The world’s gone crazy? No, it's rational.

Covid-19 and political imagination.

· covid-19

Covid-19 and political imagination (you can't cheat the figures).

Like a majority of Australians, I grew up in a kind of paddock of calm. The beach, blue skies, bronzed girls and beer, and cool music, were the cud of youth.

My herd migrated at an unhurried pace, secure that sky is blue, grass is green, and the crescendo of waves on our shoreline fenced out the world beyond.

There was no war, no GFC, no HIV, and no #C-19. We went to university, and then on to jobs in our tidy world (well most did;-).

But to me, there was another acute reality beneath the idyll of Sydney’s 1980’s, one that later found expression in the work I pursued in Bosnia, Darfur, Afghanistan, Syria and a dozen other darkened places.

Ask a Syrian or a Yugoslav what their worlds were like before they became synonymous with catastrophe and societal implosion. They will recall idylls that were beautiful, predictable, and prosperous.

My buddy Ogi, who fought inside the siege of Sarajevo for four long years, tells me that until the Serbian shells began dropping on the city, few believed that their world would change.

Shifts in perception – drastic, brutal, unkind – is what happens when the bombs start falling from the sky. Instead of enlisting in university, Ogi took a rifle and a belt of grenades, and fought former friends who held the ridges. Crazy.

Yet not crazy. His actions were a logical, reasoned, necessary response to a world upended. Ratiocination.

So when a friend of mine, highly placed in the U.S. Foreign Service, ruefully remarked “the world’s gone crazy,” as she contemplated the effects of #Covid-19, I replied that it is finally going rational. The response of many countries is matching the sharp shift in reality.

Crazy is the failure of leadership at moments of historical pivot. Crazy was President Trumps faux-soothing, or our own Prime Minister Morrison’s clumsy fumbling of the viral ball. It’s a failure of imagination as evidence presents of tectonic shifts in reality.

The process of “derealisation” (to steal a fancy term) mimics the highs and lows of falling in love, or a serious car accident. Like Alice in Wonderland, we pass through a veil of reality into another world we can’t really imagine until the evidence is in our face. It’s hard to loosen our grip on former states of being.

In the world of politics, and given certain conditions, this fundamental resistance to change and failure of political imagination can be lethal.

The most obvious expression of change – the evidence – is in the graphic curve, the mathematical model that is given shape by the rate at which the contagion takes hold in a society (everybody has now heard of “flattening the curve.”)

At a macro level, the whole-of-society threat of pandemic has been known for a hundred years. Vast scientific resources have been devoted to preparing for the re-emergence of a 1918-type Spanish ‘Flu.

(One example of an apparent failure of political imagination is Trump’s 2018 slashing of key strategic resources that had been devoted to these preparations in the U.S.)

At a micro level, and of most immediate concern, the efficacy of certain measures to “flatten the curve,” and thus preserve our medical systems’ resilience in the face of the certain mass spread of the virus to a majority of our population, has been evident.

That evidence is present in the actions of countries like Taiwan, Singapore, and Vietnam, or a place like Hong Kong. Vietnam, a country of 100 million people that borders its most prolific tourist and trading partner, China, has just 57 cases of Covid-19. They acted to be ahead of the curve, and have thus been able to keep it flat. They are, self-evidently, coping with the virus.

Unlike China, or Singapore, or Taiwan, or Vietnam, Australia had an early advantage that it seems to have squandered. It had evidence of a tectonic shift in reality, and observable evidence in its Asian neighbours of what would probably work to control an impending disaster.

The only reason that we are struggling with the issue of whether to keep open or close our schools and universities is because of the suspicion that we are behind the curve. Our political leaders failed to imagine the sudden shift in reality, even when we could see the bomb of contagion falling on our near neighbours.

It remains an open question what will happen. But in the weeks ahead the evidence will emerge – mathematical, incontestable – in the form of the graphic curve.

If it remains flat, you can be sure that we acted in time, proportionally, and using the best available evidence and considered action. Our health system will cope.

If it rises exponentially, as I expect, you can be equally sure that we met our new reality with crazy, instead of with the rationality that was required.

(Photo by Morten Hvaal, Sarajevo 1992)