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.
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.