As health minister in the Howard government, I was responsible for the national pandemic plan that was regularly updated, most recently in August 2019.
There was nothing in that plan about closing down most businesses or locking people in their homes.
Instead, the focus was quarantine on our borders to slow the spread of disease, while hospitals ramped up and precautions were taken for the vulnerable.
Comparable countries had similar plans. With the exception of Sweden, though, those plans were all junked in the early stages of the pandemic – in fright at the reportage out of northern Italy of apparently overwhelmed hospitals and bodies being stored in freezer trucks.
Instead, almost every country adopted a version of China’s Wuhan plan: closing down non-essential enterprises and locking people in their homes in the hope of eradicating the virus.
In Australia, that meant an initial lockdown for about two months, from late March 2020, followed by subsequent state and city-based lockdowns whenever cases spiked, until the arrival of the Omicron variant in late 2021, when it was finally accepted that the disease could no longer be controlled and when about 90 per cent of Australians had been vaccinated against it.
For the best part of two years, most schools and universities stopped classroom teaching; many businesses operated on a stop-start basis; Australians needed special permission to leave the country; and it was illegal to be in confined spaces without a mask.
Melbourne eventually had substantial protests that produced a heavy police response, sometimes including tear gas and mass arrests.
At the start of the pandemic, prime minister Scott Morrison warned us that 2020 would be the worst year of our lives.
Actually, it was two years and it’s a moot point what was worse: the disease or the response to it.
As of now, Australia has officially recorded about 14,000 Covid deaths. About 12,000 have been this year, after the abandonment of lockdowns and the slow easing of most other restrictions.
Obviously, every death is sad; and no one should make light of a disease that can still kill the very old and the very vulnerable.
Yet in contrast to the extreme anxiety that greeted every Covid death in 2020 and 2021, as a society we seem to have taken this year’s Covid deaths pretty much in our stride given that the average age of the victims has been 82 and they’ve invariably had a range of other health conditions.
There is little doubt that Covid was considerably more deadly in the absence of vaccinations, and a better case could be made for lockdowns prior to the vaccination of most aged-care residents by the middle of last year.
Yet the case for any extensive lockdowns rests on the dubious assumption that life itself is more important than getting on with living; and that it’s reasonable for governments to let fear of death justify massive restrictions on how we live.
In April, the then prime minister said his government’s measures, including funding the states’ lockdowns, had saved 40,000 lives.
Given the federal government alone spent some $350bn on measures associated with Covid, this equates to roughly $10m per life saved, or about $2m per “quality life year” gained, on the optimistic assumption that the average victim had five good years left.
Yet the money spent to mitigate the impact of pandemic, at about $25,000 per Australian man, woman and child, is almost certainly the least of the costs incurred.
There’s the decline in educational attainments, especially for youngsters without ready access to parent-teachers, plus two years of lost social development; the people in aged-care facilities who went for two years largely without visitors; the delayed treatments and diagnoses of other diseases, as health systems prioritised Covid – plus the mental health issues that lockdowns exacerbated; the businesses closed and the economic opportunities lost.
There’s the impact on people’s work ethic and work culture of the doubling of the dole, of being told to work from home and of being officially forbidden from “soldiering on” when mildly ill; plus the democratic deficit from the curtailment of parliamentary sittings and normal cabinet government in favour of emergency decree justified by reference to unelected and unaccountable experts.
Never before have the citizens of free countries so widely abandoned the spirit of keeping calm and carrying on.
It all adds up to a weakening of national morale that may take years to recover from.
It was all supposed to be “following the science”.
But how could the science before March 2020 have been so different from that afterwards; and how could the science, even in this country, have so differed from month to month and from state to state?
Royal commissions typically probe every disaster to consider what might have been done better. This disaster shouldn’t be an exception just because governments may have made it worse.