How good are Australians in a crisis? The number of active cases of COVID-19 has fallen steadily for more than six weeks. At the start of last month, there were almost 5000 known carriers. Today there is a tenth as many. If you want to know what a health crisis really looks like, turn to Britain, where 2642 fatalities have been announced in the past week, pushing deaths per million to 521. In Australia there have been just four per million.
Source: Nick Cater, News Corp
We can’t spend the rest of our lives avoiding risks
That suggests it is safe to let the experts stand down and put the politicians back in charge. The extraordinary powers given to medical officers and police chiefs should be withdrawn to allow the hard work to begin.
Last week’s unemployment figures are just a taste of the post-pandemic misery. JobKeeper payments have kept Australians employed for now, but not every job is salvageable. Hundreds of thousands more people are likely to be out of work when the payments are wound back.
By any reasonable measure, the health crisis has been averted. Yet the experts who were so swift to alert us to the danger in the first place are slow to admit it.
A second wave, however unwelcome, would almost certainly be smaller than the first. We are far better prepared for its arrival thanks to the investment in testing, tracing and additional hospital facilities.
Credit also belongs to the Australian people, who have sacrificed much to beat this virus. Those who still have jobs should be allowed to return to them.
As Scott Morrison was at pains to point out on May 1, opening up the economy involves risk. There will be further outbreaks. More people will be infected and some could die.
Yet we are beyond the point where the pain averted by keeping people at home is greater than the pain it causes. And we are well beyond the point when the damage to the economy ($4bn a week) can be seen as a necessary or proportionate response.
Let us recall the reason for taking these drastic measures. In late March the virus appeared to be spreading exponentially, such that demand for acute hospital beds might outstrip supply.
The lockdown, together with the work of federal Health Minister Greg Hunt, ensured that didn’t happen. The number of intensive care unit beds tripled to more than 7000. Fewer than 100 were occupied by COVID-19 patients at the height of the pandemic. Yesterday 11 were in use.
With our borders closed, the risk that another wave could be large enough to swamp our health services is extremely slight.
The risk is even lower in South Australia. A swift response from Premier Steven Marshall — the closing of state borders, enforced quarantine for South Australians returning home and the appointment of a state co-ordinator under the Emergency Management Act — allowed SA to contain the virus better than most.
Only one new case has been detected in the state over the past three weeks. Of the 439 cases identified, 435 have recovered. Sadly, the other four died.
Yet bars and pubs remain closed. Cafes and restaurants are limited to 10 patrons at a time, making reopening a loss-making option for most.
Police can issue a $5000 on-the-spot fine to anyone reckless enough to invite more than seven guests to a wedding or 20 mourners to an indoor funeral.
Under whose authority is this extraordinary power given to the police? The authority of the SA Police Commissioner himself, Grant Stevens, who was appointed state co-ordinator of emergency management on March 22.
Now that SA is, as near as dammit, virus free, Stevens is entitled to pat himself on the back, drop in at Government House and relinquish his emergency power, which will otherwise not expire until the end of the month.
Don’t hold your breath. Like the health experts appointed to save us from becoming the Italy of the south, Stevens is in no hurry to return to his day job.
SA Chief Public Health Officer Nicola Spurrier put on a “Fri-yay” top to celebrate the “fantastic” news of the state’s clean bill of health, but seems less than eager to step out of the limelight. There was no room for complacency, she warned. There was always the threat of a second wave.
Expert as Spurrier and Stevens might be in their respective fields, health and public order is not the expertise we need at this moment.
Our challenge now is avoiding deep, damaging recession. We need experts in assessing the national interest, weighing risks and evaluating competing public policy goals. We need experts who can balance the need for a healthy population against the imperative of a healthy economy, particularly in SA, where unemployment is at 7.2 per cent, the highest in the country.
In other words, we need the expertise of parliamentarians whose jobs depend on recognising the public interest. The power to make decisions should be removed from unelected officials and returned to those with a popular mandate.
The hard road is still ahead. Extraordinary public health measures that impinge on individual liberty were popular six weeks ago, when the shops were out of toilet paper. Today, they are a burden.
Having controlled this virus better than almost anyone expected, by normalising social distancing, reducing international arrivals to a trickle and restricting interstate travel to essential business, governments must act quickly to lift restrictions.
The speed of economic recovery will depend on the willingness of businesses to take risks by investing and hiring, despite the uncertainties that will bedevil us.
Governments must lead by example before the culture of risk-avoidance that takes hold in a pandemic becomes entrenched in public and commercial life.
Nick Cater is executive director of the Menzies Research Centre