Australia’s Covid-19 response inquiry: towards an integrated national disaster strategy?Oct 22, 2023
The terms of reference for the Inquiry into the Commonwealth Government Covid-19 Response were released on the 21 September. Ostensibly the inquiry is “to identify lessons learned to improve Australia’s preparedness for future pandemics”. However, what if the next pandemic is nothing like Covid? And how prepared are we for other potential disasters?
Complacency and inadequate planning
Was there a feeling that “we’ve dodged other significant viruses before and we’ll dodge this one too”? The Coate inquiry into the Victorian Covid response raised concerns about the suitability of existing national and state plans. It included the following: ‘given the lack of ongoing systemic planning, no-one was remotely prepared for the pandemic and when it did arise the response was, in consequence, cobbled together in an ad hoc manner’. That sums up the federal government’s response – they were ill-prepared.
The angst from closing state borders
The Morrison government closed Australia’s borders, presumably because it could keep out infections. Yet it railed against States closing their borders or for putting “steel rings” around cities or regions for the same reason. Yet, isolation, right down to confining people up in their homes is the quickest way to stop the spread of a virus. Morrison himself had to isolate at home. The government attacks on some states seemed to be for political reasons, resulting in increased angst and division.
Quarantining left to the states
According to the Constitution, this is the role of the federal government. Yet their refusal to look after it left the states with no option but to do it themselves. With little in the way of dedicated quarantine facilities, the states were forced to use hotels, facilities not built for health purposes and not easily modified. Dedicated facilities are needed, and when not used for quarantining should be available for other purposes, such as for flood or fire victims.
Did science let us down?
There were notable scientific failures, combined with disagreement amongst our experts.
Early signs of infected individuals arriving were missed: our national borders should have been closed weeks earlier than they were.
Despite what common sense told us, there was confusion about the usefulness of wearing masks. It took until May 2021 for WHO to admit the virus is primarily airborne. Was the Victorian hospital quarantine debacle worsened by mask-free security guards busily cleaning doorknobs and elevator buttons with disinfectants?
And at the beginning of the pandemic China adopted PPE indicating they assumed the worst. Was this, along with mask wearing, deemed to be a quaint Asian habit, with no place in Australia?
Other concerns include ATAGI giving advice that was often unclear and disruptive, the delay in approving RATS and why AstraZeneca was chosen as our preferred vaccine, despite its lower efficacy rate from trials. We effectively had just one egg in our vaccine basket, while countries like Canada had ordered bulk supplies of several vaccines. Inevitably, the government’s vaccine rollout in 2021 was excruciatingly slow, with the country not knowing when – or if – mRNA vaccines would arrive.
Were our scientists too often ignored and over-ridden by politicians and bureaucrats?
The economic response: An inflationary disaster waiting to happen
The government economic response to the GFC of 2007-9 has been widely acclaimed. On the contrary, the government and RBA’s Covid economic measures were certain to feed inflation and a housing and mortgage crisis. Under Covid, spending was restricted as was the supply of goods, especially from overseas. Yet money was thrown at households, small business and corporations in a largely untargeted way. Worse, the RBA lowered interest rates and used quantitative easing. These combined measures gave households even more cash to throw at the too few goods and services available and encouraged even larger mortgages for new or second properties.
In his final speech as governor, Philip Lowe said “the RBA and government provided too much economic support – but added that conclusion was only possible with the benefit of hindsight”. He was paid a fortune to be wise in foresight, not in hindsight, further indication that the RBA has become a moribund institution and that the division of economic management between it and the federal government has to be ended.
What the Coalition did not learn from the GFC
The implementation of the home insulation program and the schools infrastructure program failed in a number of ways. A Royal Commission into the pink batts disaster was instigated at the end of 2013 by then PM, Tony Abbott. The lessons to be learnt from the inquiry are “the need for well-resourced government departments, not gutted shells only able to dish out money to the market”; that with the Commonwealth funding the program but letting the market do the work was “an accident waiting to happen”. The article refers to an “orgy of profiteering” and extensive outsourcing and privatisation of government programs.
Yet the Coalition’s Covid response was multiples of that spent on the GFC, with an explosion in our national debt. Tens of billions were spent on contractors. JobKeeper had no inbuilt clawback from companies who did well under the program.
Throwing money at a problem does not necessarily solve it
Treasurer Frydenberg frequently used “millions” and “billions” to describe the amount of money thrown around, yet outcomes were often ill-defined or unknown.
The lack of workforce planning in Australia was laid bare. Carpenters, electricians and engineers cannot be plucked from thin air, nor psychologists and psychiatrists. They could simply raise their hourly charges with no extra services actually provided to the community, mopping up the money thrown at them.
Some professions, especially nurses, doctors, ambulance drivers and other medical staff may have been paid more but were over-worked to the point of exhaustion.
Migrants were sent home while Australians overseas returned, but there was a disconnect between the types of jobs left vacant and the skills of those returning.
We need to support industries to ensure we are self-sufficient in crucial goods and services, including vaccines.
The legacy of the government’s bungling: A nationwide mental health crisis
Good mental health starts at the top. Bad governance is the main source of increased anxiety, despair and depression. A government not in control added to people’s concerns about their health, their jobs, their children and their finances. Worse, layered on top was political point scoring, haranguing and vitriol. Many children and young adults, possibly already frightened by their future under climate change, were faced by the uncertainty and aggression of an inept government.
Yet we managed to dodge this one, thanks to our states and territories
Their responses showed that our federation works well. They made the hard decisions. Some did better than others, partly by luck. They were beacons worldwide in getting infection rates down to zero and stopping a horrific death toll. Despite the botched vaccine rollout, they managed to get vaccination rates to high, safe levels, allowing the country to open up again.
Actions taken unilaterally by state and territory governments have been excluded from the scope of the Inquiry. They shouldn’t be.
The need for a national disaster response strategy
The PM, Anthony Albanese, is quoted as saying: “This Inquiry will look at the Government’s responses and will give advice on what worked, what didn’t, and what we can do in the future to best protect Australians from the worst of any future events.”
Should we not interpret “any future events” to cover the full range of potential disasters, not just pandemics? There are commonalities between significant events (such as the need for shelter) and commonalities from what we learn (such as the economic response). Who knows what climate change and relentless population growth will wreak on our planet and our country?