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Voyage of the damned

· Covid-19

At 5,000 dead, Italy is less than 1% through its ordeal

It’s a death spiral: Australia consistently remains weeks behind the contagion curve. It’s months behind the right message.

Those people who spent the gorgeous sun-drenched day at Bondi Beach on Saturday don’t deserve the acrimony that has been heaped upon them. As ordinary people, we are drawn to pleasure, and conditioned to forget.

That acrimony is best reserved for the missteps of our Federal government, most notably its dismal calls to the nation that have set us on a disastrous course, providing no leadership for this country’s people, state Premiers, it’s media, or Captains in charge of cruise ships.

The Bondi bathers are just doing what they’ve always done. Why should they think differently when radio shock jocks like Alan Jones are free to suggest that this is all a beat-up?

Imagine a Churchill, given the invasion of Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland who in 1940 had said, “well, we don’t know if Hitler means it. Signs are not good. It’s an each way bet. But people mustn’t panic. Let’s keep the economy going. Let’s keep this all in perspective. We’re British.” Absurd.

Italy is our rough measure. Italy is at war with #Covid-19. Ask an Italian a month ago if they thought Italy would have closed for business, and the army would be carting bodies away and patrolling the streets. Absurd.

Italy has tested 223,000 people as of around 21 March, or 1/269th of their population of 60 million (in fact, Italy is probably less than ½% through its ordeal).

Of those tested, 53,000 were positive for Covid-19.

Of those, 5,000 are dead.

So far in Australia, our tests are positive for around 1% of the population, an apparently manageable figure, you might think. However Australia hasn't yet hit the exponential rise that has been seen in most other countries. What happens when it does? The most common estimates are that between 20% and 80% of the world's population will eventually contract the virus. Why do we think we're any different?

Of every million people we test, we should assume that a modest one quarter will eventually be infected, or 6 million Australians.

The notion that we can ‘manage’ a plague like we manage the economy is perilous hubris. It’s the arrogance of a people almost completely untouched through most of history by planetary challenges like war on our shores, famine, natural disaster, political strife, or extreme poverty.

But the fault doesn’t rest with the Australian people. Like passengers on a cruise, we assume to our cost that the people in charge are making the best decisions given the circumstances, the scientific advice, projections, and consensus. I made that assumption for weeks until I realised that the mathematics of viral contagion were taking over.

Houston, we don’t just have a problem, we have a failure of political imagination, a leadership that cannot imagine the potential proportions of this calamity and put in place measures to ensure our survival and crush that potential before it rages out of control.

We have a leadership (and an Opposition) terrified of counter-factuals, of being called out as un-Prime Ministerial, of being scaredy-cats, or panic merchants.

Bondi Beach is a wake-up call. The one thing that works as contagion spreads is physical distance from the virus. That means person-to person distance, quarantine, cordons sanitaires around towns and cities, then rigorous testing once you have a population fixed in place. That’s how you control a contagion – whether or not you’re an Australian.

When a country is on a war footing, the only thing that stops people doing what they did before is bold, resolute, high-risk leadership that matches the level of peril.

If what is called for in times of war is an absolute reversal of ordinary communal behaviour – sandbagged doors, tape across windows, lights out, no smoking at night, air raid sirens, and nothing as it was done before – it can only work if everybody is compelled to do it.

The timid, hapless, contradictory messages of the Federal government has misled Australians all through this weekend to parks, beaches, on boating excursions, social events, to children’s parties, and to cafes and restaurants.

For ease-of-use, here are the policies the government must immediately implement (they’re not original, they come from countries besieged by Covid-19):

  • Close all schools, venues, leisure spots, and sporting activities immediately.
  • Close all shops and businesses apart from those on an emergency register whose work is vital to the functioning and good order of these new social conditions.
  • Enforce home-based social isolation through fines, policing, and gaol terms.
  • Grant special powers to small communities to manage and enforce their cordons sanitaires.
  • Train volunteers to support hospitals, medical centres, and prisons, because our frontline doctors and nurses will sicken and die, just like Italy’s.
  • Build emergency triage stations for the hundreds of thousands who will sicken and overwhelm available hospitals. Commission Chinese government teams if necessary and available.
  • Commission whatever medicine and alternative respiration devices are being made available by industry, patent agreement, and through the unprecedented cooperation of scientists and engineers throughout the world.
  • The conversion by emergency regulations of those industries necessary to produce the machines and medicines necessary to the health and well-being of the country.
  • Explain transparently the calculations being used to make whole-of-nation decisions, and transmit those evidence based decisions and the actions that must flow from them to every adult and child in the country.

Witches’ Sabbath (Aquelarre or El gran cabrón), 1819-1823 Museo del Prado

Contagion is upon the world. It’s as though the pages of the bible had surged to life, or Goya’s demi-mythical Giants had stepped down from the walls of the Prado Museum. In Italy and Spain, those gigantes are marching across once heaving, now whispered lands, through silent streets still festooned with hoardings and buntings that advertise our generally happy, greedy times.

We are still squandering our advantage. As I wrote earlier, the mathematics of contagion is incontestable, and Australia is now detecting just the merest whisper of impact.

None of us like to forgo our pleasures. I am a Sydney boy: a bon vivant, and party goer, a sensualist, an habitué of coffee shops and restaurants. And if the government doesn’t stop me, I will continue to go about my ordinary business.

*There are many variables in these fungible numbers, of course, but none that reduce the overall potential of Covid-19

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