“Ernie,” Bert asks perplexed, “why is that banana in your ear?”
“I use this banana to keep the alligators away!” Ernie replies.
“Alligators?!?” Bert says. “Ernie, there are no alligators on Sesame Street!”
“Right!” Ernie replies triumphantly. “It’s doing a good job isn’t it!”
Thus even two Muppets demonstrate that they understand a fundamental scientific principle: correlation does not imply causation.
This is preschool logic – a joke that even three-year-olds are supposed to get. And yet it is a concept that many adults in the community today clearly fail to grasp.
Nowhere is this myth more apparent than in the deranged debate about school closures, a measure driven by politics, populism and panic at the expense of a generation of children.
Even the genesis of these closures was nothing short of high farce. The writers of Yes Minister couldn’t have scripted it better.
First is the fig leaf of Orwellian doublespeak that has surrounded it from day one. In Victoria, the most hard-line of the states, the schools were not “closed” – students just suddenly went on school holidays three days early. Then when the holidays were over the schools were still open but parents were told they must not send their children to them – except of course for the poorest or most disadvantaged who had no choice or the essential workers on the frontline of the COVID fight.
As a result, about 95 to 97 per cent of kids were pulled out of schools in that state and the government is still maintaining that’s the way it will stay even as it tries to inch open the back door as its position becomes more and more untenable.
Because even as the Victorian government was disappearing children, Queensland was declaring schools open for one and all. Totally safe!
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That was of course before that state’s teachers union revolted and within a couple of days Annastacia Palaszczuk was declaring that schools were not safe after all and would be closed for all but the children of those same poor people actually going to work – for whom the schools were, miraculously, actually still safe.
To the Queensland Premier’s great credit, she managed to say all this with a straight face. I doubt I could have done the same. NSW pursued a similar strategy but without the double-backflip and half-pike twist, while in WA schools were closed and then reopened and in SA schools were simply kept open.
Apparently while the coronavirus defies all conventional laws of medicine it is remarkably respectful of Australian state borders. Because, you know, science.
All the closures were against the advice of the federal chief medical officer and the vast bulk of expert opinion. You can read the CMO’s comments here.
And an investigation by NSW authorities – supported by overseas data – now shows there is no evidence of children at school spreading coronavirus. You can read that report here.
And the data shows children under 15 are far less likely to either catch or transmit the disease. You can find multiple scientific sources here.
And yet in some parts of the country a policy pursued with no evidence for it is still being clung to despite almost universal evidence against it. There is no rational reason for this. It is either a political face-saving exercise or a placebo for an unnecessarily panicked public.
Meanwhile children continue to suffer. Hundreds of thousands of kids will be disadvantaged and thousands may slip through the cracks never to return.
And why? Because a section of the community is convinced that just because schools were closed at the same time as the number of corona cases went down that one must have caused the other.
These are the Ernies of the world, people with bananas in their ears bragging about the lack of alligators. And it’s time we decided whether we are a nation of Ernies or a nation of Berts.
In short, do we listen to all the evidence or only that which suits our ideology and self-interest? And when our assumptions are wrong do we have the courage to acknowledge that?
Of course in an unknown and fast-moving crisis it is not just understandable but preferable to err on the side of caution. Our governments state and federal have done an exceptional job of driving virus numbers down to minuscule levels without the high death counts or extreme lockdowns of other nations.
But it is now clear to most authorities that some measures have been, as Sir Humphrey might put it, “excessively effective”. And – in the case of school closures – wholly unnecessary. This is self-evident in the fact that most jurisdictions are either moving to reopen schools or never closed them in the first place.
Indeed, the strength of our response is that it has been mostly rational, proportionate and flexible. The whole point of the latter is that it allows us to discard the irrational and disproportionate elements.
This brings us to the second great myth of the corona catastrophists, namely that defeating the virus is an end in itself. In fact it is only the beginning.
Another far greater catastrophe is looming as the number of jobless doubles and desperate people eat into their savings and superannuation – at least those who are lucky enough to have either. This will hit home in the weeks and months ahead and the full cost will not be realised for decades.
Overwhelmingly, as with all crises, the poor are hit the hardest while those with money or job security speak the loudest. Those able to ride out the lockdown in comfort seem most dedicated to the indefinite and probably illusory goal of complete eradication while those already wiped out are largely invisible except in overlay footage of Centrelink queues.
This brings us to the final great myth of the whole coronavirus crisis that “we are all in this together”. The truth is there is clearly a section of the community that can easily weather the economic storm and another far greater number that will be smashed against the rocks.
This is what I and many others have been desperately arguing from the outset: There is no point claiming victory over the virus if you destroy society in the process and consign the most vulnerable to the scrap heap.
Yet some lockdown extremists still seem unable to comprehend this. Perhaps most bizarrely, many consider themselves progressive even though what they advocate will hurt workers, students and the poor the most.
And so here are just four facts to consider – the four horsemen of the human apocalypse:
More than 700,000 people lost their jobs in the first week of the corona shutdown.
By this week half a million businesses had already applied for JobKeeper payments covering more than three million employees – namely three million people who would be unemployed without the government’s intervention.
Nearly half the nation’s schoolkids could suffer setbacks.
And the worst hit will be the poorest.
Just to be fair and balanced, all the sources I’ve quoted are from notoriously right-wing organisations such as the ABC, various universities and World Vision. If this is a pro-business conspiracy then it runs deeper than Operation Treadstone.
Because all smart people know that despite the lunar ramblings of a few fringe ideologues, economies do not just miraculously spring back to life fully formed. And even if they do recover there are countless lives that are left behind.
Likewise there are schoolkids already struggling to keep pace or hanging in the system by a thread. It is the height of either privileged naivety or callous indifference to think they can disappear for a term and then pick up where they left off unaffected.
Indeed, for all their protests about what is best for society it is clear some people are thinking far more about what is best for themselves. It will be telling, for example, to see how many of those who rail against the loss of life or livelihoods decide that the sanctity of their mobile phone data is too precious to download an app that could save both.
In the meantime, some adults will never work again, some children will never go to school again, some will take their own lives in despair and others will slip through the cracks and simply disappear.
When that day comes those who said that lockdowns should have been harder or schools closed for longer should remember what they wished for. And the rest of us should remember it too.
Joe Hildebrand is editor-at-large for news.com.au and co-host of Studio 10, from 8am weekdays on Channel 10 | @Joe_Hildebrand