Australia desperately needs to start learning from others about covid
Australia overall has been extremely lucky with just how little the COVID pandemic has impacted many states.1 However not everywhere has faced the same impact, Victoria and particularly Melbourne was hard hit by a second wave of the virus. As I mentioned in the blog post about some cultural divergence based on geography starting to appear in Australia, the unequal impacts of the pandemic has caused a divergence of opinion on the topic.
A super frustrating thing started to happen when Melbourne was hit with a second wave. We got locked down in one of the most brutal lockdowns the world has seen. This effectively eliminated the virus in Victoria, but it came at a great cost. But the most depressing thing was not seeing the closure of small businesses here and the crushing of living standards, it was the complete and utter lack of any attempt from politicians in other states to learn from the situation in Victoria.2
Unfortunately "attack politics" is far easier than navigating the complexities of a public health issue with substantial consequences for the stability of our system of governance and the broader economy. So we saw some politicians, aided by the utterly toxic Murdoch media machine, start to politicize the issue and make it a state vs state issue. A frequent ploy in these cases was to invoke feelings of superiority for whatever location that politician's electorate happened to be based in. I remember clearly having a discussion with someone from SA many months ago and they were saying that "SA has handled this so much better than Victoria" when in reality it was just a combination of luck and media propaganda that had caused this particular position to be widespread. I remember feeling a sense of despair that people actually bought into the message that somehow their location had handled things better despite doing nothing to warrant such a conviction. It was just so brutally obvious that the complacency that this was breeding in people was making it far more likely for them to have problems later on. Luck doesn't last forever when you start doing repatriation flights and the problems inevitably started as soon as exposure to returning travellers increased:
First we had the SA "pizzagate" situation where a guard working at a quarantine facility was moonlighting working at a pizza store. The pizza store was then the site of an outbreak which threatened to shut the state down in a circuit-breaker type of lockdown. This "circuit breaker" 6 day lockdown was imposed because the contract tracers were apparently lied to by the quarantine worker who didn't tell them of their employment at the store. So the health public health officials had to conclude that this was a case of community transmission. The smugness was very quickly destroyed as people started to panic about the upcoming lockdown, people started queueing for groceries and started hoarding toilet paper again like we saw in early 2020. Thankfully the lockdown was cancelled after the moonlighting arrangement was discovered and the cases were linked by contact tracers. Hopefully the opportunity to learn here is seized, this shows the importance of making sure the quarantine workers do not work at any other jobs and shows the benefits that could have been gained by daily testing of quarantine workers and the benefits of making sure that the staff at these locations have integrity.
Then we had the situation where international travellers disembarked in Sydney Airport and managed to avoid quarantine and get on a flight to Melbourne, this comes after a similar event happened in July. This is the sort of situation where a bit of bad luck could have been a massive setback, but more importantly this entire situation should never had happened. And this comes after an earlier situation in the year where passengers on a domestic interstate flight from Melbourne to Sydney disembarked and immediately left the airport without staff being on hand at the terminal. Hopefully the opportunity to learn is not squandered here, this shows that improving staffing and procedures at the airports could be helpful. It might also be a chance to re-evaluate slack capacity in the system, a topic that's notoriously hard for western policy makers to address due to cultural reasons. Getting enough staffing capacity is entirely worth doing since it appears mistakes were made due to an outright shortage of staff in some cases and stretched capacity like doing double shifts (which happened recently) which is setting good workers up to fail for systematic reasons.
After hearing months of smug superiority directed towards the suffering people in Victoria from some politicians (a particularly cowardly and unpatriotic act I might add) the easy thing to do here would be to react with extreme snark by saying something like "you got what you deserved you moron politicians in [insert state here]" but these sentiments would be entirely counterproductive. We are all in this together as Australians. We have the extreme good fortune of good geography for dealing with this, our island nation with low population density combined with a spirit of getting shit done (that I dearly hope is not dead) will get us through this in amazing shape if only we can learn from the things that go wrong. We need to be learning from the mistakes made other states, and other countries, not repeating them ad especially not using them to score opportunistic political points. This sense of parochial "superiority complex" politics is as easy is it is damaging, you do nothing and just point at other states to make yourself look good when you are lucky, then dodge any blame when the inevitable problems start rolling in. But such demagoguery comes at a very high cost as we can easily see if we look further abroad to the countries that have gone this route elsewhere. We need to be calling people out who aren't taking any accountability and aren't preparing but are just deflecting and blaming, COVID - like any other virus - simply doesn't give a fuck what politicians have to say it's only our actions that will carry the day. If people can take a moment to step back from the emotional engagement, that the state vs state identity politics is stirring up, we will then have far more bandwidth free to deal with problems. By resisting this "us vs them" thinking with regards to the other states it will be so much easier to actually deal with the situation because the door will be far more open to learn from the other states mistakes and the other states successes. Really we are all in this together, the sooner everywhere gets its shit together the better for everyone in Australia. As a Victorian resident the very last thing I want to see is government incompetence somewhere else creating another brutal lockdown like we had here. Being able to really open up interstate travel is far more important than low level point scoring by politicians seeking to get one up on their neighbors.
This political situation is highly unfortunate because the pandemic is NOT a state vs state issue at all and it's something that all of Australia has to deal with. This pandemic presents both a serious health and a very serious political issue, and is something that we all need to take very seriously. Corruption and inaction followed by outbreaks is eroding the trust in the institutions of government in Australia, something that's going to make dealing with any further outbreaks increasingly harder. For example I don't think a 3rd lockdown in Melbourne can feasibly be done without a high level of incompliance or a permanent shift in the political landscape in the state of Victoria toward totalitarianism. Making sure that there's a competent response by government is perhaps more critical now than ever because the economic downturn that has been exacerbated by the pandemic has been a major stressor on the fabric of our society. As the economic situation deteriorates worldwide we will be faced with more pressure and a competent response to the pandemic might be a complete game changer for us. We avoided the worst impacts of the GFC and we might be able to avoid the worst impacts of the pandemic-recession to if we are able to have a good response.
Here's a far from comprehensive list of items that I suspect should be done, if they haven't been already, in response to the pandemic:
- Resolve the issues of PPE availability, I had a doctor tell me that they routinely had shortages at a major hospital.
- Ensure that there's a sufficient stockpile of PPE equipment to meet needs
- Ensure that the logistics supply chain can get that PPE equipment to the people that need it when they need it
- Fix the multitude of issues with staffing at quarantine facilities
- Test people working in quarantine facilities frequently (I can't believe this wasn't always done but apparently it wasn't according to my sources)
- Get skilled staff working in quarantine facilities, no more temp staffing agencies if they prove themselves to be incompetent
- Make sure that all quarantine staff only work at the one job and one location
- Hold staff accountable for misconduct, like the security guard that was sleeping with people at the quarantine location. Actions like the lies from the pizza shop moonlighter have to be dealt with, if people see inaction when an event like this happens it emboldens others to engage in misconduct while simultaneously eroding public trust.
- Investigate corruption when applicable
- Prioritize testing lab work for the quarantine staff and any front line workers who are at higher risk of exposure (this will help contact testing teams get faster and more relevant information to combat outbreaks)
- Improve inter state communications and co-operation
- Get a more consistent evidence based message between the states and the federal level. The damage done at the beginning when we had the federal government saying "go to the cricket" while the states were saying to stay at home eroded a lot of trust in the competence of government.
- Sort out the various recurring issues at the airports with disembarking passengers
- Fix processes like the one that allowed international travellers to get on a flight from Sydney to Melbourne without first going to quarantine.
- Schedule staff to be there at the gates for passengers disembarking. Hire more people for these jobs if there's not enough staff to meet such a schedule.
- Improve contact tracing efforts, including hiring more staff for these jobs if necessary.
- Don't have ad-hoc quarantine facilities situated in the middle of the most highly populated areas in Australia in the city centers. Especially so if the staffing issues at such places aren't improved dramatically.
- Create real legislation to deal with the pandemic and make sure that the emergency powers are no longer used for this purpose. The longer the emergency powers are used the more political damage to the system will accumulate, pandemics will be around for quite some time so we need to put things in place to deal with them within the system of laws we have without continuing to use the emergency powers route.
- Have far clearer guidelines for what restrictions are in place and what events will trigger those restrictions being enacted and perhaps more importantly guidelines for what will cause the restrictions to be eased.
- This includes guidelines on high risk activities such as cruises, which repeatedly are involved in outbreaks, even if they are "Cruises to nowhere"
- Get better guidelines for dealing with international ship based workers, as highlighted by the events at the Kwinana Port where the virus was spreading from the international crew who had docked at the port.
- Longer term, have a larger research capacity for people to research epidemiology and public health so that we are better prepared over the long term to deal with potentially dangerous future pandemics
There's other options that are more controversial that still don't seem to be on the table for whatever reason, including opening up locations like Christmas Island for processing high risk quarantine and helping speed up the repatriation of Australian citizens by improving capacity. There's an airport there that flights could use if needed and it could help in getting people home while balancing against other risks if those repatriation flights are coming in from high risk areas. The debate needs to move onto protecting the health of the population and the health of the political systems in this country. Both of these are at risk and we need to be talking about that instead of just slinging mud across the state borders.
People need to start thinking about the longer term game here, I know that a lot of politics in Australia operates on increasingly short-term thinking but this is a case where a longer term plan is entirely necessary.
Edit: looking back from 2023
I had this article in a draft since December 2020, I've learned a lot since I penned this draft and obviously the situation has changed enormously since then. I feel like retrospectively editing is more akin to censorship than people tend to acknowledge and writing about things as they happen is an important part of the process of recording history. If everything is just revised later then history is dead. So in the interests of preserving my thoughts from 2020 I've just added this section as an additional edit.
Looking over this again was a depressing read for a number of reasons. At the time in 2020 I had hoped that people would use the covid disruption as a chance to learn, but for the most part ignorance and petty politics remained supreme both at time time and also afterwards. The number of people who fell for political propaganda was truly mind blowing. After this post was written Melbourne had more rounds of draconian lockdowns in 2021 and the draconian response created enormous, and ongoing, economic damage to the local economy. I recently made a trip to Sydney which didn't have as many days of unjustifiable lockdowns and the economy there is fairing substantially better there although the recession has clearly started there too and people are talking about a slowdown there. Real estate occupancy in the Melbourne city center is less than 50% now, huge numbers of stores are closed, jobs have been destroyed. These numbers are so extreme that I feel clarifying is needed to show I haven't made a typographical error - more commercial real estate is sitting empty than is being used here. Longer term it is increasingly looking like more people will be killed from the pandemic response than the actual pandemic. I'm reminded of my time living in the rust belt, big economic recessions have big impacts on health. But those are mostly silent, these are things like deaths of despair and the collapse in people's health that happens when people see no reason to live. Unfortunately there is no such thing as a free lunch and economic crises do cost lives. Things like the fentanyl epidemic take many lives and these drug addiction epidemics are massively fueled by a backdrop of general despair combined with a lack of hope for the future. But just like the realities of these iatrogenic pandemics the realities of the economic damage is just not being talked about. And make no mistake the local economy is doing badly here, very badly.
The most depressing thing for me is that, at least so far, the average person seems to not have learned much from this episode. Even professionals in certain niches seem to have learned little. Issues like the staffing situations at the hospitals don't seem to be fixed. Many of the doctors and nurses who worked hard during the pandemic feel they were taken advantage of, and honestly everything seems to suggest that they probably were. Lots of talk was made about how medical staff were "supported" but in reality all that sounds a lot more like deliberate social engineering to pressure them along with a health does of gaslighting rather than real support. I know of many medical practitioners that left the field over their ongoing maltreatment, which importantly started long before 2020 but intensified during the pandemic. I also know of medical practitioners who just forgot the Hippocratic Oath entirely and forgot their training and instead just started doing whatever the media told them to do, unfortunately not all of these unethical doctors quit practicing and society hasn't reached a point where they are going to hold these people accountable. Well at least not yet, I'm reminded of just how long the Thalidomide scandal took to break, people were making horrendous decisions for years before the scandal finally went mainstream.
Then there's the whole thing about manufacturing. We still don't manufacture critical supplies here and are still facing supply chain problems. Politicians talk endlessly about "bringing manufacturing back home" but yet it mostly seems like empty talk, we still haven't got supply chain alternatives in place for many items. We still have a massive structural problem with employment here, which has led to huge under-employment yet we still do things like import foreign labor for fruit farms work.
I think part of why we have had so little learning is that many people really did enter into a state of mass-formation psychosis during the pandemic. And I mean this in a very clinical sense, after talking to many psychologists about this it was clear that many people were literally in an altered mental state during this time. Those same people are also frequently not looking back and learning from their psychotic episodes, which is unfortunate on many levels. Perhaps this is enabled by the permanent state of distraction many people live in these days. Frankly the overall quality of learning has tanked everywhere and on almost all topics, not just ones that are in the news. I did think a crisis this large would prompt people to reconsider various things, but it seems many never took the chance to reflect. Never have I seen a more one-sided and biased media coverage of an event in my life. During the pandemic fear-mongering was constant and unrelenting and fearful people don't make good long term decisions. This has manifested in enormous damage being done to the economy that will have very long term consequences. Modern economies are incredibly complex and are hard to maintain, they cannot survive with a populace that is not making good long term decisions. Reasoned discussion was discouraged and outright punished in 2020, and no good long term planning can exist without rational discussions. Discussing the costs of this event have been mostly silenced despite the costs growing. The silent deaths of despair from those who had lost everything are just not covered, even with the economic fallout growing. Only now that people are pulling out of the mass-formation psychosis is the sobering reality of the situation being realized in terms that are not emotionally loaded. Despite this many people still have their eyes closed and are remaining entirely ignorant when it comes to the state of the economy. Many people lost their livelihoods, people lost their businesses and many left the state permanently. But we live in an era where a state of emergency has been normalized, and permanent emergencies leave no room to reflect on the past. This in turn leaves no room for people to learn. The media has since pivoted to new crises and has almost entirely stopped talking about covid. The absolute turnaround in media coverage has been phenomenal, we went from constant daily talking about the pandemic including huge amounts of pressure on people to take various drugs like the Astra Zeneca shot to now where the Astra Zeneca shot has been discontinued by the government which has received almost zero media time. Remember when people used to say "I follow the science", notice how nobody says this now?
A steady stream of new crises are either rolling in (economy, wars, geopolitics, stagflation, etc) or are getting ready for public distribution (banking crisis, wars, hyperinflation, etc) right now. Quietly in the background the old covid crisis measures are quietly being repealed in many places with little to no coverage in the mainstream media. Many people are so caught up in the news cycle now that they are already onto the "new thing" whatever that happens to be.
It is important to note that this was written before the vastly less dangerous omicron strain spread and before the later draconian lockdowns happened. ↩
I'm embarrassed to have written this, expecting politicians to learn something that's in the publics interests if they have vested interests in competition is just not something to reasonably expect. Seeing the economic destruction was one of the worsts parts of the whole thing, and the extreme willful ignorance of this is probably what I was clearly identifying at the time from those who were interstate. In retrospect this wasn't a severe pandemic compared to what people were expecting and it was thus far more of a political exercise than it seemed on the surface at the time. It just happens to be far easier to see this in retrospect since a lot of details have leaked out since then. ↩
By Janis Lesinskis