There is an immortal line from The Sun Also Rises, in which one character asks another how he went bankrupt. “Gradually,” the latter replies. “And then suddenly.”
That’s how the coronavirus happened – gradually, and then suddenly. In January, I was half-listening to reports of a SARS-like illness in a distant Chinese province. In February, I was scratching my head at YouTube videos of fistfights over toilet paper. And then one day in March, a work colleague and I were sprinting to the pub around the corner, squeezing in one last pint before the bars closed for good at midday.
The city that day was like the fall of Saigon. Office workers spilled out into the street, hauling documents and folders and all manner of electronic equipment needed to barricade themselves at home. Late that night, I walked home myself through the deserted Melbourne streets, computer tower under my arm, as the better part of the civilised world sank into a dystopian hellscape.
How did we get here? Why did almost every country in the world deliberately plunge itself into a twenty-first century Great Depression? Did we take decisive – if costly – action to avert a genuine public health crisis? Or is this whole nightmare just a case of the world simultaneously shitting itself?
For a while, corona was exciting, in a twisted sort of way – at least for us news junkies. As frightening and terrible as the virus seemed to be, there was something compelling, something strangely addictive about the sense of chaos, the urgency of it all. Everything was in flux. Everything was interesting.
Tired, repetitive issues like climate change and gender identity were blasted out of the news cycle. Social media lit up. The pubs (before they closed) played Sky News with the sound on. Word got around that Trump was declaring a state of emergency for the first time since September 11. Through the blizzard of media releases and tweets and idle gossip, it became clear that Australia was on a kind of war footing itself. And we were all affected – every man, woman and child on planet earth. We were bit players in a Hollywood disaster flick playing out in real time.
Then the carnage began, as details of the ‘new normal’ emerged from the glorified phone hook-up that Scomo dubbed the ‘National Cabinet’. Restaurants, cafes, bars, the gymnasium, football games, places of worship, playgrounds, elective surgery, ‘non-essential activity’ of any kind – all off limits. The feds shut the borders, and then individual states – probably unconstitutionally – shut their own borders as well. To offset the damage, governments at every level hurled billions in any direction they credibly could. And as the soothing, insipid government advertisements began, packs of uniformed police appeared to enforce what became a great national state of house arrest.
But the amazing thing wasn’t the coronavirus response itself – monstrous as it was – but the speed and ease with which it happened. The gigantic new state just unfurled itself, to the enthusiastic acclaim of journalists, public servants, academics, celebrities who took to Instagram to share their tips on handwashing and the importance of ‘just staying home’.
All as parliaments were suspended and governments resorted to executive fiat.
And then one morning in April, we woke up to a state of something just short of martial law. The adrenalin of the outbreak was long gone by then. It seemed that almost everyone – myself included – was just wandering around in dumb despair.
The usual caveats about hindsight apply here. Even a few months later, it is easy to forget the perfect storm of political fearmongering, bureaucratic overreach and media saturation that scared the bejesus out of us.
The outbreak in a country as remote as Iran we could let slide. Footage of the People’s Liberation Army spraying the streets of Wuhan with enormous canisters of disinfectant was more confronting. But when reports emerged of the Italian hospital system melting down as bodies piled up, the switch was flipped to full-blown panic.
We were next, according to those sufficiently credentialled to know (seemingly) what they were talking about. Terrifying projections arose
from epidemiological models and Excel spreadsheets: Australia would run out of ICU beds, tens of thousands would die no matter what we did, the spread would be exponential. When active cases crept above 1000, the ABC’s resident prophet of doom Norman Swan tweeted that there would be “1700 [cases] on Monday [and] 7 [to] 8000 by next weekend”, that we were “14 to 20 days behind Italy”.
People became meaner, as the most ordinary acts of everyday life became conflated with a selfish callousness, an apparent indifference to killing the elderly and vulnerable en masse. Dob-in hotlines were set up, then flooded with calls. “Stay the fuck home” became a noble catchcry, whether to the world at large on social media, or directed against law-abiding citizens on the street.
For all the talk about ‘being in this together’, it was every man for himself in the new regime. The state had taken a free people, tanked their living standards, stolen their livelihoods, trashed their liberties, put the entire population under house arrest and turned private citizens into informants. All for a nasty strain of viral pneumonia with something like a 98 percent survival rate.
Bunkered down one day in my Spencer Street apartment, I looked up from my makeshift office and saw an interview with a spokesman for the Australian Medical Association. The usual stuff: “Flatten the curve”, “stay at home”, “protect the hospital system”.
“DID WE TAKE DECISIVE – IF COSTLY – ACTION TO AVERT A GENUINE PUBLIC HEALTH CRISIS? OR IS THIS WHOLE NIGHTMARE
JUST A CASE OF THE WORLD SIMULTANEOUSLY SHITTING ITSELF?”
I knew that bloke. He was bald and mean, and the last time I’d seen him was on ABC News Breakfast, trumpeting some bogus study into ‘Australia’s alcohol problem’ and spouting ‘solutions’ like persisting with Sydney’s idiotic lockouts and jacking up the price of goon. Watching him talk about corona, I realised what it was that bothered me so much.
We’d been here before: Kill-joy medico types proclaiming sundry ‘epidemics’ caused by everything from refined sugar to solar radiation. The difference was that after crying wolf about threats to our collective health for so long, they’d finally landed on a real one.
The villains I had spent my adult life raging against were now firmly in control. The public health lobby was having its demands met, to the letter. Cops could muscle up to people for almost any reason. Private enterprise was dying, and the public sector was thriving. Nobody could drive, nobody could go to the pub, nobody could do anything posing any risk whatsoever. All you could do was work, exercise and go to the bloody hospital. We were living under a dictatorship of Big Public Health – my worst goddamned nightmare.
And the worst part was that people hadn’t just accepted it, they demanded it – and rewarded dopey state premiers with stratospheric poll numbers when they got it. We had become a nation of neurotics, of enfeebled hypochondriacs. We had become so used to the idea of basic healthcare as
a ‘right’ that we expected the government to keep us one hundred percent safe, in one hundred percent of situations, and descended into idiotic hysteria when it turned out that it couldn’t.
It was a messy world, and often a dangerous one, but in invoking the state to mitigate any and all risks, nobody had stopped to query whether we were in danger of oversanitising and erasing the human condition.
By May, the veneer of ‘Team Australia’ unity had dissolved. The coronavirus had entered our consciousness as an existential threat that went ‘beyond politics’, but now a familiar fault line had emerged. On one side, there were the alarmists who insisted that the lockdowns had been absolutely necessary, and that a dangerous outbreak would still occur if we budged. On the other, a growing number of sceptics, for whom the state-sponsored ‘cure’ was worse than the disease.
The human costs of the coronavirus response are obvious. Unemployment is on track to be at its worst level since 1932. Lifeline is receiving 3000 calls a day with the suicide rate tipped to rise by 25 percent. With the government forcing victims to stay inside with perpetrators, rates of domestic violence are on the rise.
Meanwhile, the catastrophic predictions have, in most parts of the world, never eventuated. Active cases in Australia peaked at 4,935 on 3 April – the same day Norman Swan predicted up to 8,000 – and then nose-dived. In New York, infection rates were high, but the navy hospital ship that had been brought in floated back up the Hudson River after three weeks sitting mostly empty. Even in Sweden – whose laissez-faire approach made it a rogue state to alarmists and a poster child for sceptics – hospitals have handled the coronavirus caseload comfortably. Alarmists claim that the muted impact of the coronavirus is proof that lockdowns have worked, but most analysis suggests that their impact is almost negligible. ‘Hot spots’ like Italy, New York and Wuhan, for example, imposed strict lockdowns and infection rates continued to soar. Other countries fared better with low-key social distancing measures, like Taiwan, with a peak of 310 active cases and just seven deaths.
Instead, the impact of the coronavirus seems to have hinged on a suite of other factors, like population density and age profile, and – importantly – the climate. In fact, Australia arguably squandered the opportunity for herd immunity over summer and will be hit by a nasty ‘second wave’ when we emerge from lockdowns in the dead of winter.
But few countries have botched the coronavirus outbreak as badly as the United Kingdom, where the death rate hit five digits in early April. As in most countries, a great many deaths have been residents of nursing homes. But almost three quarters of these deaths have occurred in care homes themselves, not hospitals, which were kept largely vacant. Perversely, thousands of elderly Britons died to ‘save the NHS’.
Even so, the UK’s death rate has not come close to the 500,000 predicted. The underlying epidemiological modelling
has been found to be so full of errors that it is effectively worthless, and its author Professor Neil Ferguson was personally discredited when it was revealed that he had breached the lockdown with a booty call from his mistress.
In Australia too, the basis of state and territory governments’ coronavirus responses has proven to be flimsy, at best. Queensland’s Chief Medical Officer has admitted that she advised the government to close schools not because of any actual risk, but because “closing them down would help them understand the gravity of the situation”. And in Victoria, a bizarre tweet comparing the coronavirus to Captain Cook by Deputy CMO Annaliese van Diemen left thousands rightly saying: “Really? This is the kind of ‘expert’ we’ve been told to listen to?”
As I write this, Melbourne is coming back to life. There’s more traffic on the roads. Parks and shopping centres are full. People are over it, and Melbourne is on the move again, whether Daniel Andrews likes it or not. Yet at time of writing, lockdown measures are still largely in place, and we live press conference to press conference, waiting as our pre-corona lives are drip-fed back to us, piece by piece.
Fear has become anger. And we should be angry – it is our right to be angry. A great injustice has been done to us, to our country, to our children and quite possibly to those yet to be born. The state has robbed us of our incomes, our livelihoods, our freedom of movement, our relationships and social lives and worst of all, our sense of hope.
If nothing else, this horrible episode has laid bare the cruelty that government can inflict on its own citizens for no good reason – a road to societal ruin, paved with the noblest of intentions. It is proof of the old adage that a government big enough to give you everything you want is also big enough to take away everything you have. Gradually, and then suddenly.