In general, Australian governments managed the first two years of the COVID pandemic well. Border closures and state actions such as lockdowns prevented 18,000 deaths in 2020 and 2021.
This came at a cost in terms of separation from family and friends due to border closures, disruption of schooling and economic activity, and individual stress.
The public supported these measures and thought that the state governments had handled the pandemic well. Support for the Commonwealth government was also high until mid-2021, when the failed vaccine launch sent support plummeting.
Now, we are in the grip of a new wave of COVID. Hospital systems and ambulance services are under great pressure, not only because of the surge in patients, but because the virus has decimated their own workforce. Governments now seem much more reluctant to introduce measures to slow its spread, a huge difference since the start of the pandemic in 2020.
So how did it come to this?
Values and rhetoric contest
Despite the vaunted national cabinet, for most of 2020 and 2021 there was no coherent national leadership in the response to COVID-19. Then-Prime Minister Scott Morrison and other federal ministers downplayed the risks of COVID and undermined state public health measures. They attacked lockdowns, state border closures, and school closures, all the while whistling dogs at anti-vaccines.
This weakened the social license of states to apply effective public health measures.
The differences between Commonwealth and state governments were partly due to different weighting of COVID risks. In 2020 and through the first half of 2021, there was no vaccine or not enough vaccine, and the prevalent virus strain was quite virulent. As a result, other public health measures were key to controlling the pandemic and minimizing hospitalizations and deaths.
But since mid-2021, the rhetoric and messages have changed. Led by the Commonwealth government, there was increasing talk of “living with COVID”, easing restrictions and reopening borders, with the underlying assumption that, with vaccines, the pandemic was under control. Even the advent of the Omicron wave in late 2021 did not lead to a reset as it was written off as “slight”.
There have also been ideological differences throughout the pandemic. Morrison preferred “personal responsibility” to mandates, the latter of which was viewed pejoratively. Individual responsibility is a comfortable position for conservative politicians who tend to downplay the role of government.
In contrast, the very essence of public health is that it is an organized response by society, to quote a standard definition of the field.
Read more: How has COVID affected the health of Australians? New report shows where we’ve failed and where we’ve done well
The federal electoral context
By early 2022, the effect of undermining the social license was becoming more prevalent. The public, especially those who had borne the brunt of the broader public health measures, were tired of the lockdowns. The evidence on vaccine decline had not yet become apparent, so vaccine reliance was considered to be the main appropriate public health response. “Living with COVID” was becoming the dominant narrative.
Around the same time, anti-vaccines began to organize and protest against any public health measures. States sniffed the wind and began to roll back their restrictions.
A Melbourne joke from 2021 went like this:
Question: what is the hardest part of a week-long lockdown? Answer: Week five.
The Federal Coalition tried to paint Labor as the party that would reintroduce lockdowns and border closures. The Labor opposition did not want to talk about the pandemic to avoid that bullet.
This long history is a necessary context for the confusion we see today. Despite his defeat in the election, the pandemic legacy of the Morrison government is hampering Australia’s ability to manage the pandemic due to the weakening of the social license to regulate.
Labeling the most communicable Omicron variant as mild has not helped, as low average severity coupled with high incidence still leads to overburdened hospitals. Morrison’s rhetoric about personal responsibility has also proven difficult to change. He certainly is seductive – “it’s your job to protect yourself and if you don’t, tough luck, you’ll take the consequences”.
Of course, that position assumes that we all make perfectly rational decisions and bear the full cost of our decisions. It’s not true either. We tend to discount the future consequences of our decisions, and are overly optimistic about the chances of contracting COVID and its consequences.
One person’s infection can have a huge impact on others, for example, if they are hospitalized, that prevents access to hospital beds for others, so the cost of one person’s poor decisions potentially falls on others as well. others.
The public health message is also confusing. If I have only received two doses, am I “fully vaccinated”? Does “individual responsibility” mean lugging around a very heavy HEPA filter to ensure clean air in any room you enter? Is the Omicron variant really mild? If so, why do we see all these stories about problems in hospitals?
And what is the right thing to do with masks? Are cloth masks good? Or should we all have N95s? And then should they be subsidized? And if masks are “strongly recommended”, why aren’t they mandatory?
It all comes back to the COVID social license. What proportion of the public will accept a mask mandate? If the public is not convinced of the threat or benefit to themselves and others, compliance will be low. This means that public health leaders need to talk about collective responsibility and collective benefit, the antithesis of the mantra of individual responsibility. This has been absent in the national response.
Talking about individual responsibility means that leaders do not have to lead or shape collective behavior. Media hype about regulatory fatigue, a loaded umbrella concept where the evidence is still developing, hasn’t helped either.
Both New South Wales and Victoria face elections in the next 12 months. Neither government wants to be attacked like the government of lockdowns and mandates when the risks of not acting for so long have been minimized.
Read more: How the pandemic has brought out the worst and the best in Australians and their governments
So where from here?
The public health messages over the past six months have been dismal. Political leaders are sometimes seen wearing masks, but most are not. There have been few messages about the third and fourth doses, so we have low third-dose rates, despite what we now know about vaccine declines. The “Omicron is soft” message has led to a “don’t worry mate” nonchalance among the public.
But political and public health leaders must now exercise leadership. Public health requires collective action, not simply a reliance on the easy evasion of individual responsibility. This will require a carefully planned transition from discredited positions that have made public response much more difficult now than it was a year ago, and consistent positions across parties that put the health of the public before cheap political coups.
Leaders must take a more nuanced approach to responding to COVID, throwing out the simplistic all-or-nothing dichotomy.
Finally, the mainstream media must also resist its knee-jerk dismissal of any public health action as akin to lockdowns and economic catastrophe.