a six-minute read image by Elizabeth Renstrom from Bloomberg.com
Don’t you love having to eat crow on a public platform? Well, I’m about to tie my bib on and tuck in. So read on.
A little over six weeks ago – a veritable lifetime in the timeline of COVID19 crisis, where things seems to be moving on a daily, if not sometimes hourly basis – I was dismayed by what appeared to be a ‘meh’ response from the Federal government, as COVID19 crept its way into Australia.
Like, WHY didn’t we close the borders sooner? Why can’t the government just air-drop toilet paper across the nation? Why can’t we just shut everything down, Rodrigo-Duterte-style, ASAP!
I realised even at the time that my reaction was akin to a knee-jerk, panicked response. (Admittedly, it was a complete oversimplification of ontological matters that would really require endless Venn diagrams and briefings by experts – far above my pay grade.) But toward the beginning of the lockdown measures, when the announcement was made that schools would remain open, I was filled with a small-but-simmering sense of rage. I thought we were staring at the crest of the oncoming wave, and not enough was being done to stop it.
In those moments following, I felt a sense of powerlessness I had not experienced since I was a child. It was the same all-encompassing but nebulous sense of anxiety that I had in the wake of the September 11 attacks (when I still lived in the States), and in the days and weeks following Trump’s presidential victory in 2016.
It wasn’t just my personal anxiety, it was mammoth and collective. It was altruistic and palpable. How is this going to unfold? What is going to happen next? What can we do – as individuals, as a collective – to prevent whatever bad thing or onslaught is coming next? There was a sense of collective breath-holding, as if waiting for the other (disastrous) shoe to drop.
A comorbidity of my altruistic worrying was also the self-absorbed kind: as the virus marched on, I wondered, Will I still have a job? (I’m a contract employee, easily expendable even under the best of circumstances, but especially in times of crisis!) What if my parents – Boomers, on the other side of the world – get sick from this? Or other close family members? What if I get sick? (I’m the family Uber driver/chef/laundress/chief food procurer and I also have ZERO sick leave as a contracted/casual employee!) What if I get sick and – gasp – don’t recover? Also, can someone infected please cough onto the phone Trump uses for his endless tweeting?!? AND in the face of all this stress, I can’t even have a drink! Ugh.
Like so many faced with similar concerns (and many with far worse), I could have easily have allowed myself to become consumed by both my general concerns for the wider society layered upon my own personal ones; if I dared to dip my toe into the river of worry for too long, I might just fall in.
But then: in the week following Sco-Mo’s very public chiding of the Bondi beachgoers on 22 March, Australia hit its national daily peak: 460 diagnosed cases of COVID19 were reported in a single day, on 28 March. (Consider this number in relation to the U.S., which had a high of 39, 958 cases in a single day, on 23 April; this is tragically a consequence of what happens when there is lack of federally-coordinated leadership in a time of unparalleled crisis.)
While Australia’s numbers pale in comparison (even when adjustments are made relative to population size), that week was certainly a watershed moment for Australia in the battle against coronavirus. It was the time when things could have gone either way. But after this – and perhaps because of Sco-Mo’s forceful wakeup call – things began to change. For the better.
Australians listened. The Federal government’s plans – which included social distancing, work-from-home directives, forced closures and other initiatives – seemed to be taking root. And while there was a little bit of friction between what was state regulated and what was federal (‘barber shops can service clients for no less than 17 minutes, but no more than 32 minutes’), overall there was a united front.
And we are starting to see the positive results: over the course of the last six weeks, Australia’s numbers have continued to fall – and fall dramatically. At the time of writing this, on 8 May, only 18 new cases were reported, bringing the total number of cases nationally to 6,914. Compare this again to America, where the number of cases has topped 1.3 million; this week, it was announced that the American death toll from the virus now exceeds the number of lives lost in the Vietnam War. All this, while their fearless leader tweets from the safety of his ivory tower White House.
While the Coalition government may have appeared to (my neophyte, myopic, motherhood-filtered eyes) be a bit slow in responding – they weren’t. They weren’t going to shoot first and ask questions later. They were actually formulating a plan. A big call – HUGE! – considering that nothing of this magnitude, health-wise, had ever happened in the lifetime of anyone who is currently alive. (I’m excluding you from this general statement, 116-year-old Japanese lady, Kane Tanaka!) And it’s a plan that has worked – enough so for the Coalition to this week introduce a phased plan for re-opening the country.
It’s not often that we get to see the near-immediate results of government agendas, policies, decisions and laws. That’s probably a once in a generation occurrence. The last time a change in legislation produced such swift and long-reaching results was when the Howard government introduced the firearms buyback scheme in 1996, as a consequence of the Port Arthur massacre.
But usually, the effects of such government decisions are akin to trying to turn a battleship. The change happens. Eventually. It just takes time. A lot of it. Like, sometimes in the Biblical sense.
But this was not the case here. In addition to the closures of many public venues and businesses, the Morrison government also did two other important (and commendable) things: 1. They tried to alleviate the financial fears of so many who would be directly impacted by loss of work with the announcement in quick succession of two stimulus (stimuli?) packages. And – perhaps most admirably – the leadership team has kept party politics out of it.
This has not been about political egos. (In fact, poor Sco-Mo has looked completely exhausted in many of his briefings; the crown is indeed heavy.) This has not been a battleground for Coalition versus Labour or for opportunistic cajoling of voters. There has been very little mud-slinging. This is about Australia and protecting the Australian people. Even the journalists have shown remarkable restraint when it comes to their usual stoking of the cross-party fires. Long may it last.
While the virus has not been completely eradicated here, and there is still a long road ahead with regard to easing current restrictions, the bottom line is this: lives have been saved. As I watch my home country from afar, I can’t say the same. Too many lives in America have been treated as expendable.
While we do live in the Lucky Country, in this situation, some would say luck has nothing to do with it. Either way? I’m grateful. This is one time when I don’t mind eating crow. Now pass the salt.