MUNGO MACCALLUM. Time to get back in the water

Apr 28, 2020

Finally, it’s safe to get back in the water – well some bits of it, some of the time, as long as you behave.

And make sure you stay in the water – keep swimming or surfing. Sitting on the sand is still decidedly unsafe.

This can hardly be called liberation: the relaxation of the bans for elective surgery and even the confusion over getting the schools back in operation are far more significant on the national level.

But there is something deeply symbolic in allowing Australians to dive back into the shore break. Finally, perhaps, the curve has been flattened, the surf is up and we can say with some degree of certainty that the immediate crisis is over.

The hospital system, including the vital intensive care units with their lifesaving ventilators, are not only coping but managing with considerable surplus capacity. In most places, more people are recovering from the virus than there are new infections. Even the distant indigenous outstations have been largely spared.

It is still far too early to declare victory and leave – there are, as always, no precedents. There is no model to follow; around the world, different countries are reporting wildly different results, and not all are favourable.

Most ominously, several – Singapore is probably the most definitive example – are now facing a second wave, which may not be as severe as the first one, but is a clear warning against premature celebration. As some of the more pessimistic experts have predicted, we may never totally eradicate the bug.

But with a serious policy response, it can be and apparently has been brought under control – for this time, at least. Home detention has worked – or at least is working: there is, as the man keeps telling us, no room for complacency, we need to remain relatively isolated for a few more weeks. yet.

Obviously this will not be popular. After all, if we can go for a swim, why can’t go to the gym? Or the café? Or even to church? And the hardline entrepreneurs are becoming more militant. Let’s get business moving again, secure the jobs and the profits and the dividends.

On a cost-benefit analysis, quite enough lives have been saved: time to get back to work. The enormous sums already expended can now be seen as overkill, a panic reaction even beyond Kevin Ruud’s extravaganza over the Global Financial Crisis. We will be paying the bill for years, decades, so let’s get on with it.

But has it been overkill? We don’t know and we will never know. But we can be sure of one thing: it worked once and it is working again. The Keynesian response – using public money to boost failing demand in order to save jobs and avert a more serious downturn – has triumphed over the neo-liberal formula for austerity and restraint, for keeping the public sector depressed in the hope private enterprise has the skill and nerve to bounce back with the resilience Scott Morrison saw as his panacea only a few weeks earlier.

His latter and better choice has been to drive the economy into hibernation through the isolation program to save lives and then give it a giant kick along through targeted subsidies and handouts to give it a decent chance to recover once the emergency is past.

In hindsight it may be thought that the stimulus has been too large, just as Rudd and his government has been castigated over the GFC; but rather too much than too little.

And it cannot be over-emphasised that the greatest benefit has been the intangible one of restoring some measure of public confidence in what has been increasingly seen as a timorous and dithering administration. Whatever it takes may not be an attractive slogan, but it is a bloody effective one.

ScoMo has gone to the top of the polls not just through marketing – although it must be said he has been very good at that in recent days – but through taking the tough decisions. Now, it seems, he is delivering on the promise. and more swiftly and efficiently than any of us dared hope, which is why we are ready to brave the sharks beyond the white water.

It is not clear just what is waiting out there; the future Australia is still very much a work in progress, which is why the usual suspects are already jostling at the front of the queue, determined not to miss out at their place in the trough. But the heavies – the Treasury and the Reserve Bank – are both making optimistic noises.

Both seem confident that as early as the September quarter there will be a genuine bounce back in the growth figures – probably not quite enough to offset the falls we are seeing at present, but enough to set a foundation for a recovery in the many months ahead.

And that’s the good news. But how did we manage it? Well, one long-standing insight into our situation should not be overlooked. Not for the first time, the tyranny of distance has been a help as well as a hindrance.

Both migration and tourism have become common, but those arriving in Australia, both people and viruses, have to come by plane or by boat. This means that the pandemic could be both traced and controlled far more easily than it could in countries with porous land borders.

The cruise ships, of course, were a disastrous miscalculation, but by and large, the process bought us time to devise a considered and, it now seems, a superior response. And, in due course, the politicians responded – perhaps not as promptly as they might have, but at least able to avoid some of the worst mistakes made by those forced to act in undue haste.

So once again the lucky country. The ocean welcomes us back for the last month of Autumn, and it still serves to protect us from unwanted invasion. Australians all, let us rejoice – our land is girt by sea.

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