How Australia went from ‘lucky country’ to ‘locked-up country’ under COVID-19

January 5, 2024
woman wearing a face mask looking out a window
With panic mounting among the public and pressure intensifying on governments to “do something” to control the pandemic, politicians simply threw out their plans, choosing instead to implement ad hoc measures. Image: Canva

The Locked-up Country: Learning the Lessons from Australia’s COVID-19 Response
By Tom Chodor and Shahar Hameiri
University of Queensland Press, 2023

When Australians, many still on summer holidays, started hearing news in early 2020 of an unknown virus outbreak in China’s Wuhan province, none could have imagined what would come next.

Even as China imposed its first lockdown in Wuhan on January 23, experts on ABC News were confidently predicting, “I can’t imagine the Australian government trying to quarantine a city like Sydney”.

Yet, for the next two years, federal and state governments converted Australia into “the locked-up country”, with Labor and Coalition politicians resorting to lockdowns and border closures in a bid to keep the COVID-19 virus at bay.

In their book, The Locked-up Country — a play on Donald Horne’s The Lucky Country — Tom Chodor and Shahar Hameiri meticulously chronicle how it was that governments, having exhausted their initial luck, opted for measures seemingly unthinkable just weeks before, arguing the explanation lies with Australia’s “regulatory state”.

This regulatory state, the authors explain, is the outcome of a long term shift that accompanied Australia’s turn to neoliberalism, from “top-down government to fragment and diffuse governance”.

This shift took five specific forms: regulatory federalism (where, rather than devolve responsibilities, federal agencies set out policy goals for the states); the handing over of decision-making to unelected policymakers; the outsourcing of public functions; privatisation; and marketisation of social services.

The overall aim was to make states less responsive to popular influence and expectations, while leaders could “claim plausible deniability over policy decisions and their outcomes”.

From the border closures and lockdowns of March 2020, hotel quarantine, subsequent lockdowns and border closures, to the rollout of vaccines and rapid antigen tests (RATs), the authors detail how the “key pathologies” of this regulatory state were evident every step of the way: namely, blurred lines of control and accountability, blame-shifting, political buck-passing and hollowed out capacity.

They highlight how COVID-19 exposed that governments — nowadays largely relegated to loosely coordinating a “motley array of quasi-independent agencies, both public and private” — have lost the capacity to govern.

Not that governments were unprepared — they had spent the previous 15 years planning for such a pandemic. But the regulatory state left governments with no capacity to implement those plans.

The dire lack of PPE (personal protective equipment), almost non-existent test and trace technology, and complete lack of hospital surge capacity at the onset of the pandemic were among the clearest demonstrations of this.

Furthermore, they argue that, given the tremendous divorce that exists between the political class and the rest of society, it is unlikely politicians could have convinced voters of their plans, whose aims and priorities were never publicly discussed.

So, with panic mounting among the public and pressure intensifying on governments to “do something”, politicians simply threw out their plans, choosing instead to implement ad hoc measures that their own plans and health experts had advised against.

In this sense, Chodor and Hameiri push back against the idea that then-Prime Minister Scott Morrison did not take the pandemic seriously. Their step-by-step recount of the first weeks of the pandemic proves the federal government did ignore the science — but only to go further and harder than what health officials and scientists were recommending.

And it seemed to work. Lockdowns and border closures didn’t just “flatten the curve” — they completely halted community transmission.

Yet, while it was evident the luck of geography had been critical to this success, the illusion that a highly infectious virus could be eliminated became widespread. Given pervasive fear and the emotional comfort that came with the idea of eliminating COVID-19, discussions regarding other possible measures “grounded in rational cost-benefit calculations” were precluded, as was “the emergence of more nuanced alternatives”.

In this context, politicians opted to convert what were initially one-off, short term emergency measures into their main — extremely blunt — instruments against the pandemic.

They did so because they quickly found out that lockdowns and border closures came with additional benefits.

These policies reassured a “panicked public” that “their governments were taking the pandemic extremely seriously by employing unprecedented measures!”. Meanwhile, politicians “look[ed] tough in office and enjoy[ed] remarkable levels of popularity, while facing limited accountability for their actions”, given they could argue they were simply following the health advice.

Whenever criticisms did emerge, there was always someone else to pass the buck on to.

State premiers, for example, sought to avoid scrutiny of their health systems by attacking the federal government over quarantining and the vaccine rollout — to which the federal government responded those were not its responsibilities.

More generally, governments preferred to put the blame on individuals.

Targets included those simply trying to return home, with Western Australian premier Mark McGowan questioning those who would “want to go overseas to COVID-infested countries in the middle of a pandemic” and asking “why should they then come home and risk the rest of us?” He soon got his wish when Morrison imposed a complete ban on arrivals from India that included Australian citizens.

The most common target, however, were individuals said to be lacking in morals or, as Victorian premier Daniel Andrews put it, made “selfish choices” that “keep us all locked down for longer than we should be”.

Never mind that, as Chodor and Hameiri note, for many working people the pandemic was “not a time of family board games and baking sourdough”; rather they had no choice but to leave their homes to staff hospitals, produce essential goods and stack supermarket shelves.

By the end of the pandemic, Australia was not the success story politicians painted it to be. In some cases, Australia ended up worse off than countries that avoided such extensive and drastic lockdown measures.

Moreover, the authors note that Australia ended up having 200 fewer intensive care beds by October 2021 than at the start of the pandemic, as state governments largely dismantled the contact tracing capacity they had built up.

With a review at the end of 2022 finding the federal Department of Health was in no way “prepared for another wave” of COVID-19, Australia is perhaps worse off, today than it was before COVID-19 to confront a similar challenge.

The federal Labor government has convened the Commonwealth Government COVID-19 Response Inquiry to look at the previous federal government’s responses to the pandemic. It will no doubt focus on the edges, while ignoring structural issues.

Anyone wanting to learn lessons from Australia’s pandemic response would do better to read this book instead.

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