Is it time Australia went into Covid-19 lockdown?
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s stay calm and keep spending message in the face of the growing coronavirus crisis is borderline irresponsible. With the country on the precipice of a major health crisis, his advice that we keep partying seems absurd as Italy (12,462 confirmed cases as of today), France (2,281), Denmark (615), andthe US (987) look like they are starting to lose control in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. The PM's approach would be tantamount to the captain of the Titanic telling the band to keep playing and passengers to keep dancing after realising he was on a collision course with the iceberg.
It is risky for me, as a lobbyist to be criticising a sitting Prime Minister, but it seems the man who took a holiday in Hawaii while the east coast of Australia burnt this past summer really needs a wake-up call. If I am burning a bridge with this post, then so be it. I’m doing what the Prime Minister's less than politically astute staff should have done before his address to the nation on the matter last night.
I understand the need to keep the markets calm and try to shore up an already flagging economy. But the Prime Minister of this country’s first and foremost responsibility should be the health and safety of every citizen. Making the wrong call on this could cost him in the polls. This crisis is going to last longer than anyone thought even as recently as a week ago. The number of people infected in Australia will continue to grow as will the number of deaths. Not taking the most stringent steps to deal with the crisis now could prove detrimental to Morrison’s prime ministership.
Lift a page from China's playbook
Rather than take such a lackadaisical approach to the greatest health crisis to strike this nation since the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s, Australia should be lifting a page from China’s playbook. By locking down more than 60 million people in Wuhan and Hubei Province and placing strict restrictions on people in major cities like Shanghai and Beijing, the Communist Party of China (CPC) halted the advance of the spread of the virus in its tracks. Beijing now fears the virus being re-imported to China from other countries that have lost control over its spread.
Speaking with my various contacts in China during this past week I gathered a sense of confidence returning to China, a sense that the Central Government acted swiftly to protect people and get control of the situation. Its initial poor response is being overlooked by the fact that it seems to have all but succeeded in stopping the further spread of the virus.
Western leaders facing a new Katrina
An irony of the coronavirus is that an authoritarian leader like President Xi Jinping and China’s opaque political system will survive the crisis, perhaps even come out of it stronger. A greater irony would be that leaders of Western democracies like the US’s President Trump, Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, and Australia’s Scott Morrison lose their next elections because of a perception that they did not act swiftly enough to counter the spread of the disease.
Coronavirus is the Hurricane Katrina of democratic governments around the world. Recall the damage done to President George W. Bush’s presidency by his failure to respond appropriately to that crisis.
So; what should Prime Minister Scott Morrison be doing:
Call on large event organisers to cancel events or play those events in empty stadiums – this is not the time to have crowds showing up for football games (ScoMo will just have to watch the footy on TV for a change);
Call on universities and schools across the country to close early for the Easter holiday break and stay closed for four to six weeks, and to re-assess the situation then as it may be necessary to keep them closed longer;
Only allow essential visits to people in nursing homes and hospitals so the most vulnerable are not exposed to the risk of infection;
Call on all companies to allow staff to work from home where it is possible – and it is possible for most service sector companies to have their staff work from home;
Call on people to avoid public transport if they can.
We do not need to go into full lockdown across the country yet, but we need to do more than keep partying.
The epidemic cannot be stopped, but it should be slowed
On a final note, we cannot stop the spread of coronavirus now. It is too widespread across the world and once it starts spreading in developing nations it will not be possible to stop it. Even if we manage to halt it as has been done in China, the constant risk will be that it is re-imported from somewhere else.
All we can do is hope to slow the epidemic so that our healthcare system is not overwhelmed at once, and hopefully until treatments are improved so more lives are saved and until eventually a vaccine is found and can be administered.
Until then we need better leadership from our government ministers than statements that they will be attending the footy and the Melbourne Grand Prix. Fortunately, Formula 1 made the right call on the Grand Prix and cancelled it this morning. Scott Morrison should take note.