recently – and China – we have attempted eradication rather than management. Other countries, such as Britain, have sought to manage the risk, opening, even with significant cases. As England’s Deputy Chief Health Officer, Jonathan Van Tam, said recently, ‘Nothing reduces the [Covid] risks to zero other than standing in a meadow completely on your own ad infinitum.’
At some stage, Australia must move to a risk-management approach. Covid is not going to be eliminated and we cannot keep state and national borders closed for ever. Only one human virus, smallpox, has been eradicated and that took two centuries to achieve! Even nations that have achieved high vaccination rates, such as Israel and the UK, are about to offer booster doses.
Australians have been very patient, but that patience is dissipating. Governments should be upfront with the public about, for example, the number of Covid patients in hospital, the number in ICUs and the number of deaths, including their age, co-morbidities and whether they had been vaccinated. This data should be provided on a daily rate, to date and per 100,000 eligible people, for global comparisons. State governments should also provide daily and up-to-to date statistics of the eligible people vaccinated per dose, as well as per 100,000 eligible people for global comparisons.
In 2019, 464 people died each day in Australia, a comparison that fear-inducing premiers fail to mention. Many more people continue to die from car accidents, suicide, influenza and other causes than from Covid. How many will die prematurely because of the inability to obtain timely treatment for other conditions due to the restrictions?
There has also been a reluctance to consider other, complementary approaches to dealing with the virus, including possible treatments and rapid testing.
The Prime Minister has said that ‘when we hit 80 per cent, lockdowns should become a thing of the past’. But already the WA Premier has thrown doubt about abiding with this ambitious target. Each premier should be asked to commit to the target. While they continue to hide behind unelected health officials who offer such idiotic advice as not touching a football that flies over the boundary fence at an AFL game, or, if you are frustrated with lockdowns, to rearrange your sock drawer; there is no certainty about opening-up. People who have been fully vaccinated want to be at liberty to go about their lives free of restrictions. Most of the European Union and the US, together with more than a dozen other nations now welcome travel by fully vaccinated people.
Preliminary analysis from the UK indicates that during the northern hemisphere winter wave, when daily cases were averaging what they are now, there were almost 27 times more Covid deaths each day and nine times more people in hospital.
There are currently 125 patients on a ventilator for every 10,000 daily new infections, compared with 2,312 per 10,000 cases at the same point in the 2020 wave.
People aged 54 and under account for 60 per cent of virus patients admitted to hospital in England during this wave, compared with just 22 per cent during the 2020 wave.
Some 87.6 per cent of people in the UK have now received at least one dose of the vaccine, up from 28.9 per cent at the same time in the winter wave. Instead of demonising the AZ vaccine, Britain has embraced it.
Because of the strategy adopted by the premiers, the Australian polity faces two significant challenges beyond the health and economic consequences of Covid.
The first is to repair the growing gap between two groups of Australians. Benjamin Disraeli once said that ‘the Privileged and the People formed two nations’. His famous reference was less about poverty as such and more about the lack of connection he observed between the rich and the poor. In Australia today, the lack of connection between the information-generating ‘elites’ who dominate much of the media, especially on social media; and ordinary people who operate and work in traditional trades and businesses, has been exacerbated by the Covid restrictions. Australia is more factionalised and divided than it has been for decades.
The second is to repair the Commonwealth. It was Henry Parkes’ great rallying call for federation that we are ‘one people with one destiny’. That notion has been abandoned by the premiers. If it wasn’t for section 92 of the Constitution, I suspect that they would even stop interstate trade. But why isn’t interstate tourism a form of trade protected by s. 92 of the Constitution? It is fanciful to imagine that the founders of the nation ever envisaged that Australians would not be able to travel freely between states. Even if some restrictions for health reasons can be justified, there has been no precision in their application. Whole states are locked down, including areas that have never had a Covid infection.
In addition to securing our economic and national security, reclaiming the notion that we are ‘one nation with one destiny’ is the great challenge facing us.
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