MUNGO MACCALLUM. The false promise of a COVIDSafe economy

May 12, 2020

The latest catchphrase from our government spin doctors is a COVIDSafe economy – optimistic and reassuring. And, unfortunately, a cruel hoax, a contradiction in terms.

The economy is not safe from coronavirus, and almost certainly never will be. Even if a vaccine can be found (and it may not) it will not be foolproof – there will always be outlying cases, if not the clusters that lie dormant, only to suddenly reappear.

Some people will personally be immune, but will remain carriers – Typhoid Marys. And it is always possible that the virus will mutate and  return in a new and even more virulent form.

We may, hopefully, repress it – have it sufficiently under control to claim that it is time to get back to something like normality. But  to declare that the war is over is not only untrue, but dangerously so.

This is the problem with magic bullets, and it is now clear that Scott Morrison’s key initiatives have not, and cannot, deliver the rainbow gold he desperately craves. His two king hits – JobKeeper and the COVID app – are now revealed to be both flawed and incomplete.

This is not to dismiss them as failures – they are both thoroughly worthwhile policies that will save many lives and bring us closer to dismantling the lockdowns for which we are yearning. But it is to warn against false complacency.

The outbreaks in the Newmarch nursing home and the Cedar abattoir are ominous. And more worryingly still, the emergence of apparently unsourced cases of infection can all  too easily be seen as the start of a second wave. It is not yet time to excise the dem from pandemic, but we will need more than well-marketed nostrums before calling the situation safe.

JobKeeper, apart from not including well over a million affected workers as non-essential, has not been taken up with the gusto that was promised; almost a fifth of the 6 million Australians said to be eligible for assistance have not been drawn into the safety net and probably will not be.

Business, as always, blames red tape and bureaucracy, but it is likely that many employers simply do not regard it as worthwhile – they are happy to abandon their employees to the dubious mercies of Centrelink and concentrate on looking after their own welfare and that of their shareholders

And the app is not the universal panacea that was hoped. Some people cannot use it at all, others don’t understand the technology, sceptics don’t trust the government and even when it is working (which is not always) it may not produce the results Morrison regards as necessary for the great roll back for liberation.

But what the hell. Isolation is becoming intolerable – suicides are increasing, the economy is disappearing further down the toilet, the political pressures can no longer be withstood. So, coming ready or not – as one earwig said to the other, ‘ere we go,

Well, up to a point. A more accurate summary of Morrison’s three stage road map is that we are starting to prepare to consider how, when and where we can be freed from lockdown and even this will be a piecemeal business with the states moving (or not) in their own ways and in their own directions.

Not exactly a road map but as Victorian premier Daniel Andrews put it, more of a menu from which they can pick and choose from the decisions of what is misleadingly called the national cabinet. And it is already clear that there will be vast and confusing  disparities.

The most obvious one is that the outlying states and territories are moving much faster than the powerhouses of New South Wales and Victoria, where the combined  activity of  the CBDs of their two capitals account for more than 20 percent of the entire national economy.

And there Andrews and Gladys Berejiklian are being very cautious indeed. They have comprehensively rejected Morrison’s gung ho, crash through approach in favour of tiptoeing  towards progress – no snap back there, more a matter of sidling through the partly open doors of detention.

It may speed up in  time – there is to be a review of the landscape in three weeks and the hope is still that something vaguely approaching normal conditions may be reached by the end of July. But it will be a long way from Morrison’s aspirations.

The prime minster tells us that Treasury is forecasting that some 850,000 of the million-plus jobs lost during the restrictions will return, or be replaced, by the end of July. Given the reluctance of the business community to embrace either JobKeeper or JobSeeker this seems more than a touch rosy-coloured, but it is, after all, his mission to talk things up as far as possible without being absurd, and it must be said he is doing a pretty good fist of it.

But it is dubious that his sanguine predictions will be believed by the public which may also be aware of the more dire (and perhaps more realistic) premonitions of the Reserve Bank. Governor Philip Lowe anticipates unemployment to reach over 10 percent at the end of June, falling only slowly to 9 percent by the end of this year and 7.5 percent by the end of next year,  leading up to the federal election due in the first half of 2022.

This is not the scenario Morrison was parading last week and it is certainly not the return to normal the voters were promised and expected.  They have been kept in suspense for a long time, and last week’s announcements may be seen not just as an anticlimax, but as more implausible pie in the sky, jam tomorrow, the Christmas that never comes.

At best, Morrison’s announcement may be regarded as encouraging; at least there is some kind of a plan, whether it can be called a road map, a menu or a laundry list. But as the man says himself, what matters is the outcome. Obviously we are still a long way from that, and it may not be pretty when it comes.

Not COVIDSafe, and, perhaps more importantly from the government’s point of view, not the guarantee required for ScoMo’s own political survival.

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