For everyone The lowdown: Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory

In the first of a regular series breaking down the big issues, MYKE BARTLETT examines how Australia’s COVID-19 miracle might turn out to be a mirage.

Australia has long been the lucky country – and never has that felt more true than in these past 18 months. Seeing the pandemic unfold across China, Europe, the US and India has been like watching someone else’s recurring nightmare. 

June 2021 may go down as the month that tested that good fortune – and made clear that our federal government has squandered the unique chance it had to protect its citizens from the coronavirus. Facing a new national outbreak, we find ourselves months into the vaccine rollout with most of us still waiting for the jab – even those most at risk. While politicians and Olympians have been prioritised, most disability and aged care workers – not to mention education staff – have been left unprotected. With fewer than 5% of us having had the jab, Australia is now ranked last in the OECD for share of the population fully vaccinated. Within weeks, we have gone from being uniquely fortunate to uniquely vulnerable.

While most state leaders have acted decisively to control COVID outbreaks, the federal Morrison government has consistently dragged its feet on preparing Australians for a post-COVID world. Having initially promised that the whole country would be offered at least one shot by October, until recently Morrison looked set to miss that target by a mere 18 million people. It isn’t a stretch to imagine a near future where much of the Western world returns to normal, while Australians remain trapped in our COVID-free bubble, and a cycle of hard lockdowns and tentative re-openings.

Two things define the federal vaccine rollout – complacency and a lack of coordination. While supply has been a (not unforeseeable) problem, experts blame a focus on making big announcements rather than taking practical action. Add in confused messaging, such as Morrison’s seemingly improvised declaration that under-40s could now request the Astra Zeneca vaccine (limited only a week earlier to those over 60), and we have not so much a rollout as a rolling disaster.

In a single day in April, four million Americans were vaccinated, almost exactly the same number of Australians who didn’t receive their promised dose by the end of March. Instead of delivering us all a shot in the arm, Morrison seems to have aimed for our feet.

As Morrison’s oft-repeated mantra, “It’s not a race”, has made clear, he has never seen vaccinating Australians as a matter of urgency. At the same time, his government has been drip-feeding the idea that international borders must reopen soon. The result? As we’ve seen this week, Australia might just have run out of luck.

As Morrison’s oft-repeated mantra, ‘It’s not a race’, has made clear, he has never seen vaccinating Australians as a matter of urgency.

The ‘Delta variant’ (responsible for the current outbreaks) does appear to be highly contagious, if not more deadly. While the backlash to Morrison’s ban on Australians returning from India was widespread, his draconian penalties were characteristically hollow and danced around the main issue. The problem is not infected Australians returning from India (or elsewhere), but the fact that – after 18 months – we don’t have a federal quarantine system that can safely accommodate them.

As WA premier Mark McGowan noted during his state’s May outbreak, hotel quarantine is the worst possible solution to dealing with returning travellers. Unfortunately, it is also the only available solution. Half a million Australians have returned home since the start of the pandemic, with more than 36,000 still registered to return (a number that is not decreasing, month on month).

COVID-19 is now widely acknowledged to be airborne. Enclosing people in close proximity to each other, in buildings with sealed windows, is basically asking them to holiday in a plague pit – in the middle of a major population centre. The system can cope if few are infected but, when infection numbers rise, leaks become almost inevitable.

The most recent Melbourne outbreak, which began in an Adelaide hotel, was another reminder that – with most of the country still unvaccinated – the current system puts Australian lives at risk. Last October, a review into hotel quarantine recommended other options, including expanded use of federal facilities. That hasn’t happened, although pressure from state leaders following the June outbreak saw Morrison announce plans to (finally) start building some.

Quarantine is a federal matter – the only health power given to the new national government back in 1901. Yet, in March 2020, as Morrison prevaricated about taking action, state and territory premiers struck a deal to fund and administer hotel quarantine. Obviously, this suited Morrison. He was able to claim all the glory and none of the responsibility. But why did the states agree to take it on? Could it be they didn’t trust him? After all, this is a Prime Minister who insisted on going to the footy while states were declaring a health emergency. And now we hear the federal government has been allowing privileged travellers into the country without quarantine or testing.

Three quarters of Australia’s COVID deaths have occurred in aged care – another federal jurisdiction. A royal commission last year concluded that Morrison did not adequately prepare the sector for the pandemic, despite several months’ warning. As of May 2021, few aged care workers and only 3% of disability sector workers had been fully vaccinated.

While Morrison has repeatedly resisted state border closures, state leaders have been rising to the challenge. Ask yourself this: how many state premiers (let alone chief health officers) could you name before the pandemic kicked off? By refusing to play a leading role, Morrison has turned obscure state rivals into national celebrities. That, at least, is quite an achievement.

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