Leading article Australia

Coronavirus confusion

14 March 2020

9:00 AM

14 March 2020

9:00 AM

With people swarming the aisles of our supermarkets grabbing every multipack of dunny paper they can lay their hands on, it is clear that the Morrison government and our various state governments have failed spectacularly in preparing Australia for the approaching potential pandemic of Covid-19. Keen not to disrupt ‘business as usual’, the government began by telling people, as is standard fare in most emergencies, to keep calm and carry on with their daily activities; the idea of course being to keep both economic activity at reasonably normal levels as well as to avoid unnecessary panic-buying.

This was a mistake. With Australians having immediate access to international news via social and the mainstream media, it was inevitable that the public would quickly become spooked witnessing events overseas and decide, in the absence of any sense of urgency or a clear plan from the government, to take matters into their own hands. Even if that meant, somewhat illogically, rushing out and stocking up on multipacks of toilet paper. With the rapid escalation of events in Italy, which went from apparent complacency to slight alarm to the panicked lockdown of the north to, now, the entire country, ensuring your family has a decent supply of everyday household goods in the event of an Italian-style quarantine is nothing to be, er, sneezed at. (The simultaneous but less reported hording of pasta and tinned tomatoes is perhaps more understandable and logical.)

The warnings about the virus have been with us for several weeks, yet it is impossible not to get the sense that the medical authorities that advise our various governments have treated it with a dangerous complacency. Our hospitals are clearly unprepared. Our GP clinics are awash with confusion and the only precaution most have taken appears to be a grubby bottle of Dettol hand sanitiser poised on the receptionist’s desk.

Indeed, it is particularly noticeable that those same ubiquitous loud voices (such as the Australian Medical Association) that are always banging on about the imagined health threats of catastrophic climate change, the ‘outrageous’ medical conditions on Manus Island and Nauru, the dangers of coal mining, the health causes of bushfires, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia etc., and who advocate on behalf of asylum-seekers (who, for example, have performed their own penis-enlarging operations and therefore deserve to be brought to Australia), have failed spectacularly at readying the public for the Covid-19 pandemic. Laughably, the World Health Organisation has issued guidelines on how to discuss coronavirus in order to avoid any racist or politically-incorrect overtones.

Long queues have formed outside GP surgeries and pathology services as people demand testing for the virus. Help-lines go unanswered, swamped by agitated consumers. Schools are closing.

People are self-isolating on their own hunches. Media images of masked, anxious punters overflowing on to footpaths while waiting for testing, some with picnic seats as if queuing for Grand Final tickets, highlight how underprepared and confused many frontline health professionals are. GPs, including a former Australian Medical Association president, are reported standing in car parks in surgical masks and protective clothing, taking swabs from people in their cars. Then there’s the dog’s breakfast story of a man just returned from coronavirus hot-spot Italy who was shunted by his GP practice to a government help-line, only to be handballed back to his GP after an age on hold. Along the way, pathology providers gave him the brush-off too, no one he dealt with having a clue about what they or anyone else were doing. Talkback radio is full of similar stories of people attempting to ‘do the right thing’ but ending up confused and exhausted having been bounced from pillar to post by a woefully under-prepared medical and health bureaucracy. And there’s the Victorian GP who soldiered on thinking he had a cold when it was actually coronavirus, contracted in the US.

Different state health ministers have offered inconsistent advice, again suggesting a lack of foresight and coordinated planning by medical authorities. There is a worrying complacency in the repeated suggestions that unless you’re very old or have underlying health issues Covid-19 is a minor inconvenience and small measures like washing your hands regularly should do the trick. Of the state premiers, only Dan Andrews appears to be taking the pandemic threat seriously. We applaud his firm, rational leadership.

According to the Italians there is now a two-week opportunity to not follow their example; but rather, to learn from their mistakes, get on top of the spread of the virus and prevent a second, potentially more dangerous, wave. This is a numbers game. We have a window of opportunity, but are our governments and medical authorities up to taking advantage of it?

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