Andrew P Street
It’s really easy to look at the news around Australia’s covid non-strategy and be caught up in the many head-scratching details.
So much of the recent sound and perfectly-justified fury around the official handling of the pandemic has been directed toward the NSW Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, and her fast-unravelling relationship with Prime Minister Scott Morrison over who is most at fault for NSW’s lockdown.
The daily caseload is yet to reduce while the government sidesteps the issue of whether it has been prioritising business demands over medical advice. There are many questions about the messy rollout of vaccines, and the sudden implementation of the military patrols in Sydney’s less-wealthy suburbs.
COVID-19 managment existentialism: why are we here anyway?
These questions come on top of still unanswered questions about the deals to secure vaccine doses, why we didn’t have more vaccine options, why the original timeline for the vaccinations wasn’t met, why private companies were tasked with the rollout, why there’s been barely any community outreach, and whether or not there’s actually a ‘national vaccine stockpile’.
Yet being too caught up in the details can mean that we are distracted – we need to step back to ask the bigger question of why we’re at this point at all.
The COVID-19 pandemic is an ongoing disaster and no country has handled it perfectly; but Australia had every possible advantage – low early cases, a successful lockdown which bought us valuable time, a largely centralised population in a wealthy industrialised nation, a country that is notoriously girt by sea, and state and federal governments and parties making an early commitment to work in united purpose.
This even manifested in the coalition government taking counsel from the union movement and Labor to create JobKeeper, a federal income support system to ensure that people weren’t rendered destitute during the country-wide lockdown.
But what if the government then didn’t squander all that amazing early unity by using the pandemic to enrich their allies and punish political adversaries (and the states they governed)?
What if they’d looked at what had worked, and what had not, and acted accordingly?
COVID coulda, woulda, shoulda
Here’s how things could very, very easily have gone instead, had Morrison chosen to take a rather less re-election-focussed approach:
While the government negotiated with multiple companies for vaccines, understanding that some may have weaknesses, and it was best to have options, they realised that outbreaks were being traced to casual workers and people on visas doing shifts in quarantine hotels.
This drew an urgent and immediate response: everyone in Australia was made eligible for JobKeeper, regardless of their visa or employment status, and multiple dedicated quarantine hubs were built in order to get people out of the hotel system that wasn’t designed to contain a virus.
This was especially necessary, because there were still tens of thousands of Australians trapped overseas, and the government had promised to bring them home by Christmas, so needed to work rapidly to be able to accommodate them apon their return.
Once the first vaccines arrived, things stepped up a gear.
With most of Australia no longer even under public health restrictions, it was the perfect time to ensure that people got jabbed.
A massive national advertising campaign launched, encouraging people to get vaccinated for Australia, accompanied by a suite of laws similar to those around our National Immunisation Program schedule.
A handful of anti-vax voices sprang up within predictably opportunistic corners of the government, but were shut down by a PM who understood that this was too important an issue to let things turn into a dumb culture war flashpoint.
And because of the goodwill he’d built up with the opposition and minor parties, it was understood that they would support the government in making this vital public health message overpower the bleating of a handful of cranks and frauds.
While the very first jabs went to frontline workers, aged care and disabled facilities, and Indigenous communities, mass vaccination hubs were set up in the cities by the state health departments so that everyone else could easily book and receive a timely vaccination.
The best job ScoMo never did
By mid-2021, the government felt Australia was in a position to offer doses to struggling neighbours like Indonesia – helping prevent new variants coming into the country, while also doing some very valuable and long-overdue international diplomacy, especially given that China had been filling that void.
There was widespread confidence that by the end of 2021, international travel could resume. Holidays to other hubs were back on the cards (including a vaccinated and grateful Bali), and Australia was looking back at that hard national lockdown in March 2020 as a moment that united Australia.
No matter the state, everyone had gotten through it together, knowing that when the chips were down they could rely on the Australian government to have their back.
What’s more, the deft handling of the pandemic had set Morrison up for a political term to rival that of Menzies – who could deny him another term after demonstrating such strong and capable leadership?
Of course, this is all a fantasy.
And sure, had the above actually happened, there was the risk of the Morrison government being punished for making COVID-19 look like it wasn’t that big a deal, much as the Rudd government experienced after saving Australia from the Global Financial Crisis.
So at least Scott had one win; when the history of 2020–22 is written, it’s absolutely certain that no one’s going to accuse Morrison of having done too good a job.