A May Day Even Conservatives Can Celebrate

It’s time to celebrate (privately, while social distancing), because the worst of the epidemic seems to be over, at least in Australia. Reported new cases of coronavirus topped out on March 29 and have been falling ever since. Given that an infection usually has to become symptomatic before it is detected as a ‘case’, this implies that actual new transmissions of the coronavirus peaked the week of March 23, just after the notorious Bondi Beach backpacker parties and the Ruby Princess fiasco.

As Winston Churchill said after the Battle of El Alamein, ‘this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning’. For Australia, the beginning of the beginning was in late January, with a trickle of cases spilling over from China before travel restrictions took effect on February 1. Now our coronavirus ‘war’ is about to enter its second phase. First came the seemingly irresistible onslaught. Now begins the period of managed disease. Final victory may still be some way off, but it is in sight.

Yet most people (dare I add: most politicians) still do not understand the nature of the war we are fighting. Either they want to save lives at any cost, embracing a permanent lockdown, or they want to save the economy at any cost, throwing the elderly under the coronavirus bus in a vain attempt to save their superannuation balances. Even as Australia shows success in its public health war, both sides in this secondary policy war are flat-out wrong.

We’re not in self-isolation to save lives, whether our own or those of the people we might meet in the grocery store. If we were, then young and invulnerable Bondi backpackers might as well party it up, while the sick and elderly stay home to avoid infection. That’s the Sweden model: let the healthy catch the virus, since it probably won’t hurt them anyway. The problem with that approach is that it can strain the healthcare system to breaking point.

The strange fact is that we’re not in self-isolation to save lives, but to save hospitals. When hospitals are overwhelmed with infectious disease patients — as they have been in New York and northern Italy — they can’t treat anyone else. Even during a public health emergency, people still give birth, have strokes, need chemotherapy, fall off roofs, and all the rest. Chronic diseases like diabetes and schizophrenia don’t just go away because all our attention is focused elsewhere. Most people who die this week won’t die of coronavirus.

Of course, saving hospitals also means saving lives. Unless we’re willing to let victims of car accidents bleed to death on our motorways, we have to keep our emergency departments open for new patients, not clogged into the hallways with coronavirus patients. But that doesn’t require the full elimination of the virus, which experts assure us is only possible with a vaccine that may be 18 months away, or never appear at all. It only requires that new infections be capped at a manageable level.

In Australia, we now seem to be approaching that level. Once we reach the point where every new case can be quickly identified, tracked, and quarantined, it will be time to bring the economy out of ‘hibernation’, to use the prime minister’s metaphor. At that point, we don’t have to self-isolate from coronavirus any more than we have to self-isolate from car accidents: going out always means taking risks. Even staying home can kill you. When we can be sure that every new coronavirus case will receive first-class medical care without unduly endangering hospital staff or other patients, it will be time to get back to work.

And play. Lately it seems as if our politicians are ‘half in love with easeful Death’ — and half in love with the new police powers and unlimited spending authority that the electorate’s fear of easeful Death has given them. They seem especially gleeful whenever they have the opportunity to punish people for having fun. They seem almost to suffer from ‘coronavirus envy’, wishing that things could be worse so that they can credibly play the role of latter-day war leaders.

With any luck, Australia’s lockdown lite should be over by the end of the month. The Commonwealth should declare a day of thanksgiving on May 1, and ask everyone to self-isolate for one final celebratory long weekend. Then, assuming that things are under control, we should sensibly resume normal work life on Monday, May 4. Bars and banquet halls may need to stay closed a little longer, and the travel industry will have to settle in for a long war. But most economic activities should be able to resume in May, with little risk of sparking a secondary epidemic.

The coronavirus lockdown may have to stay in place for the rest of April, but the lockdown mentality must end. Come May, widespread, continuous testing should take the place of keeping everyone home ‘just in case’. No one but columnists, catastrophists and politicians will benefit from keeping people home longer than is absolutely necessary. The columnists can always find something else to write about, and the catastrophists can go back to worrying about climate change. As for the politicians … a few more months of self-isolation might not be such a bad idea!

Salvatore Babones is an associate professor at the University of Sydney

9 comments
  • ianl

    > ” … throwing the elderly under the coronavirus bus in a vain attempt to save their superannuation balances”

    Thank you for that phrase. Incarcerating the 70+ in deliberate isolation indefinitely, healthy or ill, is an indescribably mean idea, buttressed by the sanctimonious hypocrisy of “protecting the vulnerable”.

    I do think, however, that your May optimism is naive, although it’s a welcome, tempting possibility. Our CMO is now rabbiting on about keeping the lockdown in place until the rest of the world is free of C19. Which may be never. As you correctly point out, no coronavirus of any potency has been completely eradicated – SARS, MERS, HiV, Ebola strains are all still extant and all without either vaccines or prophylactics.

    So what is our Murphy now on about ? Power for the nanny state, of course. Overseas travel – nope ! (Except for the self-described elite). Internal car travel – only if you agree to a tracking “app” on your phone. Sin taxes on everything these wowsers don’t like. We import almost everything – that’ll have to stop, might bring infection, you know.

    I do find it extraordinary, though, that these people impose drastic restrictions beyond the call, then while describing “us” as good boys and girls, hide behind the guns of the police forces. Do they really think we don’t notice ?

  • Peter Sandery

    What has got me puzzled is why, if this C-19 thing is such an emergency, is it that testing is suspended over Easter for example – that’s real 9 to 5 mentality thinking. Isn’t it? Perhaps I am missing something in my dotage.

  • Stephen Due

    One my neighbour’s sons lost his job due to the lock-down, and has since tried to commit suicide. In another nearby family, the son and the daughter were working in casual positions and have been sacked. In another family, the son who recently completed his degree considers himself fortunate to have a job in the local Coles store. In the university where my daughter works, many academic staff not on contracts have been terminated. In our local shopping centre on the High Street six traders (two cafes, two women’s clothing stores, a gift shop, and a car tyre business) closed permanently when the lock-down started. Others are now closed indefinitely. My question for the Prime Minister and the CMO is this: how much economic destruction, how much social chaos, how much human misery, will be necessary before you deign to bring this reckless policy of social engineering to an end?

  • Farnswort

    While I think Salvatore Babones is overly optimistic in terms of his timeframes, I enjoyed this piece nonetheless. His pieces are always worth a read.

  • Lo

    The Swedish approach is not straining the healthcare system to breaking point. The number of new cases daily has been dropping, too soon of course to draw conclusions but apparently not the horrors of which they were warned. Also, the death count is the number of people in Sweden who have died after testing positive for the virus. It does not mean the virus was the cause of death.
    It is the hysteria, the tragic compliance and the overbearing, scarcely concealed delight of imposing yet tighter limits on our freedoms that is truly concerning. There is nothing medically risky that would justify banning us from sitting with a loved one with a thermos in a park.
    The small park at the edge of our local shopping area has been cordoned off with a 6ft high wire fence. Apart from during the local festival I’ve never seen it contain more than six people. The effect is punitive. I guess it is meant to be.

  • STJOHNOFGRAFTON

    Yeah. Let’s hope the authorities let us out of lockdown on the First of May so we can cerebrate over our freedom.

  • Salvatore Babones

    Thanks, Farnswort!

  • talldad

    It may be too late but I was hoping that there could be a special dispensation for this coming Saturday, being Anzac Day.

    More generally, I agree that we could revert at least to Stage 2 immediately (maximum of 10 people gathering with 2m “social distancing” (ugh!) I believe), followed by Level 1 (100 people in gatherings with 1m social distancing which might allow pubs, clubs, restaurants and sit-down meal places to re-open) by May 9th, in time for Mothers Day. I note that Diktator Dan here in Viktoriastan borrowed the 11th May date from Europe – gee, thanks for the great leadership! /sarc

    If he wants to continue following that lead then he should look at either Sweden or Switzerland. Latest news from the Swiss is that they are ready to ease their restrictions. To quote from an email from my sister-in-law:
    “in 3 phases from 27th April. The first will allow all medical practices (for routine treatments), hairdressers,
    DIY stores, garden centres, florists to open. Social distancing and hygiene will need to continue, and it’s pretty certain we will need to wear masks (if you can find any – hence making our own reusable ones).
    The 2nd phase will start on 11th May and be for children of compulsory school age and other shops. The 3rd phase will start on 8th June and be for higher education as well as museums, zoos, libraries, etc.”

    Whilst I would disagree with the details, at least they have a plan.

  • DENNIS BOOTHBY

    Please call it the WUHAN virus and not Covid19 or Corona Virus. The HENDRA Virus, the ROSS RIVER Fever Virus and the EBOLA Virus etc. etc. were all named after the places they were discovered or came from. The same should apply to the WUHAN Virus even if it upsets the Chinese Communist Party and its toadies in the media.

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