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Why the battle to balance people and profits just got a lot more complicated

Opinion

With Victoria’s second wave of COVID-19 infections presenting a potential problem for all of us, the country needs to pull in one direction like it did when the pandemic was declared in March, writes Dennis Atkins

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Victoria stands as an illustration of an all-too-possible future at the beginning of the second half of the Year of COVID-19.

All of metropolitan Melbourne and two surrounding shires in lockdown, a rolling average of more than 200 new infections a day and the daily number of hospital admissions with the virus jumping 50 per cent from one day to the next.

This is now the great fear facing health officials and political leaders in other states, especially New South Wales where authorities are scrambling to contain emerging community infections, which have their origins in Victoria.

South Australia is having another think on its planned July 20 border opening with NSW and in Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and her top advisers are imploring Victorians to not even think about coming and anyone who has visited a COVID-19 hotspot hotel in Sydney’s southwest to get tested without delay.

The closure of Melbourne for six weeks has thrown an anvil around the neck of the nation’s nascent economic reopening. Up to one quarter of national activity and commerce has effectively shut down and consumer confidence has retreated from its cautious reemergence.

If the series of community outbreaks in Victoria does take hold in a serious way in NSW, especially in metropolitan Sydney, then the border closures we’ve seen around Australia’s second-largest state will be extended.

South Australia is now likely to put off opening its NSW border for at least another month and shutting down the Queensland-NSW a second time – just days after it was reopened last Friday – could be on the table.

No one wants to do any of this but state leaders realise their populations demand community safety within their jurisdictions. This is going to be particularly so in places like Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia where premiers have received strong public support for what others have criticised as being an overly cautious approach.

Also, as we have seen in Victoria, common sense demands that an abundance of caution in dealing with a virus that is still reaching its peak in terms of infections around the world and is cutting a relentless, unforgiving swathe through hospitals, burdening medical resources and overwhelming the ability to treat, trace and test.

These emerging scenarios are the last thing we thought would happen. We were onlyt weeks ago congratulating ourselves, even dancing with smug satisfaction.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison warned sternly we couldn’t switch the (economic) light on and off again – which lasted until Victoria’s Daniel Andrews had such an unfolding crisis there was no option but to flick that “on switch” back off.

Everyone is wishing that Victoria’s problems are contained but it appears it is too late for that. The new moving target is containing an outbreak in Sydney to a few pubs and some associated venues in the city’s southwest. The NSW Government has today announced a reduction in the number of patrons allowed in hotels and strict rules about entry and monitoring.

Of course, the Star Casino at Darling Harbour, which is exempt in an example of the money-talks relationship between big power and big gambling.

With these desperate measures rolled out, the cost of failure in Victoria is bad enough. Businesses that had been pushed to the brink during the late March to late June shut down now will certainly topple over, taking employment and livelihoods with them.

Economic activity will retreat and confidence will delay a return to anything approximating sustainable activity by at least months.

These probably dire consequences are essential to keep in mind and should always be part of whatever planning is underway.

However, health and community safety must be a priority. Yes, we have to live with the virus but there is a vast difference between that and having a Swedish experiment where some mythical herd immunity is seen as a goal.

The self-interested chorus from business groups and leaders should be seen for what it is – putting profits before people. Australia has dealt with the virus and its damaging economic wake better than just about any country but now we have to face what’s obviously a series of setbacks.

As Washington columnist Edward Luce said this week in The Financial Times, “Public health and economic growth are complementary. The more effective the lockdown, the more confidently you can reopen your economy”.

We should face the current situation in the same national, “we’re all in this together” spirit that we first tackled the emergency with in March. To do otherwise would be to give up so much of what has been achieved.

Morrison was right to remind everyone we needed to rally around Victoria. Now that Victoria’s problems look like becoming the new wave of challenges for us all, we need the whole country to again pull in the one direction. This is just as big a call on leadership at every level as everything we’ve seen so far.

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