COVID19 and the Path to Pragmatic Acceptance

Written by:
26 August 2020
COVID19 and the Path to Pragmatic Acceptance - Featured image

In Victoria there has been a furious reaction to the casual announcement by the Premier, Daniel Andrews, that he would recall Parliament in order to seek an extension to the powers to make orders under the State of Emergency, which otherwise would be limited to six months.

In our polarised society the political debate swiftly resolved into two main camps

  1. Daniel Andrews and his Chief Medical Officer, Brett Sutton, have made nothing but good decisions and should be allowed to continue to make them; or
  2. they have abused the extraordinary powers given to them under the State of Emergency to implement disproportionate responses to the pandemic and cannot be entrusted with an extension of those powers.

I don’t agree with position (1) and I would happily  identify with position (2), but I want to pause for a moment to say that there could be reasonable people out there who would agree with the first statement while not supporting what Andrews now seeks to do. That what Andrews did was right and proper, but that we now need to change direction.

To frame that idea I am going to quote extensively from the Dean of Medicine at the University of Melbourne, Professor Shitij Kapur, because while the “sensible middle” might not agree with me, they might agree with him (being an expert and all).

I do not say that he has a public position on what Dan Andrews is currently seeking to do, but what he clearly did in the Australian Financial Review (AFR) on August 19 was say that we are at a crossroads. Elimination is now a highly unlikely outcome in Victoria, given the size of the recent outbreak. He said:

“Barring a miracle by September 13, it is thus likely that Victoria and Australia will have a Hobson’s choice: either impose an extension of strict lockdown in the search for elimination or, call for a loosening of restrictions in the presence of some continuing community infections and “mystery cases”.

And that is when we will need Plan C – the pragmatic acceptance that we cannot eliminate local transmission from Australia and will need to learn to live with the virus (emphasis added)”

This to me says that even someone who has supported the daily Dan and Brett show to date could now reasonably say the next twelve months should not look like the last six months. “Emergency” measures are just that – short term measures when speed is of the essence and the usual processes of Parliamentary deliberation should be suspended – whereas we are now in normal times.

However the Premier clearly believes it should be more of the same. The Herald-Sun reported thus:

“Speaking on Tuesday Mr Andrews said the new State of Emergency Bill was an “insurance policy” and that he hoped he did not have to use it, claiming “these restrictions will not be put in one day more than they are needed.”

He also ruled out using further measures than those that are currently in place.

“Ultimately we are all going to have to have some COVID-19 rules before we have a vaccine,” Mr Andrews said.

In the bid to calm opposition to the bill Mr Andrews said Stage 4 lockdowns and curfew would not continue under the change instead it related to ongoing enforcement and lower level restrictions.”

Essentially he prefers to keep emergency powers, and focus on enforcement and restrictions.  Professor Kapur, by contrast, want a new approach:

“In sports as in war, you change your strategy as you get to know your adversary better. Over the last six months and through Plans A and B we have learnt a lot about SARS CoV-2: how tenacious its infectiousness, how global its spread, how numerous the asymptomatic cases, how disproportionate its impact on people who are older or with existing health conditions.

We have also learnt how sensible measures – hand washing, use of masks, social distancing, testing-tracing-isolation – can manage, but don’t easily eliminate, this virus.

Plan C will require a shift in political stance, operational strategy and public acceptance. We must start the conversation now. September 13 is less than a month away.”

Unfortunately Professor Kapur’s Op-Ed in the AFR is still behind a paywall, but he did also speak to Geraldine Doogue on ABC Radio National to outline his arguments. You can listen to that or I have independently obtained a transcript of that interview which you can access here. In that interview he gives this overview:

“And the big dilemma we’ll then have on September 13 (when Stage 4 Lockdown is due to end) is, do you now just continue this lockdown in the search for the holy grail of elimination, or do you, as much as the rest of the world, even much of the rest of the Western developed world has come to accept, just accept a low level of manageable transmission. And that was my suggestion that that might need to be the plan C, an acceptance of a low level of manageable transmission.”

I also discussed this and related issues at some length on the Looking Forward Podcast episode recorded August 26, 2020 (Ep. 77)
So, I say to those in who supported Dan Andrews’ actions to date, enough is enough. Argue for restrictions, by all means, and present evidence, but support a return to the deliberative democracy that we use in normal times.

Recognise these are normal times. The virus is not going anywhere anytime soon. The UK Chief health officer, Chris Whitty, believes a vaccine wouldn’t appear until the end of next year, at best (The Australian, 24 August). These are normal times. Call it pragmatic acceptance, if you will.

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