Originally published in The Daily Telegraph
It’s only thanks to NSW Premier Dom Perrottet that we’re still able to look forward to a decent Christmas. But for Perrottet, all overseas arrivals would still be stuck in two weeks quarantine; but for him, we’d still be forced to wear masks at all indoor venues; and but for him, we’d still dutifully be checking-in everywhere we went. In other words, but for the new premier’s instinct for freedom, and his example with reluctant interstate counterparts, we’d still be living in a health-policed state where everything is subordinated to the over-riding goal of minimising Covid cases and where everyone is expected to conform to surveillance utterly unprecedented in free countries.
A few months back, the national cabinet agreed that the country should start opening up once 70 per cent of the population were fully vaccinated and thereby protected against serious illness. Lockdowns would stop. Borders would re-open. People wouldn’t be quarantined because they’d been in the same building as a “case”. Then the Delta variant arrived and virus-obsessed premiers yet again put safety ahead of freedom. Melbourne became the world’s most locked-down city and around the globe people wondered what had turned Australians into a bunch of Covid-neurotics. It was only Perrottet’s arrival as premier that finally put most of the country back on what seemed like an irreversible path to living with the virus.
Until Omicron turned up. Now, with cases-but-not-hospitalisations growing, there’s massive pressure on him to re-institute check-ins, to make mask-wearing again compulsory, and to lock up people who’ve been at large events lest they become “super-spreaders”. It’s not just the president of the AMA and sundry learned epidemiologists urging him “better to be safe than sorry” but his own health establishment. Even though, on the evidence so far, while Omicron is much more infectious it’s also much less dangerous than all the previous versions.
If we cannot cope with Covid now, we never will. That’s why it’s vital that the Premier hold his nerve.
If not, I fear we are doomed to an ongoing cycle of openings and closings dependent on the mutations of a virus that can make us quite ill, but at least with vaccination, is very unlikely to kill. A country that cannot bring itself to declare victory over a pandemic and get back to normal, once its hospitalisation and death rates resemble those of the standard seasonal flu, is a country where no one will ever again be able to plan anything with confidence; where weddings, funerals, holidays, business expansions, and even visits to elderly relatives become hostage to sudden restrictions based on official anxieties about the slightest pressure on the health system. Indeed, thanks to these unpredictable but repeated upheavals, people will be more likely to die from cancer, heart disease, suicide, and sheer loneliness and boredom, just so that governments can reassure voters that they’ve at least saved them from Covid.
The worst feature of this pandemic has not been its impact on our health or our wealth but what it’s said about our attitudes. A fair case could be made for shuttering things up and for paying people not to go about their normal business until the very vulnerable were reasonably protected from a new contagion. But we’ve gone way beyond that. As a culture, what we’ve demonstrated over the past 20 months is not a predilection for safety-first but a near obsession with safety-only. And not just for encouraging anyone frightened of infection to take the best precautions available but a mania for forcing everyone, worried or not, to live as if in fear of a virus. Worse even than the debt that will take decades to pay off is the public timidity and the official authoritarianism that could easily mark the moment when countries such as ours finally sank into a cocoon of decadence where fear of death ruled our lives.
So much of what’s been done over the past 20 months has been about “sending a message” that “Covid is serious”. Whether it’s mask mandates or school closures, the real message has been that “government is in charge”. As the prime minister of a federation, Scott Morrison has done his best to rein-in this health protectionism. But on matters of public health, it’s the states that call the shots. That’s why Gladys Berejiklian at first; but now Perrottet even more so, has been such a gust of fresh air, with an innate understanding that people must get their lives back. There will now be lots of Covid cases, maybe even the 25,000 a day some fear. That was always likely, absent restrictions. As long as the hospitals can cope, and what have health officials been doing these last 20 months if not ensuring that, there really is no need for panic.