By Roger Bradbury | Contributor
The government is quite smug about containing the coronavirus pandemic. By comparing the current level of infections against what could have been, they can claim they have successfully flattened the curve.
But there is another “could have been” story to be told. And that story is one of an utter failure of imagination by policymakers and a catastrophic failure of political leadership together causing the needless trashing of the economy and the aspirations of millions of ordinary Australians.
That story begins last December when the first reports of an unusual pneumonia first surfaced in China. The Five Eyes intelligence agencies, who watch for such phenomena everywhere in the world, would have taken a keen interest.
By early January, they would have been on alert – a likely new infectious respiratory disease, apparently contagious, apparently deadly and, ominously, coming from China, like so many new diseases before it.
The Five Eyes have long put the threat of a pandemic up there with the more traditional strategic threats to national security posed by China, Russia, North Korea, Iran and Islamic terrorism.
They would have discounted the information coming from official Chinese sources, and also from the World Health Organisation. Both China and the WHO have form. Neither can be trusted.
Instead, the Five Eyes would have rapidly increased their own collection and analysis efforts on this likely new threat.
Given the clear and present danger, closing our borders at the end of January was the proper thing to do.
By the middle of January, Five Eyes analysts would have been asking, “Is this the big one – the one we’ve worried about for so long, the deadly one to which there is no immunity, and which is going to go pandemic?”
And by late January, after further collection and analysis, they would have been reporting to their heads of government: “This is the big one.”
We can be confident that, by the last weeks of January, the Prime Minister and our National Security Committee had been briefed on the certainty of the pandemic. They had that knowledge at a time when there were no known cases in Australia, and it was still possible to lock our borders.
Given the clear and present danger, closing our borders at the end of January was the proper thing to do. Had we closed our borders then, Australia could have created a virus-free bubble – the very thing we are aiming for now.
Inside that bubble, the economy and society would have continued to motor along, save for those components dependent on international travel, such as inbound tourism and international students.
We would have had some international arrivals, but these would have been placed in government-supervised quarantine before they were allowed into the bubble – the very thing we have now.
Had we closed the borders at the end of January, it would have likely cost us some hundreds of millions of dollars and a small hit to the economy.
Instead, we locked the whole country down in mid-March, racked up a bill of hundreds of billions of dollars, drove the economy into recession, and trashed the lives of millions of our citizens.
We have created a situation that is a thousand times worse than it needed to be – an unbelievable own goal.
So what went wrong?
The answer, I believe, lies in the way the intel feeds into the policy domain. The Health Department is the policy gatekeeper of most concern here. Health seems to be chronically incapable of handling novel phenomena, as was seen over recent decades in its clumsy responses to SARS, MERS and avian flu.
More than a decade ago, the Health Department was supposed to develop a response plan for novel pandemics, but instead developed a traditional plan for an influenza pandemic.
And that plan kept the department in its comfort zone, focusing on flattening the outbreak curves of a bad flu season to smooth out the pressure on hospital resources. It had little to say about keeping a novel virus out of the country in the first place.
We saw this mindset at work in February and March, with health officials arguing that everyone would get the virus and the key task was to slow the spread.
The Health Department lacked the imagination to handle something completely new, and so shoehorned its response to the novel coronavirus pandemic into its traditional influenza plan.
That failure of imagination was compounded by a failure of political leadership when it was most needed.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison uncritically accepted the Health Department’s view of the situation rather than testing it against the evidence.
He failed to confront the novelty and the urgency of the crisis when it was put before him, and he failed to keep Australia free of the coronavirus when it was still possible to do so.
Given the thousand-fold difference in costs between what “could have been” if we had taken early decisive action, and the recession, debt and smashed lives that we were given, the blame for the mess we are in can be apportioned thus: the coronavirus 0.1 per cent versus the government 99.9 per cent.