ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE SPECTATOR AUSTRALIA MAGAZINE
Victorians seem to have accepted the need for their extended Covid lockdown, which has been the longest and harshest anywhere in the developed world. A Roy Morgan poll conducted by SMS across 8-9 September found continuing majority support for the curfew and movement restrictions. Premier Daniel Andrews enjoys a 70 per cent approval rating. Leaked internal polls from the opposition and leadership rumours last week have so far amounted to nothing. Overall, the government has enjoyed remarkable support.
Yet with a growing mental health crisis and an economic depression, you might have thought that the lockdown would be more controversial – especially given that this disaster is largely a product of the Victorian government’s incompetence, with 99 per cent of second-wave Covid cases being traceable to the quarantine hotels that it so badly mismanaged.
The support cannot simply be attributed to the high stakes involved. The virus is no more deadly to Victorians than to anyone else and the outbreak seen in Victoria is less severe than some that have been seen in comparable jurisdictions. Importantly, the costs of the lockdown can also be denominated in the loss of life and health, with evidence mounting that people are deferring healthcare and mental health issues are spiking. As noted by a group of more than 500 medical experts in an open letter to the government, other jurisdictions have assessed the trade-off differently and chosen different measures.
Moreover, governments around the country, including the federal government, enjoy high approval ratings in respect of the pandemic, regardless of the measures they have taken. So it is not just a Victorian phenomenon. There is something else going on.
This article is from the Autumn 2020 edition of the IPA Review.
Awareness is growing that the coronavirus disease might cause two catastrophes. Speaking on the night of 24 March 2020, Prime Minister Scott Morrison put it this way:
We’re dealing with two crises. We’re dealing with a health crisis that has caused an economic crisis. And I am very concerned about the economic crisis that could also take a great toll on people’s lives; not just their livelihoods, the stresses that that will put on families. The things that can happen when families are under stress. I’m as concerned about those outcomes as I am about the health outcomes of managing the outbreak of the coronavirus. And it is a delicate task for the National Cabinet to balance those two. Lives are at risk in both cases.
On one hand, we face a public health crisis unlike any we have seen in recent years: a disease that can be deadly for the elderly and the vulnerable (and in rare cases, for others), that seems to spread rapidly, and that can be carried innocently by asymptomatic people. As the philosopher and risk expert Nassim Nicholas Taleb points out, where a risk is unquantifiable but known to be potentially catastrophic, precaution dictates you act as strongly as possible. This is because, by definition, you cannot tailor your response to something you do not understand.
On the other hand, the most effective action we can take in response to that potential catastrophe is, assessed in the same terms, itself potentially catastrophic. The costs of the current ‘flattening the curve’ policy are also unquantifiable: we do not know how many people will lose their jobs or their businesses or their homes or their investments, and—most importantly—we do not know how an economic collapse will affect people’s lives. Economic collapse will create people who cannot afford a home or sound nutrition, whose living standards are much lower perhaps for most of their lives, and who are placed under extraordinary psychological pressure. They will be killed by our overreaction just as surely as the victims of coronavirus will be killed by our inaction.
This is the full text of an email I sent the IPA’s members early on in the COVID lockdown.
Dear IPA Members
Since I joined the IPA in 2016, my main responsibility has been leading our criminal justice research. Our project takes its inspiration from the successful, conservative-led movement in the United States to improve community safety with common sense reforms that increase the effectiveness and efficiency of our society’s punishment and prevention of crime.
In that capacity, I have met with MPs across the country and I am in regular contact with other researchers in the field. When I have these meetings, I am always struck by two things: First, that if it were not for the IPA a conservative perspective on criminal justice reform simply would not be heard by those in power or by the public; and secondly, that no matter which parties or ministers were in government, the voices they would listen to on this issue would be the same, and so in effect would be their options.
Simply put, you can vote to change governments, but you do not get to vote on who advises governments. So some ideas never seem to die, while others never seem to get a look in, no matter what the public might support at elections or in polling. This is what I would like to talk to you about today.
ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE SPECTATOR AUSTRALIA
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic we have been repeatedly told that the only moral position is to defeat the virus at all costs. Any suggestion that the economic effects of keeping everyone in their homes and shutting down the country warrant our consideration is considered crass or obscene. If you venture that a bankrupt country is unlikely to be a healthy country, you are liable to be charged with attempted murder. Instead, the common, or at least loud and angry, refrain is that we must secure public health first, and only then can we worry about the future.
The antagonism proposed here is between those who are (earnestly, righteously) concerned with the lives at stake right now and those who are (selfishly, inhumanely) concerned with how society and the economy that sustains it will look after the shutdown. If we look more closely, though, we can see who is really exploiting this crisis.