Two queues of anxious Australians, two years apart prompt differing reactions by a government once slapped into action by concern, now next to careless, emboldened by a drive for push through, can-do capitalism.
Welcome to politics in election year 2022 when nothing is like it was before and certainly very different to the self-described Midas touch Prime Minister Scott Morrison claimed to bring to the unexpected outcome of election 2019.
First, those queues deserve some examination.
In late March, 2020, thousands of Australians took to the streets after the Centrelink and MyGov websites crashed following snap decisions to shut down much of the domestic economy.
The Morrison Government was throwing everything at helping families, individuals and businesses caught by the SARS-CoV-2 Great Shutdown. Tens of billions of dollars were spent on a doubling of the dole, welfare bonuses and obscenely generous business payroll safety nets.
Now, almost two years later, a new set of queues appeared on the nightly news. People standing for hours in lines outside hospitals or sitting in cars at overwhelmed health hubs, all wanting one thing.
A covid test was what these people wanted, either to comply with travel requirements for various states (especially risk-averse ones such as Queensland) or to find out if a bad cough, runny nose or flu-like malaise was just another summer sniffle or the coronavirus.
This time the prime minister and the government shrugged, looked for the minimalist response, told everyone the days of free stuff were over and you’d have to take your chances in our can-do capitalism nirvana.
A day or so of shock and shaming hardly shifted Morrison. He made the most miserable of concessions to pensioners, concession card holders and those on very low incomes allowing them 10 free at-home rapid antigen tests every three months.
In Britain anyone can get seven of these tests free every week, the Biden administration in the US is about to mail out 500 million free tests and in Germany there are 15,000 pop-up testing sites across the country with almost 10 percent of those in the main city of Berlin.
Of course, both Britain and the US are having trouble making their systems work (as they have throughout the pandemic) but they have made significant, national commitments unlike what we’ve seen here.
We get a modern day version of “let them eat cake”.
Two things are very wrong – politically and administratively – with what has played out in the last three months in Australia.
We started with a control and command response to the virus with strict border controls, local and national economic lockdowns and plenty of mandated rules about vaccines, masks and sundry other behaviours.
Then, in a very swift move we jumped half a dozen spaces and decided we were going to “live with the virus”. Freedoms were promoted, embraced and cheered on.
Morrison told us all we had gone through a necessary time of regulation but now was when we got our freedoms back and the government got out of our lives.
It was clear from the transparent code words being used, Morrison was never a fan of that meddling government business, even though he had taken some of the biggest and most consequential (for good as well as not) decisions founded on full scale state intrusion.
Just as this gambit was confusing some and terrifying others, along came the new Covid variant to join and maybe supplant the then well-known Delta mutation – Omicron (apparently it’s Greek for here we go again).
This made the “get out of your lives” storyline harder to construct and maintain although the bull-headed determination of the prime minister wasn’t about to give up on trying.
Morrison even sought to draw a link between playing Test cricket and his “push through” strategy when he sat in on some of the commentary at the Fourth Ashes encounter at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
“This is Australia living with the virus, look at out there (sic) and Australians taking wickets in the virus,” he said in a still mystifying comment.
As always, Morrison has his slippery defence mechanisms at the ready when he’s challenged, whether it’s about the yet-again slow rollout of the third shot of Covid vaccinations, the scarcity and expense of rapid antigen tests or the statistics on infections, hospitalisations and ICU admissions which exceed his previous predictions of “nothing to see here”.
It’s all about Omicron, he says, grabbing this “get out of jail” card in a way familiar to fans of the Peanuts comics and Linus’s famous blue security blanket.
After moving too fast from a measured level of regulation and control to push-through freedom – something most people saw as unsettling and uncertain – Morrison did nothing of substance to adjust when Omicron came along. He just checked his TV set and kept watching.
This was very unsettling for a population which by a clear majority had been more than happy to stay on the health side of the personal/economic wellbeing trade off. To push us headlong into the economy first camp was fear-inducing, especially when the national government seemed quite uninterested in maintaining any guardrails for managing things. Talk about being crazy brave.
There is a case for shifting strategy on Covid from the 2020/21 phase to where we are now and maybe where we’re headed, but to do it by applying jumper leads to people’s lives is risk on stilts.
Maybe Morrison should have reflected on why his government reacted as it did in March, 2020 when those Centrelink queues popped up overnight. He might have stretched the provision of more free stuff to cover Covid tests – regardless of the problems with sourcing and supply.
He might also have tried to have a considered, careful conversation with the public. It’s often the intent that’s as important as the delivery.
In the critical year of 2022, Morrison has failed on both fronts.
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