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Politics of COVID-19: Partisan manoeuvres on the Right wing

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Right wing politicians haven't been effective in dealing with the pandemic and restoring the world economy (Image by Dan Jensen)

Conservative leaders around the world have been drawing criticism from their questionable methods in dealing with a global pandemic, writes Dr Lee Duffield.

TONY ABBOTT’S priority pass VIP flight “home” to England drew fresh attention to divisions exposed more widely by the coronavirus episode worldwide — with more trouble to follow.

He has repaired to Britain under the regime of like-minded buffoon, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who picked him as just the man to make a special Anglo-Australian trade deal. Abbott may be happier there, a place where the Government is firmly reactionary, where if you play your cards erratically and with disregard for sound intelligence, one can become a Lord.

Drawing the line on deaths

But he has not quite forgotten Australia, joining in the partisan lambasting of Victorian Premier Dan Andrews over coronavirus lockdowns — virtual house arrest,” he said. More menacing is his joining up with the “hard heads” wanting to wind up public health restrictions, open the economy and cop the surge of deaths that will follow. It is time to confront “uncomfortable questions about a level of deaths we might have to live with”, he said.

Abbott, a marginal but noisy player, has dramatised the main lines of conflict being brought to the surface by a new partisanship on the political Right wing. It was maybe too much to expect there’d be consensus and co-operation in the crisis and nobody going political.

These are the points of agitation in what has become an obvious campaign over basic interests, coming from the one side of politics.

Deny it and live with death

Denying the problem. A worldwide echelon embarked on this denial, from Presidents Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil to Donald Trump in the United States, Johnson, who got the disease shaking hands encouragingly with people in hospitals and Australian affiliate, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who saw the country “snapping back”. Denying has moved to being hard-headed about the human cost. In America, it has moved also to ignoring it — the Trump presidential campaign out working to generate distractions of any kind.

That became the most colourful denier with Trump’s Republican National Convention speech in front of the White House, a cocktail party affair, all sharp suits and dresses, hundreds literally rubbing shoulders and not one mask in sight. The message: no matter who dies or how many, we will not think about that. (It was an event also where they sent up a signal that the movement would not stop at re-installing the “Mad King”, wanting a dynasty; a string of highly opinionated Trump sons and daughters also grabbed the podium.)

Back to school and hype the vax

Send children to school. Why would the early shut-down of remote learning be such a fixation? Scott Morrison made it a big thing in the very first weeks, as the national governments in Britain and the United States have made it a major issue. A reasoned view says children overall are not hard hit by the virus, but with schools open and people churning around, it defeats all the precautions. Is the policy driven by electoral politics to be seen giving relief to families with children; is it to keep maximum productive resources at work at any cost?

Hype any remedies. Once again, the reasoned approach is to test, wait and collaborate globally on getting remedies to market because of what vaccines and treatment drugs are like in the factual world — they require some time. Various treatments appear to be working in some ways, like shortening recovery times in certain cases. The range is impressive — work on plasma treatments, trying anti-viral or other drugs already in use, hundreds of research institutes working on different types of vaccines.

However, there is this urge to over-promise and bring forward like magic the happy day when the cure-all will arrive. Is this delusional? Wishful thinking? The silliest example was the United States President suggesting injections of a toxic disinfectant. The authoritarian regime in Russia appeared to have skipped some trial stages with a vaccine. Australia’s contribution was the declaration of success with the Oxford vaccine, said to be earmarked for Australia, to be given out free to all.

The simplest media inquiries showed all of that was a step over-hyped. The Brits confirmed there was a letter of intent signed with Australia, while pending further testing, the vaccine was not yet ready.

Open sesame — cruel premiers imposing rules

Open the borders. The trans-Atlantic allies, Johnson and Trump, commenced by declaring a bilateral bubble for free movements, being such great friends — then reality intervened and it ended. The partisan din in Australia over the protective cordons set up by states is being raised despite indications of continuing public support.

The border campaign initially staged by the Sydney Liberal duo, Scott Morrison and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, was aimed at the re-election bid of Queensland Labor Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk but got scuttled by the plain fact of the resurgent disease. She called such pressure intimidating.

From Melbourne, Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg unwisely began talking about cruel premiers in Melbourne and Brisbane, imposing rules where there would be inevitable victims. Much will be said about a “cruel” Treasurer as the recession gets worse — hard times with inevitable victims.


Much flying in the face of reason and facts, against the logic of a virulent germ, looks like fear — of a business crisis, possible defeat under new rules in the game of power, change itself.

Members of the current conservative generation have made a huge over-investment, both personality-wise and financially, in a revving global economy and the flimsy financial ideology – neoliberalism – set up to cover it. It needed constant growth, meaning crude misuse of the Earth and its finite natural resources. The neoliberal idea of no “green tape” or “red tape” stumbled a few times, every ten years or so (such as in 1987, 1998, 2008).

But this time, the problem, a massive incomes shock delivered by nature itself, is giving signals that the jig is up. Political figures brought up cocky on the idea that life is about getting money quickly will get destabilised by that. The situation is not irrecoverable for them but the more stupid and unimaginative ones will be feeling the first shocks, like feeling the fear of death.

Economic depression

Fear of a great economic depression. The current drops in Gross Domestic Product rival the depressions in the 1890s and 1930s and if the trend continues, it threatens cataclysmic change beginning next year with huge human suffering and loss. That drives the demands on the Right wing to “put the economy first”, “let it happen” and lift the protective health measures — end the school closures, the border protections, the lockdowns (or “house arrests”).

Such “opening up” may not look that rational, unless seen as the resort of frightened men and women. On the day Australia’s last quarterly GDP plunge was announced, ABC finance correspondent Alan Kohler produced a graph indicating a relationship between two key variables – levels of death and economic regression – concluding: ‘The more deaths, the worse the economy.’ The chances are that getting everybody “back to work” no matter what, as said often by Donald Trump, actually will mean less money and still more disease.

New definitions of prosperity

The threat of cultural change. As the Great Economic Depression in the 1930s changed many minds, in the 2020s, minds might turn towards new definitions of prosperity that are not about billionaire culture and grabbing for money at all costs. Maybe, frenetic working all the time to fuel consumer spending and credit card debt can lose its plausibility as the essence of family life.

Right-wing political parties have had some great times, able to “trickle down” some of the growth money to voters, little investors therefore not noticing the opening chasm between billionaires and the rest. If this collapses, visceral reality takes over and certainly defeat for any government going to election. For now, Donald Trump, who could not talk his way through the impacts of COVID-19, hopes he will still survive by creating diversions such as race warfare in American cities — but what then? Like him, Scotty will need more than marketing to cope with disaster once it strikes.

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

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