Covid zero died this week, although many will continue to conduct eulogies for sometime.
It would be better to have zero Covid than some Covid. Coronavirus is a serious disease and Australia has been fortunate to escape significant outbreaks here compared to almost any other country in the world.
We have pursued our own lives unhindered during the pandemic but for a short, almost novelty lockdown at the start, and for the odd closure of our state borders. We have taken glee in comparing our unrestricted existence to that of many less fortunate countries, at times viewing it as vindication of our moniker
as the “lucky country”.
Now the shoe is on the other foot. As other countries open their borders, fill football stadiums and return to work we are the ones locking people in their homes in futile desperation of a return to the mirage of zero cases.
Most are waking up to that myth now. A poll this week found that just 27 per cent of Australians thought that Australia will ever get back to zero Covid cases.
I wrote a month ago in the Australian Financial Review that we have to move on from the lockdown approach. It remains a scandal that 18 months into this pandemic we do not have a single cost-benefit study of the merit of lockdowns or any particular restrictions for that matter.
A marked feature of the coronavirus pandemic is that it has found a way to humble almost all governments. Hitherto, we (along with perhaps some other island nations) have been an exception but if we continue with our blind loyalty to rigid policy responses, we may soon join the club of humbled countries that have lots to be humble about.
The former chairman of the Productivity Commission, Gary Banks, made this point clearly in an article this week. As he pointed out our policy responses have not had a clear objective (remember “flatten the curve”), there has been little consultation on the impact of the restrictions and no cost-benefit analysis done. Gary makes the perceptive conclusion that a lack of due process and transparency is undermining legitimacy for the measures, highlighted most starkly by the use of the army to enforce orders in Sydney.
To the extent that there has been a public rationale for the lockdown it has been based on the authority of “science” - although science that remains hidden from public view.
CS Lewis warned us of the tyranny of scientists 63 years ago writing that the powers that be “must increasingly rely on the advice of scientists, till in the end the politicians proper become merely the scientists’ puppets ... government involves questions about the good for man, and justice, and what things are worth having at what price; and on these a scientific training gives a man’s opinion no added value. Let the doctor tell me I shall die unless I do so-and-so; but whether life is worth having on those terms is no more a question for him than for any other man.”
The lack of clear and rigorous cost-benefit analyses during Covid has been regrettable, but our deficiencies are not technical in nature. We know how to conduct cost benefit analysis and we do it successfully in many other areas such as vehicle regulation.
No, our Covid mistakes are much more the result of our shapeless and formless modern philosophy than a deficiency in science per se. Dethroning our hapless scientific ruling class does not require better scientists. We need to resurrect our belief in the rights of the individual and the mutual respect for the different decisions that our fellow humans make. Only then will we free Australia from the grasp of Covid zero.