The prime minister has appointed an army general to lead the pandemic response, but we still don’t know when Australians will be able to declare victory over the virus.
Sooner or later Australian states and territories will open to each other, and the sum of them will open to the world, allowing freedom of travel, at least up to a point, and ordinary work and commerce in town and city streets. My guess is that it will be later than the prime minister, Scott Morrison, and his Treasury advisers would wish it, and not entirely on the terms set out in his four-stage plan, least of all as to vaccination rates.
The settlement, when we have one, will be grudging and acrimonious, with one side accusing the other of threatening to bring the economy to its knees, and the other alleging that the desires of big business for open slather are being put ahead of the lives of citizens – particularly the most vulnerable ones, and probably including some of the vaccinated ones – at risk from promiscuous spreading of a mutated form of coronavirus which is apparently more contagious and more dangerous than early forms of the virus.
By the end of the week, Queensland and Western Australia had withdrawn from the consensus agreement about when vaccination rates would trigger the moment for a general re-opening of borders. A third state, Victoria, was being bolshy, but apparently resigned. It was far from clear that the premiers of any of these states – indeed the premiers of any of the states – had or would ever agree to forgo the power to close their state borders unilaterally if a new wave threatened. As it happened all three states were Labor states – the more adamant in their opposition because they had been very successful in using state chauvinism for resounding election victories. But the two Labor territories had not abandoned ship, and federal Labor, desperate not to be trapped by some Morrison manoeuvre, pretended to support a one-time agreement that had mysteriously become “a compact with the Australian people” – at least according to Morrison, never himself one to regard himself as bound to anything much.
In practical terms, however, much more than the destruction of the consensus threatens any early implementation of a quick re-opening of the economy. First the disease is raging virtually uncontrolled in NSW, with the premier, whose recent performance has been woeful, virtually giving up and deciding to concentrate instead on vaccinations rather than containment strategies. Victoria, under Daniel Andrews, has not dropped the ball quite yet in the manner of Gladys Berejiklian, but is admitting that its current measures will not eliminate continuing cases in the state. The re-opening strategy has imagined that there could be continuing pockets of disease, still under containment strategies, even after all but local lockdowns had been abandoned. But it is unthinkable that victory can be declared while cases number are in the thousands. High vaccination rates cannot completely drive down the numbers this year.
A more vaccinated population has some resistance to the disease. Vaccination does not confer complete immunity, but it appears (if primarily from experience with milder forms of the virus that the delta variant) that it confers some resistance to infection, and that those who get vaccinated are much more likely to avoid hospitalisation, the need for respirators, and persistent after effects (“long covid”). Some vaccinated people will remain spreaders, it seems.
No longer a raging bushfire, but still smouldering at its edges
The assumption is that the bushfire will continue, but that it will rage primarily among an ever-declining number of the unvaccinated. Eventually the fire may die out altogether, for want of fuel, particularly if public health authorities continue to promote social hygiene strategies.
At some stage, perhaps earlier than the re-opening of the economy, those who have taken the trouble to get vaccinated will come to “deserve” relief from the most stringent precautions, given that they are at much lower risk of infecting others. People able to prove double vaccination (and perhaps those with recent evidence of testing to show themselves uninfected) may have greater freedom of movement and be able to attend restaurants, meetings and gatherings.
Those who have refused to get vaccinated, or who have yet to organise them, will be punished by being denied such privileges – otherwise the ordinary freedom of movement they enjoyed before the pandemic. Some of the unvaccinated will find it difficult to keep, or get, jobs, whether because the government or employers, demand that staff pose minimal threat to members of the public.
Different treatment for those who have had the needle compared with those who have not inevitably involves some element of a moral judgment – that they are “undeserving” or are the authors of their own misfortunes because they have nutty and unscientific ideas about the pandemic. That might be fair enough for the anti-vaxxers. But the set of the unvaccinated also includes (at the moment by considerable majority) people who would be vaccinated, or should be vaccinated were it not for the failure of the public health system to arrange supply of vaccines in relevant areas, actual vaccination programs in particular communities, and active public health campaigns to inform target groups of how and why they should be vaccinated.
At early stages of the vaccination campaigns, specific at-risk groups were identified for priority access to vaccines. Police and members of the ADF seem to have been placed in the queue ahead of anyone else, although this was not much publicised. Then there were health workers, not least those who were almost certainly going to be coming into contact with the infected. People in aged care homes, disabled people in group homes and (if almost as an afterthought, their carers) were priority cases, as were older people generally and people with health conditions that made them more at risk. Indigenous Australians were a high priority. So, in theory at least were people in prisons and institutions. Concerns for teachers were acknowledged, even if they have yet to get special access to vaccines.
One can blame misjudgements by politicians, particularly Morrison, for delays in procuring vaccines, and for putting most of his eggs in one basket. They must also accept responsibility for the chaos of organisation and distribution, not least because of their ideological faddishness in contracting the work out to private sector providers rather than the public health network. It was during this period that it became evident that coverage of at-risk groups was patchy at best, that few had thought through or planned for difficulties that should have been anticipated (such as the vaccination of carers, or the completion of coverage over groups such as health workers). Moreover, despite the talk and the lip service very little was done to organise vaccinations for Indigenous people, whether in Sydney (half the Indigenous population of NSW), in regional centres, such as Dubbo, or in remote country towns and villages. The Commonwealth had agreed to take charge of vaccinating almost all of these target groups, and must accept the primary responsibility for all of the incompetence and mismanagement demonstrated.
This is not merely fodder for an ultimate royal commission into lessons to be learnt from pandemic management. It is an active part of the politics of ending lockdowns, and re-opening local and national borders. First, although Morrison ultimately appointed an army general (and intelligence expert) to take charge of the logistics, and ultimately all matters at the Commonwealth end of the vaccination program (including supplies to the states), many of the problems persist – a victim of the initially poor design, poor execution and Morrison’s failure to procure a timely supply of vaccines. The consequences, and the political and public resentment this has provoked, cloud the question of when Australians in uniform can declare victory against an enemy. That has not happened in the lifetime of any serving soldier.