One of Scott Morrison’s key innovations, as border protection minister, was to stop the practice of making announcements every time an illegal migrant boat arrived. ‘I’m not in the business of providing shipping news for people smugglers’ he used to say. It certainly helped that government policies, most notably boat turn-backs, were actually defusing the crisis. But by refusing to front the media on a near-daily basis, he avoided elevating the issue and giving a platform to doom-mongers.
It’s hard not to be fearful of the corona virus when the premiers of Victoria and NSW front the media almost every day to announce hundreds of new cases and large numbers of deaths, in Dan Andrews’ case; and that the state is ‘on a knife edge’ in Gladys Berejiklian’s case. Most days, Morrison as prime minister chimes in with a media conference of his own to announce yet more billions in spending to keep the economy going through the ‘worst year’ in people’s lives. The wonder is not that people are increasingly despondent and deeply pessimistic about the future. But given that our leaders hardly open their mouths without talking about a deadly virus they can’t control, it’s a tribute to Australians’ innate steadiness that there’s not out-and-out panic.
It’s way past time for all of us to regain a sense of perspective about Covid-19. Yes, it’s dreadful that on quite a few days more than a dozen people have died. But every day about 450 Australians die of natural causes, including about 150 in nursing homes. Every day about 136 Australians die from cancer; about 48 Australians die of heart disease; and about 10 Australians commit suicide. Depending on its severity, in some years more than 1,000 Australians (or three a day) die from influenza. Yet there aren’t normally breathless news bulletins reporting the deaths of very old people in nursing homes; nor have people ever before been placed under virtual house arrest, the economy ever all-but-closed, or government spending ever approached wartime levels to protect us from a virus that leads to the death of people with a median age of 80.
Let me pre-empt any reader tempted to shout at this point that old lives do indeed matter. I am 75; and, as a recovering alcoholic, even of 50 years’ standing, would be more than usually vulnerable to this disease. But there’s more to life than simply keeping it going. All lives are precious and should be protected; but quality of life matters too. For me, one of the worst features of the past few months has been trying to manage Alcoholics Anonymous meetings on Zoom which rather impoverishes the fellowship that so many people need to keep them off the grog. To me, the tragedy is not that people in nursing homes are dying (as the people going into them can expect to live for scarcely two years); it’s that they’re dying alone, denied the solace of the family and friends which is all most of them have left.
I’m not one of those who has ever claimed that the corona virus is just a cold with muscles. It is serious; and, initially at least, governments were right to take extraordinary measures and to spend massively to sustain people through lockdowns. But even though it’s been clear for months now that the initial predictions of 150,000 deaths here in Australia were wildly exaggerated, governments have been acting as though it’s only the limits they’ve imposed on ordinary freedoms that have prevented them.
There has never before been a general curfew imposed on any Australian city. Yet the Victorian government, at a time when about 300 people were sick with corona virus and about 20 in intensive care, decreed that five and a half million Melburnians could only leave their homes for two hours a day and couldn’t travel more than five kilometres. It was a completely unprecedented (over)reaction to a situation that had only arisen because the state government had comprehensively mismanaged hotel quarantine, failed to get people’s test results for up to nine days and had no effective contact tracing in place.
All our governments, though, have resorted to bullying people in an attempt to show that they can manage a crisis. Even while there are taxpayer-funded ads running in Sydney promoting an ‘epic road trip’ to the Northern Territory, the Chief Minister is threatening to keep borders closed there for 18 months. The South Australian government has withdrawn regular traveller permits for Victorians who need to enter that state. Among many other cases of needless hardship, this penalised a two-year-old girl from a border village with no corona cases who needed to travel to Adelaide for medical treatment. The prime minister, reportedly, telephoned this family to commiserate, but his own government is hardly less guilty of pandemic-driven pig-headedness.
Under federal law, it is actually illegal for Australians to leave the country without specific permission from the Australian Border Force commissioner. Not since convict days, and then only for people serving their sentence, has Australia been a prison island. The fact that our governments have been reluctant to impose minor restrictions, like wearing masks on public transport, but only too happy to impose major ones, like bans on travel, shows the extent to which they’ve lost their sense of proportion.
Last weekend marked the 75th anniversary of victory in the Pacific: a time when, despite the terrible conflict, our parliaments and courts sat normally and much ordinary life continued despite the worst war in Australian history. Making daily casualty announcements, stressing dangers, squashing freedoms and admonishing people to stay safe would not have been leadership then and it’s hardly leadership now.
Back then, it wasn’t regarded as un-Australian for citizens to make their own decisions and to take a few risks. It would be better by far, if today’s leaders took less heed of nervous health experts and more of our own history.
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Emeritus Professor of History & Politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald’s most recent book is a memoir, ‘Fifty Years Sober: An Alcoholic’s Journey’, published by Hybrid in Melbourne.
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