Several times a day, Morrison assures us the government is following the best expert advice. Turns out experts are quite helpful, not just to run our response, but to reassure the public, who trust them a whole lot more than they trust politicians.
The 2019 Australian Election Survey found just 25 per cent of Australians have trust in government, the lowest level since the survey began in 1987. This is a very sobering statistic now we are facing down a government-led response to a global pandemic.
But Australians’ trust in experts and other public authorities, including doctors, universities, police, the military and the public service, remains strong, the survey’s co-director Professor Ian McAllister told me this week.
On Friday morning Morrison told reporters he was “looking forward” to going to his weekend football match. Former senator Derryn Hinch labelled him “irresponsibly Trumpian”. On Friday afternoon, the PM announced a recommendation against non-essential gatherings of 500 people, starting Monday. He said he would still watch the Sharks play. It was a confusing message – do pandemics rest on the weekend and head back to work on Monday? Late Friday night the PM changed his mind, after Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton announced he had the virus, and said he wouldn’t attend due to the possibility it would be misrepresented if he did.
Experts had already been making loud rumblings that large gatherings were a bad idea – people including ABC broadcaster Dr Norman Swan and Bill Bowtell, adjunct professor at UNSW’s Kirby Institute for Infection and Immunity, and Andrew Miller, president of the West Australian Medical Association.
In the absence of clear guidance, private operators took matters into their own hands: Melbourne’s Grand Prix was cancelled, one-day cricket played without crowds and countless corporate and professional gatherings were put off. Dark Mofo, the winter solstice arts festival held in Hobart every June, was cancelled by founder David Walsh. Walsh made his riches through professional gambling and is an expert in probability and assessing risk.
Despite what appear to be the diligent best efforts of government, there is persistent widespread confusion about who should be tested, where they should go for testing, whether we should still be mixing with elderly family members, and whether we should be working from home where possible.
Morrison addressed the nation this week and told us to visit the health.gov.au website or “talk to your local GP” if we have questions. But are we really supposed to book an appointment at our GP, fit it in around our work and family commitments, possibly pay a gap fee, and clog up frontline health services, just to have a chat?
It is strange how the government was able to so quickly produce a self-serving advertisement lauding its bushfires response and yet has not (yet) rolled out a mass public health ad campaign about this virus. A $30 million national information campaign was announced on Wednesday, but it’s unclear when it will launch.
It is easy to criticise from the sidelines of a fast-moving, deepening crisis, but Australians should make no apologies for having high expectations of our health system and the government of the day that manages it.
One only has to glance at the United States, a supposedly civilised country where a staggering 28 million of its citizens have no health insurance, to realise how fortunate we are to have universal free healthcare and functional government. Medicare was a reform that successive Coalition governments opposed and attempted to roll back. It has now become so ingrained in Australians’ conception of what our government owes us that it is politically untouchable.
While there is criticism of the Morrison government’s health response, there is condemnation of Donald Trump’s. In February he said “we are going down not up” in terms of numbers of infections. He asserted that coronavirus was “going to disappear, one day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear”.
He blamed Barack Obama for the appallingly slow rate of virus testing, and when asked about the World Health Organisation’s figure of a 3.4 per cent mortality rate for the illness, he said that was “really a false number. This is just my hunch.”
In his address to the nation on Thursday, Trump blamed Europe for spreading disease in the US and announced a ban on travel from Europe with no detail, leaving American citizens there in a state of panic. He accidentally announced a trade ban with Europe, which he later clarified on Twitter. He gave flat-out wrong information about coronavirus testing and treatment.
We are watching, in real time, the dystopian collision of a self-interested, lying, narcissistic leader of authoritarian instincts, with a spreading pandemic in a country with a failed-state health system and large parts of its media actively spreading conspiracy theories instead of news.
Frank M Snowden, a professor emeritus of history and the history of medicine at Yale University, last year published a book called Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present. In a fascinating interview with The New Yorker in light of the coronavirus crisis, he said “epidemic diseases are not random events that afflict societies capriciously”.
“On the contrary, every society produces its own specific vulnerabilities,” Snowden said. “To study them is to understand that society’s structure, its standard of living, and its political priorities.”
Already this disease is showing us the ugliness of Trump’s America, laid bare and raw, and it will only get worse.
In Australia we are much luckier, but if the summer of bushfires didn’t knock us out of our characteristic complacency, this will.
We pride ourselves on having better-than-most government, a robust, well-functioning public health system, and a strong social fabric. If this crisis holds up a mirror to our society, let’s hope we like what we see.
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Jacqueline Maley is a senior journalist, columnist and former Canberra press gallery sketch writer for The Sydney Morning Herald. In 2017 she won the Peter Ruehl Award for Outstanding Columnist at the Kennedy Awards