Our dream run over COVID has come to an end

Australia awoke last week to the strains of Spike Milligan’s poignant refrain, “I’m walking backwards to Christmas.”

It may not be all the way to Christmas, but it could be even further – well into next year and perhaps beyond that. We don’t know and we can’t tell,

But it is sadly clear that our dream run over the coronavirus pandemic has come to a sticky end. And it has happened on both fronts, the medical and the economic. The cluster of hot spots that emerged from Victoria does not yet constitute the dreaded second wave, but it is worrying and defies explanation.

For readers of The Australian, of course, it is all too simple: Daniel Andrews unleashed the beast by not clamping down on the Black Lives Matter protests. But hang on – there were protests in other states as well, without clusters emerging And in any case, not one of the cases in Victoria can be traced to the demonstrations.

So perhaps the problem was Andrews mismanaged the Cedar Bay abattoir outbreak.  Or ignored the ethnic communities. One way or another, we have to blame the socialist totalitarian for something.

But apart from the partisan bullshit, the fact that there are clusters at all must serve as  a warning because across in other parts around the world.  COVID 19 is still raging. It is out of control in Brazil spreading dangerously in India; working its way through the southern United States, and most disturbingly making huge inroads in parts of China, where it was thought to have been tamed.

The global infections now number close to ten million with nearly half a million than deaths and despite the predictions of the optimists, we are not yet in reach of a vaccine. This is not good news.

And for the government, the worse news is that the easing of restrictions has not just stalled, but has been reversed in some areas, notably the urgency of opening state boundaries.

It appears that we are reverting to the old maxim: think globally, act locally. The national cabinet was never much more national than our mish-mash federation or the constitution that birthed it; it was a useful conceit and helped us muddle through the early emergency, but it was always gesture politics rather than reality.

And now the premiers have declared that it is every state for itself. Some are derestricting like mad, others are more cautious, playing for time. And of course Victoria has gone backwards – even  toilet paper is back on the rationing list. This is serious, folks.

And at that stage Andrews called in the army – not to guard the state’s vital supplies of dunny wipe. but mainly as prison wardens, preventing desperate returned travellers immured in five star hotels from making a bid for freedom. However, after a brief contemplation, Andrews apparently decided that this was a mission not in the finest traditions of ANZAC.

So the troops were sent back, and the long-suffering cops sent off on the job. A few were retained to assist emergency testing statins, presumably to look intimidating, to warn of the dire consequences if victims refuse to co-operate.

It seems that the lock downs may not just return, but be micromanaged. Crash testing has begun immediately in trouble spots, and if they can be confirmed and isolated, they will become mini-gulags, no-go areas. Good luck with that. Containing state borders has been hard enough. Policing municipal boundaries would be all but impossible – unless, of course, vast numbers of troops are to be redeployed.

And that would entail considerable political risk. There is already talk of ignorant ethnic populations – by which, of course, we mean Muslims — breaking the rules, holding illegal gatherings for their Eid celebrations. to turn them into closed ghettoes would not be a good look, especially in these sensitive times.

And it appears that the other premiers are less than sympathetic. In NSW, Gladys Berejiklian has made it clear that Victorian holiday makers will not be welcome in her pristine domain — in fact she has bluntly told them to bugger off.

Australia is still doing fairly well by world standards. Moody’s rating agency and the International Monetary Fund have both offered commendation, ticking us off as one of the best in a fairly miserable bunch.

But the IMF have warned that shutting down the stimulus measures designed to dampen unemployment too abruptly could lead to awful consequences – it has urged caution, a gradual easing rather than a sudden shut off.

Morrison and Josh Frydenberg seem, reluctantly, to be getting the message. The strictly temporary JobSeeker program, scheduled to end in September, may have to be extended, at least for the most vulnerable sectors of the economy.

And some extra spending is being rolled out; the beleaguered arts are finally getting a boost, although a very minor one, and in the wake of the Qantas stand down, assistance for the airline industry is on the table.

But it is still all about industry, business. Individuals – casual workers in particular – are not considered essential. And of course enemies are still to be punished. The universities and most of all the ABC have been singled out for clobbering. Some of us are in this together more than others.

And Morrison is hell-bent on ramping up the nation up for business whatever the consequences. “We can’t go ‘stop, go, stop, go’, we can’t flick the light on and off,” he insisted, blithely ignoring the fact that this is precisely what he is planning to do with JobSeeker. “We’ve got to just keep the focus on keeping the economy open and getting people back into jobs.” And there is absolutely no need for anxiety about the Victorian outbreak, because ”we were expecting it.” Perhaps he was – the rest of us were somewhat taken aback.

But it’s time to forget about the health crisis – so 2019-2020,  We need a new narrative to turn the page into the new financial year. It’s the economy, stupid – and we do mean stupid. Back to Spike Milligan. As the Great Goon warbled:

I’ve tried walking backwards

And walking to the front

But all the people stare at me

And ask: who is that silly….

Yes, quite so. Moving right along….

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Mungo MacCallum is a veteran political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy.

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