March 18, 2020

Federal politics

Viral panic

By Russell Marks
Image of “wash hands” skywriting

Source: Twitter

On responding effectively to COVID-19 amid a deluge of conflicting information, and with a government we increasingly distrust

On February 26, Associate Professor Ian Mackay, a virologist at the University of Queensland, told 3AW’s Neil Mitchell that a coronavirus pandemic was inevitable. “The virus is too well entrenched in many countries around the world,” Mackay said. He told Mitchell’s listeners that their government had essentially failed to communicate to the country how to prepare. “It’s coming.”

Then Mackay offered some helpful advice. “Now is the time to buy a few extra things,” he said. “Think about your pets. Think about your parents and grandparents [and] how they’re going to go. Do they need medication? Should you talk to your doctor about getting a few extra prescriptions in the cupboard just in case? It’s pretty much to say what happens if your schools get closed and you’re stuck at home with your kids for a while or if people say you can’t go to work, we need to keep people at home for a while to slow down the spread of the virus. Are you set up at home to have some stuff for a couple of weeks to keep going? To have stuff to eat [like] canned food, dried food?”

But Mackay also said there was no need to panic. “There’s no point hoarding things or panic buying so that we empty the shelves,” he said. “We don’t need to do that. It’s just thinking ahead, buying a few extra groceries each week. Stocking up on a few things like toilet paper, just in case there are interruptions to supply – and that’s possible, depending on the size and severity of the pandemic.”

Mackay’s interview was written up on, one of Australia’s most popular news websites. “It’s coming”, screamed the headline. And while the article contained a sub-heading halfway down the page that implored readers not to “stockpile like a doomsday prepper”, the opening paragraph said it all: “A virologist at the forefront of coronavirus research has warned Australians to stock up on essentials to prepare for home quarantine and school and work closures when the new coronavirus sweeps through the country.”

So stock up we did. Panic buying hit the supermarkets in the wake of the article. Customers raced to stockpile hand sanitiser, Panadol, rice, tinned food and, of course, toilet paper. Mere weeks after the nation congratulated itself on the way it pulled together after the bushfires, desperate shoppers began wrestling each other for the last packs of toilet paper. Twitter, Facebook and evening news bulletins that had been showing walls of flame and eerie orange skies were suddenly full of images of empty shelves.

Even as we increasingly distrust our politicians, Australians have a very high level of trust in government – what sociologists call “domain legitimacy”. But Australians have been living under what, to many, seem like apocalyptic conditions since the beginning of summer, and our experience is that government – at least federally – has largely been MIA. When our news media gave us experts telling us that what our TV screens and social media feeds showed us happening in China, South Korea, Italy and Iran could soon happen in Australia, we were primed to take notice.

Empty supermarket shelves are a visceral reminder of just how tenuous our civilisation is. At any given time, our cities and towns and communities are about three days away from total chaos. Relatively small disruptions in supply and distribution chains can mean food shortages and mass panic. The bushfires threatened lives, and took them, but they didn’t threaten society in the way that a rampant virus can.

We’ve faced viral threats before. Short periods in my own lifetime have been punctuated by intense media coverage of, and occasional behaviour change around, “bird flu” or “avian influenza” (H5N1, from 1996–97), SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome, first identified in 2002–03) and “swine flu” (H1N1, in 2009–10). Bird flu can be very deadly to humans, if they contract it, but fewer than a thousand people have been infected in more than two decades. Swine flu was this century’s first pandemic, and came 90 years after the first global outbreak of H1N1, which killed perhaps 50 million people – or more – in the wake of World War One. As many as 1.4 billion people have so far contracted swine flu since the first case of human infection was documented in Mexico. Thankfully it proved far less deadly than the Spanish flu, and has killed a comparatively low 0.02 per cent of those it infected, though that still amounts to as many as 500,000 people so far – including as many as 1600 Australians. Between bird flu and swine flu sits SARS, which killed nearly one-tenth of the 8000 people it afflicted, though that outbreak never escaped beyond Asia and Canada like COVID-19 has.

It’s difficult to put much store in these comparisons, because the coronavirus pandemic is only 11 weeks old. Nobody can predict with any certainty how it will develop as it interacts with health, social and economic systems. So far, COVID-19 has travelled further and infected more people than SARS, but hasn’t been as deadly. Swine flu ended up infecting more than 700 million people worldwide, but the most Australia’s health authorities asked us to do in 2009–10 was to fill out a form when we returned from overseas and to stay home from school for a week if we were a student who had been to the Americas or Japan. Schools were given the option to close, though few did.

Early on, the official Australian advice, as determined by the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) chaired by the Chief Medical Officer, Brendan Murphy, was not all that different this time around, despite placing COVID-19’s likely severity unnervingly close to that of Spanish flu and SARS. Wash your hands, don’t get sneezed on, and avoid mass gatherings. The AHPPC’s emergency response plan, endorsed on February 17, makes it clear that specific public health responses like social distancing are matters for it to make recommendations about, but reminds stakeholders that Australia’s existing communicable disease arrangements – deployed and revised annually in response to seasonal influenza – are robust and well-tested.

Organisers of major events have responded well to the official advice. An interview I was conducting with Noni Hazlehurst at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre last Friday was interrupted so that she could be told her performances of Mother would be cancelled indefinitely, following the AHPPC’s advice that gatherings of more than 500 people should be avoided from Monday. Even before 500-person gatherings advice on Friday, Melbourne’s Grand Prix, the Australia–New Zealand one-day cricket series and MONA’s Dark Mofo were all cancelled. Since then, the cancellations have extended to the Super Rugby season, Bluesfest, Vivid, the Melbourne Comedy Festival, Sydney’s Royal Easter Show (for only the third time in its 197-year history), Anzac Day marches and more.

Australians are responding so keenly to COVID-19, in fact, that we’ve been going out well in front of the official guidelines. Many of us had stopped shaking hands well before we were officially told to on Sunday evening. Advice to avoid large crowds has transmogrified into reason to avoid all unnecessary social contact.

Either the official advice has been inadequate – and there’s certainly been no shortage of experts prepared to make this claim – or Australians are overreacting. The spread of the coronavirus is happening in a world of hollowed-out newsrooms that need to stretch across multiple 24-hour platforms and compete with the urgency of Twitter pile-ons, in which our approach to risk is more conservative than ever. Australia’s commercial networks have often fallen back on reporting rumour, fear and panic.

Peter Collignon, director of the ANU’s Infectious Diseases Unit, was highly critical of both government press releases and media coverage of the swine flu pandemic: they “induced panic and undue fear”, which in turn led to hospitals being overwhelmed and ultimately to a shortage of drugs and equipment for those who needed them the most. The deadliest flu virus remains seasonal influenza, which kills as many as 3000 people in Australia every year. Is it possible that the dozens of doctors, statisticians, immunologists and virologists who are urging greater restrictions are themselves being drawn into a sense of urgency that belies the extent of the problem? Have the compounding second-by-second Twitter streams dropped us unwittingly into the plot of Outbreak?

On the other hand, there are places in China and Italy where entire populations are living that nightmare. In Italy, COVID-19’s fatality rate is nearing SARS levels yet is much more contagious. There, nearly 25,000 infections have been confirmed and nearly 2000 people have died so far. Why? Various explanations have been posited, including the country’s comparatively elderly population, but it’s likely that Italy simply acted too late to contain the spread. Many Australians who have self-isolated, cancelled small events and closed their offices have done so in anticipation of more restrictive official advice. Indeed, Scott Morrison brought the threshold of banned mass gatherings down from 500 to 100 this morning.

Much of the talk now – especially since graphics like this one have done the rounds of the internet – is about how to slow the inevitable contagion so as to not overwhelm public health systems. Hospital emergency departments are now planning ways to cope with a tripling in demand while a quarter of their medical staff are sidelined. The best way to slow the spread, say the experts, is to ask most people to stay home as much as possible, and to practice social distancing. But relying on this advice can be fraught, and confusing. Should schools close too? Or should they stay open, because the infection seems to be less severe in children though they may spread it more readily than adults, and keeping them home could mean they’re more likely to pass the virus onto their much more vulnerable grandparents?

In the absence of official advice to escalate our preventive response, we’ve been doing it anyway. Schools and universities are very much at the forefront of what is now a tsunami of institutional closures. Even where schools haven’t closed, many spooked parents have struggled to accept the official advice and have withdrawn their children anyway. Many workplaces are also going out ahead of the official advice. These are big decisions, being made on public health grounds by principals, managers, boards and parents without the sanction of a public health authority and with no end in sight.

Australians are looking for leadership, as Donald Horne declared during the years of the Howard government. He was mostly talking about moral leadership, though there’s a sense that we’d settle for almost any kind now. But amid all the lamentations about the ungovernability of a world ruled by Twitter, Daniel “because it’s the right thing to do” Andrews – who has taken over the political leadership of Victoria’s response to COVID-19 from his gaff-prone health minister, Jenny Mikakos – and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Adern are providing models of leadership most Australians wish existed at the federal level. There, Scott Morrison has been late to assert his leadership credentials after his spectacular failures during the bushfires. But federal cabinet appeared to claim special rules for itself when it avoided self-quarantine after Peter Dutton tested positive following a trip to the United States. Leading by example has not been one of this government’s strengths.

This morning, at long last, Morrison declared that schools should stay open, explaining that the risks to the health system of requiring parents to stay home would be too great. He also declared the hoarding of food and supplies to be “un-Australian”, and implored people to stop it. Whether he retains enough moral authority for people to heed what he says remains to be seen.

The coronavirus has succeeded where all else had failed, though, in finally prompting the Morrison government to abandon the surplus – a nonsensical economic measurement – and adopt a Kevin Rudd–style stimulus package to prompt consumer spending. Income-support recipients, who (because they need to) are among the most likely to spend a windfall rather than save it, will receive a one-off $750 payment. Most businesses will also get cash injections. Economists had been urging such a package for a very long time, and until COVID-19 Morrison’s government remained committed to a surplus, even if it dragged Australia into recession. The economic impact of the virus will be massive, however – especially if nobody’s going outside – and these one-off payments will need to be repeated, and expanded.

There’s no sense, though, that COVID-19 is having any effect at all on Australia’s ongoing commitment to bureaucratic rigidity when it comes to people who need the most flexibility. Centrelink’s $750 “coronapayment”, of course, will be quarantined on cashless welfare cards for those forced to use them. Aboriginal people required to attend group activities as part of their work-for-the-dole arrangements have been told to keep showing up or risk having their payments suspended. Legal Aid Queensland has taken the extraordinary step of withdrawing its face-to-face duty lawyer services, so people in custody are unlikely to have much access to a lawyer. And there won’t be anything like Iran’s temporary release of 70,000 prisoners here, even though our prisons are full of people with heart disease and chronic health conditions, including staggeringly high proportions of Aboriginal people.

It’s impossible to know how COVID-19 will play out – clinically, socially, economically – or whether social and other media is helping or hindering by causing Australians to go out in front of official advice. My 94-year-old grandmother, who is among those most at risk, gave me her own take on Saturday, no doubt motivated by her experience of dodging air raids in wartime London: “Life must go on.” That it must, of course, though it is likely to look rather different this winter.

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an adjunct research fellow at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015). 

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