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Churchill in reverse

What we see now on Covid-19 is not what we will see later

8 May 2020

11:00 PM

8 May 2020

11:00 PM

There is a lovely anecdote in Roy Jenkins’ biography of Winston Churchill where Jenkins (a centre-lefty who came to love his subject) recounts what one of the women who knew Winston right from a young age had to say about him many years later. From memory it may have been Asquith’s daughter. At any rate, she said ‘When you first meet Winston you immediately see all of his faults. You spend the rest of your life discovering his virtues.’ I bet most of us would take that on our tombstones any day.

I raise it here, though, because it strikes me that our Morrison Coalition government is in serious danger of doing a ‘reverse-Winston’ as regards its handling of the corona virus. You immediately see the virtues of how it handled the pandemic – the very, very few corona deaths as of writing. But you’re about to spend the rest of your life discovering its downsides, errors, poor trade-offs, too great a reliance on a narrow caste of doctors who themselves genuflect before a souped-up precautionary principle and its willingness (unlike Sweden) to countenance a heavy-handed government response that wreaks havoc on the private sector and on individual freedoms.

Of course the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. Time will tell. Pick your favourite aphorism. But then read the epidemiologists from Stanford and Oxford or take half an hour to listen to an interview with the main Swedish epidemiologist defending the Swedish approach (which was, namely, to isolate the old and vulnerable, ask citizens to wash their hands and keep their distance from others and then keep the economy going throughout, which they’ve done with deaths per million better than France, Britain, Spain or Italy). After that you’ll immediately start asking yourself questions about our so far wonderful, near world-best results of hardly any corona deaths. What happens when the lockdown ends and deaths go up, as is likely? Will we close up again? For how long? Is it really likely we can ever eradicate this thing, or will all countries ultimately have to develop herd immunity (meaning, do what Sweden did)? Can international travel ever start again if we aren’t prepared for a spike? Don’t the deaths that come with later economic carnage, including those that come from a less well-funded health system, have to be counted too? And what about all the lives of young people, who are massively and disproportionately having to bear the costs of this lockdown response? The young are losing jobs more than the old; the young haven’t the assets that will inflate in value when the government no doubt monetises the debt because it won’t have the stomach to raise taxes or indulge in an orgy of borrowing. The old will win again as they have the assets.

Basically, you have to be a world- class Pollyanna not to believe that things will be very bad indeed in a few months and for quite a while thereafter. Any bets on whether Mr Morrison’s popularity is higher now or then? (I’m taking now.) Or the government’s? Remember, the private sector is being crucified by this lockdown but the public sector (which includes the politicians themselves) is paying almost no costs at all. Same pay. Same perks. Same souped-up pensions. Everything. Want to bet how popular that will be in half a year? Or who will get the blame?

Of course it is true that in Australia (and for that matter in Britain and Canada, though considerably less so in the US) this lockdown is very popular with the preponderance of people. Put in raw political terms, the voters say they really like the heavy-handed, ‘close it down’ government response. Heck, more than a few are happy to dob in neighbours for trifling infractions. Doesn’t that show that Team Morrison is just giving people what they want? Well, maybe or maybe not. As Toby Young in Britain points out, the lockdown’s current popularity is equally well explained in terms of ‘a medical-industrial complex that has completely terrified the public with its apocalyptic prognostications of doom’ together with ‘the blob-like growth of health-and-safety culture, particularly in the public sector’.

However, all the early predictions and models coming out of Imperial College and Washington State were massively wrong, by orders of magnitude – as in predicting two million dead Americans and half-a-million dead Brits when the totals won’t hit much more than a bad flu season, maybe 85,000 Americans. And if Sweden is anything to go by – another hotly contested question – it wasn’t the lockdown that caused far fewer deaths. They would have transpired even without the lockdowns and all the concomitant pain they’ve caused for those in the private sector. Heaven help Team Morrison if, a year from now, the preponderance of informed opinion is that the lockdown was a huge over-reaction, because those feeling the pain right now are the Coalition’s core constituency. I shock readers, shock them I know, when I point out that the ABC, the unions and the public service do not provide all that many Coalition voters come election time. (In the case of the ABC it’s probably a null set.)

I’m a long-time critic of the sort of Rule by Judges that comes with an aristocratic lawyerly caste interpreting a bill of rights. But if you asked me for a second worst option, there is I think a strong case for saying it would be Rule by Doctors. I spent seven years in New Zealand on a university ethics committee. Doctors are trained to save life, as they should be. But many are economic ignoramuses; many are big government pseudo-socialists; top-down genuflecting to authority comes pretty easily to them; they are as susceptible to the idiotic nostrums of identity politics as just about any group going; they have a puffed-up sense of self-worth, often for good reason as they save individual lives, but that doesn’t automatically make them good cost-benefit calculators. These are generalisations, you understand. There are plenty of exceptions. Still.

The charge will be that Morrison & co. have delegated too many decisions in this corona crisis to a narrow caste of medicos implausibly claiming near-exclusive access to scientific truth. They’d better hope that doesn’t stick. You see reverse-Winstons aren’t likely to do well at the polls in future elections. The sooner this government removes all these lockdown restrictions, the better ScoMo’s chances of avoiding today being the high-water mark of his prime ministership.

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