Quarterly Essay 79, by Katherine Murphy, is about the politics around the beginning of the pandemic breakout of 2020, entitled The End of Certainty.
Released in about August 2020, this essay looks at the beginning of the global response, and also at the national response in Australia.
“In America, the reflection has been dystopian … In Britain, the experience has been chaotic… Health systems in Spain and Italy haven’t coped with the disaster their governments failed to manage… Europe was devastated with the main exception being Germany… In China, the experience was Orwellian with the population facing brutal lockdowns.”
Murphy argues that the pandemic has failed to trigger a coordinated global response. It has exposed many weaknesses in global institutions, as well as global supply chains. America has fully withdrawn from the moral responsibility of global leadership, so that we now inhabit a post-American world. The crisis has accelerated world history, and impelled us back into nation-states rather than global communities, with nations having varying speed and efficiency rolling down the shutters and formulating their responses. Many interventions have even been sub-national, with States and provinces taking leadership and implementing regional interventions.
As well as exploring the political landscape worldwide over the last decade to set the scene, the essay explores the early warnings in December 2019 of the pandemic to come, and the modelling that started informing governments in early 2020. There has been debate about the origins of the virus, and the accuracy of modelling – whether the lock downs were warranted. Were the models helpful, or did they drive politicians into an economy-destroying panic?
Part of the reason Australian numbers have been so low, and the death rate even lower, has been that Australian politicians acted on the medical advice says Murphy. They respected scientific evidence. Expert advice is not always taken – it has been disregarded as false in America, and their President was enabled to make up his own truth. Yet, why won’t our politicians listen to scientists in relation to climate change?
Another aspect that will be explored in the coming months and years is the Constitutional powers of the Federal government and the States in making the decisions that they did. With the emergency in March, the ‘National Cabinet’ was set up as a sub-committee of the federal cabinet. This brought together a group of State leaders with the Prime Minister to deliberate and work quickly without much democratic accountability. The National Cabinet, concerningly, did not have much parliamentary oversight, is largely outside Australia’s freedom-of-information laws, and involved a significant centralisation of power.
This crisis, and the split in emotions about the political decisions made, has again highlighted how unsatisfactory voting is as a means of expressing our democratic opinion. It appears that future generation are likely to want more say and more immediate feedback to their own opinions. Murphy says that Australia is a country where social capital still matters. Yet with continuing uncertainty and rolling lockdowns, up to 12 months since the initial outbreak, do we have the collective fortitude to live in uncertainty without turning on each other? Without hunting for a scapegoat, political or otherwise?
What we can start to look at soon is what worked, what didn’t work, and what we might have done better. But there will also need to be time and focus given to recovery of our small businesses, and recovery of our mental health.