Sajid Javid’s deleted weekend tweet about Britain ‘learning to live with, rather than cower from Covid’ upset just about everyone – from frontline NHS workers to Covid-19 victims’ groups.
But Javid could actually have been talking about Australians. While the UK’s Freedom Day went ahead despite 40,000 people testing positive for Covid daily, over half of Australia’s population has been cowering under lockdowns imposed by their state governments, while the other half are exhorted to treat their locked down fellow Australians as pariahs.
Yesterday, Australia’s health department reported just 157 positive cases in the previous 24 hours, mostly in the Greater Sydney area. There were less than 2,500 active cases nationally out of a population of 25 million, with less than 200 in hospital, let alone intensive care.
Yet for weeks, Sydney and Melbourne have been locked down – Melbourne’s is being eased today – and Adelaide was shut down by the South Australian government for a week for just a handful of community-transmitted infections.
Australia, like New Zealand, used our geography to shut Covid out. We closed our island borders early, especially to China, and our hotel quarantine regimes (with the exception of Victoria’s badly-botched programme) mostly keep the few overseas arrivals from leaking Covid into the community. Very few Australians have been hospitalised with ‘WuFlu’, let alone died, except in the tragic Victorian outbreak a year ago that claimed 800 lives.
But success has suffocated. Our federal and state governments are obsessed with eliminating Covid, and now even one positive case is one too many. Matthew Lynn wrote here about the economic price Australia is paying for its elimination obsession: that price is real enough, but Lynn only told the half of it.
The wider damage Covid is doing to Australia runs far deeper and is possibly irreparable. Australia is behaving not as a nation but a collection of selfish state tribes, where the political rule is survival of the fittest.
Australia’s federation was designed to have a strong central government relatively to the states. Under the Australian constitution, however, states retained power over public health and therefore pandemic management. So, despite paying lip service to a ‘national cabinet’ of state premiers chaired by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, state premiers now do their own thing: locking down at the drop of a hat; closing state borders not just to people from infection ‘hot spots’ but to entire other states, and even barring their own people from returning home. They are imposing draconian restrictions of movement and association for positive notification numbers that in Britain would be laughable; and they are using face masks less as a preventive measure and more as a weapon of psychological compliance.
As prime minister, Morrison is almost powerless to stop panicky premiers pursuing authoritarian measures. His main role is coordinating the national vaccination effort, but not only has complacency about Australia’s relative freedom from serious Covid consequences contributed to the slow take-up, its success in suppressing Covid mortality put it down the global priority list for the wholly-imported Pfizer vaccine. Additionally, confusion is rife from the Australian equivalent of Sage, whose advice on eligibility and risks for the AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines is changing almost by the day.
Beyond being expected to do the fiscal heavy lifting to support personal and business livelihoods when state governments lock down, Morrison’s federal government is as useful as a chocolate teapot. Meanwhile, the Australian federation is fragmenting as state premiers usurp Canberra’s control of national affairs.
If, however, you think large protests in Sydney and Melbourne last weekend prove there is mass resistance to authoritarian nannying, think again.
Most protesters were ordinary Australians, frustrated by lockdowns, the restrictions on their lives and an increasing despair there is no end in sight. But in truth they are exceptions: Covid has smashed any delusions about Australians’ romantic self-image as tough, individualist, resilient larrikins who disdain officialdom and authority.
Even when we disagree, we obediently follow government directions, despite many being fear-mongering overreactions, such as compulsorily wearing masks even when there’s nobody else for miles around. We stay in our permitted five-kilometre radius from home. State health officials are household names and even sex symbols. We demonise people from other states when outbreaks flare up. Premiers are venerated to an extent that would make Xi Jinping blush, and we accept their hyperbolic Covid rhetoric almost without question.
The proof of Australians’ Covid cowering is political. Incumbent state governments going to elections since the pandemic started have been returned handsomely. Western Australia’s government, the most reactively repressive of all, is so popular that its opposition was all but wiped out in that state’s March election. Most opinion polls favour state incumbents strongly even when, as in Victoria, they’ve made a hash of it. Excessive nannying is rewarding electoral politics, and this insight simply incentivises misguided premiers determined to push elimination at all costs.
The one exception to the collective duvet mentality has been New South Wales, whose government has, until this month, resisted lockdowns and balanced the health of the economy and society with managing Covid. But a voter and media backlash to Sydney’s stubborn Delta outbreak has spooked its premier: she reluctantly fell into line with her elimination-enthusiast counterparts, and has just announced a lockdown extension until the end of August.
The economic damage of Covid to Australia will be repaired quickly if Australians are allowed by their governments to emerge from under the duvet.
But the catastrophic damage to our national psyche, character and society is another thing altogether. Covid exposed Australians as meekly compliant, risk averse and – yes – cowering before a virus that, compared to the rest of the world, largely has passed us by. Our success in stopping Covid’s spread could yet become our greatest national failure.