Whatever the early delays, limits and bungling in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we can be relieved that Australia did not follow in lock-step with Britain and the United States.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson initially proposed to let the virus spread, only isolating the most frail and immuno-compromised until such time as 70-80% of the population had become infected and recovered, as the path to “herd immunity”. After realising the likely political implications of an enormous death toll likely to arise from such a strategy, he made a U-turn.
President Donald Trump has been on much the same course, but in an even more incoherent manner, and with horrifying results.
It would seem that Johnson and Trump were simply not prepared to sacrifice any production and profits in the here and now.
Perhaps they dreamed of stealing a march on international competitors in China and Europe, which had already shut down parts of their economies?
But, with so many lives already lost, they finally grasped the political and economic consequences of hundreds of thousands of people dying was not something they could control.
In a number of East Asian and South-East Asian countries, which had already had to cope with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), governments moved quickly to suppress the virus.
A suppression approach seeks to stop transmission altogether, and protect as many people as possible from catching the virus. It is centred on exhaustive symptom spotting, testing and tracing; and is combined with strict enforcement of quarantine and vigorous public education campaigns.
To date, this strategy has been effectively applied in South Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan and Singapore, among others. They had the advantage of applying these measures before any significant COVID-19 outbreaks.
Although the rates of testing are relatively low in Vietnam, it has the benefit of a community-based preventative health system.
China is now also implementing a suppression approach, but only after imposing a two month lock-down in Wuhan with an intensity that few other countries could match.
In Australia, the government initially told us its strategy would be mitigation, not suppression. This meant it was initially focused on dramatically slowing the spread of the virus, or “flattening the curve”, to stop the many deaths that would result from overloading the health system.
However, it was also explained that mitigation means the majority of us will eventually have to get the virus. In that sense, its endpoint is also herd immunity unless a vaccine comes along first.
It would still exact a huge death toll: we already know that even with access to intensive care the virus still kills many people.
If suppression of the virus can be achieved without imposing unbearable social and economic stress on working people and will save tens of thousands of lives, that is what we should be doing.
We know that lockdowns, including ones more severe that what we have experienced so far, may still be required to get on top of flare-ups.
However a strategy based on mass testing and contact tracing, mass symptom testing, vigorous public education and strict quarantine for those infected, plus a significant expansion of hospital capacity remains entirely possible.
Of course, there is no guarantee that even if we do all that, there will not still be some community transmission. There is also no guarantee that there will be a vaccine.
Fighting for every life
But, right now fighting to save every life possible should be the starting point.
Despite Australia’s relative success in stopping the spread of COVID-19 putting the country in a position to consider adopting the suppression approach, on April 1 West Australian Health Minister Roger Cook was reported by the ABC as insisting that mitigation remained the goal.
“The aim of this is not to stop transmission of the virus altogether … Despite the low number of new cases, a New Zealand-style elimination approach towards the virus is not on the table for WA.”
The article continued that a vaccine is considered “too distant” and that “the [elimination] approach could see Western Australia forced to maintain ‘draconian’ public health measures for much longer than the rest of the nation…
“It could also lead to a scenario where, before a vaccine became available, enough people would have been infected and then recovered from the virus in the eastern states for effective herd immunity to start to be achieved.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison seemingly contradicted this on April 3 when he explained Australia was entering the “suppression phase”. Then, at a joint press conference on April 7, he and Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy explained that they did not envisage elimination of the virus like in New Zealand or Wuhan.
However, Murphy added: “To be clear, we are not pursuing a path of ‘herd immunity’, we are pursuing a path of control and suppression.”
This suggests two things. First, the federal and states governments are making it up as they go along and do not yet really know what the end game is. Secondly, whatever their initial advocacy of mitigation, they are being pushed towards suppression.
Having convinced us of the importance of not catching or spreading the virus, they now surely recognise that telling us they want most of us to get it after all will not be an easy sell.
Saving lives or the economy?
As the national discussion about what a medium- to long-term strategy looks like, we should reject the irrational and morally wrong idea that we are faced with an immediate choice between saving lives and saving the economy, such as former foreign minister Alexander Downer claimed when he tweeted: “We either save avoidable deaths & destroy society OR accept avoidable deaths & save society. The moral dilemma of our time”.
Of course, in an absolute sense, resources directed towards containing COVID-19 come at the expense of something else, and fighting the virus can not come at any cost to the economic and social well-being of working and unemployed people.
But when Downer, or Morrison, talk about balancing health and “the economy”, they mean corporate profits.
In this context, it is worth remembering that Downer served as a paid consultant for Australia’s largest oil and gas company, Woodside, after leaving politics.
This industry pays very little in taxes and royalties, with absolutely none yet payable on the newest projects: it pays an effective tax rate of 2.5%, which means much of this resource is effectively handed over for free to the big oil and gas companies.
Mining has not been shut down by COVID-19, despite a worker on an oil rig testing positive. These companies are not contributing to the cost of putting other sectors of the economy into hibernation like the rest of us are.
Morrison has wanted to avoid shutting down sections of the economy but has been dragged by the states to take stronger measures.
He became convinced of the need to almost completely shut down the hospitality, leisure, sports, entertainment, travel and tourism industries. This has been coupled with a creeping lockdown of social interaction in public places.
Meanwhile, in other sectors that are not essential and present abundant opportunity for transmission, like Harvey Norman department stores, life goes on with only a feeble enforcement of distancing.
It is a fair guess that mining and fossil fuel exports are going to remain classified as “essential”, unless things get really dire.
Morrison and the premiers have agreed to go really hard on hospitality and interaction in public places in return for not shutting down other sectors unless they have to.
These capitalist politicians will continue to be loathe to sacrifice profits for efficiency in a virus suppression strategy, but are keen to give away our freedoms to make up for it.
While some distancing and quarantine measures need to be absolutely enforced, we need to be clear that charting the best course to tackle the pandemic means subordinating corporate profits to public need.
[Sam Wainwright is co-convener of the Socialist Alliance in West Australia.]