THE COVID-19 pandemic has already generated its own mythology. In Britain, they talk of the “myth of the blitz” – the idea of a society that pulled together in the Second World War to withstand the bombs dropped by the Luftwaffe with pluck, bravery and humour.

In Australia, our COVID-19 myth is about a cohesive and caring society that patiently endured lockdowns, border closures and other ordeals. Like many myths, ours has some foundation in reality. It might be a poor thing when considered alongside wartime Britain’s wartime sacrifices, and you have to ignore the empty toilet paper shelves in the local supermarket, but it still has its own force. It might be especially potent in Melbourne, where the restrictions were most severe and prolonged.

The COVID-19 myth is now presenting its puzzles to true believers. If you imagined we all pulled together for the common good, and because we have the good sense to look after our own health, you are likely to find it strange that we are now apparently prepared to tolerate dozens of deaths in a day. The total COVID death toll is now above 11 000.

More than tolerate: there has been a preparedness to pretend nothing out of the ordinary is happening.

All of this seems a far cry from those days when we hung on the daily premiers’ media conferences and experienced horror as the number of new infections rose above a few dozen a day, a few hundred, and then a thousand or so. Have our senses been blunted, our consciences tamed?

Public discourse is never neutral. It is always a product of power. Some people are good at making their voices heard and ensuring their interests are looked after. Others are in a weak position to frame the terms of debate or to have media or government take their concerns seriously.

The elderly – especially the elderly in aged-care facilities – have carried a much larger burden of sacrifice than most of us during 2020 and 2021. They often endured isolation, loneliness and anxiety. They were the most vulnerable to losing their lives – because of the nature of the virus itself, but also due to regulatory failure and, in a few places, gross mismanagement.

Casual and gig economy workers, too, struggle to have their voices heard. On his short journey to an about-face over the question of paid pandemic leave, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at first said the payment was unnecessary because employers were allowing their staff to work from home. Yet the conditions of those in poorly paid and insecure work have been repeatedly identified as a problem for them as well as for the wider community, because they are unable easily to isolate.

Up to this point, however, our democracy has spoken: we want our pizzas delivered and we want to be able to head for the pub and the restaurant. And we are prepared to accept a number of casualties along the way to have lives that bear some resemblance to those of the pre-COVID era.

The “we” in this statement is doing a lot of heavy lifting. There is a fierce debate going on about whether governments – and by extension, the rest of us – are doing enough to counter the spread of the virus. Political leadership matters enormously in these things.

In the years following the second world war, Australia’s roads became places of carnage, as car ownership increased and provision for road safety was exposed as inadequate. It peaked around 1970, with almost 3,800 deaths – more than 30 for every 100,000 people. Road fatalities touched the lives of many Australians. If not for the death of my father’s first wife in a vehicle accident on New Year’s Day in 1954, I would not be around to write this piece today.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the coming of mandatory seatbelt wearing and random breath-testing helped bring the numbers down. Manufacturers made their cars safer. Public campaigns urged drivers to slow down and stay sober. These were decisions aimed at avoiding avoidable deaths, despite the curtailment of freedom involved.

These decisions were also in the Australian utilitarian tradition of government, “whose duty it is to provide the greatest happiness for the greatest number” – as the historian WK Hancock famously explained in 1930. The citizen claimed not “natural rights”, but rights received “from the State and through the State”. Governments made decisions about how their authority could be deployed to preserve the common good and protect individuals – from themselves as well as from others.

Governments have during the present surge so far been willing to take what they regard as a pragmatic position that the number of infections and fatalities is acceptable to “the greatest number”, so long as “the greatest number” can continue to go about something like their normal lives.

But this utilitarian political culture also has its dark side. It has been revealed persistently throughout the history of this country – and long before anyone had heard of COVID-19 – as poorly equipped to look after the most vulnerable. The casualties of the current policy are those who have consistently had their voices muted and their interests set aside during this pandemic – and often before it, as well.

These are difficult matters for governments that would much prefer to get on with something other than boring old pandemic management. The issue is entangled in electoral politics – we have just had a federal contest in which major party leaders studiously ignored the issue, and the nation’s two most populous states are to hold elections in the next few months. Governments also realise that restrictions and mandates will meet civil disobedience.

But COVID cannot be wished away. At a minimum, governments need to show they are serious about it to the extent of spending serious money on a campaign of public information and advice on issues like mask-wearing and staying home when ill. They usually manage to find a sufficient stash of public money ahead of each election when they want to tell us what a beaut job they’ve been doing. They might now consider whether something similar might help to save lives.The Conversation

Frank Bongiorno, Professor of History, ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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4 thoughts on “Do we care enough about COVID?

  1. Anonymous says:

    it’s an experiment to further mrna research and to gain back control of citizens rebelling globally due to poor economic management of governments. Or maybe conspiracy is not conspiracy after all whichever none of it makes sense unless darker motives are involved

  2. Douglas says:

    I often question what the real mentality is of the majority. Are we largely self serving and incompassionate as a species, i.e. genetic disposition, or are we simply shaped by the environment, the media and politicians that tell us how to think (remember our federal health minister wishing everyone would catch covid last Christmas, 8,000 deaths later… )?
    Are Australians aware that the death toll of children from covid19 went from 3 in over two years prior to this year, to more than a child death every 11 days this year, and more than a child death a week in the past two months?
    Nobody would claim that we should give up on beating childhood cancer, right?
    Are we aware that covid19 will likely become the leading cause of death by disease?
    Are we aware that covid19 can just as likely mutate into a variation that could be as deadly as SARS1 and have a mortality rate of 15% or more?
    Are we aware that anyone can catch long covid, that it affects 10-30% of people, that we still don’t know how to fix it?
    Are we aware that there will be at least two or three waves a year, every year?
    Are we aware that there won’t be enough sick leave to cover workers loss of income?
    Are we aware that the medical system will never catch up, and countless people suffering from other ailments will suffer and die as a result?
    Are we aware that there is an alternative option, that we can eliminate the disease as China has done, and if it were a global effort, there would be no more covid in a matter of a few months?
    I don’t think the majority are aware of these things, because the corporate media and corporate serving politicians have told us the opposite, that it is a mild disease, that it can’t be controlled, that it doesn’t kill anyone but the sick and/or elderly (not that that should be acceptable anyway, that’s called eugenics, a NAZI belief!), that it will become a milder disease, endemic and herd immunity will save us.
    I think that if people were really informed properly and had a say in the matter covid19 deaths would not be acceptable.

  3. Max says:

    Hancock’s view of the origin and distribution of rights is exactly the opposite to the conception of most liberals and lovers of democratic freedoms (best exemplified of course by the United States): we the people will allow our natural born rights to be administered where necessary for the collective good by a government whom we will employ and which will constrain our freedoms in the least intrusive way and only where necessary.
    That the electoral process should have an impact on that governmental constraint is only a natural consequence of the contingent nature of the temporary authority that we allow government. Several politicians seem only recently to have remembered that, and their response this year reflects that. They seemed to have imagined themselves at the head of command societies and economies that were the vogue when Hancock formulated his ideas (an ethos that seems still to persist amongst certain scolds, experts and medical practitioners).
    As for the populace at large, it has COVID exhaustion, has accepted that the intrusions of the last 2 years were excessive, and it is clearly prepared to put up with the current death toll as the price of re-calibrating ‘living with COVID’.

  4. Maryanne Lobo says:

    Yes pragmatism has emerged. Society is unlikely to tolerate once more the harsh measures of lockdown. Personal responsibility regarding wearing masks, using hand sanitisers and isolation when unwell should suffice. Those worried for their health can remain in voluntary social isolation. Hospital staff and inmates in aged care facilities will have to bear the brunt of this pragmatism. Life must go on.

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