Bill Bowtell
The risks as lockdowns loosen

This weekend, Australians are emerging from the lockdown that placed the country into quasi-hibernation for almost two months. As we survey the landscape, the physical geography does not bear the scars of more familiar Australian natural disasters – fires, floods, hurricanes and droughts. Homes and buildings are intact, trees and wildlife are unburnt and rivers remain within their banks.

There’s a palpable excitement about the loosening of lockdown measures, the prospect of life returning to some sense of normalcy. But the psychic and economic terrain of the old Australia has been utterly transformed. Both in health and economic terms, we are not going back to the country we left behind in mid-March. And I fear the psychological toll on the country if we must return to lockdown because of a spike in infections, as in some parts of Germany and South Korea in recent days.

As with other natural disasters, coronavirus has exacted a grim toll of deaths and injuries. Since the end of 2019, more than four million people have been infected around the world, with about 300,000 deaths – figures that are almost certainly underestimated. In Australia, about 7000 have been infected, some seriously so, and tragically nearly 100 people have died. But the raw numbers can’t begin to convey the broader social and economic impacts of the first wave of this great pandemic. We emerge into a global and national economic crisis of staggering scope and complexity.

The emergence of coronavirus has ignited an economic conflagration on a scale only comparable with the disruption caused by the Great Depression and World War II. How these health and economic crises now interact with one another as they play out will deeply change and affect the lives, health and prosperity of us all.

Coping with the fear or fact of infection by a virus unknown to science six months ago has been tough. And I know how insidious this litany of unknowns can be.

From 1983, I helped to put together Australia’s world-leading response to HIV/AIDS. At first, science could not even determine that the new disease was caused by a virus. It took many months to understand just how infectious HIV was, and how to prevent or impede its transmission. We dealt every day with pseudoscience, prejudice and lies about HIV – but, in the end, facts and evidence won out.

While HIV turned out to be far less infectious than coronavirus, for more than a decade there were no effective treatments. And 40 years on, the long-promised cures and vaccines have never arrived. Then, as now, we had to persuade people to change risky behaviours and to sustain those changes for decades. We face the same prospect in dealing with coronavirus. Unless and until treatments and vaccines arrive, sustained behaviour change is the only option to reduce the toll of infections and deaths.

But Australians must now also confront the catastrophic economic consequences of the pandemic. Three decades of economic growth have come to a sudden end. The economies of our major trading partners are in complete disarray. The prices of our export commodities are falling. Whole sectors of the economy – arts and culture, entertainment and sport, travel and restaurants – have been crippled. Jobs and businesses have disappeared, and under- and unemployment have risen to record double-digit highs. The fragility of the gig economy and the consequences of casualising the workforce have been revealed as not much more than wage-suppressing ploys.

It is important for policymakers to be mindful of how the economic devastation already wrought, and the uncertainty about what lies ahead, will have left many people in a fragile state. So many have lost jobs, homes and stability – impacts that will persist long after the worst of this virus has passed.

Nature created the virus. But, for better and worse, it is the deliberate decisions of the government that have created the economic and political response that is now transforming the lives and prospects of all Australians.

We are doing much better on the health front than we are in dealing with the emerging economic impacts of the great pandemic. For the time being, at least, we have brought the domestic spread of the virus under control with sane management. The relative success of the Australian response has been overwhelmingly due to the Australian people’s commitment to social solidarity, responsibility and common sense.

Australia’s relative isolation and measures to restrict at least some numbers of international arrivals in February gave us the luxury of time to come to sensible and effective policy responses before things had worsened irrevocably. Under great pressure and at the last minute, Australia’s superb public health institutions and professionals rose to the challenge of coronavirus. The lockdown, closing of internal borders and associated ramping up of testing, tracing and hospital capacity brought down the number of new cases. Thanks to the discipline and common sense of the Australian people in observing the lockdown, the rates of new infection have fallen to the point where cautious opening up can take place.

The experience of the past two months demonstrates beyond doubt that greatly decreasing physical contact with others, along with washing hands and potentially infected surfaces, dramatically impedes transmission of the virus. Still, the virus has not been eliminated, only contained. And it is important to remember that the gains of the past two months are conditional, not permanent. As we have seen from recent outbreaks of infection in Tasmania, Victoria and New South Wales, the situation can deteriorate rapidly if precautions are not taken.

Increasing physical interaction will increase the risks of transmission unless a range of complementary measures are adopted. The simple and most effective measure of all remains frequent handwashing. We simply cannot afford to squander the hard-won achievements of the past two months. It was the actions of the Australian people that delivered the fall in new infections. So, too, it will be the actions we take in the coming days and weeks that will sustain the current low level of infections.

Any temptation to declare Freedom Day and to abandon control measures will only mean freedom for the virus to replicate more rapidly and widely. Were there to be a significant rise in new infections, there is every possibility of returning to lockdown. But the prospects are good that we can build on the achievements to now and contain and learn to live with the virus.

Would that we were on the same path when it comes to dealing with the economic consequences of the great pandemic.

Economically, and again after a rocky start, the key institutions – the Reserve Bank, the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority and Treasury especially – worked with the politicians and financial institutions to deliver a reasonable initial emergency package of economic supports. These included JobKeeper, an increase in Newstart and free childcare.

But there were also serious deficiencies in these packages. Casual employees who had worked with a company for less than 12 months were not covered. Temporary visa holders were largely ineligible. The government worked assiduously to prevent universities from accessing JobKeeper, thereby doing great damage to one of our most effective export industries. The arts and cultural sectors were abandoned entirely. These decisions have had savage consequences for the hundreds of thousands of people whose jobs and prospects have evaporated.

The government now shows every sign that it will wind back the key elements of the emergency packages as soon as it can. Rather than undertake the hard, grinding political task of crafting new and improved measures to support the longer-term recovery of the worst-affected sectors and the associated businesses, the government has fallen back on the most extreme neoliberal nostrums – wage suppression, industrial relations “reform”, the return to balanced budgets and a bonfire of sensible environmental and other protections in the hope of generating “snapback” economic growth. It is merely the economic version of the Freedom Day rhetoric being used to undermine the health response to coronavirus in the United States, and here.

There is no going back to the Australia we left behind in mid-March. The new global economic realities will impose themselves on Australia just as surely and severely as happened in the 1930s and again in the 1970s and ’80s. We have no choice but to accept the prices on offer for what we sell on international markets, whether for iron ore, wheat, food, education or tourism.

But we have choices about how we organise ourselves to take the best possible advantage of new opportunities while preserving and extending the principles of Australian social democracy that have served us so well.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 16, 2020 as "Proceed with caution".

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