In late May, the ABC’s flagship current affairs program 4 Corners ran an episode on the slow pace of Australia’s vaccination roll-out.
There was a revealing moment late in the program, during an interview with Gold Coast Hospital infectious disease specialist, John Gerrard. Surveying the global pandemic, Gerrard made a gloomy prediction: COVID would eventually take hold in his community. ‘I think we’ll have small outbreaks, and they’ll get bigger, and eventually, we’ll lose control, and it will spread,’ he told the ABC’s Adam Harvey.
And at some point, we will lose control. Once we get above a certain critical number, the virus will spread, and we won’t be able to contain it. But we are in this lucky position, this fortunate position, at the moment, that we have this lull, and this gives us an opportunity to vaccinate the vulnerable, and to protect them for when the virus arrives.
It’s a haunting segment, because that is exactly where Australia now finds itself. Australia had a window for vaccinating our population, but we missed the chance to vaccinate much of our population before the next outbreak arrived. And now it has, and it’s the Delta variant. The New South Wales government is struggling to get it under control, and the virus has spread to other states. By mid July, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia were all in lockdown—accounting for something like half the Australian population. With most of Sydney’s shops and businesses shut for weeks to come, another recession is now almost certain.
What’s so maddening about the current predicament is that Australia has had plenty of time to prepare. The pandemic started 19 months ago, and vaccines were available internationally late last year. We’ve known since March 2020 that insecure work in a privatised aged care sector is a major infection vector. But 17 months later, less than half Australia’s aged care workers are vaccinated. Victoria had a high profile public inquiry into hotel quarantine, completed in December, which recommended measures that could have prevented the NSW outbreak. We’ve seen the Delta variant rip through neighbouring countries and trading partners, and yet we still seemed surprised when a Delta outbreak rapidly outran public health measures here.
Underlying all these failures is Australia’s hubris as a rich island nation with a fetish for border control as the solution to all our problems. As Daniel Reeders pointed out recently in Inside Story, ‘Australia has used border control, both internal and international, as the centrepiece in a political theatre of epidemic control. This approach has encouraged the notion that we could just wait out the global pandemic until all Australians have been given their vaccine of choice.’ Reeders reminds us that by now the federal and state governments were supposed to be vaccinating citizens at a rate of one million a week.
This disastrous shortfall in vaccinations has a number of causes, including poor coordination between the Commonwealth and state governments, slovenly roll-out of the vaccination effort, Australia’s generally neglected public health apparatus, over-reliance on GPs for delivering jabs, bungled procurement processes relying on mercenary private sector contractors, and confusing advice from federal health authorities.
At its heart, though, the bungled vaccination roll-out is a story of poor decision-making abetting deep-seated policy failure. It is a story of Australia’s increasingly atrophied government capability, driven by 40 years of neoliberal ideology which has demonised the public sector and championed free enterprise. For instance, the federal government privatised the vaccination roll-out in aged care facilities to private providers like Aspec and Healthcare Australia. Health Minister Greg Hunt and the hapless Aged Care spokesman Richard Colbeck promised all aged care residents would be vaccinated by April. But profit-seeking firms prioritised income over diligence. The government was still putting out vaccination tenders in mid-June, when Senate Estimates revealed that thousands of residents remained unvaccinated. Even now, the majority of aged care workers haven’t received their jabs.
Australia’s vaccination roll-out is a grand policy failure even by the debased standards of the Morrison government. By now, we know a fair bit of detail about the decisions taken in mid-2020 that have led to the current crisis. The Morrison government failed to buy enough vaccine insurance. The economists call it ‘optionality‘: the value of something that you can only realise if you’ve made an initial investment. In mid-2020 there were at least six prospective vaccines on offer; Australia could have negotiated options to buy tens of millions of doses of all six. But Scott Morrison and Greg Hunt didn’t shop around. Perhaps they were listening to the consultancy firm McKinsey, which told the government to sit tight. Or perhaps too much faith was placed in the University of Queensland and Astra-Zeneca vaccines. The UQ vaccine never made it through trials. AZ supplies were held up by European export controls, and ended up falling foul of government technical guidelines advising against its use in under 60s.
Media reports have suggested that Australia was offered a huge potential supply deal from Pfizer early on in negotiations. But a penny-pinching federal Health department tried to haggle on the price. Pfizer went elsewhere, and Hunt was able to secure only 10 million doses of the Pfizer product in November 2020, well after big orders had been placed by the US, UK, Japan, Canada and the EU. Not surprisingly, this meant Australia was back in the queue for Pfizer supply. Hunt also inked deals with Novavax and Moderna, but no doses from either have arrived yet; Novavax’s shipments are now not scheduled until 2022.
But even with the vaccines it was able to secure, the Commonwealth then commenced an astonishingly slow roll-out. America had Operation Warp Speed. Other countries mobilised major government resources, urgently opening mass vaccination hubs and pushing vaccination teams out into their communities through pharmacies, clinics and public health outreach programs.
In contrast, Australia dithered. Diligent reporting by The Saturday Paper’s Rick Morton and others have revealed a cumbersome Commonwealth response that was unprepared for the scale of the vaccination challenge. ‘The lack of vaccine options helped exacerbate a budding hesitancy,’ Morton wrote in July, ‘inflamed by public figures and the media, which was then backed in by ATAGI advice and the Health minister himself, who said in May that there would be “enough vaccine of mRNA vaccines for every Australian” towards the end of the year.’ By mid-July, such statements, like many Hunt has made during the pandemic, were looking especially optimistic.
Hubris has been one of the defining features of Australia’s response to the pandemic, time and again over-estimating our capabilities and under-estimating the level of risk posed by the virus. One of the most important consequences of the pandemic has been the changed circumstances in which society must operate, with all sorts of flow-on effects. There has been large-scale industrial transformation, hitting certain sectors of the economy particularly hard, such as tourism, transport, and culture. The pandemic has also highlighted the increasingly ramshackle nature of Australia’s social safety net. Finally, social and political attitudes have yet to adapt. Much-cherished social norms and freedoms, such as the right to move freely across domestic borders and even around the community, have been proscribed. In Melbourne and Sydney, we have seen buildings and even whole suburbs ring-fenced, and of course the borders of states and territories closed.
Much internet server space has been devoted to Australia’s new epithet as the rich world’s newest hermit kingdom. The phrase ‘hermit kingdom’ has popped up in op-ed pieces around the world, particularly from expat Australians living abroad in nations that have simultaneously suffered much more gravely, but also vaccinated faster and removed restrictions sooner. While understandable, the rhetoric has often been inexact. It is true that closing borders is an instinctive resort for Australian politicians conditioned to two decades of ‘border protection’ sloganeering. But it is also true that closing national and provincial borders has prevented many infections. The real problem with the border rhetoric may be that it lulled the federal government into complacency on the need for an urgent vaccine roll-out.
The other really evocative phrase we hear in the zeitgeist is the nebulous and desirable ‘opening up’. ‘Opening up’, ‘when this is all over’, ‘when we’re all vaccinated’, or Dan Andrews’ ‘summer like no other‘ are all variations of the entirely understandable popular desire for things to get back to normal. Parents dream of escaping home lockdown with small children, 20-somethings dream of travel, workers want their jobs back, businesses a chance to re-open. The mental health burden of the pandemic has been telling, and in an Australia as yet largely untouched by large scale COVID death and illness, in some ways the most important health impact of the virus. Large reservoirs of hidden trauma lurk in the Australian psyche—amongst laid off workers, displaced relationships, disrupted institutions, interrupted schooling, and not least grieving families and loved ones.
The largely discredited five-stage grief theory of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross gets a good workout in the popular imagination, but there is a sense in which the political response to COVID resembles a large scale public grieving for a vanished way of life. At all levels of the Australian polity there are many variants of denial, with politicians, pundits and social media mavens longing futilely for the return to pre-pandemic normality. The denial comes in many flavours, from a relatively harmless insistence that we are ‘all in this together’ to the more pernicious and dangerous assertions that we need to ‘live with the virus.’ Pandemic denial can also take the form of premature victory declarations, with complacency replacing alarm in the weeks following the loosening of public health restrictions, even though, quite obviously, the conditions for another outbreak are still present.
There’s been plenty of bargaining too, with the Morrison government particularly prone to complicated displays of magical thinking about how quickly the virus can be beaten, and how easily everyday life can return to normal. At various points in the last 18 months, Morrison has swung between grandiose displays of national mobilisation, convening national cabinets, appointing Army generals to manage the crisis, and risible attempts to demonstrate the carry-on spirit, drinking beers at the football and posing for cheery photos in Australian flag masks. Sometimes it seemed brave, sometimes it seemed crazy; always it seemed shallow.
The most obvious way in which Morrison and his government have refused to accept the new reality is the petty and vindictive way they have played politics with the pandemic, using the virus as an opportunity to strike blows at enemies, real or perceived. We’ve seen that most dramatically in the collapse of Australia’s unified COVID response. Although Morrison’s early experiment of a national cabinet started well, it’s unclear whether it ever achieved a coordinated national response. Instead, Australia’s pandemic policies have collapsed into bickering, with each of the state jurisdictions running separate and often quite different COVID responses, at odds with each other as well as the feds. Worse still, Morrison has regularly gone missing in action, absent without leave while state premiers step up to declare a ‘national emergency‘.
During Victoria’s difficult 2020 lockdown, Morrison and his senior ministers like Greg Hunt and Josh Frydenberg threw shade at Daniel Andrews and the Victorian virus response. Frydenberg, in particular, seemed to relish lobbing grenades at his state-based compatriots, savaging the Andrews government’s contact tracing efforts and criticising the length and severity of the Melbourne lockdown. In contrast, the supposedly superior public health response of New South Wales was held up as the ‘gold standard’. Gladys Berejiklian was lionised as the premier able to beat back the virus and keep the economy open. Even if we accept that there were clear and documented errors in Victoria’s 2020 pandemic response—especially in hotel quarantine and a slow and incremental winter lockdown—it was always obvious that other states could suffer the same fate if bad luck befell them. And so it proved this year.
Perhaps the most egregious example of the Morrison government’s relentless determination to use the pandemic to punish opponents was the treatment of higher education, one of Australia’s largest export industries and, by any sensible assessment, a keystone of the pandemic response. First, international students were excluded from any kind of income support and bluntly told to ‘go home‘ by the Prime Minster. With conspicuous malice, universities were purposely excluded from the JobKeeper subsidy. Then the government rammed its ‘Job Ready Graduates’ bill through Parliament, resulting in further funding cuts. Conservative estimates put the job losses in universities at more than 17,000. It will take Australian higher education years, perhaps a decade, to recover.
The pandemic has laid bare the unspoken priorities of Australian society. Some activities were cancelled instantly and peremptorily, including nearly the entire hospitality, performing arts and festivals sectors, which collectively employ hundreds of thousands of workers. Other industries were never closed, such as horse racing. Indeed, immense efforts were made to keep professional sports up and playing. The AFL completely refigured its 2020 premiership on the fly, shuttling teams between the states to keep them out of the clutches of Melbourne’s lockdown. Politicians bent over backwards to show their love for footy continuing, and exemptions to prevailing restrictions were made for the Australian Open and Melbourne Cup. As a result, special exemptions for travel and isolation were granted to professional athletes that were denied to most Australians, even those seeking assistance on compassionate grounds.
Sports stars weren’t the only ones to benefit from double standards. Ordinary citizens watched on as Hollywood celebrities, corporate CEOs and friends of the Morrison government flew unhindered across international borders, often in private jets to quarantine in luxury homestays. International students, bereaved families and the hundreds of thousands of Australians living overseas were less privileged and therefore less fortunate, with long family separations and vanishing jobs the norm. The pandemic asks thorny questions that politicians and CEOs look decreasingly equipped to answer. Who gets a vaccine, and who doesn’t? Who gets locked down, and who doesn’t? Who is an essential worker? How will I pay my rent? Will the hospital admit me?
As many have remarked over the last year and a half, COVID is a great revealer and exploiter of social fault lines and economic inequalities. Insecure workers employed across multiple low-wage casual positions helped spread the outbreaks in Melbourne and Sydney. Over-reliance on international student revenues crippled universities when borders closed. Sky-high rents and poor tenant protections highlighted the scandal of Australia’s housing market. Australia’s expensive, dangerous and privatised aged care sector nearly buckled under the strain of keeping residents alive in the crisis. As the pandemic proves, when one part of our society is vulnerable, we are all at risk.
COVID’s most important warning is one that our ruling elites are, for obvious reasons, largely incapable of heeding: rising social dislocation driven by rampant inequality. For plutocrats like former Fortescue CEO Nev Power, the man Morrison tapped to lead the ‘COVID Coordination Commission‘, any problems could simply be solved by more fossil fuel extraction. To add insult to insecurity, Australia’s business and political class have feigned surprise at the lived reality of the low wage, low security labour force that their own policies have created. Salaried, high-income managers might grumble about conducting Zoom meetings from the kitchen table, but casualised migrant workers trapped in high-cost rental housing have no choice but to work if they are to feed and shelter their families.
In desperate times, a desperate Coalition threw away the rule book and implemented an astonishing short-lived COVID welfare state. Josh Frydenberg and the Reserve Bank opened the spigots on a firehose of fiscal and monetary stimulus. JobKeeper and its ancillary spending programs tipped hundreds of billions of dollars into the economy, money that propped up business balance sheets, kept workers employed, and provided critical income support. For a time in mid-2020 in Australia, we had free child care, a universal wage subsidy, and a guaranteed minimum income. The COVID supplement that paid welfare recipients a liveable income was the largest anti-poverty measure in Australian history. It should be considered a triumph of Keynesian theory, but I suspect few will see it that way.
It is not yet understood how destabilising Frydenberg’s COVID welfare state may prove for Australian conservative politics. But the seeds of a whirlwind have been sown. The pandemic demonstrated the need for government action: for public health, for vaccines, for income support. For those prepared to pay heed, JobKeeper proved that fiscal stimulus works, and that giving people money can genuinely address their material needs. The success of JobKeeper and the COVID supplement have shown convincingly that government spending can solve social problems. No wonder Frydenberg and Morrison are backpedalling from the stimulus spending as fast as possible.
The horrifying success of the stimulus program is no doubt why Morrison and Frydenberg declared victory over the recession in May’s budget, eliminating the wage subsidy and the increased welfare measures as soon as they could. Little thought was given to future outbreaks. But while he got rid of JobKeeper and the COVID supplement, Frydenberg put no alternative income support measures in place. As a result, both Victoria and then New South Wales were forced to beg for federal assistance when Delta struck. Genuine economic hardship is surely one of the key factors underlying the explosion of anti-lockdown protests in late July, as economic restrictions in Sydney and Melbourne stretch on, this time without robust federal income support for affected workers and businesses.
The big anti-lockdown protests of July seemed to surprise pundits and media commentators (tellingly, both NSW and Victoria Police were well prepared). COVID has provided the perfect fuel to an already raging fire of popular mystification driven by cross-cutting currents of social media, conspiracy theory and post-enlightenment distrust of science. As is the way of our post-modern discourse, we have seen the birth of thousands of instant quasi-experts. Ordinary citizens now find themselves examining Lancet articles and WHO communiques for ways to make sense of our bewildering new reality. It is natural to seek out reassurance in a rolling disaster, but the search is complicated by very contemporary trends of misinformation and mass hysteria. Citizens can now organise using modern peer-to-peer tools like Facebook and Telegram, building parallel epistemic communities based on the rejection of dominant narratives around the safety of vaccines, public health measures and the virus itself.
Anti-vax movements, COVID denialism and sovereign citizenry the public face of this growing irrationalism. To those who have studied the rise of QAnon, wellness and anti-vax movements, these violent marches would come as no surprise. As historians can tell us, faith in science is itself a defining modern condition; backlashes against industrialised medicine have long antecedents in western culture, going back generations. So-called ‘medical mistrust‘ has roots in well-documented abuses by twentieth century governments and doctors, including unethical experiments, forced sterilisations and out-and-out eugenics. Discourses around ‘choice’, ‘bodies’ and ‘health’ cross left-right divides and draw liberally from protest traditions across the political spectrum. We should expect to see ‘freedom’ protests continue as long as public health restrictions endure.
‘Plandemic’ conspiracists and freedom-loving protestors highlight an age-old problem in crisis response: the problem of expert knowledge. The dilemma is wicked, and potentially insoluble. We need experts. They know more about important topics than ordinary citizens and vote-chasing politicians. But experts are human, and therefore fallible. Modern history is littered with battles lost by generals and recessions brought on by central bankers. Avoidable mistakes by expert engineers caused the meltdown at Chernobyl and the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.
Some experts got it wrong about COVID. Expert advice from Anders Tegnell, the chief epidemiologist in Sweden, allowed a devastating first wave to claim thousands of preventable deaths that locked down neighbouring countries avoided. In the US, the Centre for Disease Control botched the manufacture of COVID testing swabs, and the US response faltered between excellent advice from the National Institutes for Health’s Anthony Fauci and the chaos of the late Trump administration. The UK response has been marred by rampant politicisation by the Johnson administration of the health advice from the supposedly impartial ‘SAGE’ group of expert advisors.
In comparison, Australia has been well served by its public health advisors, with both federal and state public health experts getting most of the big calls right. Importantly, Australia has stayed the course on virus suppression. We have so far managed to ignore the siren call of ‘herd immunity’, and continued a viable strategy, from both a social and economic perspective, of driving down viral transmission through testing, tracing, isolation and mobility restriction.
Inevtiably, much has been said of the Commonwealth’s advisory group on vaccines, ATAGI. The advisory group changed their risk profile on the Astra Zeneca vaccine for people under 60 years old after evidence emerged of a link to a rare but potentially lethal blood clotting disorder, particularly affecting younger recipients. ATAGIs advice has been blamed by Morrison for the hesitancy of many Australians to get the AZ jab. The criticism is all the more ironic given that it was Morrison himself who did much to stoke the confusion, holding a late-night media conference trumpeting ATAGI’s decision.
The ATAGI advice on the AZ vaccine was technically correct within its narrow parameters: in terms of the mathematical modelling, the risk to under 60s from blood clots could indeed be shown to outweigh the risk of contracting COVID given Australia’s relatively low rates of infection at the time. However, low infection rates were never guaranteed to remain constant, as the current outbreak shows, and as ATAGI acknowledges. The broader social impacts of limiting AstraZeneca vaccination were not considered. Nor was the expert group asked to make a judgment on whether its own advice might contribute to vaccine hesitancy.
The unpalatable reality is that no mathematical model can predict complex socio-political behaviour in a crisis. Random events can have unpredictable consequences. For instance, the Sydney limousine driver whose infection seeded the current outbreak was not wearing a mask … because NSW Health measures did not require him to. As Sydney’s winter outbreak worsened, New South Wales Health Minister Brad Hazzard plaintively begged for more Pfizer vaccines, ATAGI made further changes to its advice, and the state moved to open up mass vaccination centres for AZ for under-40s.
In Australia, suppression has won the policy debate, but a glance at the situation in the UK and the US shows that this was not inevitable. Boris Johnson’s quixotic ‘Freedom Day’ comes as the UK records 50,000 new cases a day, and hospitals are once again flooded with severe cases of COVID, while in the US the Delta variant is sweeping through poorer states like Missouri and Alabama, where it seems especially dangerous amidst demographics that remain unvaccinated, like poorer workers, rural citizens and Republican voters.
Australia’s ultimate fate may end up looking somewhat similar to the US and UK. In both countries, impressive vaccination drives have not reached deep pockets of poverty and hesitancy, leaving vulnerable populations through which the Delta variant is now raging. Of course, Australia is unlikely to opt for the madness of Boris Johnson’s celebratory unmasking. But at current vaccination rates, freedom from the virus looks very distant indeed. And even a mostly vaccinated population will retain concentrations of vulnerability.
Beyond the latest waves, however, lies a darker future in which COVID is simply an endemic illness. Once again, we are going to have to learn what endemic infectious disease means for a society and economy. There is no real upside in this scenario. Big investments in public health and vaccine boosters will eventually help a level of normality return. But society may never again truly ‘open up’ in the way we thought was normal before December 2019. Of course, people will still travel, and party, and dance—especially rich people. But people will also get sick more often. Health inequalities will worsen. For the unvaccinated, the immunocompromised and the vulnerable, the world will be a much more dangerous place. There might be more freedom from lockdowns, but there will be less freedom from disease, especially for the vulnerable. Like tuberculosis, malaria and plague across the centuries, humanity will indeed have to learn to live with Coronavirus, and the cost will be told in human suffering.
But a future of endemic COVID is not the worst fate that can befall us. There is still time for Australia to repeat the folly of nations like India and the UK, and open up too early. Lockdowns are annoying and demoralising, but they do drive down viral transmission. If restrictions are removed too quickly, Delta can still rip through our community, potentially killing thousands. What’s worse than ‘living with the virus’? Dying from it.
Ben Eltham is a journalist and researcher. He lectures in the school of media, film and journalism at Monash University.