July 22, 2021

COVID-19

On the politicisation of lockdowns

By Russell Marks

Sky News host Alan Jones. Image via Sky News

How much responsibility does Rupert’s right bear for the spread of the Delta variant?

This week, three Australian capital cities are under strict lockdown orders as authorities battle to control the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant of COVID-19. And, true to form, Rupert’s right has been whipping itself into a lather. Sky News host Paul Murray says the “overall issue” that needs addressing is the state premiers’ “obsession” with eradicating the virus. “They are going to crush the living hell out of businesses,” an incensed Campbell Newman told Peta Credlin this week.

“Rupert’s right” is what I’m calling the collection of self-styled conservatives who have congregated in echo chambers on the opinion pages of The Australian, News Corp’s tabloids, Sky After Dark and in Spectator Australia. The last is owned by a company registered in an offshore tax haven rather than by one associated with Rupert Murdoch, though its style and contributors are similar enough for it to warrant at least honorary membership. For well over a year now, Rupert’s right has unleashed fury each time a state premier announces temporary restrictions to control the spread of COVID-19.

In August last year, Andrew Bolt identified two “weaknesses” that Australian politicians had fallen for: a “desperate hope that a vaccine will soon save us” and a “fake sentimentality”, which ostensibly prioritises the safety of the elderly above the economic and mental health needs of the young. “These weaknesses mean we’ve been fighting new virus outbreaks with brutal bans that will cause horrific pain if they go on much longer,” Bolt declared. Since then, the Herald Sun columnist and Sky presenter has only become more certain that the primary corona-problem is the lockdowns. Each premier who calls a snap lockdown – whether for three days or seven, in response to community transmission of COVID-19 – cops hellfire from Rupert’s right.

One of their tactics is to use inflammatory words that clearly don’t fit any reasonable assessment of the situation. The Australian’s Adam Creighton tweeted last August that an “effective dictatorship” had been declared in Victoria, where the “devastating, destructive power of the state” was “on full display”. “What’s the point in being alive if you can’t live?” he asked rhetorically. “Dictator Dan” has become a favourite moniker for the Victorian premier, but this sort of provocative bluster is a kind of reverse doublespeak, employed to undermine the “socialist” Labor governments in Victoria and Queensland.

Most premiers and chief ministers, guided by expert advice and empirical experience in Victoria last year and overseas, have managed to ignore the frothings of Rupert’s right. For Terry McCrann, business journalist and columnist, that’s merely evidence that “every state and territory and so the entire nation by default has been under the iron grip of a cabal of CHOs”. The chief health officers, apparently, are blindly pursuing their single goal – elimination – and the premiers are letting them, regardless of the costs to the economy and to mental health.

Australia is presently sitting at 189th (out of 220) on the rankings of COVID-19 cases per capita, and 166th in terms of deaths per capita. Of the 38 members of the OECD, only New Zealand has a more impressive record. Like Australia, New Zealand has pursued eradication by combining strict border closures with quarantine measures and localised lockdowns. One could be forgiven for assuming this is an envious position. Indeed, other countries’ authorities are regularly criticised for not pursuing antipodean-style eradication. Australia’s success in controlling the spread is at least part of the reason we’ve received so few doses of the Pfizer vaccine: most other countries are much higher priorities, at least while vaccines remain scarce.

So it’s worth asking, as a close friend did recently in a group chat I’m involved in: “Can you guys explain to me what Bolt, Jones etc are advocating instead of a lockdown in Sydney and Melbourne and Adelaide?”

The fruits of the alternative approach can be seen in places that have tried to avoid lockdowns. Britain infamously delayed locking down for two weeks in March 2020, during which COVID-19 went rampant. Even after governments were given emergency powers to enforce stay-at-home rules, Boris Johnson’s government refused to close international borders until June, citing economic damage. The country has never regained control. Following a third lengthy lockdown this year, restrictions have been gradually lifted since March – causing the virus to spread again. By July 19 – “Freedom Day” in Johnson’s propaganda – Britain was well and truly in the middle of a full-blown third wave, though this time with the much more potent Delta strain on the loose. Britain’s death rate per population is more than 50 times greater than Australia’s.

But Alan Jones – on his nightly hour-long Sky News show, and in his weekly Daily Telegraph column – maintains that numbers like this have a distorting effect. “In a world of 7.7 billion people, not quite three million have died – 0.389 per cent of the population,” he says, though the actual fatality rate is closer to 0.0389 per cent. Australia’s death rate is just 0.003 per cent: 910 people had died by April, compared with the hundreds who die every year from influenza. The right’s aim, as it says over and over again, is to keep the virus “in perspective”.

That was what Terry Barnes – the author of Spectator Australia’s “Morning Double Shot” newsletter – was urging the NSW premier to do as COVID-19 cases began surging in Sydney during the second half of June. A Bondi resident tested positive to the Delta variant on June 16. NSW authorities published exposure sites and encouraged testing. But they didn’t lock down, even as the number of new cases rose to four the following day, then to 10 on June 22 and 11 on June 24. “Ms Berejiklian continues to resist increasingly strident calls by public health boffins … to lock the place down,” Barnes wrote approvingly then. It was in vain. When the so-called Bondi cluster grew to 65 on June 25, NSW authorities eventually locked down four local government areas. They extended the lockdown the next day to cover greater Sydney, the Blue Mountains, the Central Coast and Wollongong.

But Berejiklian and her government had acted too late. The Delta variant was spreading, and fast. By July 9, as the number of daily new cases ticked past 50, Terry Barnes bemoaned the political injustice of it all. “It’s unfair, but Dan [Andrews] could be re-elected in a landslide while Gladys gets the boot,” he wrote, though there’s no election due in either state until the end of next year. He described Berejiklian as a premier “who has kept NSW going without the blunt assaults on personal liberty … that have been first resorts for Andrews and other premiers”. He was even more worried the following day: “The longer this goes on, the more Berejiklian sounds like Victoria’s Daniel Andrews in drag.” To remove any doubt about where he stood, Barnes called Berejiklian “our Glad”.

But Barnes had his history dead wrong. Victoria’s own 112-day lockdown between July and October last year was itself the result of delayed action. The cluster burst out of hotel quarantine on 13 June 2020 and quickly took hold in Melbourne’s northern suburbs. A week later, the Andrews government was still talking about easing more of its first-wave restrictions. On June 23, Victoria’s chief health officer, Brett Sutton, was continuing to defend the state’s non-pursuit of elimination. As numbers rose exponentially, the Andrews government refused growing expert calls to lock down. The first lockdowns – of 10 postcodes only – weren’t implemented until midnight on July 1, by which time the number of new daily cases was over 70 and trending up. By then, the virus had been spreading for well over two weeks, and was out of control. Infamously, Victoria’s new cases reached 700 (on August 4) before the numbers began trending down.

But it’s this very “obsession” with reporting COVID-19 case numbers and deaths that’s preventing a reasonable response, according to Rupert’s right. “We must learn to live with it,” Bolt intoned at the beginning of February, just as we now live with influenza. If media outlets fixated on each new recorded flu case – and flu death – we’d be horrified and terrified. After all, influenza kills hundreds of Australians every year. There’s some truth to this. In time, as most of us are vaccinated, and as the novel coronavirus itself mutates into less deadly strains, we will learn to “live with it”. But in its quest to be contrarian, Rupert’s right stubbornly ignores some key facts. COVID-19 is about 10 times deadlier than the deadliest flu strains. Right now, the variants are becoming more dangerous, not milder. And we have very little idea of its long-term effects.

Rupert’s right has been extraordinarily successful in politicising lockdowns, despite abundant evidence that they’re the only response proven to control and prevent the spread of COVID-19. Vaccines may also achieve that aim, but we won’t know that for at least six months. And while the main core of Rupert’s right – including Bolt, Jones and Murray – endorse vaccination, their corporate platforms have provided significant airtime for some of Australia’s highest-profile anti-vaxxers, like Pauline Hanson and Clive Palmer. This is especially true of Sky News Australia’s digital edition, which has pursued (and achieved) commercial success by peddling conspiracy content via YouTube and Facebook. Sky’s TV ratings may be dwarfed by 7.30, but Sky is Australia’s most popular social media network by a long way.

Somehow, Rupert’s right has convinced itself that lockdowns are left-wing, possibly because they bear a striking resemblance to what they imagine to be the Green agenda, which involves shutting down industry in the pursuit of the fake goal of cutting CO­2 emissions. The choice Rupert’s right pretends governments have – whether to lock down or not – simply doesn’t exist. Each time governments in OECD countries have delayed locking down in response to an emerging cluster, they’ve been forced to lock down harder and for much longer later. The real choice for governments in the world before herd immunity and less deadly strains – i.e. that currently facing Australian governments – is between short, preventive lockdowns and very long reactive lockdowns. It’s the latter that have the direst consequences for business and mental health.

Berejiklian’s government must have known all this. But through its organs – The Daily Telegraph, The Australian, Sky News Australia, Spectator Australia – Rupert’s right has convinced a significant proportion of Liberal voters in New South Wales that lockdowns are unnecessary, wasteful and socialist. Berejiklian blinked, and instead of shutting down for a week, Sydney is staring down the prospect of a second and third month under stage-four restrictions. Does Rupert’s right bear any responsibility?

 

An earlier version of this article stated that the death of 3 million people in a world of 7.7 billion people amounts to a fatality rate of 0.389 per cent. The actual figure is closer to 0.0389 percent. The original error was made by Alan Jones, and we erred in not fact-checking him.

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an honorary research associate 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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