The Politics    Monday, January 24, 2022

A matter of life and death

By Rachel Withers

Image of Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Barnaby Joyce’s gaffe points to a deeper issue with the government’s thinking

Australia has today recorded 58 deaths from COVID-19, following a painful string of “deadliest days” on record, bringing the pandemic death toll for 2022 to more than 900. So what on earth compelled the deputy prime minister to claim, on national radio this morning, that “people are not dying” from COVID-19? Asked whether we could really say we are the “envy of the world”, as other nations close their borders to us, Barnaby Joyce defended Australia’s pandemic record with the lazy claim, which was immediately rejected by host Patricia Karvelas, and for which he promptly apologised. Joyce’s gaffe was clearly a bungled attempt to deliver one of the government’s talking points: that our death toll remains relatively low by world standards. It is a line that government ministers have been hammering over the past week, with PM Scott Morrison and Health Minister Greg Hunt using the “low” fatality rate to deflect from the fact that Australia’s case numbers are now among the highest in the world per capita. But how can the Coalition so easily dismiss the hundreds of Australians who have died, some no doubt as a direct result of the government’s incompetent and ill-prepared reopening?

Joyce’s insensitive suggestion that “people are not dying” would have been a painful thing to hear for the many Australians who have lost a loved one to COVID-19 in the past few weeks. And it points to the flaw in the government’s general argument that not that many people are dying. Joyce’s thoughtless comment is the logical extension of the claim that these hundreds of deaths aren’t worthy of much thought, and are secondary to reopening the economy. It’s the same logic to be found in the media’s diligent reporting on the age and pre-existing conditions of those who have died, which have been compared to asking “what was she wearing?”, implying that these tragic deaths were somehow the victims’ fault. As shadow minister for aged care Clare O’Neil tweeted, there seems to be “some delusional corner” in the government’s mind where people really aren’t dying – surely that’s the only way the government could truly believe things were under control in the COVID-ravaged sector.

It’s true that Australia still has a relatively low cumulative national death toll. But that’s thanks mostly to state governments’ decisions and those who stayed home when necessary over the past two years, despite the federal government’s constant urging for states to open up, and despite the Commonwealth’s failure to procure and roll out, in a timely fashion, the vaccines necessary to reopening safely. The “look how well we’ve done” spin ignores the fact that Australia’s current weekly death rate is looking less and less world-leading (when the column on the left is set to “New deaths per 1M”, Australia is not near the bottom). And regardless of where exactly we sit on the international rankings that the government so loves to cherrypick from, it’s hard to ignore the fact that we have tumbled from such an enviable position, one we all worked so hard for, because the government decided to take a punt on Omicron. The number of people now dying from COVID in Australia is equivalent to a 737 crashing every three days, as Burnet Institute director Professor Brendan Crabb points out, making it a particularly insensitive time to be crowing about a low death toll.

As Joyce noted in his rush to correct himself this morning, “obviously, that is a tragic thing for anybody [to die] for any reason” (such as “for catching the flu”, he added, in his ongoing fumbling of the go-to lines). But where is the recognition from the government that each one of these premature deaths is a tragic thing, worthy of respect and mourning? In its eagerness to deflect blame, to act like nothing could have been done differently, the federal government has swept these deaths under the carpet, telling us how few there have been and how sick those people were anyway. Little wonder the deputy prime minister of Australia felt he could say, on morning radio, that “people are not dying”.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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