Politics Opinion

How Scott Morrison unleashed a COVID wildfire

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(Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons)

As COVID-19 case numbers explode under the Morrison Government, the PM still tries to pass the blame, writes Dr John Jiggens.

IN JULY 2021, the National Cabinet agreed to formulate the pathway out of Australia’s lockdown-heavy COVID-19 suppression strategy to a post-vaccination setting that would allow us to live with the virus — the ‘National Plan to Transition Australia’s National COVID Response’. A team of epidemiologists from the prestigious Doherty Institute were commissioned to model the parameters for this transition. 

When their modelling was released in August 2021, Melbourne University Professor Jodie McVernon explained that a major concern of the team was to avoid a COVID-19 wildfire sweeping the country when restrictions were eased.

To avert this, Professor McVernon advocated a strategy of slowly releasing restrictions, starting once 70% of Australia was vaccinated and gradually removing all restrictions once 80% was vaccinated. She likened the Doherty Institute strategy to a “slow burn”, not a bushfire.

Professor McVernon explained:

This is where the visual representation in all your minds is that idea that this is taking off, but the growth is more constrained and this is where the idea of the slow burn versus the bushfire comes from.

 

The epidemic is growing but it is happening more slowly, and we have time to reassess and to impose more restrictions as needed. In this lower scenario at 70% or 80% coverage, although we are seeing daily infection numbers growing, it is at a glacial rate in the order of tens or hundreds. By the time it reaches thousands, or tens of thousands, the horse has bolted.

As the model predicted, the number of COVID-19 infections did rise slowly initially. Daily infections reached 1,000 per day by the end of August, and were only 2,000 by 15 December, in accordance with the slow burn model. As the more transmissible Omicron variant replaced the Delta strain, the slow burn began moving down the pathway to the current COVID-19 conflagration.

News that the horse was bolting reached the media on the Tuesday before Christmas, 21 December, with the release of new Doherty Institute modelling that indicated that without the reimposition of low-to-medium restrictions, surging Omicron cases could reach 200,000 daily in late January or early February.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison downplayed the fears of the Doherty Institute, declaring the numbers were an “extreme case scenario” and were based on the assumption that “no one exercises common sense”.

He stated:

“The Chief Medical Officer and I just want to assure people that those sorts of numbers are not what we expect. They are extreme scenarios.”

Effectively, this meant, “let it rip”.

Case numbers exploded, doubling to 10,000 daily by Christmas, and reaching around 30,000 new infections daily by the New Year, though by then commentators were declaring that daily infection figures were underestimating the number of infections, possibly by a factor of three or five. 

That Novax joker 

In the pervasive atmosphere of fear unleashed by COVID-19, those who questioned the efficacy of vaccines – the so-called “anti-vaxxers” – were cast by the media as the enemy. According to the Morrison Government and their allies in the Murdoch press, the leader of the anti-vaxxers was the Serbian tennis great, Novak Djokovic

When Djokovic arrived in Australia on 5 January to play in the Australian Open, Border Force was waiting. Cheer-led by the Government, a media storm erupted, calling for Djokovic’s punishment. As alleged anti-vaxxer-in-chief, Djokovic made an ideal scapegoat for the growing resentment.

Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd labelled the Government’s management of the tennis player’s fate as a national and international disgrace, designed to distract Australians from the consequences of Morrison’s mismanagement of the epidemic.

These included a testing system that had collapsed, hospitalisations rising exponentially, frontline medical workers at breaking point, empty supermarket shelves, queues for laboratory tests that snaked around city blocks, a thriving black market in rapid antigen tests and the fact that in the week of Djokovic’s arrival, COVID-19 killed more Australians than the Bali Bombings, Black Saturday and Cyclone Tracy combined.

Former PM Rudd wrote:

‘Each time Djokovic leads the news, there are high-fives in the Prime Minister’s Office. At every stage, the Government’s strategists have attempted to squeeze more life out of this giant distraction.’

When Scott Morrison first learned of the coming COVID-19 wildfire on 21 December, there were 4,492 daily COVID-19 cases. On 26 January, scarcely a month later, there were 52,920 COVID-19 cases. Total confirmed cases stood at 259,174 on 21 December, a number nine times less than the number on 26 January 26 – 2,340,046 – an increase of more than two million in just over a month.

That is about 10% of the Australian population. There were eight daily deaths on 21 December and 69 on 26 January. In the same period, 1,150 Australians died from COVID-19.

This happened on Morrison’s watch, but no blame attached to him. Instead, Scott Morrison reaped gigantic media exposure for being “tough on borders and anti-vaxxers”. As for Novak Djokovic, Scotty had stopped him from winning a tenth Australian crown.

How good is Scotty?!

Dr John Jiggens is a writer and journalist currently working in the community newsroom at Bay-FM in Byron Bay.

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