The Politics    Thursday, September 2, 2021

The grim tweeter

By Rachel Withers

Image of Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk speaking in Queensland Parliament yesterday. Image via Facebook

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk speaking in Queensland Parliament yesterday. Image via Facebook

Does Australia need to have a conversation about an acceptable national death toll?

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has sparked fresh controversy with her latest pushback against the “national plan”, including a misleading use of the Doherty Institute figures. After yesterday calling for further research into how COVID-19 will spread among unvaccinated children, while suggesting that she might keep her border closed until kids are vaccinated, Palaszczuk has today doubled down, telling the state parliament she wanted a detailed paper about the effects of the Delta strain on children. She then tweeted out dramatic death rates she claimed the modelling “predicts” six months into an outbreak, under the NSW “model”: 80 deaths per day, or 2240 per month. These latest comments – from the same state that brought you “young people shouldn’t take AstraZeneca or else they might die” – has sparked widespread frustration, with Palaszczuk accused of “scaremongering” and intentionally misrepresenting the modelling. There is no doubt that the Queensland premier is being alarmist here, as the dramatic figures are based on minimal restrictions and only partially effective TTIQ capabilities (test, trace, isolate and quarantine). This is far from what is being planned, even in freedom-happy NSW. But could her inflammatory use of the numbers have a purpose in triggering a conversation about what exactly is the acceptable death toll? The other side of this debate, in refusing to share or even talk about worst-case scenarios, may be keeping Australians in the dark about what is to come. Just how many deaths are governments – both state and federal – willing to accept? And what will the public accept?

Palaszczuk’s latest comments have been widely condemned, and the federal government was quick to call her out for fearmongering. (And her remarks conveniently play into the Morrison government’s attempts to depict Labor as fearful and unreasonable when it comes to opening up the country.) In today’s federal COVID press conference, Health Minister Greg Hunt noted that the “selective misuse” of the modelling “breaches good faith and damages public confidence”, and he pushed back against the suggestion that children had not been considered in the plan, insisting they were not at great risk from the virus.

Meanwhile, federal Labor figures, who have been working to shake off the perception (enabled by Queensland and WA) that Labor is “against the plan”, were asked about Palaszczuk’s comments throughout the day. Labor leader Anthony Albanese, attempting to hold a doorstop to talk about his proposed defence force review, refused to be drawn on whether the premier was out of line, stating that he supported the plan but that more work was needed on how and when children were going to be vaccinated. (“We do need to open up when it is safe to do so”, he added.) Shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers, a Queenslander himself, also refused to say that the comments were scaremongering, saying only that the premier was reflecting genuine anxiety within the community.

There is no doubt that Palaszczuk is cherrypicking from the Doherty Institute modelling (as everyone is wont to do, it seems), painting an alarming portrait of what life would be like if the nation reopened at the 70 per cent threshold, and at the same time pushing for the threshold to be higher and to include children. As Guardian Australia’s Katharine Murphy has pointed out, the figure in question (80 deaths per day after six months at a 70 per cent vaccination rate) does come from the modelling, but it’s based on a scenario where only a partial TTIQ regime is in place (something that could very well happen, if cases rise beyond the capacity of the contact-tracing system, as they seem to be doing in NSW). The modelling, Murphy notes, doesn’t actually make forecasts; it only lays out different scenarios, with the number of deaths in the first six months varying from 13 to 1457 depending on inputs. But ultimately that raises a question, one that the federal and NSW governments don’t seem to want to answer: what number are we aiming for, and what restrictions are we willing to leave in place to achieve that? NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian spends a great deal of time talking about the need to come to terms with COVID deaths, claiming she is leading the debate and being brave and honest enough to say difficult things. But how many deaths is she actually talking about? It’s not particularly brave or honest to talk about death in the abstract, while refusing to acknowledge the actual numbers and how those numbers will be affected by different courses of actions. (A reminder here that Berejiklian won’t even reveal the worst-case scenario predicted for October.)

Palaszczuk has rightfully copped a lot of flak for her inflammatory numbers – numbers that are most likely beyond what even Josh “open up by Christmas or else” Frydenberg would accept (although it’s hard to say, with the treasurer still refusing to guarantee support for future lockdowns under any circumstances). But perhaps her provocative tweet can provoke a proper conversation about what is actually coming next – what death toll is realistic, what death toll is acceptable, and what are we willing to sacrifice to keep the toll acceptable. While polls have been quizzing voters on what they think of the national plan and the importance of ending of lockdowns, Guardian Australia’s Essential Poll is the only one that has so far checked with Australians about what level of death they would countenance, with the majority (61 per cent) preferring that it stays under 100 per year. Berejiklian, the woman who is supposedly leading us out of this, has talked about the need to start focusing not on case numbers, but on deaths. So let’s start talking about them.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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