Are we but twiddling thumbs while waiting for a vaccine?

Spare a thought for Scott Morrison during these still early days of the struggle to rescue Australia, and Australians, from the effects of Coronavirus.

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People are, properly, debating the merits of policies of eradication and containment, or the severity and focus of renewed social distancing policies. Morrison’s government has tried valiantly to absorb the economic, social and political impact of lockdown and quarantine policies, including on employment and a resumption of economic activity. But Morrison’s strategy is essentially still in one basket — the hope that scientists will sooner or later develop a vaccine.

It may not happen, and he knows it. There are different teams of scientists, partly collaborating and partly competing with each other, and all publicly announce “encouraging” results, having the no doubt incidental benefit of keeping their funding running. We all hope that some, or all of them succeed, and sooner rather than later. But the world, and Scott Morrison cannot know, if they will succeed, or, if they do, when it will happen.

Can any other achievement or distraction  serve to show, ultimately at an election, that the suffering and the sacrifice has all been worth it? To be sure the government deserves enormous credit for containing the virus to a death toll only about one per cent of most of the nations with which we compare ourselves. Will this be enough two years from now? Or must the government have moved on — with or without a restored economy or a disease beaten into relative impotence?

Nothing has yet been found or discovered which shows no vaccine will work. But some of the more recent evidence about antibody resistance, and its persistence, has been discouraging. There are still optimists. There are others who point out that no one has yet found a vaccine for the common cold, a member of the coronavirus family, or any of the other Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndromes, also coronaviruses, in spite of much longer lead times, and serious public and private investment by research laboratories around the world.

It may also be that the attempted sabotage of the operations of the US Centre for Disease Control by president Trump, as well as his non-cooperation with the World Health Organisation, may hinder vaccine development, if only because of the role of both organisations in gathering and focusing expertise on epidemics, and in quality control over research and research facilities.

There may be a consolation of sorts, though we are by no means there yet. That is by the finding of an effective treatment for Covid-19, which cuts the death toll, and reduces the suffering of those affected. This may make fresh waves of infection less of a scourge and make the population and the polity somewhat more relaxed about the continuing spread of the disease among the population. But no treatment,  antidote or cure can substitute for general immunity. Nor can it permit reopening our borders.

The present accepted wisdom is that Australia must remain largely isolated from the world until a vaccine has been developed and proven, and controls can ensure that travellers entering or leaving Australia are effectively vaccinated. Until then, international air travel is suspended, and while trade in goods and services can continue, it has to do so without the capacity of those who have manufactured or sold the products coming in or going out to personally service or supervise their product, other than through the internet. As significantly, tourism and air transportation industries are seriously hampered.

Even the problem of travel within Australia remains problematic, and when a complete resumption can occur (including, perhaps, to “bubbles” such as New Zealand) is  beyond the capacity of prime ministers, Treasurers or premiers to predict. While Victoria or NSW, or possibly both, are out of the equation,  and while spacing provisions limit passenger numbers, the airline industry will be deeply unprofitable.

No-one can blame Morrison, or his health or economic advisers, for the failure of the pandemic to be predictable, or its failure to come., and then to go so that the community can pick up, three months later or so,  where it was before. We did not have the experience, though we closely studied the experience of others and learnt a good deal from it. Our mortality and morbidity have been almost trifling compared with most of Europe and the Americas, with the US and Britain, in particular, the poster nations for failure to listen, failure to act, and, particularly in the US, abandonment of public duty.

Though Morrison initially wanted to be seen alone on the bridge, even as he took premiers and chief ministers into his councils, he ultimately accepted with good humour both the political and local needs of premiers to adjust responses to local conditions, including with different approaches to school closures, and to setting up border barriers and internal blockades and quarantine requirements. He was wise to, the more obviously when inevitable mistakes, or bad luck or very bad judgment, caused disasters, such as with Border Force and Commonwealth failures at airports and over cruise ships,  with state failures over cruise ships, and, later, inadequate supervision of hotel quarantine arrangements, including the management of security guards. The public has been relatively forgiving of stuff-ups, particularly if there has been enough song and dance to make it likely that systemic mistakes will not be repeated.

But Morrison knows that government cannot simply twiddle its thumbs until a vaccine or even a cure can be found. Nor can he simply respond to circumstances, such as the further waves of infection caused by breakdown of distancing controls.  His economic strategy has faltered because of regional outbreaks and the reimposition of controls; increasingly Morrison has had to be impatient with resumed controls, particularly when they have been imposed at state or territory level. Different premiers have responded differently to local evidence of the virus again spreading in the community — often at the same time railing against controls imposed by other states. The premiers and chief ministers have, generally, been cautious and conservative. Morrison’s anxiety about a sustainable recovery increases by the minute, and he is increasingly impatient, if still reluctant to attack or criticise the premiers, Labor or Liberal. He  knows, intellectually, that quick and strict distancing controls are necessary for local outbreaks; increasingly he has found himself as the advocate for taking risks and having a go, lest the economy sink without trace.

Events in Victoria over recent weeks, and their spill-over into NSW demonstrate his limited control over events. It is perhaps in this context that we are ramping up a sense of national security crisis, including secret police powers on a model adopted from China — and by people sometimes seeming to have the same mindset. And  announcing the commitment of further vast sums on defence capital spending

Right now Scott Morrison can claim credit for what he prevented. Two years hence, however, he will be judged by what he has built, promoted and inspired. All of that we have yet to see.

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John Waterford AM, better known as Jack Waterford, is an Australian journalist and commentator.

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