Why no outrage?

The excel­lent @samirvama asked me, today, why Aus­tralians seem not to have react­ed with out­rage to their government’s report­ed abus­es of per­son­al lib­er­ties in their ‘zero COVID’ lock­downs. My answer, for what it is worth, has near­ly 900 words, which is a bit too much for a Twit­ter thread. So…

There is a lot of anger or, at least, dis­con­tent that may be less noticed out­side the coun­try. I see it in opin­ion pieces for the nation­al Mur­doch (con­ser­v­a­tive) and Fair­fax (more ‘lib­er­al’) media out­lets and espe­cial­ly in the com­ment threads on news-media sites. And on Twit­ter (but… we see the Twit­ter we want to see). Ran­dom com­ments at super­mar­kets, chats with neigh­bours and rel­a­tives in oth­er parts of the coun­try etc sug­gest frus­tra­tion and cyn­i­cism at bum­bling admin­is­tra­tion and exas­per­a­tion at repeat­ed ‘lock­downs’, the loss of busi­ness, the harm to per­son­al rela­tion­ships and the clo­sure of schools. How this lev­el of dis­con­tent com­pares with else­where in the world where there have been sim­i­lar lock­downs and heavy-hand­ed polic­ing I can’t say. The bit­ter taste of ‘health fas­cism’ may yet be a last­ing impres­sion from these two years.

I believe, how­ev­er, that the Aus­tralian polit­i­cal lead­ers are keep­ing a close watch on ‘majori­tar­i­an’ opin­ion as revealed by their pri­vate poll­sters’ num­bers (is this the myth­i­cal medi­an vot­er?). Sev­er­al of them face re-elec­tion with­in the next 2 years. This polling, rather than the ‘health advice’ they reg­u­lar­ly cite but don’t pub­lish, is prob­a­bly guid­ing their deci­sions. No doubt it is focussed on low­est-com­mon-denom­i­na­tor choic­es at a very low lev­el of res­o­lu­tion: “On the whole are you more sat­is­fied X or Y as leader”? I assume, there­fore, that our lead­ers’ cru­el, inef­fec­tive & abu­sive restric­tions on per­son­al lib­er­ty and the State gov­ern­ments’ con­tin­u­ing trash­ing of busi­ness and the econ­o­my must not have turned these pri­vate polling results against them even a year lat­er. That is con­sis­tent, of course, with there being no sign of outrage. 

Still… why?

The first, indica­tive, choice of Aus­trali­a’s poll-dri­ven polit­i­cal lead­ers when faced with the real­i­ty of COVID in ear­ly 2020 was to shut down its ‘import’, whether across exter­nal, or even inter­nal, bor­ders (con­trary to the text and plain read­ing of our Con­sti­tu­tion). To the hor­ror of many Aus­tralians — but appar­ent­ly not in large enough num­bers or hor­ri­fied enough to force change by pub­lic demon­stra­tion — our bor­ders, both inter­na­tion­al and fre­quent­ly between the States, are now fortress walls against arrivals and a prison con­tain­ing those inside. Des­per­ate fam­i­lies seek­ing to cross State bor­ders for obvi­ous human­i­tar­i­an rea­sons and will­ing to under­go ‘quar­an­tine’ where they are trav­el­ling have been turned back with­out excuse or even regret. We have aban­doned to their fate thou­sands of expa­tri­ate Aus­tralians who have been unable to return from coun­tries such as India. The harsh, author­i­tar­i­an COVID ‘lock­downs’ that Chi­na invent­ed became our most promi­nent import from them, even as Chi­na shut-down some of their biggest imports from us.

My the­o­ry of Aus­tralia (not my inven­tion) is that it is an icon of @tylercowen ’s ‘com­pla­cen­cy’. Vot­ers who, for now, accord­ing to some sur­veys, enjoy the high­est medi­an net wealth in the world (owing much more to swiss-lev­el sav­ings & real prop­er­ty prices than to pro­duc­tiv­i­ty) have the char­ac­ter­is­tics that Cowen describes. But there was always, too, from the 19th cen­tu­ry, a sense of remote­ness that made us timid: inclined to strong bor­der pro­tec­tion whether from migrants (once and maybe again) or com­pet­i­tive imports (for a long time) or even for­eign invest­ment (still a tar­get). Also, bizarrely, it inclined Aus­tralians to look to gov­ern­ment and reg­u­la­tion for their liveli­hood and well-being even when they were not direct employ­ees of gov­ern­ment. As if, despite our much greater wealth and greater diver­si­ty of eth­nic ori­gin, we nev­er quite shook off our ‘pris­on­er-econ­o­my’ begin­nings. Aus­tralians are not at all great ‘lib­er­tar­i­ans’ and do not embody the ‘out­back’ char­ac­ter they say they admire. In my view, rather the con­trary (I detailed this view which owes much to two his­to­ri­ans of Aus­tralia, Kei­th Han­cock and Geof­frey Blainey in a brief, 2017, dis­cus­sion paper (pdf, about 170kb))

The worst of the ear­ly, rigid, lock­down strat­e­gy is that it cre­at­ed a path-depen­dence in Aus­tralian pol­i­cy. Behind the bor­der walls, polit­i­cal lead­ers at both State and Fed­er­al lev­el paid too lit­tle atten­tion to plen­ti­ful evi­dence about what was, for a few months, still a remote dis­ease They seem to have made no use of “plans” cre­at­ed since the 1990s to man­age an even­tu­al pan­dem­ic. They moved slow­ly & with­out much engage­ment to acquire effec­tive vac­cines; they did not press the health ‘author­i­ties’ rapid­ly to approve them for local use (the TGA has only last week approved the Mod­er­na vac­cine); they did not build effec­tive cam­paigns to get the vac­cines quick­ly into the pop­u­la­tion. The Prime Min­is­ter then con­fused the pub­lic about the sup­posed ‘dan­ger’ of the Astra-Zeneca vac­cine which is the only one being man­u­fac­tured in Aus­tralia and took months to retract. It seems none of our lead­ers attempt­ed to edu­cate them­selves or the pop­u­la­tion about the actu­al impact of the dis­ease or the rel­a­tive cost and ben­e­fits of their con­trol mea­sures as the evi­dence emerged in 2020. It is pos­si­ble — if cyn­i­cal — to believe they saw from their polling that fear seemed to con­firm their first choic­es. So they stuck with them.

I want to note two direct con­se­quence of this ear­ly mismanagement.

First, Although Australia’s present ‘case fatal­i­ty rate’ is appalling — among the worst in the OECD — the CFR has been due most­ly to an ear­ly, cul­pa­ble-but so far obfus­cat­ed, fail­ure of the Vic­to­ri­an gov­ern­ment effec­tive­ly to run a hotel ‘quar­an­tine’ of infect­ed peo­ple (many were recent arrivals in the coun­try). This May 2020 out­break, and the government’s fail­ure at the time to pro­tect the most vul­ner­a­ble before any vac­cines were avail­able, direct­ly led to more than 800 most­ly-aged-care deaths over a peri­od of weeks. It was a ter­ri­ble event that should not — although it prob­a­bly does — dri­ve con­tin­u­ing pan­ic about the poten­tial pop­u­la­tion-wide impact of the dis­ease. Rather than lead his State out of this dead­ly hole by e.g. a more deter­mined vac­ci­na­tion cam­paign the poll-sen­si­tive Vic­to­ri­an Pre­mier chose to stick to even more rig­or­ous ‘rolling lock­downs’ as if the phoney com­fort of ‘zero Covid’ poli­cies would erase mem­o­ries of his ear­li­er errors.

Sec­ond, our major cities will remain vul­ner­a­ble to ‘waves’ of out­breaks for some months yet while the late and still stum­bling accel­er­a­tion of the vac­ci­na­tion cam­paign con­tin­ues. Hence the polit­i­cal-lead­ers’ ‘path depen­den­cy’ on repeat­ed, abu­sive, fear-dri­ven lock­downs is prob­a­bly being rat­i­fied (for them) by their polling in the com­pla­cent sub­urbs of Syd­ney, Mel­bourne, Ade­laide, Perth and Brisbane.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *