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COVID-19: Australians must be prepared for the worst

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Police have been given further authority to enforce social distancing during the pandemic, including on beaches (Screenshot via YouTube)

From ruining social engagements to the inception of a temporary police state, the COVID-19 pandemic is making life difficult for Australians, writes Dr Lee Duffield.

THE WEEKEND of the clamp-down, with police patrolling Australian beaches to stop weekend crowds grabbing a spot of sunny weather, saw more deaths but maybe less confusion over the pandemic.

While very few would say elected Australian governments are using COVID-19 to start imposing a police state, we are seeing what it would be like — and how easily set up.

MOVEMENT AND TRAVEL BAN — CLOSING THE BORDERS

The ban on citizens moving away from their homes has only a few precedents, all but beyond memory. Some interstate travel was stopped during the 1919 Spanish flu, some of the colonies had set up border customs posts before federation and there were reports of regulations prepared in 1942 to keep refugees off roads in case of invasion.

By the weekend just passed, the map was showing all borders closed and policed in Australia including Tasmania, except for the important still-open frontier between Victoria and New South Wales (which are regulating international entries) and around the A.C.T.

Police in Western Queensland were pressing “grey nomads” to take their caravans back south where they could find enough medical services when needed. The Western Australia Premier, Mark McGowan, told a media conference his police would stop border-crossers not meeting very tight exemptions and new arrivals could expect to go into isolation.

WHAT WERE YOU GOING TO DO THIS EASTER?

He also pronounced last rites on the traditional Easter holiday, due to start on 10 April.

Asked if people in Perth could go off to the weekender at Margaret River, he said no:

“If you think you can just holiday at will, back and forth, you’re not recognising you’re in a state of emergency.”

Nationwide, Australians suddenly very short of money and already on enforced holidays are bound to pass up on the long weekend this year. The shutdown is being felt at holiday places from Kangaroo Island to Portsea, to Gosford and the Gold Coast. For Australians, au revoir to Easter camping — another dent in the national way of life.

TAKE NOTICE OF THE HEALTH WORKERS

At least there has been a settling down of knowledge about the virus, messages to the public and what should be getting done. It has come down to governments doing a better job of following professional advice — in the case of the Federal Government under Scott Morrison, learning to tell just the information and ease up on the spin. Its main rearguard action has been against closing schools, a politically “courageous” action able to jeopardise the circumstances of so many working families.

Anna Davidson from the General Practice Managers Network told ABC radio, on Sunday, direct government support was lacking for practices already getting overwhelmed:

“I think they’re scrambling, they’re not listening to clinicians, they’re trying to keep control.”

From the start, the medico networks were buzzing with information about the novel disease in China, kept quiet for a few weeks, but highly contagious.

One hospital doctor, wearing gloves on his shift to help prevent touching his own face, spelt out the basics for Independent Australia; now the recognised story on what can be done:

  • social distancing, including self-isolation for healthy people, especially the over-65s;
  • strict quarantine for those who’ve been exposed to it and all overseas arrivals;
  • compulsory isolation for those tested positive and mildly ill;
  • hospitalisation including intensive care for most serious cases;
  • emergency moves to get enough equipment and facilities available;
  • work to get a vaccine available, maybe in September, for distribution initially to health workers and the most vulnerable elderly; and
  • finally, count on a herd immunity.

DEEP IMPACT — SERIOUS LUNG DISEASE

As in all epidemics, health care workers are especially exposed. The doctor’s red-letter fear was the way the coronavirus could bring on double pneumonia, both lungs going solid. That is a priority concern identified in research being done in America, which on the weekend reported the highest number of sufferers, over 100,000.

The epidemiologist Dr Stephen Ostroff explains the pneumonia risk as a product of the COVID-19 virus residing in the lower part of the respiratory system — a sterile zone prone to the worst impacts once germs get in there. See also this authoritative round-up by Carolyn Kormann in The New Yorker, ‘From Bats to Human Lungs, the Evolution of a Coronavirus’, covering origins of the disease, pneumonia, experiments with anti-virus and other medications.

With pneumonia comes the anxiety around the world to provide more ventilators. The national Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Professor Paul Kelly, at his Saturday media conference, affirmed that fully-equipped intensive care units had been doubled in Australian hospitals, ready for an influx. Australia then had 3,635 cases of COVID-19 and more had died, coming to 14.

SHIPS FLYING THE “YELLOW JACK”

Gone are the days, maybe regretfully, when a sailing ship carrying disease put up the yellow signal flag — the “yellow jack” was a message to keep well away. The dread and super-caution they practised then might have been useful in 2020 to head off complacency about ship-born infections.

Passengers from two large cruise ships at Fremantle are being taken to quarantine or hospital and hundreds of foreign citizens from one ship flown out to Europe. State health authorities have been bussing Australians coming back from overseas direct to isolation in hotels, police backed up in places by the army. They have identified cases contracted overseas, including many ships’ passengers, as still the main source of COVID-19 in Australia.

The ABC’s medical reporter, Dr Norman Swan, a star of the COVID-19 campaign through his podcast with Tegan Taylor, has been critical of aspects of public health management, warning a week ago that passengers coming off the cruise ships should have all been tested. That followed especially the breakout of disease from the huge liner Ruby Princess, which discharged 2,700 people unchecked, more than 130 soon testing positive, some critically ill with one death.

THINKING OF THE FUTURE

Questions about the Ruby Princess have to be asked despite the drive for non-partisan government during the crisis. The Home Affairs Minister responsible for borders, Peter Dutton, is one of the most partisan and combative in the national government and his ministry is at the epicentre of debate about what kind of future might come out of the pandemic.

Up to this time, his work has been a model for “small but authoritarian government”. On one hand, there have been “small government” budget cuts into the quantity and quality of human resources. On the other hand, the “authoritarian government” side of it, Australia’s customs and immigration have been militarised, the staff put into police uniforms and designated the “Border Force”. It goes together with steady encroachments against civil liberties, last year running to Federal Police raids on journalists. Hunting after journalists and bullying asylum seekers is one thing, but if the border resources of the country cannot deal with a large ship coming in riddled with this insidious disease there must be accountability.

An alternative plan would be the “big and democratic” model of government, meaning a government committed to providing the kind of large resources that can be called on in a crisis — but still putting human rights first. It is a choice for Australians to consider at this time as they experience the reality of loss of liberty.

Media editor Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.

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