This is a revised, refined and augmented version of an earlier article in PNG Attitude. It’s far from the last word on the subject of Australia’s often wayward response to Covid, and I have no reason to think my views are particularly precious, but I need to say this, harsh as it is - KJ
NOOSA - Philip Fitzpatrick, author and provocateur, recently wrote for PNG Attitude a polemical commentary entitled, ‘A government prepared to see its people die’.
This piece drilled deeply into my own feelings about what Australia is being put through at this time of Covid.
‘Inside Out’ is a critically acclaimed, computer-animated movie, ostensibly for children, released in 2015 and set inside the mind of an 11-year old girl who finds that her life has been greatly disrupted.
In reviewing ‘Inside Out’, the culture editor of Vox Media, Emily Van Der Werff, discusses the idea that, as we age, a malady of which I am showing considerable signs, our emotions blend into newer and more complex feelings.
One of these is a fused feeling of anger and sadness that accompanies me each day as I, like you I would guess, try to adjust to the pandemic and its fallout.
This hybrid feeling of anger and sadness is best labelled ‘betrayal’, writes Van Der Werff, and I am perfectly satisfied with that definition. Betrayal. Betrayed. Betrayed by ugly, senseless, political ambition.
I feel we Australian people have been betrayed by some of our leaders; not all of them, not even most of them, but enough to have left us lurching towards a national catastrophe.
And I particularly hold responsible two of these leaders, prime minister Scott Morrison and NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian, who have plenty of enablers in the huge business corporations and media conglomerates, who enthusiastically trash talk the many of us who want to take a cautious approach to exposing communities to the virus.
These people have mainly trash talked the leaders of Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia, Labor states, avoiding the leaders of Tasmania and South Australia, Liberal states. Why? Because almost from the first moment they realised Covid was big, dangerous and had to be addressed, they plotted to turn it to their political advantage.
But I do not just hold to account, Morrison, Berejiklan, big business and big media. There have also been passive enablers, institutions whose response to this threat has been largely silent or muted.
These include the federal Labor Party, whose sporadic spouting we can explain by its feeling that Morrison’s huger errors may allow it to slide silently into power in the election which is close at hand.
They include a cowed ABC and its sneaky distortions and insinuations which betray the essence of journalism. They include trades unions, peak professional bodies, universities, churches and NGOs. We have not much heard their voices of concern.
Until very recently, these passive enablers included the institution made up of medical organisations and medical research institutes, which are only now stepping forward as a looming crisis, already with us in some jurisdictions, compels them to articulate their concern that government should do more and that it should do more better and faster.
So, for the best part of 18 months, these influential institutions, through their passivity, enabled Morrison a free pass to do what he wanted, even claiming expert opinion to support what he wanted.
They gave him the space and the time he required as he remorselessly strove to turn a national crisis to his political advantage, dividing the nation as he did so, and making many, many poor choices along the way.
This was The Great Institutional Hesitancy. It was not the alleged ‘vaccine hesitancy’, the scurrilous slur used to slander ordinary people who had no access to vaccine or who had been rendered apprehensive by confusing and variable political rhetoric.
These ordinary people were day after day, month upon month, also subjected to the hysteria of media, political and business agitators, who called rationality cowardice, who whined at lockdowns and who abused those people who were working relentlessly and resiliently to keep the virus contained long enough for the bulk of the population to be protected from Covid by vaccines few in number which had been belatedly ordered and inefficiently and unfairly distributed by Morrison and his men.
I make a glorious exception here of those State political leaders who very early on understood that Morrison was not up to the task of keeping the people safe, and who began implementing the only weapons they had to ensure this – distance and isolation.
It is of great comfort to the people of Australia who have been so misled by their national political leaders that now some of our great institutions understand they must speak out.
Professor Brendan Crabb AC, an eminent Australian microbiologist and head of Melbourne's Burnet Institute, has been a moderating voice in the often fierce debate in Australia about how to respond to Covid.
Last week he saw that moderation was not doing the trick and took aim at the hypocrisy of those promoting 'living with Covid' as some high level strategic approach to managing the disease.
“Living with lots of Covid pre-vax in Oz is not some trailblazing master stroke,” Prof Crabb tweeted. “It’s not the epidemic we had to have. It was an accident. As a result very tough days ahead for some….”
And also last week, Dr Omar Khorshid, orthopaedic surgeon and president of the Australian Medical Association, previously reluctant to embroil doctors in a political fight over Covid, pointed to the "lazy planning" that would open up the country to Covid before vaccination has reached a significant proportion of the population.
“Stopping surgery and other care was necessary in 2020,” Dr Khorshid tweeted. “But there is no excuse for lazy planning now. If we can’t open up without decimating ordinary health care maybe we need more than 80% of our population vaccinated.”
In March last year, Phil Fitzpatrick, writing in PNG Attitude, observed presciently that the emphasis on 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 Papua New Guinea and Australia.
Those people who consistently assert the truth that harsh measures are required to protect the community until enough of us are vaccinated find themselves vilified by Morrison and his cronies as ‘hermits’ or ‘cave-dwellers’, who also untruthfully accuse them of somehow wanting to permanently aim at suppressing Covid to zero.
This lazy straw man argument seeks to characterise opponents of Morrison’s impetuous desire to 'open up' as irrational, freedom-denying extremists when, in reality, they are people who understand that a few months, or even a few weeks, of suppressive effort can save lives and spare many Covid victims a lifetime of chronic illness.
But then it was Morrison who in March 2020, assisted by his hapless health minister Hunt, decided Australia 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 slovenliness came at the same time that most peer countries were ordering, sight unseen, enough of every viable vaccine under development to cover the entirety of their populations.
It was a failure of judgement, of understanding and of risk management by Morrison, Hunt and their advisers for which Australians are paying a very heavy price.
There are still shortages of vaccine in this country, a scarcity 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 lend us their stuff, even if it is near its use by date.
And just this week we have found out that Morrison has been secretly siphoning off hundreds of thousands of doses meant for other states (which happen to be Labor states) to NSW, which allowed Gladys Berejiklian, as recently as yesterday, to brag about how well NSW was being vaccinated compared to those other jurisdictions.
It was the ABC’s Laura Tingle who revealed on Monday just how much Morrison has favoured NSW in the distribution of vaccine allowing Berejiklian her undeserved boasts and her deceptive comparisons with states she clearly views as competitors while asking them to do as she does in order to display ‘unity’.
When the vaccines eventually began to trickle out earlier this year, their distribution was slow, flawed and rorted.
You may recall that the more vulnerable Australians had been categorised in two priority groups – 1A and 1B – for vaccination.
These covered very old people, very ill people and very vulnerable people like the Indigenous population. Frontline workers 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 many months ago.
When Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk pointed out the propensity for children under 12 – who cannot be vaccinated - to catch, be significantly affected by and to spread Covid, she was subjected to a concerted attack by Morrison’s henchmen for drawing attention to another disaster waiting to happen.
Australian data show 2.5% of children aged up to nine and 2.9% children and teenagers aged 10-19 have been hospitalised with Covid.
They may seem like low percentages but in reality, since the current NSW outbreak began in mid-June, they represent 800 children under 10 and 930 aged 10-19.
Palaszczuk is rightly concerned, and that’s why we wants to keep the border with NSW closed until Queensland’s vaccination numbers are higher.
“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,” writes US physician Dr Denise Dewald.
‘Forced’ in this context is subjecting children to the disease without vaccination. Especially, Dr Dewald added, when there is a vaccine already available and awaiting approval by US authorities, probably within the next two months.
But Morrison and Berejiklian seem not to care about children, just as they did not care to vaccinate Indigenous communities in western NSW until the disease was running rampant. And First Nations people had been on top of that priority list – that ignored priority list - for protection.
Throughout the pandemic, Morrison has never acted other than in a way that was seeking his own political advantage.
He established what he termed a ‘national cabinet’ comprising himself and the six state premiers and two territory first ministers. The opposition leader was excluded. So much for one of the golden rules of a crisis - unity.
In 1991 I established a company that specialised in issues and crisis management. One of our golden rules to government clients was to never politicise a crisis.
Crises need trust, unity, honesty, speedy action, clear messaging and community understanding. Anything that detracts from these positions will intensify a crisis and cause harm.
Morrison broke all the rules because of his need to turn the pandemic into an election winning opportunity.
But Morrison’s handling of Covid ran into trouble with the state premiers very early– initially, it seems, with Victorian premier Dan Andrews.
Morrison had wanted to keep the state borders open, to keep the economy open and presumably let the virus flow through the community to achieve a hoped for herd immunity as Boris Johnson was trying to do in the UK.
But Andrews wouldn’t play that game, and the other premiers followed him. All calculated that their health systems probably couldn’t cope with a rapidly spreading disease.
They all understood that they needed to adopt isolation techniques whenever Covid occurred. People who might have encountered the virus had to be isolated. Go fast, go hard, was the motto.
Travellers entering Australia were quarantined for 14 days in a hastily cobbled together and creaky quarantine system based on city hotels.
From these porous facilities the virus leached out into the community at a sufficient rate to cause regular lockdowns with the subsequent social and economic distress.
Locking down communities, then suburbs, then cities, then states became the only suppression technique while Australia awaited vaccine.
This had the big advantage of being fairly effective. But it had a big weakness.
Because it shut down schools and many businesses, it suppressed economic activity.
The tension built into that contradiction reflected almost exactly the tension between state and federal governments.
A deliberate tactic of Morrison was to trenchantly attack the Labor-led states (Tasmania and South Australia were never targeted), seeking to seize a political advantage. And where he went with this, big business and big media followed.
There was one state premier who decided to align with Morrison and his views that the economy should be kept open.
Gladys Berejiklian of NSW, best known for her hubris, self-belief and poor judgement, sought to ‘manage’ the virus and retain her ideological commitment to keep commerce alive and allow people what she called ‘freedom’.
This was despite her being caught out badly by the botched arrival in Sydney of the Ruby Princess cruise liner in March 2020, 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 by the time the authorities woke up to the obvious danger, the passengers had dispersed.
The outcome was 28 deaths in Australia and the USA and 900 cases of Covid. Related outbreaks of the disease also occurred in a number of other places.
Notwithstanding this warning of how bad things could get, Berejiklian’s management of Covid in NSW was light touch and blessed with good luck.
There were outbreaks, but they seemed to be readily contained. Berejiklian began to believe she had some special techniques that enabled her to manage Covid.
Then in Victoria, a serious outbreak, mainly in federal government aged care facilities, killed over 800 people.
The prime minister and other ministers used this as an opportunity to deflect their own responsibility by attacking and deriding the state Labor government and premier Andrews, at the same time praising Berejiklian for her ‘gold standard’ management of the disease in NSW.
Eventually, in a major effort of community solidarity, that did not include the state opposition Liberal Party, the Victorians brought their outbreak under control.
Nearly every state premier learned important lessons from that. One didn’t. Berejiklian believed she had superior management skills.
But in 2021, the onset of the more transmissible Covid Delta variant, which Berejiklian later claimed caught her by surprise, was to prove her wrong.
When Delta broke out in India, Australia closed its borders – even threatening jail – to arrivals from the sub-continent.
Sometime later the first cases occurred in Victoria and South Australia, and were contained.
Then in June, it was the turn of NSW. Berejiklian waited nine days before locking down and, when she did, it was far from a thoroughgoing effort.
After some weeks of Berejiklian playing it down and claiming she was bringing the disease to heel, it became clear it was out of control. Berejiklian eventually took it upon herself to declare a ‘national emergency’, which she had no authority to do.
But, being Morrison’s only favourite premier, the prime minister took this in his stride, provided her with more vaccines (at first openly, later secretly) and backed her switch in focus from taming the outbreak through lockdowns to pushing vaccinations.
Which is where we are now, in early September, with cases continuing to grow, deaths at around 150, 200 in intensive care and 80 on ventilators.
There are 1,150 Covid patients in hospital but this hides the fact that an estimated 10,000 others are in what are termed ‘hospitals at home’, a dodge to keep sick people out of hospital and thereby crashing the system.
NSW health authorities kept 'hospital in the home' secret for many weeks and even since this was revealed by a whistleblower remain reluctant to disclose numbers.
But people are still dying at home.
Berejiklian has been telling NSW citizens for a week now that the worst is yet to come.
Berejiklian’s virus started in Sydney’s eastern suburbs and the soft lockdown saw it spread to the city’s west, through which it has cut a swathe.
It then spread to Victoria, to Canberra and to New Zealand, and then to regional areas in NSW. All these jurisdictions are still trying to suppress it, with New Zealand having the most luck.
The virus also popped up in Queensland, where it was suppressed to zero once more, buying more precious time for the state to get its population vaccinated, although vaccine has been scarce.
“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.”
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’.
They attacked premiers who had adopted wiser strategies and affected schadenfreude – that smug and malicious delight in somebody else's misfortune accompanied by a desire to drag them down by urging them to open their borders.
The goading will not work. Too many people are affected. Too many people know that vaccinations must achieve a much greater penetration than is likely to be achieved in the next two months. Too many people know who is to blame and who to trust.
Meanwhile, Victorian premier Andrews has let citizens know it is unlikely that the virus will be suppressed to zero as has happened in past outbreaks.
But he has urged people to keep isolated and 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 has cautioned people that 70% vaccination coverage will “not be enough to prevent a tsunami of cases and hospitalisations” and that “realistically 80% full vaccination of the ENTIRE population needs to be vaccinated.”
Talley’s capitalisation of the word ‘entire’ was instructive because he was pointing to 80% of everybody, not just of people over 16 – which is the favoured Morrison/Berejiklian number.
Australia’s vaccination rate, despite all the spin and bragging and faux positivism from Berejiklian, and the tacit support of Morrison, is still at the tail end of comparable countries.
Australia still does not have enough vaccine, and – as the Americans put final touches on their new vaccine for under 12 year olds – we can just hope that Morrison and health minister Hunt have learned their lesson and got their order in for enough of that for our kids.
CNN reports that vaccine slowdowns in wealthy Western countries could incubate the next Covid disaster. There have been fewer examples of vaccine slowdown in the wealthy West than Australia.
Australians need 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. It is almost unbelievable.
But it would give Australians the opportunity to show the door to him and his failed government.
We have been betrayed enough.