In the first few months of 2020, fear regarding the new Covid-19 virus was palpable, and understandable. Educated citizens of many democratic nations around the world faced draconian government-issued restrictions on human movement, personal behaviour, and business operations. But, as the months went by and evidence accumulated that contraindicated population-wide restrictions, the continued willingness of individuals to accept them – not making their acquiescence conditional upon the provision of a scientific rationale, sometimes making up rationales to justify their own acquiescence, and occasionally acting as the deputised vigilantes of the misguided state – was shocking to free-thinking observers. How could people be so blind? How could they simply accept the imposition of such immediate social harm, with further long-run devastation to come, without reasonable proof of its absolute necessity and net benefit in terms of total human wellbeing?
In this essay I review and suggest reasons for the submission of the vast majority of Australians to the imposition and enforcement of draconian restrictions, ostensibly in response to the threat posed by Covid-19. I start in by sketching the Covid-19 policies enacted over time by the four most populous states, New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia, and canvass some evidence of the degree of submission to, and even eager local vigilante-style enforcement of, such policies by Australians. I then discuss a number of possible reasons for Australians’ broad failure to challenge their governments’ misguided policies, including both general human biases pointed to by behavioural economics, and some peculiarities of the Australian culture that make it particularly inept at competently handling a crisis of this nature. I conclude with some thoughts about what the future may hold for Australia in light of these observations.
During the course of 2020, Australian state premiers enacted a suite of different restrictions in three different broad areas. These are human movement, such as domestic and international travel bans and residential lockdowns; personal behaviour, such as compulsory mask-wearing and prohibitions of various gatherings; and business operations, for example forced closures of certain types of businesses and regulations surrounding the number of patrons allowed inside a premises at any given time.
The restrictions across these three areas created a policy environment of frequent and unpredictable change, and in which change involved subtle details which the average citizen or business owner would be hard-pressed to keep track. Dimensions like the numbers of people allowed at different types of gatherings, the specific sectors affected by do-not-trade orders, the lengths and types of excursions permitted by otherwise locked-at-home citizens, rules about border crossings, and myriad other policy prescriptions varied month by month and sometimes week by week in New South Wales, Victoria, and Queensland. Western Australia instead pursued an isolation strategy from early April 2020 and then eased restrictions on its existing residents.
The confusion evident in the policy landscape set by three of the four states examined here was despite the evident harm of population-wide restrictions, and without much attention to means of targeting protection efforts towards the most vulnerable, other than restrictions on the number of visitors to aged-care homes. An increasing body of work documents the cost and ineffectiveness of lockdowns, the existence of means to provide targeted prophylactic care and treatment to those who fall ill with the virus, the low actual counts of death and suffering in Australia attributable directly to Covid-19, and a comparison of our response to the virus to our response to other, similar killers of humans. This work demonstrates the misguided nature of the predominant global, and Australian, policy response to Covid-19.
What should governments have done instead? As I testified to the Victorian Parliament last August, they should have controlled fear, directed resources and attention towards protecting the most vulnerable, set policy based on the knowledge of a range of experts rather than only health scientists, and evaluated the likely impact of their policy choices on total human welfare as time progressed and more data became available. In the words of four academics writing on the efficacy of measures to mitigate pandemic influenza in 2006:
Experience has shown that communities faced with epidemics or other adverse events respond best and with the least anxiety when the normal social functioning of the community is least disrupted. Strong political and public health leadership to provide reassurance and to ensure that needed medical care services are provided are critical elements. If either is seen to be less than optimal, a manageable epidemic could move toward catastrophe.
Despite the absence of evidence that the restrictions documented above were appropriate, the restrictions were enforced by local police, and by and large were not resisted by Australian citizens. In fact, evidence both from media reports and from sentiment surveys indicates that Australians ‘fell in line’ almost to a man.
Survey data collected by the Griffith Criminology Institute in April 2020 demonstrated that Australians had comparatively high levels of trust in police, a finding that appeared to hold throughout the year, while The Age reported strong support specifically for Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews in October. Mainstream TV news and radio channels frequently presented individuals and businesses failing to comply with the various restrictions, from social distancing to masking, as either reckless, selfish, or both. The social disapprobation extended to personal interactions, with anecdotal evidence of individual citizens taking it upon themselves to point out in disapproving tones the non-compliance of their fellow citizens in parks, at shops, and on beaches.
This was all despite the fact that the enforcement of Victoria’s particularly draconian policies perked up the ears of Human Rights Watch. By October 2020, more than 19,000 penalty notices were reported to have been handed down to residents in that state, and vast sums of money were amassed by states across Australia from fines. This means that even those Australians who didn’t comply with the rules (whether intentionally or not) complied with the requirement to pay for that non-compliance.
There are a number of reasons for the acquiescence to draconian policies seen during the pandemic. I group these into three categories: general human biases and tendencies, historical and cultural factors, and modern contextual factors.
In an academic paper published in 2020, I discussed how the reactions to Covid-19 exhibited by governments around the world have reflected the types of biases brought to light in the field of behavioural economics. The governments of democratic nations are theoretically accountable to their electorate, meaning that the reactions of the British, Thai, Swedish, and Australian governments reflected at some level the sentiment of their citizens. To a large degree, therefore, it was the biases of the citizens themselves, not of some separate entity called “government” attempting to impose its will upon the unwilling, that drove the initiation and continuation of policy responses. People (not institutions) make decisions, and different individual premiers in Australia chose different actions throughout the year – logically because they felt their electorate was demanding those actions. The behavioural economics biases I suggest as drivers of policy responses around the world, and that apply no less to understanding Australian state policy-setting, are salience, present bias, reference dependence, and fear.
Salience – the privilege of a particular item in our field of attention – makes us vulnerable to the loss of perspective. Possessed by incoming signals about the salient item, we can easily forget about other issues that may be relevant to crafting our best response to a situation we face. In the case of Covid-19, media and government messaging alike produced an environment in which pandemic-related information was highly salient and as a result for many Australians everything else waned in importance, including values like the preservation of democratic freedoms and consequences like the destruction of lives and livelihoods caused by reaction to the virus. Mental control can help to stem the loss of perspective encouraged by the salience of a subset of information, but such control takes years and maturity to master.
Well-described by its name, present bias is the privilege of attention towards things happening now, rather than in the future. Identifiable people being infected and dying with Covid-19 today (whether seen in reality or in the media) will have weighed more strongly in many people’s calculus than the many unknown Australians who will suffer in the future because of our policy decisions today.
Behavioural economics has shown how decision-making generally proceeds with a reference point in mind. Reference-dependent decision-making works as a heuristic when the reference point is meaningful and sensible, such as when one is evaluating a new job opportunity against the salary one presently earns. But it was rare in 2020 to find meaningful and sensible reference points in media or government messaging that contextualised the information being conveyed about the new virus. Comparisons to the Spanish Flu, which was far more lethal and had a completely different pattern of attack, killing people in the prime of life, were not sensible. Comparisons to the number of Covid-19 deaths in other regions were often
not meaningful, given differences in population. Comparisons to other killers, like pneumonia or tuberculosis, would have been both meaningful and sensible but were largely absent from the debate.
Finally, fear is the most powerful human emotion because it effectively shuts down all other emotion and produces a highly focused state, in which the only thing capturing our attention is the feared object. While useful in fight-or-flight scenarios, the fear reaction is not likely to deliver wise policy, nor is it likely to produce reasonable behaviour if the object of fear is actually not so fearsome as we perceive. Throughout the pandemic, disproportionate fear was allowed to spread and was even fanned explicitly by both the media and our governments, producing a situation in which the population was primed for the introduction of any information that promised to somehow reduce that fear. As Paul Frijters and I wrote in our 2013 book An Economic Theory of Greed, Love, Groups, and Networks: “In terms of manipulating people in the short run, the fear induced by the threat of violence is perhaps the quickest and surest means of manipulation.”
Additionally, a human tendency towards religious behaviour is likely to have played a role in supporting the willingness of Australians – and citizens of other countries – to accept draconian restrictions ostensibly in order to fight a perceived unknown threat. In the face of an invisible, external and uncontrolled power perceived to have the capacity to do damage, humans will readily accept a suggestion that making a sacrifice to that power is a good idea – without requiring reasonable proof of the connection between that sacrifice and a better outcome. Also at play in organised religions around the world, this tendency to engage in an imagined trade with the external power – “I will give you this, and in return, you will grant me leniency or favour” – will have supported citizens’ acquiescence to government restrictions put in place “in the name of ” Covid-19, which after all was presented as an unseen pathogen, perceived to pose a serious threat, and not (yet) under the command of humans.
Humans’ susceptibility to the joys of power will also have contributed to the actions of premiers during 2020. As stated by Henry Kissinger, “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac”. Power dynamics will have gained in strength over the year, once state leaders tasted the degree of power they found themselves able to wield, and came to realise how great having that power made them feel.
Some commentators have proposed that the unusual obedience of Australians is nothing new by historical standards – at least, obedience to an authority that is impersonal (“the government”, rather than “the AFL referee standing in front of me”) and that is perceived to be acting in the best interests of society. Yet where does this unusual obedience to authority originate, in a country that prides itself on its outlaw past?
Two groups of reasons suggest themselves. The first originate in Australia’s storied British colonial past, and the second relate to Australia’s recent social and political trends.
The Australia we know today was founded by people who came to its shores as a result of the decisions of others. Lawmakers, lawyers, and judges in Britain representing the British people, rather than convicts themselves, decided on the punishment of transportation to Australia. Faced with the alternatives of death or imprisonment in the squalid horror of overcrowded British gaols, many a convict opted to come here – exercising independent agency, yes, but only over a minor detail. The act of making such a choice was equally an act of acquiescence to the rules of a game set up and overseen by an impersonal authority. By contrast, in the story of the founding of the United States, my place of birth and a New World country to which we often compare ourselves, the protagonists were seeking something for themselves (such as religious freedom or economic opportunities) rather than being essentially forced out by a government authority. The stars of the American story were rejecting the rules of the Old World and proactively seeking to migrate to a place where those rules would not bind. The stars of the Australian story, on the other hand, capitulated to the rules of a government whose authority would travel to Australia with them as their overseers.
This initial capitulation to authority that kick-started the Australian culture was then reinforced once the convicts arrived here. Faced with foreign flora, fauna, geography, and climate, the convicts who stepped off the boats weak and exhausted could be forgiven for placing disproportionate faith and credence in the motives of the impersonal and embryonic “government” setting the local rules of the game. After all, it was little more than those rules that stood between them and near-certain death.
The second suite of reasons explaining Australia’s keen obedience during the Covid-19 period relates to what has transpired more recently in our social lives. The rise of the internet has brought about a deep change in the patterns of our exposure to information and the social cues contained within it. Even reserving moral judgement on the consequential phenomenon itself, it appears that something has gone wrong. Not only have new ways of interacting with others and learning about our world arisen, but old ways have receded. Our local community fabric used to support everything from street parties and babysitting to the knowledge of our neighbours’ habits and preferences that told us when we should knock on an elderly neighbour’s door to ensure they are all right. This fabric contained information – information about who we were, what was going on in life, and what was possible. You couldn’t easily escape if it turned out you didn’t care much for your neighbours, but on the other hand, neither could your neighbours. You were stuck with each other, to make the best you could of your lives, your relationships, and your neighbourhood.
The information that our local communities used to provide has been largely replaced, particularly for those born after about 1980, by information derived from online communities. Echo chambers and epistemic communities supported by the ease of dismissing information flows from certain sources, have created a world in which the average person can choose to be exposed to a small, curated selection of the views and cues that humanity has to offer. The anonymous “friends” (a contradiction in terms not even noticed by most social media users) that make up online communities have largely replaced physical communities and are potentially far more unified in their thinking about matters of politics, economics, morality, and even about what is considered true. The pressure to engage with dissenters can be turned off with the click of a mouse. Unlike a local community, an online community can consist of people from all over the world, likely providing members with the feeling that their views are more universal than they really are. The seeming closeness of such communities may be shown up as an illusion when a participant faces a real crisis – needing money, or health care, or a friend to bring a meal – but as long as all that is sought is emotional support and reaffirmation, the curated online community is a reliable supplier.
Being largely international and anonymous, such bubbles of information and identity do nothing to support a unifying, positive message about the community, or the country as a whole. “I am, you are, we are Australian” is a message we receive only every four years, if we are lucky. With no wars to unite Australians against a common enemy, no asteroids whose destruction demands collaboration across real Australian communities, and no other clear and present threat that requires us to look each other in the eye and deal with each other, warts and all, our sense of national identity has waned alongside the fraying of our communities. Tellingly, the survey conducted by the Griffith Criminology Institute mentioned above found that Australians in early 2020 were more likely to agree with a statement about identifying strongly as a “law-abiding citizen” than with statements about being proud to be an Australian or identifying strongly with their community.
The weakening of community and national identity, and their replacement with a virtual identity that does not require the exercise of our whole humanity, arguably opened a vulnerability that was revealed when the Covid-19 crisis hit. People missed uniting with a real-life group, which history and psychology tell us is rewarding. Being united with others as a nation against a common perceived enemy, as seen during wars, natural disasters, and national expeditions (such as to the moon), feels good, in line with the predictions of the well-known social identity theory of psychology. In 2020, Covid-19 was rapidly and gratefully grasped as the threat against which we would unite.
Another reason why Australians may have been particularly prone to grabbing onto Covid with both hands is that the Australian communal identity has long been built in part on coping with natural disasters – from droughts, to floods, to sunburn, to bushfires, to cyclones.
Particularly coming as it did on the heels of the extreme 2020 bushfire season, Covid-19 may have felt to Australians like the next in a long line of torments to befall the nation through no fault of its own, and against which Australia would stand, resolute and with a common voice.
Facets of our modern context, apart from the supplanting or replacement of real community with virtual community, likely played a role in Australia’s response. First, media coverage of the virus has been exceptionally fear-mongering and narrow in its focus, and our governments’ messaging equally crazed. In my 2020 paper referred to earlier, I noted that:
Sweden’s news media also did not play up the health threat, helping to contain fear. Australia’s government, by contrast, was notable for subjecting its residents to periods of prolonged uncertainty about policy directions, fuelling worry. Rather than conveying a reassuring message of having the situation under control, Australia’s PM sent the exact opposite message on 1 April, by praying and committing the nation to God. When policy directions were announced in Australia, they often focused on economic restrictions or stimulus packages without directly addressing the degree of the health threat, leaving unaddressed residents’ growing fears about the virus itself potentially spiralling out of control.
This sort of irresponsible journalism and governmental stewardship merely served to fuel the tinder documented above. Second, in part but not only due to the decay of nation- or community-based groups, the effective organisation of voices against mainstream interpretations and restrictions had no established mechanism, and hence effective resistance was difficult to mount. Media censorship and public social shaming of those who publicly dissented were clear signals of the closed minds of those in power, and of their supporters, having the likely effect of a cold shower on others who might have been considering joining forces.
Finally, the Australian government’s comparatively generous support programs during this period – particularly JobKeeper, but also other provisions such as allowing early withdrawal from superannuation accounts – served the function that any palliative care does. It reduced suffering in the short run, but concomitantly reduced the desperation to work towards a better long-run state. The support of people’s incomes that was initially so welcome (including by me) meant over time that the true economic costs of the draconian restrictions were not fully felt. It was thereby made easier for the common man to ignore the long-run damage being done to the country, and to his pocketbook along with it.
In light of the observations above, what lies ahead for Australia?
Some observers have sketched a dark future, wherein ultra-nationalism bordering on totalitarianism grows in power, the East and the West retreat into a neo-Cold War with one another, and those objecting to nativist or “pro-family” objectives (however these are defined) are punished by the authority of the state. One can see how the obedient streak in Australians, particularly when fuelled by fear and poor mental control, could lead us down such an ominous path.
My observations as a long-ago Yankee transplant and a naturalised Australian tell me that a different future is possible, but that to progress towards it we will need to call on other aspects of the Australian psyche. Our great allies at this moment in our national character are our down-to-earth nature that leads us to eventually “spit the dummy” when someone in authority asks just a bit too much of us; our quiet pleasure at throwing anyone and anything, including the diktats of authority, under the bus as objects of ridicule; and our plain jealousy of other countries that have what we don’t have, whether liberties, economic opportunities, or wealth. That lattermost force is a flavour of the simple and natural competitive drive for more and better that underpins the invisible hand mechanism. This force that propels the economy forward can also help to push us away from a failing state – whether totalitarian, fascist, communist, or otherwise – and towards a better future that we know is achievable, based on what we see outside our borders. Let’s open them up, so that vision is restored.
This article is from Volume 1 of Essays for Australia and is written by Dr Gigi Foster, Professor in the School of Economics at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. To find out more, head to ipa.org.au/essays.