In watching the slowly unfolding wave of Covid-19 chaos, and the often muddled and contradictory response from governments, corporations, and public health officials, I’ve been quietly telling my friends for weeks that they should prepare for the inevitable. Because so far, I'm just seeing chaos from the Australian government.
In New York in 2003 I sat on a UN Avian ‘Flu Pandemic task force (for a contagion that remained limited). Like war-gaming, the value of this work was in the outcomes it imagined, and in the impossibly tangled series of contributing factors it took into account.
Now, Australia doesn’t lend itself to panic. We fancy that we’re a laconic bunch, untroubled by most of the world’s woes. If you’re lounging on the beaches, playing football, or sitting in a Sydney café it’s a stretch to imagine those activities being banned by government fiat.
But ask an Italian three weeks ago if all schools, transport, offices, shops, and tourists would be shut down by force of law in 21 days, and they’d have thought you pazzo (crazy). This blog is not advocating panic, but perception.
The mistake of those who resort to comforting simplistic platitudes like “it’s just like seasonal ‘flu” is that it misses the point that this is not the ‘flu, our health systems are not financed to deal with double seasonal disasters, our people and government are not prepared to face Covid-19, and the rapid overrunning of Italy’s excellent health care system (yes, Italy also had the ‘flu this winter season) is a case in point.
That 2003 UN task force knew that the emergence of a viral storm with the disruptive effects and potential mortality figures of the 1918 Spanish ‘Flu was a certainty. What was not certain was the extent of the damage it would inflict – how would it spread, how many would die, and how could deaths be limited?
Finally, this will pass. The first wave (and the first month or two) is the most lethal in every country because it catches us unaware (which is why we talk about "flattening the curve"). Public immunity will gradually build. Later on, the virus might mutate into a worse scourge, shifting its characteristics, but we’ll likely be better prepared. A country that handles this early on through overwhelming suppression will emerge earlier from the pandemic, and be better positioned to return to work discreet segments of the workforce who can be effectively surveilled by a functioning healthcare system. So don’t panic, but do change your perspective, because everybody has a role to play in this unfolding viral storm.
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