Covid-19 — a personal view on the Australian response.
It seems I am incredibly naive, I heard several statements relating to the Covid-19 response last night that deeply troubled me.
The first was that there were only 2,000 intensive care unit (ICU) beds in Australia (ABC Q&A, 16 March 2020). Hold that thought.
The Australian Government has its Chief Medical Officer stand beside the PM or the Health Minister as if to provide a veil of professionalism and competency regarding its response. And yet, the response has been at best mediocre and at worst ….. Beyond the ban on flights from China into this country, the federal government doesn’t appear to have done anything that was timely or ‘ahead of the curve’ to reduce the infection rate. The federal government spokespeople are quick to tout that one particular measure as decisive government action when questioned.
However, current social distancing measures appear insufficient and impractical. The ludicrous suggestion for those needing to take public transport was to use hand sanitiser. Who has hand sanitiser? Schools will stay open (up to a point) and the risk of infection will be managed through good hand-washing. Some schools don’t even have soap. Have you seen some of the kids toilets? Closing schools before kids have chance to spread the virus around just seems sensible.
Australia is still waiting for practical, preemptive (life-saving) social distancing measures that will make a significant difference in flattening the infection curve. In this respect, we are far behind the curve with the Government unable to plan even 24 hours ahead. Schools and universities are still open. Some temporary closures have been made after the virus has already made its way into those institutions. Unlike the private sector, there does not appear to be a policy to actively promote working from home within federal government agencies, perhaps because government IT systems are not up to the challenge. A certificate from a doctor is often required to access special work from home arrangements. My mother/my partner might die if I give her a virus that I don’t yet have, really doesn’t cut it with the universities, and maybe not with some employers either. To their credit, some government agencies are being flexible.
I must declare a conflict of interest at this point. I have a tiny house and two adult children living at home. We only have one bathroom. I also have a number of chronic health conditions, including Type 1 diabetes. I use an insulin pump that my family don’t know how to operate. Also, I’m no spring chicken. The death rate for diabetics is high. I’m not sure why. It could be because those with diabetes are statistically more likely to have a range of serious health issues like kidney damage, heart disease, etc. Or maybe it is because when push comes to shove and decisions are being made in the hospital system about who should receive life-saving intensive care, having diabetes is a threshold test? I don’t know.
Self-isolation at home, particularly if I am unable to manage my diabetes myself, would be hugely challenging for my family. The alternative, going to hospital, could be deadly.
Personally it would help me immensely if universities suspended classes right now. In six weeks, my son will finish his university course. He is keen to do whatever it takes to finish his degree. So, in the meantime, he is stuck in lecture rooms with two hundred other students and in science laboratories working in small groups. That can’t be good. Who is responsible for making the decision as to when universities should close? If it is a decision by the federal government, they need to explain why this decision has been delayed.
Perhaps it just too big a hit to the economy if schools and universities close down? If we fail to act now, then we are on a trajectory to a major infection crisis cannot be avoided. The countries that have done best at flattening the infection curve are those that have engaged in widespread testing and introduced extensive social distancing measures. So far it has been a paltry effort in Australia, and with only 2000 ICU beds nationwide and the government unable to confirm the paltry number of test kits available, it will only be a matter of weeks before our health system succumbs.
John Daley, Chief Executive Officer of the Grattan Institute was interviewed for The Business last night (ABC, 17 March 2020), He said that all the economic modelling of similar novel infection outbreaks showed that the more countervailing measures put in place to deal with public health emergencies, the more these public health measures adversely impacted the economy. In his words,
The largest part of economic impact will be a consequence of what governments decide to do, essentially from public health measures to try and slow the diseases, the more economic damage they will do on the way through. That is the horrible trade-off they face and that we as a community face.”
Money or life? For those with strong constitutions that can survive the virus, it may be the economic impacts that harm them most. Am I getting to the nub of the Federal Government’s response here? This is a deeply conservative government that has managed to convince many in the electorate that it is a better economic manager than its opponent. Yet many of the elderly who are most likely to vote for them, will be the ones most affected by the virus. Awkward. Of course, the really wealthy can bunker down in their huge mansions with multiple bathrooms and have their groceries, sanitisers and toilet paper catered. If no sanitiser, there is always the drinks cupboard.
Several state and territory governments have declared public health emergencies. Shouldn’t that make the public health response the number one priority? So far our national government hasn’t stepped up, nor has it levelled with the Australian public about where it sees the balance of priority. Like this government’s other catchphrases, will the oft-used phrase “an abundance of caution” go down in history as more marketing spin.