Stella Coram June 13, 2021

Australia is nation of gamblers. Australians gamble on anything and everything. It is endemic to sporting events such that the odds on who will win, and so on, are central to the commentary and to linked-in advertisements sprouting the affordability and easiness of gambling. Just log on. No need to go the TAB and no harm to be done judging by playful advertisements headlined with ordinary Australians winning Olympic-like medal events such as wheely bin racing. It matters little to shareholders, who profit from the misery of others, that addiction to gambling destroys lives and families. Gambling is a form of risk.     

Just about everything is measured in terms of risk – low risk or high risk from innocuous gambling on pokey machines to big decisions affecting peoples’ lives. The idea in taking a risk is needless to say to win without fallout – to not lose money or to not endanger people – but that is plain pie in the sky. Pokey addicts lose their life savings and people lose their lives on the end of debateable health-related policy failures. Even this is worth the risk if the consequences can be explained away or blame apportioned elsewhere. This is the shallow reality to which we have descended politically, socially, economically and morally.

The unstated bottom line is this. It is necessary to risk lives in order to keep the economy going. People will, regrettably, die. Unstated furthermore is the attendant caveat ‘so long as it is not me or my loved ones’. ‘We’ can live with Covid so long as it does not impact us directly health-wise or financially. Thus, the policy risk of opening up the economy is at someone else’s expense and not those of the people making the call to open up the economy. This may be akin to generals sitting on top of a hill while watching carnage of men being killed, they are removed from the actualities of their warmongering.         

Conceivably, older Australians are being urged, in terms of getting vaccinated, to play a game of risk. They are only eligible for the Astra Zeneca vaccine, which is known to carry the rare risk of clotting, and not the preferred Pfizer vaccine unless they meet the criteria for category 1a such as residents in aged care facilities or employees on the front-line.     

The gamble (risk) is knowing that a clot can occur, which is pretty dam scary. My family has a history of clotting fatalities and, being eligible for the Astra only, I had to force myself to get vaccinated and then spent two weeks worrying about the slightest of symptoms. I don’t take kindly to glib statements from health experts and politicians on the risk being higher for getting sick from Covid than from developing a clot. As true as that may be, that is not the point. The prospect of developing a clot, however remote, is worrying. According to the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), there have been 48 cases of clotting and two deaths associated with the Astra Zeneca in Australia (9 News, June 10).

Older Australians will hope that the 1 in 100,000 will not of course be them, which implies that it will be someone else. The unacknowledged issue is about the human condition of anxiety in terms of doing something ‘A’ (Astra vaccination) that may result in ‘B’ (clot). It would be enormously helpful if the issue of what people are being asked to do was acknowledged upfront. In the absence of this, there can be little wonder that people held off for the Pfizer vaccination available in Australia later in the year. Until then, the choice is Astra.

At first, governments were reluctant to even mention the prospect of clotting deploying the standby of “no evidence” to hide behind. Well, that all depends on where one is looking. If one does not look in the right place it will not be seen. In addition, it was argued that the risk of a clot was hardly different to that for taking the contraceptive pill. Not a fair comparison since the pill is taken on a daily basis over a period of time to prohibit conception whereas the vaccine is a bi-annual intra muscular injection designed to ward off potentially life-threatening infection. A clot from Astra Zeneca generally develops in the base of the brain/neck whereas a clot from the pill generally develops in the leg. I just think the arguments for vaccination could be explained a whole lot better.     

Australian governments do not address the reality of what they are asking older citizens to do in urging them me to get the Astra Zeneca vaccine. It pushes on in contrast to countries that withdrew Astra Zeneca from their vaccination programs. Instead, they embark on slippery territory by talking up the risk of getting sick from Covid being higher than the risk of getting a clot. Perhaps so, but this does not address with honesty concern about the prospect of a clot. Being a dual citizen of Australia and New Zealand, I debated whether to do a runner to New Zealand (before the latest lockdown, May 28) to get Pfizer but decided that was ridiculous though in future I intend to take Pfizer boosters.    

The Shortcomings of Risk

There is an awful lot of rubble to try to unpick. But, first, I must declare my bias: My first instinct is to go hard at what I view as self-righteous indignation to criticism of the Victorian government but I will try to keep it clean. My politics lean toward the left. I am not persuaded by risk analysis. I think it overused, misused, and well past its use-by date. It is intended (I presume) to be a tool for measuring, or evaluating, or identifying in advance the prospect of adverse results so that they may be averted. However, this has been subverted to serve the bottom line with the objective to reach the threshold of low risk so as to justify taking a risk. This is the green light to do something that would or should otherwise be avoided. Conversely, it can also mean to not do something that ought to be done. Either way, they both suggest that any adverse consequences are worth the risk since they can be carefully spun into irrelevance.

An example of not acting in a timely fashion: The World Health Organisation (WHO) repeatedly declared in early 2020 that China was not the source of the outbreak with no evidence to support this. WHO’s reluctance to draw attention to China meant that Covid escaped from China to infect the globe, which can be described as a pandemic. From this it can be inferred, that the WHO preferred for the world to deal with the consequences of a pandemic than to pre-emptively declare a pandemic and be ridiculed for ‘jumping the gun’. Its lack of courage amounts to being MIA – missing in action. To anticipate potential harm is to take responsibility that in turn allows for an appropriate proactive response. Being suspicious, as I am, it seems as if WHO would rather deal with the consequences of not acting pre-emptively than make an early call.

Whether WHO actively engaged in risk analysis or not is irrelevant because risk is embedded in the process. It would have been there shaping the call to fall back on the old faithful of “no evidence” so as to not declare an emergency.  A lack of evidence may be true but this can equally be insufficient. Evidence may be there, just not yet found or quantified through research. In the interim, anecdotal evidence, if it comes from credible and reliable sources, ought to serve as an appropriate starting point for rethinking policy approaches in accordance with evolving circumstances such as an outbreak. I get it that nobody likes to announce bad news or make unpopular decisions. But that is precisely what is required of government and institution. I can appreciate, though, reluctance to act since this appears to draw more heat than not acting. The former is erring underscored by making the wrong move whereas the latter is erring by failing to make the right move. The latter is preferred because government can always claim, in the washup, to have learnt its lesson.  

The “no evidence” line is invoked to refute the need for lockdown. This was cited to discredit the claim that the continued closure of gymnasiums in Melbourne, due to higher transmission, while the rest of Melbourne can start to open up, is necessary (ABC News, June 10). Clearly, business is impacted and that this has led to much understandable frustration. The Victorian government recognises this acknowledging the “sacrifices” made but this is no consolation.

Linked to the closure of gyms, and to lockdown generally, is said to be rising incidence of declining mental health. Again, this is completely understandable though it ought to be said that there is the option to exercise outdoors. Greater concern for mental health, I suggest, would be for the susceptibility of partners and families to domestic violence arising from being confined to the home.

Risk is underscored by complex issues. I daresay that governments will try to get away with a risk until they no longer can. I concede, though, that the challenges for overturning the discourse of risk would be enormous but that does not mean that they should not try. Even to be aware of its prevalence in everyday political discourse would be helpful because at the very least it grants governments time to think through risk than take its usual preferred course of action for granted.

It may be that there is little choice but to take a risk. For example, medical teams have moved across quarantine facilities in Melbourne whilst appreciating the prevalence for cross contamination. Not good and certainly not ideal but it is likely that such highly trained people are in short supply.

Justice Jennifer Coate led the inquiry into the reasons for the Victorian outbreak that led to the deaths of 768 Victorians in 2020. Rightly so, she was scathing of its failures in large part due to the improper training of security guards, poor departmental oversight and insufficient contact tracing. Interestingly, the inquiry reported that 14 private entities were operating as providers in relation to hotel quarantine (L. Thorne, ABC News, July 2020). One of the private providers is the Holiday Inn, from which there was one such outbreak, due to the use of a nebuliser by a positive case, leading to another lockdown. Nebulisers are not permitted but was used nonetheless. Predictably, the Victorian government was hammered for its incompetence in this regard though very little was said about ‘failure’ in the private sector – the much-vaunted model for justifying the whittling down of the public sector to almost nothing.      

There looks to be a lag between recognising that a risk can no longer be justified, and acting on this. Whilst it has been known for some time that Covid is air borne, some medical experts in addition to WHO initially rejected this. Now, however, the federal government accepts the need for purpose-built facilities to contain cross contamination through airflow given the latest breakouts from quarantine. In many cases, there have been warnings from the appropriate authorities but that they tend to overlooked until they no longer can be.  

This is precisely why low risk is not really low at all. Rather it is high when it comes to breaches of quarantine the consequences of which can be horrific. Thus, there is no choice other than for “no” risk when it comes to Covid to which the Victorian government is trying to abide by whilst copping more hammering.   

The big question is always around whether to lockdown or not. Liberal governments tend to favour minimal lockdown, or no lockdown, in order to keep the economy going whereas left-leaning governments tend to favour lockdown.

For the liberal persuasion, a breakout can be managed, controlled in other words. This is at its core fundamentally about risk – that Covid will not spread. There may be a valid point to containment, whilst remaining open at the same time, assuming that the numbers of cases are low to begin with. Yes, people need to be able to continue to earn an income which is why the federal government adopted labour policy to introduce its “job keeper” allowance to avert companies and employers laying off thousands of people.   

To some extent, it is tacitly accepted though not necessarily clearly articulated from the ‘open’ camp that people will unfortunately die. The issue is not just the ‘inevitability’ of death that is troubling but also the nature of that death. Not being able to breath can surely be described as hellish and then throw in the reality that the victim is separated from loved ones in the process. And besides, who gets to die? The elderly, the poor unprotected workers? Is that okay so long as it is not us? Are we ‘good’ with this? How do we disseminate between loss of life and loss of livelihood? Where is our moral compass?

In general terms, the liberal persuasion is prepared to take the risk, to keep the economy open, in contrast to labour. That there is disagreement is totally fine so long as this is not a basis for ridicule. Alas, the liberal camp appears fond of mocking the Victorian Labour government for its supposed weakness in lacking the balls to open up. This is like a taunt reminiscent of the school yard bully.    

Landing a punch is all that seems to matter with integrity running a poor second. With 768 deaths from Covid related illness in Victoria, mostly in aged care facilities, liberal opposition leader Michael O’Brien blamed Premier Dan Andrews pointing to 768 Australian flags in the ground to ram home his point. O’Brien did not mention that aged care in Australia is a federal responsibility. Numerous royal commissions into aged care, pre-Covid, did not move the federal government into action except to defend its hapless Minister for Aged Care, Michael Colbeck, who knows next to nothing about his own portfolio.   

It is easy to go on the attack when critics are not actually in government; a free pass if you will since they cannot be held accountable. They only need say what they would do instead with the benefit of hindsight.  Smearing opponents is de rigor. Shadow Treasurer, Louise Staley, ‘asked’ the premier Daniel Andrews, who has been on sick leave sick March recovering from a serious fall, to clear up some rumours about his fall by responding to 12 questions. She asserts “Andrews is not sharing the whole truth on his serious accident” (see Nine News, June 8). The questions she raises are straight out of conspiracy peddled on arch-right conspiracy websites. This is a new low.

This is what we have become. A little America with no tolerance whatsoever of difference of opinion or the need for measured respectful debate or criticism. And there most certainly is no good faith, in being by-partisan, to support governments dealing with a pandemic. It is too easy to condemn when the responsibility is for someone else to get it right, no easy feat with a moving target such as Covid. In this context, mistakes are bound to be made though no slack will be cut from the opposition. The incumbents are easy pickings.  

Australian governments gamble as a matter of course. They take the risk that they won’t be found out, when they do something dodgy, or that they can squirm their way out of trouble. ‘Risk analysis’ is the cynical byword to messaging. During a pandemic, governments of all persuasions, but particularly of the right, take risks with peoples’ lives on the understanding that if caught out they can mitigate the consequences. The most important task at hand is to manage fallout through artful word play. The ‘bottom line’ is the low point to which governments adhere. The handbook for this is as follows:

  • Deflect – ignore the actual source or origin of a problem or issue to instead manufacture failings elsewhere, to draw down on, for criticism  
  • Deploy rationalisations that are vague and therefore tricky to unpick
  • Pass the buck – make ‘it’ (the issue) someone else’s problem
  • Plead ignorance – did not receive appropriate notification or advice 
  • Present misleading use of data to support arguments or to defend failure
  • Pretend to respond to an issue – make a grand announcement for change and then do nothing about it
  • Take the moral high ground to express concern for the ‘forgotten’ or vulnerable people  

Liberal rebuttals for lockdown typically refer to the small number of cases and the fact that other states and territories have managed to avoid going into extended lockdown through effective contact tracing. Another is that lockdown applies unfairly to regional Victoria where cases are relatively low. For Sky News, the Victorian government is “addicted” to lockdown. The problem, obviously then, is the Victorian Labour government.

The numbers are small now because Victoria went into lockdown and that lockdown has curbed the spread to regional Victoria. Further to this, Victoria has had some rotten luck. The third lockdown in Victoria came from a breach of quarantine at the Holiday Inn, which was (mis)managed by the private sector. Aside from its own failings, Victoria has also had to deal with outbreaks originating elsewhere. Around the same time as the third lockdown, a woman from the North Shore in NSW, which was in lockdown, holidayed in Melbourne while infected with Covid. For the latest lockdown, due again to a breach in quarantine, this time in South Australia (SA), a man who caught Covid in quarantine returned to Victoria. It has since transpired that there were two separate breakouts from quarantine – Kappa from SA and Delta in Victoria – which in some respects is fortuitous in terms of avoiding another lockdown. By the way, the first lockdown was initiated by the federal government. 

Going back to the second breakout, this can be traced back to untrained casual security guards contracting the virus and taking it home with them. Actually, the first infection was a hotel employee not a security guard. From there, family members, of security guards, employed in the aged care sector, took Covid to work infecting residents. The debacle around quarantine was exacerbated by the fact that Victoria Police deferred from being responsible for managing quarantine, which explains in part why casuals were hastily recruited to provide security. Proper training in cross infection was either minimal or haphazard, which comes down to mismanagement by the Victorian Department of Health. Other states employing casual security guards quickly moved to ensure proper oversight with the assistance of Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel. Whilst I do not go along with the current prescience for casual labour force hire, it is worth noting that the ‘risk’ of cross infection could have been minimised by proper oversight by the Health Department to deliver appropriate training.

It should not be surprising that the provision, by a private company, of casual and untrained staff to work in quarantine hotels was always going to be a recipe for disaster. Such ‘workers’ often have multiple jobs in multiple locations including carers working in the aged care sector. It came to light, not before time, that they could not afford to isolate, which meant they worked when they were infectious. The Victorian government scrambled to provide a support payment so that they could afford to isolate. As was discovered in Victoria, casual ‘workers’ tend to be from low-income families living in densely populated residential blocks. The risk of spread is disproportionately high. 

The Victorian government attempted to contain the spread by ring fencing tower complexes. There was an outcry from those objecting to the harsh conditions of lockdown, enforced by police, on the grounds that this was discriminatory and that there was no advance notification. Not nice, most definitely, but advance notice may well have created a hasty exit thereby contributing to further spread. 

To avoid addressing uncomfortable questions during the Coate Inquiry regarding who, in the public service, signed off on hiring security guards, the Victorian Premier Dan Andrews played to the familiar line of being “focussed” on getting on with the job done. Alongside his senior bureaucrats, Andrews didn’t know who signed off on hiring security guards when pressed during the inquiry but that might have just been convenient so that he could not be held accountable being the premier.

The New South Wales Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, played to a similar line of “focussed on the getting the job done” to deflect from the question of who was responsible for letting 2,700 cruise passengers disembark the Ruby Princess cruise ship in Sydney in April 2020. Covid already on board, passengers took the virus with them to all parts of Australia and overseas. The official inquiry recorded 662 cases and 48 deaths (see J. Hair, ABC News, August 14, 2020).  

The matter at stake is quite simple: the greater the movement, the greater the rate of infection. The fourth lockdown, which commenced May 28 has presented new challenges relating to the Indian variant Delta, which is considered to be highly infectious. Since then, more than 5% of the Victorian population have submitted to a Covid test. Over 28,000 tests were completed on June 8 detecting two new cases for a total of 83 active cases including four cases in aged care as of June 9. Nearly 700, 000 people have been vaccinated with the first jab (ABC Health online). After widespread hesitancy to get vaccinated, Victorians have been prompted by the fourth lockdown to do so. This is encouraging for the diminishing prospect of future lockdown due to important steps being taken toward achieving a degree of herd immunity.   

Acting Premier James Merlino made a statement to the effect that lockdown in Victoria could have been avoided if the federal government followed through on its own agenda of completing vaccination of category 1a (the elderly and front line ‘workers’) by Easter. Complicating this is the issue of complacency in relation to vaccination. Because Australia’s borders have been closed, Australia has been able to contain Covid, compared to much of the rest of the world, with the exception of breaches of quarantine.  And, as a result of this, there has been no urgency to get vaccinated. Now people are bellowing about having to endure long stints trying to make a booking for vaccination or waiting in long queues. Delays like this happen when governments of all persuasion reduce the public service sector to a skeleton.  It is called “public service” for a reason.

Allied to this, moreover, is the distortion of facts driven by misrepresentation or misappropriation of science. Some ‘experts’ speculated that wearing a mask actually increased the risk of infection. I can see that this is possible, especially within hospitals, where there are high levels of exposure. Certainly not perfect, and requiring some practise in order to wear them properly, masks provide an essential protective barrier when moving about the community. It was interesting to hear former US president Barak Obama try to make the case that wearing a mask was not necessary. Pity. What was not always clearly articulated, though, was the reality of demand exceeding supply. The availability of limited stock was needed for frontline staff until production could be stepped up, hence the little byplay of masks being ineffective so as to decrease demand. I would have thought it would be better to be up front from the get go. To trust the public to understand and thus have no need to pussyfoot with half-truths.

Another reason for mask hesitancy has to do with the vocal sovereign citizens exercising their right to free will to protest health measures. Opposition parties might not wish to spook sovereign citizens, who are doing the job for them, or worse get its constituency offside by encouraging them to abide by the health measures. Of course, the prospect of being accused of being anti-liberal by supporting enforcement of compliance is sufficient to dissuade from entering into bipartisanship as shown by the federal opposition Labour party to the Liberal-National Coalition government. In aid of their cause, sovereign citizens draw on the standby of free speech to justify expressions of lunacy such that Covid is a “hoax” for example. Some has taken to spitting at police. Celebrities have gotten away with spruiking this to their merry band of twitter followers. Politicians have bought into Covid conspiracy and to some extent get away with it with colleagues coming to their defence. Debate lends itself to a farce.        

None of this occurs within a vacuum. I accept, for example, that people carry on – or protest – because they are hurting. I propose however that a central issue has to do with the decline in the meaning of employment. Staff in the aged care sector, for instance, are simplistically referred to in terms of a generalist category of workers. They are not afforded the status of an occupation or a job description. Not carers, cooks, cleaners and administrative assistants, just workers. In consequence, they are dispensable, disposable.  

Consistent, too, with the general trend toward down playing the value of work, is the diminishing of responsibility. ‘Workers’ have been taught not to think just do and especially not criticise. This applies to professionals. The only thing that matters is loyalty or risk being demoted or even sacked. By-products of diminished responsibility translate into less pay. Costly, avoidable, mistakes are made from this for fear of unwelcome consequence to one’s job.

The public service has been the whipping boy for ages for governments looking to save money by reducing it to a bare minimum and offloading its responsibilities to the private sector. The Victorian government is no different. It did, indeed, fail in in terms of its outsourcing security, without due diligence, though it is fair to say that Victoria like the rest of the country was learning about Covid on the run. There was insufficient knowledge at hand to fully appreciate Covid’s robustness for mutating in order to survive in a never-ending quest for human hosts. Nonetheless, a thinning out the public sector has meant that there is not enough staff to deal with demand for services such as getting tested and bookings for vaccinations in the wake of latest outbreak. Predictably, there has been much carry on about blown-out waiting times. 

The aged care sector was not always the mess it is now. When I first came to Australia in the 1970s, I was employed on an ongoing basis as a nurse aid at the Freemasons in Prahran. I had regular shifts, of 8 hours duration including meal breaks, and regular days off. I was provided with a uniform. I was paid penalties for overtime and weekend shifts as well as holiday pay and sick pay. I earned about $35 per week which was more than enough to cover rent, food, utilities, travel, and to save around $10 per week. I was paid on a weekly basis and could go to the Human Resources Office for assistance if needed. I trained on-the-job. No need for a paid course at TAFE to gain a certificate of competency. I was encouraged to undergo nurse training, with a clear pathway before me, but elected to train as haemodialysis technician at the Royal Melbourne Hospital.

I did not have to endure the indignity of working on a casual basis across the sector in multiple locations for a piecemeal number of hours. I escaped being labelled merely a “worker” – someone who is expendable – instead of as a carer befitting of a skilled employee, who provides an important service, for pittance.

How things have changed. As we now know, carers working across the sector took the infection with them. Suitably shamed, governments moved to ensure that was phased out. Yet, not surprisingly, the federal government without fanfare withdrew this restriction in November 2020 on the justification that there was little to no risk of Covid. Three private aged care facilities in Victoria, which fall under the jurisdiction of the federal (national) government have recorded cases of Covid as of June 4.

Erudite commentator Walled Aly argued that the Morrison federal government’s move to lift restrictions regarding work across the aged care sector in November 2020 could be “defended” on the basis that there were no cases of Covid (Insiders, ABC Television, June 6, 2021). I don’t buy this on the basis that Covid is detected after the fact. In other words, it is already in the community before it is detected – the adverse result for the sector is well known with the federal government quickly moving to reinstate the restriction.

Criticism of lockdown has made for a jittery Victorian government showing itself perhaps in descriptive language to label Covid in 2021. Professor Brett Sutton, the Victorian Chief Health Officer, and the acting Premier James Merlino, used the word “beast” to describe the contagiousness of the Indian variant. For that, they are accused of overstating the risk of the virus to scare the Victorian public into complying and to justify their unnecessary preoccupation with lockdown. Criticism of government for ‘going over the top’ is a bit rich since to underplay the significance of Covid – al a WHO in its early call – would surely qualify as a public health failure. Whilst not of the same ilk, it is noteworthy that South Australian Chief Medical Officer deflected accountability, as to the origins of the latest outbreak linked to South Australia, by asserting that their protocols for hotel quarantine were “adequate”. But, clearly, not up to an acceptable standard given that an uninfected person becoming infected during quarantine. 

Refuting Lockdown

It is clear that the Victorian Labour government is not prepared to take the risk by opening up early or before it gets the go ahead from its health team. There are good reasons for taking a cautious approach since they need look no further than to other parts of the world where thousands of people have died.  Numerous justifications are made to reject the need for lockdown.

Case numbers in Australia are small compared to the rest of the world. They are but primarily because Australia has closed its borders. This will likely change dramatically once international borders are opened. In terms of the latest lockdown in Victoria, the need for this is questioned similarly on the basis of the low numbers recorded each day. As of June 13, there are 85 active cases. It is fair to say that in the absence of lockdown, and because close contacts of cases were already in isolation, the numbers would be considerably higher.   

Contact tracing is all that is necessary to contain any leaks from quarantine. This only works if the numbers of transmission are small. There is a certain point where contact tracing exceeds its threshold. Yes, the spread of Covid was compounded by crucial time lost between identifying cases and their close contacts due to inefficient contact tracing evident in hand written records. A fully functioning online system was needed. The Andrews government has only just announced that a uniform state wide QR system is in place.  

Covid is no worse than the influenza virus. Millions died from the Spanish Flu due to overcrowding and poor sanitation. Whilst over 300,000 people in Australia were impacted by the flu in 2019, 9% of deaths from a total of 169,301, were from influenza associated with pneumonia (see “Causes of Death Australia 2019”, Australian Bureau of Statistics).      

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the mortality for influenza in 2020 was below 0.1% whereas for Covid 19 it was 3-4 % (see “Coronavirus Disease (Covid-19): Similarities and Differences with Influenza” Q & A, March 17, 2020). In addition to this, it is worth noting that it is essential to socially distance in order to avoid mass spread of Covid, and therefore Covid-related deaths. It is not necessary as a rule to practise social distancing to avoid the spread of influenza since it no longer carries the same severity of illness as for Covid at least in abled-bodied people.

Some people will die. This is impossible to reconcile or justify on an ethical basis. We cannot presume that deaths will, by and large, be contained to elderly people who have lived their lives. Young healthy people are being impacted by Covid. Besides, we have no right to ‘play God’ by conceding to the likely propensity of deaths among the elderly due to Covid.

Obtain herd immunity by letting Covid ‘rip’. It would appear that any immunity from contracting Covid is weak and short lived. Herd immunity requires upwards of 70% of the population being fully vaccinated (that is two doses). This is a massive risk because the long-term effects of Covid are yet to be fully established. Knowledge is evolving much like the virus itself.

Human rights issues are being abused. The general populace has been beguiled into accepting that governments impinge on the rights of the citizen when they invoke state of emergency powers to enforce restrictions. It goes without saying that all restrictions must be justifiable and meet the highest standards under rule of law. As an extension of human rights, mental health is emphasised as an important factor for limiting lockdown. On face value, I readily agree. However, it is disingenuous to claim research linking the supposed increase in the rate of suicide to lockdown. To prove that the reason for suicide would have to be known. Inference is simply not good enough.

No one is exempt from hardship and the mental anguish from lockdown. I could not travel on two occasions to New Zealand in 2020 to farewell my parents, Mum in May and Dad in September. So, I would say to the many who complain about not being able to do this and that. Try patience.      

Citizen sovereign rights to defy public health orders are being denied. By all means, citizens have the right to object but they do not have the right to flout the rules. Governments are scared to tell people what to do for fear of backlash of accusation of being totalitarian, authoritarian, the ‘nanny state’. They tip toe around making vaccination mandatory. Significantly, carers in the aged sector are not yet mandated to get vaccinated for Covid though it is mandatory for them to receive the Influenza vaccination. The federal government is thinking about mandating vaccination for covid. We shall see.  Instead, governments urge people to “do the right thing”. Well intended, this is somewhat patronising playing into the mindset of individuals, who think of themselves as being independent of the law. They choose what they do not governments.

The Victorian government defied the status quo of ‘softly-softly’ to invoke restrictive conditions such as curfew between 8 pm to 8 am for its second lockdown. It also declared that fines would be issued for anyone breaking the conditions of lockdown including failure to self-isolate for positive cases. Not surprisingly, it drew a sustained and heated spray primarily from liberal critics.     

Individual (sovereign) rights can be traced back to the Magna Carta, or Great Charter. Written by King John of England on June 15, 1215 it enshrined the rights of individuals to “life, liberty, and property”. It also guaranteed proceedings to the “law of the land” (see The National Archives). It is essential to uphold the rights of the individual for safety and protection, to be free of persecution. However, there is no such right not to wear a mask without an exemption, to breach rules of isolation. We belong to a community, to a society. It is therefore incumbent on us to consider our fellow citizens as they, in turn, of us. Herd immunity relies on shared understanding on the need for vaccination.   

Covid is a hoax. Visions of masses of graves being dug tell a confronting picture of reality. It is disingenuous for a protestor in Melbourne to ask, in asserting Covid is a hoax, “do we know anyone with Covid?”. No, I do not personally. But there are hundreds of families in Australia who lost a loved one to Covid.     

The Victorian government is overstating the threat of Covid. The flip side to this understatement. Governments downplay in order to avoid panic. It would be great if our political leaders could speak purposefully about what needs to be done rather than defend what they will not do. Every outbreak of Covid has come from a quarantine leak. Yet, the federal government, which is responsible for quarantine, is reluctant to build a purpose-built facility in keeping with its Howard Springs facility comprising cabins in the Northern Territory from which there have been no leaks. Hotel ventilation circulates airborne particles carrying Covid. Fresh air, afforded by cabins, curbs the spread of infection. Simple.     

The Debasing of Political Debate

How did it come to this? We are too informed or should I say more accurately misinformed. We like to think that we can think independently and as a result have become nuanced to ‘double speak’. Conspiracy lurks beneath this. Shadow Treasurer, Louise Stalely’s questioning of Andrews to imply a cover up of shadowy events surrounding his accident (N. Pearson, Nine News, June 8) buys into this. Her objective looks to be all about keeping the heat on the Labour government by any means at her disposal.

Another variant of this has to do with accusations of delayed messaging to cover up failures. It was suggested that the Victorian government held back, by one day, from announcing that two cases of Covid were false positives, the implication being that this would be a setback to the government’s justification for lockdown. Government response was that this was reported as it was discovered. Same again for the apparent lag in listing new exposure sites ‘pointing’ again to incompetence. One has to be super sharp to avoid the cross hairs. Questions must be asked but this can be done in good faith. There may well be legitimate reasons though this does not rate consideration apparently when the objective is to land a punch.

Waleed Aly argues in his essay Outraged Nation: The Rapid Decay of Discourse that there is a tendency to selectively zero in a word or phrase to make a point without engaging with the content under discussion. The Victorian government is being hammered for describing the Delta variant as a “beast”. Considered unnecessarily over the top, the worry is that people will be panicked by it and, more importantly, that this is just the government trying to justify lockdown. My view is that speaking off the cuff at press conferences, some leeway ought to be granted compared to a press release which is carefully vetted. In any case, the point is not the descriptor “beast” but the as-yet unknown capacity for Delta to spread and to adopt measures to contain it accordingly. Allow me a bit of a flourish: it’s a fast-moving invisible target.   

Aligned to this, of course, is the 24-hour news cycle with its constant feed of sensationalist reporting under the guise of news. A form of inundation, it dulls the senses, I suggest, to swamp independent thought.

Aly’s essay has important implications. Criticism is easy which has the effect of shutting down or dumbing down debate to limit criticism. Rarely are questions answered by political figures directly. Instead, they deviate to avoid being pinned down so that they cannot be later held accountable. However, if they think that they are onto a winner, the gloves come off.

One way to undermine this potentially would be to ask questions of political figures to explain what they mean by ‘A’ for example. To call them to account by asking simply “what do you mean by that?” This might help to curb the glib statements by not taking them on face value. A question repeatedly posed in commentary is why Melbourne? Whilst this sounds objective, it is a leading question because it suggests that Melbourne is the primary problem. Missing is the question of where the outbreaks originated. The Kappa strain originated in South Australia and the December 2020 breakout in New south Wales. Both became a problem for Victoria.  

Conclusion: Reinstating Humanity into Work

Covid has exposed us for who we are. We idly let our fellow humans be reduced to the lowest common denominator – the expendable worker bee. As is often said governments “privatise profit and socialise debt”. This helps to explain arguably why the non-professional working populace is treated with disdain. They serve the former and represent the latter. They are beholden to the vagaries of risk. Time to replace risk analysis. It is bereft of humanity too often driven by profit or self-interest. Having said that, risk is commonplace it would be difficult to overturn. Moreover, narratives of risk in many instances are benign. Harmless in other words. But it warrants concern when it becomes the justification for taking a risk that ought not to be taken in the first place.

Solutions? you might ask. Ditch the costly risk analysis underscored by low risk – the bottom line – and look to reform work. This will save heaps of money in the long run. Raise the corporate bottom line so as to restore decency and respect to employment. Commit to Australian research funding and to rebuilding Australian manufacturing. Reinstate the public service sector so that it is able to properly respond in times of crisis. Outlaw political donations. Overturn tax breaks for the corporate sector. Sanction the corporate sector for its abuses. Discard the ‘targets’ mantra unless they are to be pursued with integrity and vigour. They are totally useless if merely a statement of intent. Stop with the obsession for small government and for outsourcing. Instead, establish long term infrastructure and take responsibility for overseeing this. Raise the standards for political discourse and debate by putting a stop to ‘spin’ or lies.

Address the populace frankly and honestly. Do not pander to conspiracy theory rubbish under the guise of ‘free speech’. Do not treat people like children by withholding important or essential information. Have the courage to listen to independent thought, or alternative perspectives, on the proviso that this it is given in ‘good faith’. Have the courage to state one’s case clearly and succinctly regardless of whether it is popular or not. Do not settle for the ‘inevitability of people dying’ line which is totally bereft of morality. Instead, put people first and the economy will follow with less disruption to the daily rhythms of life and hospitals not under siege. Dump risk analysis framework. It is cynical and open to abuse. Try a human dignity scale instead. Give up on the spurious rationalisation that abject failures, as consequences of risk analysis, are to be papered over. Ask different questions. What is my responsibility to my community? Stop treating people as commodities to be exploited. See them instead as belonging to your family. To this, governments must lead by example.  

All very nice of course but most unlikely to be taken up in any capacity. Oh well…