SO here we are, then, weeks into the internet’s – if not the legacy media’s – first globally impactful pandemic. The strategies being deployed to combat it are certainly opening fault lines in the political philosophies most of us claim to live by in relation to everything else. ‘Climate change,’ bushfire blame, monetary easing, Harry and Meghan, limits on cash withdrawals, George Pell, Donald Trump, Russia, impeachment, climbing Ayers Rock and royal commissions were the stuff of sporting daily brawls – mere subject-matter that made choosing sides easy for everyone. Chinese coronavirus has also unleashed debate – but unlike any other in our lifetimes. On the flashpoints – curve-flattening, shutdowns, civil disobedience and CFRs – people are being as opinionated as ever but they’re not sure they’re right. More strangely, many hope they’re wrong. We can hardly recognise our formerly emphatic selves. The information available is incomplete (when it isn’t outright false) and what we do know at this stage is still subjective. Such vagueries don’t arise in discussions of Joe Biden’s hair-sniffing or the merits of women’s ‘football.’ This crisis is different and we know why.
I even think there is a humbling, self-improving lesson to be learned from it about the limitations of our ken, the fatuousness of live analysis (including our own) and the fragility of ego. Lurking behind it all is something more primordial: the fear of our own mortality which – at least partially – we’ve nobly dressed up as fear for other people’s. Daniel Andrews’ insistence that there is “no social occasion or celebration that’s worth more than a human life” was this week’s most sanctimonious corona-adage. In 2017, Victorian MLCs celebrated the enactment of Mr Andrews’ legalisation of geriatric homicide. He isn’t fit to either define or police life-affirming celebration. Great leader thespianism aside, the citizens I see every day are calm, orderly, sombre-but-unbowed and responsible. They are best placed to govern their homes, their business, their families and their intercourse with one another. They don’t need to be lectured. Riding people is not only unnecessary but counterproductive. It’s time now for our leaders to settle down and let the policies they’ve chosen to enact play out in society. Or – to put it another way – they should just shut up for a brief spell.
One thing I have been surprised to discover is how tenuous principles are in a crisis. Yesterday’s libertarian is today’s Whitlamite interventionist – singing from the same “expert” song sheet that blamed Scott Morrison and coal for the summer’s inferno. That was just weeks ago. Remember the “23 former fire chiefs”? Their word was scientific gospel in December. No, dear experts, young people enjoying sun and fresh air at Bondi were not a threat to the nation. But a Prime Minister and a Premier who waved through tens of thousands of Chinese students (after alleged quarantines in third-world countries) and plague-ship passengers certainly are.
Likewise, I dare say there are left-of-centre True Believers having fraught contingency discussions in kitchens Australia-wide right now – still in their hi-viz shirts and taking a break from their online dole applications – who suddenly realise the state is not their friend. Green lights for celestials and pink slips for Skips. Then there are my fellow Catholics, a number of whom seem to believe the right to life – which is the right not to be killed – means no-one can be “allowed” to die at any cost. This is both childish and theological nonsense. Society and the economy cannot be “shut down.” This isn’t a Ferris wheel. If that’s the putative solution, then there is no current “solution” – except patience, charity, cleanliness and protection of the vulnerable. That is the best we can do. On the evening of D-Day, 6 June 1944, Franklin Roosevelt read to America his famous prayer, Let Our Hearts Be Stout. Hearts had to be stout because this solution meant thousands (as it happens) “will never return.”
Hold your nerve – and your principles
In other words, I’ve come to believe – or, rather, I see no reason to stop believing – that the Prime Minister and his utterly hysterical “National Cabinet” have no authority whatsoever to exterminate the livelihoods of millions of people on the say-so of wealthy bureaucrats who bring new “phases” of hectoring and economic destruction to his desk every morning. They do this not because of new epidemiological intelligence acquired overnight but, rather, because every news cycle must now feature “new measures” to satisfy a media that would love nothing more than to castigate a Liberal prime minister for not Doing Enough. You could say the “National Cabinet” is as much at war with a Hawaiian shirt as it is with a Chinese ‘flu. To make matters – yes, exponentially – worse, being a federation means that six other bunyip-plenipotentiaries are sucked into separate virtue auctions every day as well. The suddenly standardised bureaucratese – “essential business” – goes hand in latex glove with the Victorian Premier’s statement: no livelihood is worth a life, as it were. Australia has a population comparable to that of Greater Los Angeles but is ‘governed’ by nine parliaments. All of their members are on full, six-figured pay right now. No Centrelink queues for them, though few conduct essential business.
Contrary to what “experts” plainly stated or gave people to understand for weeks, the statistical denominator for determining the looming COVID-19 treatment case-load was poppycock. That’s what the latest facts show. World Health Organisation projections of likely critical and fatal cases measured against the overall number of infected were – needless to say – scientific garbage. The difference between 1 percent and 0.1 is the difference between a clownish police commissioner shooing people off a beach and an American President prepping an economy to get back to work. Invented in China and skewered beyond rational recognition in the systematically chaotic Italian medical system, the rush-numbers started the panic in Australia (and elsewhere). Governments cannot walk away from that foundational pretext now, having Zippoed the entire village in the meantime. Nor is anybody omniscient enough right now to assert they should; nor will I.
Some will argue a worst-case action plan was prudent in the statistically fluid circumstances – even that it will eventually be seen as a felix culpa that stood us all in good stead. We’ll see. Governments know very well that a ‘we saved the day’ exegesis is a no-brainer when a catastrophe doesn’t transpire as originally advertised. Kevin Rudd has built an entire legend around himself on the birdbrained basis that he ‘saved’ Australia from the GFC. When paradigm whisperer Paul Kelly’s The Australian wanted a keynote speaker for its strategic leadership forum in November, it chose Paul Keating whose thesis is that China is the future. Mal Meninga’s only political speech was better value for money. Several weeks later, ASIO’s boss said one of the most worrying threats to the nation was neo-Nazis in suburban garages. The bat soup of leadership and ‘expertise’ in this country cannot be redeemed with any condiment save scepticism. The Chinese virus is a very serious threat, it might cause enough critical infections to stretch ICUs to the limit and, yes, people will die. But no, this doesn’t give the financially quarantined officials of the state the right to destroy the country or claim in loco parentis powers over the rest of us. On this principle, the writer is not for turning. Ever.