The coronavirus pandemic was meant to bring Australians together. Instead it has divided us and it could prove fatal, says Joe Hildebrand.
The coronavirus pandemic was meant to bring Australians together. Instead it has divided us and it could prove fatal, says Joe Hildebrand.

'The COVID-19 blame game could be deadly'

OPINION

We tell ourselves that times of crisis unite us - the corona crisis even has its own slogan: "We're all in this together."

But they don't and we're not. Sweden is in something very different to New Zealand and Victoria is in something very different to the rest of Australia.

In theory this makes no sense. We are all advanced Western liberal democracies, supposedly based on reason and secular values, and coronavirus has no politics.

For all its mystery and complexity, this is a threat that ought to have a common solution based in science and fact, devoid of partisanship or demarcation disputes.

Pandemics rarely adhere to fine speeches or fine print.

In other words, we were supposed to have our best minds all working together to produce the best solution. To quote the Highlander, in whatever the hell accent he was supposed to have, "There can be only one."

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison brought all state and territory leaders together in an effort to forge a consistent approach to tackle the pandemic. Picture: Gary Ramage/NCA NewsWire
Prime Minister Scott Morrison brought all state and territory leaders together in an effort to forge a consistent approach to tackle the pandemic. Picture: Gary Ramage/NCA NewsWire

This was the philosophical underpinning of the National Cabinet established to combat the virus in Australia.

Bruised by his savaging over the bushfire crisis and his long-regretted lu'au, the PM brought all state and territory leaders together in an effort to forge a cohesive and consistent approach to tackling a far more complex and deadly enemy.

But the fig leaf almost immediately fell away from the fire hose.

Canberra, which bears primary responsibility for the economy, was obviously most concerned with the economic impact.

The states, which bear primary responsibility for healthcare, were obviously most concerned with the health impact.

And so two paths which should have been intertwined instantly diverged.

Schools, which are vital to both children and working parents, were declared safe by the Federal chief medical officer, but states shut them down anyway out of both an abundance of caution and political pressure from panicked parents and teachers.

From there, states executed wave after wave of shutdowns and lockdowns that went beyond the official National Cabinet advice while the Federal Government footed the bill for the masses of job losses that ensued.

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What should have been a single body charting a consensus response that balanced the health and economic impacts of the virus instead became a game of cat and mouse, with the states racing ahead and the feds trying to keep pace.

The result was that the states - especially Victoria - effectively pursued an elimination strategy in defiance of Australia's official approach of a suppression strategy.

This led to great public confusion and conflict as to what we were actually doing, culminating in torturous statements like this ABC News report after a National Cabinet meeting on July 24. "National Cabinet has doubled down on its commitment to a coronavirus suppression strategy, with acting chief medical officer Paul Kelly saying Australia's 'ultimate goal' is to have no cases of community transmission."

Not since "continuity with change" - the satirical slogan from TV show Veep that was inadvertently adopted by Malcolm Turnbull - has a sentence tried to capture so much while saying so little.

Indeed, it sounded more like the mission statement of Monty Python's Spanish Inquisition: "Our chief weapon is surprise … surprise and fear … fear and surprise … Our two weapons are fear and surprise … and ruthless efficiency … Our three weapons are fear, and surprise, and ruthless efficiency … and an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope … Our four … no … Amongst our weapons … Amongst our weaponry … are such elements as fear, surprise … I'll come in again."

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New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern during a COVID-19 response update. Picture: NZ Herald/Mark Mitchell
New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern during a COVID-19 response update. Picture: NZ Herald/Mark Mitchell

The cruellest part is that the states and territories did in fact come tantalisingly close to the Shangri-La of full elimination but then we know what happened in Victoria and now we know what's happened in New Zealand.

And this is exactly why Australia pursued a suppression strategy in the first place.

Elimination requires massive short-term pain that is theoretically vastly outweighed by the long-term gain - freedom within the elimination zone.

The problem is if it doesn't work then you are back to square one and even if it does work you have still shut yourself off to the outside world.

New Zealand has learnt both these lessons the hard way. Its number one export is tourism - more than 20 per cent of its total export market - but that has been wiped out with the stroke of a pen. And now because the virus was never fully eliminated anyway Auckland is in lockdown again.

The prospect of elimination also leads to complacency. In Victoria authorities were reportedly so confident of elimination they cut down on contact tracing and we all know how that ended up.

But it was not just that. The most basic procedures - things any layman would instinctively do - were inexplicably missed or muddled by both state and federal authorities at both the first and last lines of defence: hotel quarantine and aged care.

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Australia’s COVID-19 blame has switched from NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian … Picture: Flavio Brancaleone/NCA NewsWire
Australia’s COVID-19 blame has switched from NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian … Picture: Flavio Brancaleone/NCA NewsWire

Of course mistakes are always forgivable in fighting an unknown enemy - indeed they are inevitable.

But both these critical areas already had perfectly formed tragic templates of everything not to do just north of the border: Ruby Princess and Newmarch House.

As Oscar Wilde's Lady Bracknell would say, to screw up one state is a misfortune. To screw up two looks like carelessness.

And so no lessons were learned and Victoria is now beset by the same state and federal blame game that beset NSW.

The list of revelations grows ever longer, from the bizarre denial by Dan Andrews that ADF help was on offer to the damning assertion in the aged care royal commission that federal authorities simply had no plan to combat coronavirus in the very setting they knew it was most deadly.

It is embarrassing and excruciating. Australia was once the envy of the world for pursuing a smart and centred middle-way that contained the coronavirus while not entirely killing our economy.

We should still be proud of what we've done but it now resembles less a threaded needle than a lucky pinball.

There is an old saying in politics that disunity is death. Few who said it thought it would one day be literally true.

Originally published as COVID-19 blame game could be deadly

Auckland has returned to a level 3 lockdown as COVID-19 infections once again start to grow. Picture: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images
Auckland has returned to a level 3 lockdown as COVID-19 infections once again start to grow. Picture: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images
… to her Victorian counterpart Daniel Andrews. Picture: Darrian Traynor/Getty Images
… to her Victorian counterpart Daniel Andrews. Picture: Darrian Traynor/Getty Images