Zero-Covid is wishful thinking if Australia wants to rejoin the world

31 August 2021

7:47 AM

31 August 2021

7:47 AM

As former Australian foreign minister and High Commissioner to the UK Alexander Downer wrote in last week’s magazine, almost all Australian states, like neighbouring New Zealand, are determined to eliminate Covid-19 at all costs.

At the beginning of this year, Australia seemingly had defeated Covid. Total numbers of people infected, out of 25 million, were in the few thousands, with related deaths in the hundreds (mostly in care homes). Even now, with a major Delta variant outbreak across our two biggest states, New South Wales and Victoria, less than a thousand Australians have died from or with Covid, almost all elderly or people with other health complications.

Currently, Greater Sydney and Melbourne, and regional New South Wales and Victoria, are in various degrees of lockdown. Some of Sydney and all of Melbourne are under night-time curfew – something that has never occurred in Australia before, even under threat of Japanese invasion in 1942.

Even lockdown-permitted exercise walks in the early spring sun are decreed anti-social. A week ago, Victorian premier Daniel Andrews said angrily, ‘Today is going to be a nice day, but stay at home. At home. Otherwise, there’ll be a lot of Sundays spent in hospital’. He’s also said Victorians venturing from home to view the sunset is a dangerous act.

Andrews’s edict highlights how fearful Australian leaders have become of Covid – any Covid, let alone the vast infection and mortality numbers faced by Britain, Europe and North America – and how deeply restrictions on civil and personal liberties have bitten. Thousands of families, including parents and children desperate to care for and comfort loved ones seriously ill or dying, have been sundered by Berlin Wall-like state borders guarded zealously by contagion-fearing provincial politicians, as well as stopped from returning home from overseas.

There is no talk of future freedom. Instead, Australians are told lockdowns are staying, even with vaccines widely available and vaccination rates finally accelerating. Indeed, last Sunday Andrews extended Victoria’s lockdown indefinitely, and Western Australia and Queensland premiers are using the Sydney and Melbourne outbreaks to repudiate prior commitments to end lockdowns and reopen their states once full vaccination rates reach 70-80 per cent. While the rest of the world reluctantly accepts Covid is something to be lived with, in Australia, as Downer wrote, elimination remains the Holy Grail, in face of all the evidence about Covid Delta’s perniciousness.

This is despite, in global terms, the size of our challenge being so small as to be almost insignificant. On Wednesday last week, Australian daily positives topped 1,000 for the first time – 1/36 of the British tally for the same day with a population two-fifths of Britain’s – for the first time in the eighteen months of this pandemic. Yet these small numbers are a major health crisis in Australia, showing how over-reactive, defensive, and frightened most Australians are when it comes to this virus.

It’s easy to blame lockdown-happy state premiers like arch-eliminationists Andrews, Western Australia’s Mark McGowan, and Queensland’s Annastacia Palaszczuk, their public health officials and epidemiologists, for entrenching this ‘hide under the duvet’ mentality. Like it or not, however, they all genuinely believe they are doing the right thing by the people, and are determined to do it – and are being rewarded electorally for doing so. These premiers, and their dedication to the ‘Covid zero’ cause, are not causes of the Australian disease, but its agents.

It’s Australians generally who are to blame. We wished this upon ourselves. It’s as we were a nation of toddlers, craving parental protection.

We are the ones wanting our leaders to double down. We are the ones wanting to be told by our governments what to do and what not to do to stay safe from a virus one state health minister insisted is the most dangerous bug ever (clearly never having heard about the Black Death). We are the ones meekly giving up our rights and freedoms to politicians who, being on the public purse, avoid the economic hunger games of prolonged lockdowns. And we are the ones turning on friends and neighbours, informing on rule and curfew breakers as if we are living in East German Stasiland.

Like Andrews, state premiers and health authorities resort constantly to hyperbole about risking hospitals being swamped and thousands of deaths unless they go hard. But even as lockdown fatigue finally bites, it’s still what the majority wants to hear. Lately, it’s been revealed the Victoria and Queensland governments, and probably others, lavishly pay pollsters to advise on their Covid responses. And all state governments so far facing re-election through the pandemic being returned handsomely says it all.

This collective ostrich mentality cannot go on. Like the rest of the world, Australians need to face reality and learn to live with this virus. If we don’t, the confident, self-reliant outward-looking and dependable Australia the world knows will vanish, going down the plughole along with the national myth of Australians as tough, resilient larrikins who have a healthy distrust of authority.

Australia’s favourable geography held back Covid until now, but our isolation hasn’t stopped Delta. While frustrated and angry public reactions to ever-harsher lockdown measures, like Victoria closing playgrounds without hard evidence to justify why, show public patience with governments relentlessly pursuing elimination is finally fraying, most Australians willingly, even cheerfully, still comply with those governments’ public health orders. It’s therefore no wonder most state governments won’t yet seek, let alone strike, a workable balance between Covid suppression and some semblance of social and economic normality, even when most Australians are fully vaccinated.

Yet we’ve hidden for too long: zero-transmission is wishful thinking if Australia wants to rejoin the world and live again. China reportedly now is moving away from its policy of absolute Covid elimination to living with the virus, while tourist-dependent New Zealand is now in even more desperate straits than Australia. But even if Australia changes direction soon, Covid’s near-fatal infection of its body politic will take a long time to eliminate.

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