NOOSA – I set out to write this piece a couple of days ago, only to be confronted by Phil Fitzpatrick’s stirring polemic, ‘A government prepared to see its people die’.
This drilled deeply into my own feelings at what my country is being put through as a result of mindless political ambition. So I decided to wait a short while before launching into this.
Psychologist Robert Plutchik (1927-2006) sought to categorise emotions into a range of dimensions, which include my compounded feeling of anger and sadness.
The anger-sadness compound, according to Plutchik, could be best described as envy, bitterness or resentment, but none of these cut it for me. They are too harsh and ignoble
The film Inside Out proposed that as we age our emotions blend into newer, more complex feelings.
Vox Media culture editor Emily VanDerWerff, reviewing Inside Out, proposed that blended feeling of anger and sadness is best labelled ‘betrayal’. I think that nails it for me.
Professor Brendan Crabb AC, an eminent Australian microbiologist of Melbourne's Burnet Institute, has been a moderating voice in the often fierce debate in Australia about how to respond to Covid. He has now taken aim at the hypocrisy of those who promote 'living with Covid' as some high level strategic approach to managing the disease.
Dr Omar Khorshid, orthopaedic surgeon and president of the Australian Medical Association, previously reluctant to embroil doctors in a political fight over Covid, has just pointed to the "lazy planning" that would open up the country to Covid before vaccination has reached a significant proportion of the population.
And so to how I feel. I feel the Australian people have been betrayed by some of their leaders; not all of them, not most of them, but enough of them to have left us steering towards catastrophe.
These leaders, central amongst them prime minister Scott Morrison and NSW premier Gladys ‘Death is Horrible’ Berejiklian, have been actively enabled by big business corporations and big media.
And they have been passively enabled, that is not compelled to more rationally address the need to strategically, effectively, respond to Covid, by the silence or muted behaviour of most of the federal Labor Party, a cowed ABC and big institutions like the peak professional bodies, including medical and health organisations, the research institutes, trade unions, universities, churches and NGOs.
So these influential institutions - together with those noisy business and political agitators - silently or mutedly or aggressively encouraged the Morrison government to do what it wants, claiming expert support but never demonstrating it, and have created the space in which it could constantly strive to turn a national crisis to its political advantage, dividing the nation in doing so and making many, many poor choices along the way.
Only now are some of these institutions understanding they must speak out to avoid a catastrophe that seems, as I write, inevitable.
They realise that on its present course the Morrison government will have all Australia become the tragedy that is New South Wales.
It was on 27 January last year I tweeted for the first time about ‘the Corona virus’. Two days later I noted that, while PNG had reported no cases, the country’s health service was in a poor state and this was a cause for concern.
By mid-March, my tweets had taken on a more anxious tone and I wrote, “As Australia begins to recoil in horror from coronavirus, a leading PNG journalist tells his government to immediately shut the borders. ‘There is no sense of urgency’, he warns. And he's right, there should be.”
On 15 March, Phil Fitzpatrick wrote presciently that the emphasis in PNG's dealing with coronavirus was too much focused on the economy not the health of the population and that this could end up being a disastrous mistake for both PNG and Australia.
Three days later I asked rhetorically, “What is it that the governments of Australia do not understand about expert analysis that has transformed the US & UK approaches to trying to limit the human mortality of the disease?”
I could ask that same question today, 18 months later, about the federal and NSW governments as they have given up any intelligent effort to contain the spread of the disease.
Not permanent suppression, as the federal government’s straw man argument would have it as it tries to corral its opponents as irrational extremists, but a few months of greater suppressive effort until enough of the population has been vaccinated so that most people who catch the disease have at least some protection.
But then this was the same government that in March 2020 was already deciding it did not need effective quarantine facilities and that the vaccines then being developed didn’t need ordering in any great quantity or with any urgency.
This at the same time as most of our peer countries were ordering, sight unseen, enough of every viable vaccine under development, each in a quantity sufficient to cover the entirety of their populations.
This failure of judgement, imagination and risk management by the Morrison government is now making Australia pay a very heavy price.
There are still shortages of vaccine in this country, which the government has been lying about for nearly 12 months with talk of 'ramping up' and 'securing' and 'millions of', finally to be found out in their desperate pleading to Singapore and the UK to give us their stuff, even if it is near its use by date.
It has been a mistake of the Labor opposition, and of all those institutions I mentioned, that they have not sought a full audit of Australia’s purchase and distribution of vaccine, which the government regards as a secret. An audit would show how incapably and unfairly he Morrison government has managed every aspect of vaccine procurement and distribution.
Which is not surprising because, when the vaccines eventually did begin to trickle out, their distribution was slow, flawed and rorted.
It was worse than inefficient, it was incompetently managed.
The more vulnerable Australians had been categorised in two priority groups – 1A and 1B – for vaccination. Very old people, very ill people and very vulnerable people like the Indigenous population.
Frontline workers, those most likely to be exposed to the virus, were also near the top of the list.
Many of those people are still waiting, some of them are dying, while the smarties – those who know someone or are otherwise favoured – were vaccinated wanted many months ago.
On nobody’s list were children under 12, and this could be another disaster waiting to happen. As US physician Dr Denise Dewald has written: “What we are witnessing across the world with basically the forced infection of children with a virus of unknown future consequences may go down as one of the greatest mistakes in the history of public health.” And, she added, there is a vaccine already available and waiting approval.
Meanwhile Scott Morrison had established what he termed a ‘national cabinet’ comprising himself and the six state premiers and two territory first ministers. The opposition leader was excluded.
Throughout the pandemic, Morrison has never acted other than in a way that was seeking his own political advantage.
For 20 years I ran a company that specialised in issues and crisis management. One of the golden rules was, 'never politicise a crisis'. Crises need trust, unity, honesty, speed, clear messages, community understanding. The Morrison government broke the golden rules and every other rule. Never politicise a crisis.
It was soon clear that Morrison had run into trouble with the premiers – initially, it seems, with Victorian premier Dan Andrews. Morrison wanted to keep the borders open, presumably to let the virus flow through the community to achieve a hoped for herd immunity as Boris Johnson was trying to do in the UK at the same time.
But Andrews wouldn’t play that game, and one by one the other premiers followed him. All had calculated that their based health systems probably couldn’t cope with a rapidly spreading disease.
They all understood, some of them slower than others, that they needed to adopt isolation techniques wherever Covid was found. People who might have encountered the virus had to be isolated.
Others entering Australia had to be quarantined for 14 days in a hastily cobbled together and quite unsatisfactory quarantine system based on city hotels. From these porous facilities the virus was to leach out into the community at a sufficient rate to cause problems, some of them huge.
Locking down communities, then suburbs, then cities, then states became a favoured technique. It had a big strength: it worked. It had a big weakness: business hated it because it suppressed economic activity.
The tension built into that contradiction reflected almost exactly the tension between the state and federal governments and the tension between the Liberal National coalition and the Labor Party.
One premier, Berejiklian of NSW, soon became trapped between the need to manage the virus and her ideological commitment to keep commerce alive and allow people what she called ‘freedom’.
Although she had been caught out badly by the mismanaged arrival in Sydney of the Ruby Princess cruise liner on 19 March when 2,700 passengers were allowed to disembark even though a large number of them were experiencing a mysterious influenza-like condition.
It was Covid, but the time the authorities woke up to the danger, the passengers had fled. The outcome was 28 deaths in Australia and the USA and 900 cases of Covid. Related Covid outbreaks occurred in a number of other places.
But despite this warning sign of how bad things could get, Berejiklian’s management of Covid in NSW seemed to be blessed with good luck. There were outbreaks which seemed to be contained fairly readily.
In Victoria, a serious outbreak mainly in federal government run aged care facilities, killed over 800 people. The prime minister and other ministers used this as an opportunity to deride and mock the Labor state and its leader, Dan Andrews, and to praise Berejiklian for her ‘gold standard’ management of the disease in NSW.
Eventually, in a major effort of community cooperation, the Victorians’ brought their outbreak under control. Nearly every state premier learned important lessons from that. One didn’t. Gladys Berejiklian thought she had superior management skills. The onset of the more transmissible Delta variant proved her wrong.
After early cases occurred in July 2021, Berejiklian waited nine days before locking down and, when she did, it was not a thoroughgoing effort. Now in early September the cases continue to grow and so do the deaths, to more than 100 so far.
Morrison and Berejiklian for some weeks did not know what to make of this. The messages to the community kept changing but the overlay of them all was, ‘nothing to concern you here, we’ve got this’.
They didn’t. They had responded in effectually. The virus spread to Victoria, to Canberra and to New Zealand, jurisdictions which are still trying to suppress it. Queensland already did this once, but may have another case to deal with.
Suddenly a couple of weeks ago, Morrison and Berejiklian changed whatever had been their strategy, but which had in fact been recklessness, and claimed that the goal now was vaccination not suppression of the virus.
The rational goal of course should have been both. Suppress the virus through effective isolation to protect the community while vaccinating like crazy to get to a place where an orderly re-opening is possible.
But Morrison and Berejiklian did not just leave a trail of wreckage behind them as the virus spread throughout NSW and beyond, they taunted the states that were keeping out the virus as ‘cavepeople’ or ‘hermit kingdoms’.
This even as the NSW testing, tracing and isolation capability was falling apart, health services were under huge pressure, nearly 200 people were in intensive care and premier Berejiklian was forecasting that the worst was yet to come.
“So here we have it,” wrote commentator Mark Davis. “The Let-It-Rip mob has won the day, led by a premier and a prime minister who have failed in their quarantine and vaccination obligations and their duty of care to the public.”
Meanwhile, the fallout from Morrison’s chaotic management of quarantine, vaccine purchases and vaccine distribution continues to impact on states, which say they need more supply. “We are using 100% of the vaccine we are getting,” said one health official in Queensland, “and people still can't get appointments to be vaccinated for months.”
Journalist Samantha Maiden of News Corp has revealed that intensive care doctors in NSW have been issued new guidelines outlining the “ethical challenges” they could face in coming weeks if forced to limit lifesaving ventilators to Covid-19 patients “who are the most likely to survive”.
The new guidelines advise doctors how to triage cases based on “probability of survival.”
“It says that triage may need to be considered and if patients are not going to make it, you should expedite at the end of life conversations,” said a Sydney ICU specialist.
“None of us want to get to that stage, but that is actually in the document…. intensive care, goes to the person who has the best chance of surviving.”
Dr Henry Madison wrote yesterday, “The libertarian politics began the pandemic by weaponising the most powerful weapon against any novel pathogen - basic quarantine - as ‘lockdown’.
“The government is not even pretending we have partial TTIQ [test, trace, isolate, quarantine] in NSW now. Not tracing at all, just letting people know they’ve been infected.
“The NSW premier today compared annual flu deaths to projected Covid deaths. An average flu year is about 600 deaths. Covid deaths opening up at 80% are projected to be over 25,000.
“Please, somebody, anybody at the (daily) press conference, point out that the 70-80% Doherty figures are totally reliant upon functioning TTIQ. Which NSW doesn't have.”
Meanwhile, the Victorian leadership has let citizens know that it is unlikely to eradicate the virus which it has done a number of times before, but will fight on to keep people as safe as possible until an effective level of vaccination is reached.
“Victoria and the Victorian Covid leadership team that fought for the whole nation last year, still is, and will continue to do so,” said Dr Julie Fletcher. “Gladys and Morrison have failed and betrayed the nation.”
The editor-in-chief of the Medical Journal of Australia, laureate professor Nick Talley tweeted that 70% coverage will “still not be enough” and that 80% full vaccination of the entire population is needed.
“The data I’ve seen from overseas and from recent modelling indicate that two weeks after 70% are fully vaccinated (when they will be protected) will still NOT be enough to prevent a tsunami of cases and hospitalisations,” Talley wrote. “Realistically, over 80% of the ENTIRE population need to be vaccinated.”
Entire – that’s everybody 0 to eternity. And that sure isn’t Morrison’s or Berejiklian’s plan right now.
And the ABC, its charter requirement for balance forgotten it seems, plays a strange game.
“Leigh Sales’ editorialising and factually incorrect commentary has unquestionably undermined public confidence and made this pandemic worse,” says Dr Richard Sallie MD PhD FRACP. “She is appalling and should be held accountable.”
Meanwhile, as I write this, the federal government continues its attack on premier Palaszczuk of Queensland who is pleading that the position of small children needs to be better considered before the virus is allowed to spread more easily through the community.
Prof Nick Talley agrees that there is a “need for robust information on the risk of long Covid in children as reported rates have varied widely from small to huge.”
And a recent article in the British Medical Journal signals that this is not the non-issue that the federal government would have us believe.
“Since the pandemic began (in the USA), children have represented 14.3% of total cumulated cases. However, for the week ending 29 July, children were 19% of reported weekly cases.
And last night the ABC ran this story.
Surely its reporters of government spin will now realise they need to become journalists of truth, otherwise significant responsibility will rest with them for the deaths and serious illness of children.
CNN reports that vaccine slowdowns in the wealthy West could incubate the next disaster in the Covid crisis. Has there been a more extreme example of 'vaccine slowdown in the wealthy West' than Australia? There has not.
Tally ho into this crisis and on to the next one.
Australians needs no more complacency, no more recklessness, no more ego and no more politicking around what could become a national catastrophe.
But it would be an optimist indeed who would expect two renegade Liberal governments – that of Morrison and that of Berejiklian – to change their losing streak at this stage.
Indeed, Morrison is looking for a chance at re-election before the situation worsens.
Instead of buckling down, he wants to roll the dice.