As Health Minister in the Howard government, I’d given much thought to a potential pandemic.
In those days, our fear was a readily transmissible version of avian flu, a poultry disease with a 30 per cent plus case fatality rate for those who caught it, typically chicken farmers living cheek-by-jowl with their birds.
In response, the Howard government greatly expanded the national medicine stockpile, including the world’s largest per capita cache of the anti-viral drugs that were thought to provide the best protection against it.
In consultation with the states, a National Pandemic Plan was created, and then 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 close quarantine on our borders, to slow the spread of disease, while hospitals ramped up and precautions taken for the vulnerable.
Comparable countries had similar plans.
With the exception of Sweden, though, those plans were 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 all 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, until new infections had almost disappeared, 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, in most states, schools and universities stopped class room teaching and many businesses operated on a stop-start basis.
For almost two years, Australians needed special permission to leave the country and foreigners needed special permission to come. There was even a time when any Australians returning home from India faced very large fines.
For much of the past two years, in Sydney and Melbourne, it was illegal to use public transport without a mask.
In Melbourne especially, one of the most locked down cities in the world, with a five month curfew and regular police checks on motorists, there were eventually substantial protests – which 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.
This is not just my current view. In a speech back in July 2020, I contrasted the wartime generation with our own: that one, ready to sacrifice their lives for their freedom; this one, prepared to surrender our freedom for our lives.
Has it been worth it? I doubt it very much.
In March last year, Scott Morrison suggested that lockdowns had saved 30,000 lives. In April this year, he said that his government’s measures, presumably including largely funding the states’ lockdowns, had saved 40,000 lives.
Given that the federal government alone spent some $350 billion on measures associated with Covid, this equates to roughly $10 million per life saved, or about $2 million per “quality life year” gained, on the optimistic assumption that the average victim had five good years left.
Because every life is precious, no one wants to ask “how much is a life worth?” yet governments routinely apply cost-benefit analysis to health spending. When I was minister, for instance, the PBS would typically pay about $50,000 for a drug that could be expected to extend someone’s life for a year.
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.
There’s the people in aged care facilities who went for two years largely without visitors.
There’s the delayed treatments and diagnoses of other diseases, as health systems prioritised Covid – plus the mental health issues that lockdowns exacerbated.
There’s the businesses closed and the economic opportunities lost.
There’s the vaccine apartheid for those sacked, for whatever reason, for being unwilling to get jabbed.
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.
There’s 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: “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”. It all adds up to a weakening of national morale that may take years to recover from.
Given the public clamour to be saved, a draconian response to Covid may have been irresistible; at least in the absence of a chief health officer, such as Sweden’s, who held his nerve.
The Morrison government, certainly, can justify its response as mirroring that of nearly every other government; and as being more effective in terms of fewer lives lost.
But it’s hard to see two years of collective hiding-under-the-doona-against-a-virus as anything to be proud of.
Yes, 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?
In this country, 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. After two lost years, our resolve must be: never, ever, ever to let this happen again.