Leading article Australia

No masking reality

25 July 2020

9:00 AM

25 July 2020

9:00 AM

This week, the face of Melbourne literally changed. From last Thursday, Victorian premier Daniel Andrews decreed that all Melburnians must wear masks when out in public, be they in confined spaces or in the open air. As people furtively scurry around behind their face coverings, the air of quiet, almost smug self-confidence of Australia’s second city has been usurped by a look of crisis and fear. Mr Andrews’s heavy-handed coronavirus containment approach, shutting down Victoria harder and longer than any other state, has failed.

With daily new cases still running in the hundreds, despite the firstly localised and then general Greater Melbourne lockdowns, no wonder Victoria’s Chief Health Officer, Brett Sutton, appears at the premier’s latest press briefings looking tired, shoulders slumped and wearing an air of defeat.  When Dr Sutton first wore a mask at the daily dirge, you could sense his relief that no one could see the tell-tale expressions of frustrated impotence on his face.

Most Victorians accept their fate. Unlike self-declared law-breaker and ACTU secretary Sally McManus, they will obey lawful instructions from the authorities, even if these rules are unjustified. The prospect of punitive fines issued by coppers patrolling the streets Blade Runner-style, constantly watching for infractions of the premier’s tight lockdown regime, is another incentive to mask up and hold one’s tongue.

Day after day at his coronavirus press conferences, Mr Andrews insists on singling out Victorians who, as he always puts it, ‘do the wrong thing’. He funereally cites daily examples of breaches of the lockdown – let’s call it what it really is, a police-enforced curfew – and stressing that the more breaches there are the longer Victoria’s lockdown ordeal will continue.

To be sure, there are always people who behave stupidly, or think they can do what they like whatever the consequences for others. But Mr Andrews’s universal mask edict seems designed less for public health purposes and more to heighten the atmosphere of fear and loathing in order to cow people into compliance with his authoritarian rules. There is common sense in wearing masks if you’re in a confined space like a bus, taxi or Uber, where you don’t know the person next to you and they don’t know you. In those situations, masks can reassure as well as protect. But in open spaces, where people can keep their social distance?

Most Melburnians will do what Mr Andrews calls the ‘right thing’ when it comes to masks and his government’s other lockdown measures, altruistically helping others in the community as well as knowing the consequences of disobedience. But there is growing anger at the government’s denial of its own failings.  If the premier wants to stop his approval ratings from plummeting, he should stop blaming others and reflect on what his government has both done and failed to do.

The reason Melbourne is in this lockdown hole is the prevalence of infections skyrocketed after it appeared the virus had been contained. Even Dr Sutton has acknowledged a likely cause is the fiasco of Victoria’s hotel quarantine regime for incoming travellers. Instead of rigorous isolation, internees were discharged after their mandatory fortnight, even if they refused to take a coronavirus test. Keepers initially supervising the internments were often bouncer types given no training and themselves failed to keep their social distance and stupidly shared cigarette lighters. More reprehensibly, there are allegations of collaboration horizontale between keepers and kept, with sexual favours being traded for the turning of blind eyes to breaking bounds and inappropriate fraternisation. And then there’s the impact of über-Left Mr Andrews effectively condoning June’s Black Lives Matter ‘up yours’ to social distancing, when even sacred Anzac Day this year was cancelled.

Mr Andrews established a judicial inquiry on the hotel quarantine fiasco to report in September. But with an eye to self-protection, his government set its terms of reference and defined what can and can’t be looked at. Meanwhile, the premier and ministers overseeing the scheme have never explained, never apologised and certainly never resigned.  It’s a travesty of accountability, insulting the Victorians the premier treats like naughty children incapable of using rational judgment and common sense.

What Mr Andrews should have said to Victorians was: ‘You accept my government’s advice to protect yourselves and others. But in return, on behalf of my government I acknowledge and apologise for the failings on my watch that have contributed to our shared predicament.’ But that would require him to show humility, fairness and a willingness to admit mistakes that are absent from his authoritarian political personality. Or even better, he could simply have said: ‘I resign’.

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