Politics Opinion

Happy second anniversary to Morrison’s mishandling of the pandemic

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(Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons)

Two years ago the Morrison Government made its first concrete announcement regarding Australia’s policy around the emerging threat of COVID-19.

And now, as deaths continue to rise around the country, we can reflect on what a wild ride it’s been.

Now, before we go on, let’s be fair: in January 2020, no one really guessed that the novel coronavirus was going to be the massive ongoing global pandemic it became (after all, experts had warned about a pandemic of SARS a decade earlier and it had been successfully nipped in the bud before getting a worldwide foothold).

Also, let’s acknowledge that no country would handle it with much success. That Australia stumbled is entirely understandable, even with the hindsight we’ve painfully developed.

Even so, it’s still worth looking back on that announcement because it neatly illustrated all the characteristics which we would come to know all too acutely regarding Scott Morrison’s approach to handling a crisis.

First up, we got…

A big announcement!

That plan was to evacuate Australians trapped in and around the Chinese city of Wuhan, the site of the first known outbreak of the virus before things went all Plague Inc on us.

With over 600 Australians in Hubei Province, the Government announced plans to get them out of the virus epicentre and back into the safety of their home country via commissioned Qantas flights. Hooray!

Scott Morrison announced on 29 January 2020:

We have taken a decision this morning to prepare a plan for an operation to provide some assisted departures for isolated and vulnerable Australians in Wuhan and the Hubei province.

 

This will be done subject obviously to working closely and with the authority and approval of the Chinese Government. I also want to stress very clearly that we may not be in a position if we're able to do this on one occasion to do it on another occasion. There are many complications and many issues that we're going to have to overcome.

That last bit was, to be fair, absolutely correct.

The next thing to happen was discovering that the Government was…

Not across the logistics!

Again, it’s important to emphasise that this was a genuinely good idea being implemented at a time of great confusion, when we didn’t have any firm knowledge about the virus and when time was very much of the essence. Even so, it gave some big clues as to the level of crisis management we were to enjoy as time went on.

First up, permission to do anything hadn’t been received from the Chinese Government — in part because Australia didn’t have a consular presence in Wuhan and needed to send Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) staff from Shanghai. Again, fair enough; the U.S. was already running evac flights for nationals and consular staff and it wasn’t unreasonable for Australia to assume they’d get the same assistance.

Still, might have been nice to have run it by authorities in the Hubei province before calling the media in — not least because with Wuhan sealed up it wasn’t clear how citizens inside the prefecture but outside the city could physically get themselves to the airport.

In any case, that turned out to be nothing compared with the problems on Christmas Island itself.

That’s because there were and are very limited medical facilities there since the Australian operation on the island is a detention centre rather than a dedicated quarantine station — hence the frequent and controversial need to fly asylum seekers to Perth or Darwin for medical treatment when small and easily treatable conditions were neglected until becoming serious and life-threatening.

More practically, there was the fact that the runway on the island couldn’t handle planes above a very hard limit of size and weight, meaning that getting people to the facility on a full 747 or above wasn’t an option.

If this seems of a piece with the Government handing aged care vaccination contracts to private providers unable to handle the demand, or failing to build quarantine facilities and using inadequate hotel systems instead, or announcing that private use of Rapid Antigen Tests would replace the overwhelmed PCR testing regime despite there not being RATs available, then you might at least applaud Morrison for being consistent.

And of course, this being the Coalition, there was…

Penny pinching!

At first, it was announced that everyone who got on this emergency flight to safety would be charged $1,000 for the privilege, adding an exciting new level of user-pays to what was, after all, a humanitarian mission from the Government for its citizens.

It was also a weird amount to charge because on the one hand, it would come nowhere near paying for the millions of dollars the evacuation cost, but also create a price barrier for anyone wanting to leave China. That was especially true given that the Government also made clear that after quarantine everyone would be flown to Perth and could sort out their travel home from there.

That, at least, was swiftly repealed with Treasurer Josh Frydenberg claiming the $1,000-per-ticket thing was actually the work of DFAT, in a characteristic bit of shifting blame to a government department unable to respond.

We’d see the same approach to not spending enough over and over again. Everything from the initial contracts with pharma companies for vaccines, the subsequent strollout with administering the shots, the arbitrary exclusions for income support and the early winding up of all COVID-related payments. Also the purchase of Rapid Antigen Tests and hesitancy in providing extra funding to the states for the overstretched and fragile testing facilities, much less the health and education sectors.

Heck, as this piece was being written, Frydenberg was responding to calls for help from the states with “we can’t fund every program the State Government comes up with”.

In short, what seemed at the time to be a very reasonable seat-of-the-pants strategy to cope with a sudden and challenging emergency was actually the foundations of the Coalition’s entire approach to managing the pandemic: announcement first, under-resourcing, reliance on the private sector, failure to iron out important logistical details and blaming others for every misstep on the way.

To be fair, at least Scotty started as he meant to go on.

Andrew P Street is an Adelaide-based, Sydney-built journalist, columnist, author, editor and broadcaster. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewPStreet.

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