Australia’s Lockdown Troubles 

Photograph Source: Chris Fithall – CC BY 2.0

By early August, more than half of all Australians (60%) were in lockdown. It should be clear even to the mathematically challenged in and around Sydney that Covid-19 cases slowly go up every day. And so do hospitalizations and, sadly, deaths – hitting even the unvaccinated young. Meanwhile, on a world-scale, Australia’s just below one thousand Corona deaths are a rather small number. Having a low death rate may well be the upside of what Australians commonly call The Tyranny of Distance. It pays to be a country surrounded by water at the end of the world. Yet this has not protected Australians from home-made and self-inflicted Corona troubles.

As Corona death rates still remain rather low, they are on a recent upward trajectory. Simultaneously, what goes down rather rapidly in Sydney is the government’s ability to trace those people who wandered around carrying the virus and infecting unvaccinated others. In the last week of July, the state of New South Wales had 780 Corona infections where the source of the infection could had been traced to its origin. In a further 384 cases, this was no longer the case.

A week later (early August), the state already had 641 cases where the origin of the Corona virus infection was no longer known – almost double the number. In other words, we increasingly no longer know where Corona infections in NSW’s eight million people (of which 5.4 million live in Sydney) come from.

In recent weeks, all of these numbers have been getting worse. Even more problematic is the fact that Australia’s vaccination rate remains stubbornly low. By early August it was slightly above 20% of the nation’s population. In other words, 80% of all Australians were not fully vaccinated.

Worse, the number of vaccinated people climbs painfully slow. If vaccination numbers do not go up dramatically very soon and Covid-19 case numbers do not go down dramatically, Sydney will have to have several more lockdown extensions. This comes in addition to the already six weeks of lockdown Sydney had been experiencing by early August. All indications are that it will get worse.

For some time, New South Wales neoliberal state Premier Gladys Berejiklian has been talked about a so-called gold standard for months. During the last few days, this gold standard has vanished into thin air very fast. Apart from her public relations talk, the stark reality on the ground contradicts her fiction. Even in Berejiklian’s daily press conferences at 11am every morning, her self-re-assuring announcements are starting to sound more grim every day. Yet some of Sydney’s woes are home-made.

Only a few weeks ago, her government oversaw the vaccination of 163 school boys in an elite boarding school. Even though this was later claimed to have happened ‘by error’, conservative Gladys Berejiklian believes that unfairly favoring her equally conservative constituency – the rich and powerful – at the expense of the not so rich and not so powerful is okay.

This sort of corrupt politics is known as pork barreling. According to Ms Berejiklian’s own assertion she strongly believes that pork barreling is not a crime. Hence very quickly, the vaccination of the 163 elite school boys was framed “an accident” by her government. Of course, the boys were asked accidentally whether they wanted to be vaccinated; their parents accidentally gave approval; the school accidentally checked that all forms were filled in and returned; then the school accidentally set up a date for the vaccination; they accidentally hired busses and the boys were accidentally vaccinated; of course, they accidentally received the Pfizer vaccine – rather than the cheaper AstraZeneca.

While this might sound funny, what was not so funny was that while all this was happening –    accidentally of course – essential workers in Sydney where not vaccinated. Among them was a bus driver who carried not only airline crew into Sydney but also the SARS-CoV-2 virus. As a consequence, Sydney had countless infections and virus transmission rates that were about to overwhelm the government’s contact tracing ability.

By early August, the first signs emerged that all this might overwhelm hospitals that had been deliberately run down by years of successive Liberal governments hooked on the ideology of neoliberalism. To make matters worse, Australia’s neoliberals – federally and at state level – have an almost in-bred obsession against state run institutions like hospitals.

Yet, underfunded hospitals are only one of prime minister Scott Morrison’s worries. Worse for him is the ever-looming party-internal battle. For one, if his approval ratings stay low for too long, other Liberals will put a knife into his back – a recent favorite of the Liberal Party. Like some of his predecessors, Scott Morrison will be cut down and replaced in a split second by his very own party mates.

Beyond all this looms the ideological battle between the Liberal party’s staunchly neoliberal free-market wing and its Christian-fundamentalist wing. To add a bit of spice to this, Scott Morrison’s most recent pork barreling in favor of Sydney not only dismayed people in Melbourne but even offended the more neoliberal Melbourne faction of the Liberal party.

Above and beyond all this, Scott Morrison as well as Berejiklian are not only fighting a political PR battle – never mind rising death rates, infections and hospitalizations – they also fight their own neoliberal ideology. The Coronavirus pandemic has forced Australia’s (neo-)Liberals to do the exact opposite of what their ideology tells them. For one, the much hated public service of the state is in great demand and so are publicly funded hospitals, government funded vaccinations centers and Corona tests facilities.

Worse, the neoliberal belief in the free market has been utterly undermined by the Coronavirus pandemic. Fighting the pandemic means coordinated state action. Leaving this fight to the free market, would leave the virus to do what it does best: infect and kill people on a massive scale.

Even worse is the fact that the much hated “red tape” is also in great demand as those eligible for state support during the lockdown need to be separated from those who are not. In short, the Coronavirus pandemic is a nightmare for the ideology of neoliberalism and its political henchmen and -women (e.g. Miss Berejiklian).

At the same time as Corona infections are on the rise and deaths increased steadily, Australia’s vaccination rate remains at the bottom of comparable OECD countries. By early August, Australia ranked 37 out of 38 OECD countries when it came to the proportion of a country’s population that had been fully vaccinated. Yet in August 2021 Australia was about 1½ years into the Coronavirus pandemic that was detected at the beginning of the year 2020.

In other words, Gold-Standard Scott Morrison – Australia’s neoliberal, conspiracy theories believing, and Christian fundamentalist prime minister – has been sitting on this hands for 1½ years. Morrison, also known as Scotty from Marketing because of his ability to see politics as a PR opportunity, has for months been failing to secure enough Pfizer vaccines to get Australians vaccinated.

Yet Scott Morrison was not totally sitting on his hands. He managed to attend the G7 meeting in 2021 – of which Australia is not a member. Whilst there, he went to a pub, visited a graveyard and had lunch in Paris on the way back to Australia. At the same time, Australians were unable to travel.

Worse, under Scott Morrison’s border security regime, a right-wing English “media personality” (read: I have no skills) was allowed into Australia. Yet the former Holocaust-denier-conference attendee was quickly sent home rather quicklyafter a public outcry of her mocking the state’s quarantine regulations.

In another instance, Australians wanting to come home where threatened by their very own prime minister Scott Morrison with fines and even prison if they tried to come home. Of course, this does not apply to a G7-holidaying prime minister or British right-wing TV nutcase who believes that the Coronavirus pandemic is just another flu.

Meanwhile, 38,000 Australians cannot come home to their own country. Those 38,000 waiting to come are not right-wing chitchats. They are ordinary Australians. Yet, in Scott Morrison’s worldview, some – elite boys in a private boarding school, right-wing TV ideologues, and of course he himself – are more equal than others – ordinary Australians. Adding insult to injury, Scott Morrison has virtually made no provision to get the 38,000 Australians home. After 1½ years, no quarantine facilities have been constructed to quarantine these returning Australians.

In eighteen months, Scott Morrison and his government have done nothing. In 2020, China constructed a hospital in Wuhan in ten days. Instead of vilifying China and trumping China up as the new super enemy, perhaps warmongering Scott Morrison could learn from China? What an evil and heretic thought.

Just when you think it cannot get any worse, rest assured with Scott Morrison it always does. By early August 2021, Scott Morrison had outright rejected Labor’s proposal to give everyone who is vaccinated $300. The plan is to get as many Australians as possible quickly vaccinated. This is, after all, a highly viable strategy to fight the Coronavirus pandemic – get vaccinated. How wonderful it would be if Scott Morrison would adhere to US President Joe Biden’s advice, “if you are not helping, get out of the way!”

At the same time, the Australian army, who has now been called into Sydney to safeguard the lockdown, thinks that such payments actually work. Surprise, surprise it is working in other countries, in Europe and even in the USA. Incentives do work, just ask Dan Pink. They also work in the case of vaccinations. And they continue to work even though Scott Morrison thinks otherwise.

If Australia spent $300 on every single vaccinated Australian, it would roughly cost $7.5 billion dollar to vaccinate a substantial number of Australia’s 25 million people. $7.5bn is way cheaper than a lockdown until Christmas. Some people say, that the lockdown in Sydney will cost the economy $10bn.

In other words, Labor’s plan would have saved $2.5bn. It would also have made very serious inroads into the fight against the Coronavirus pandemic. Yet, if there is no PR opportunity in all this, it is irrelevant for Scott Morrison. Even worse is the fact that since it is a Labor plan, Scott Morrison will never do it.

Still worse, if the lockdown extends until Christmas, say good night to the Christmas sales which for many businesses are the biggest earner in a year. Ironically, it is often small business owners who vote (neo-)Liberal in Australia – the political party that has, at federal (Scott Morrison) and state (Berejiklian) level, comprehensively failed to deliver in the Coronavirus pandemic.

Yet Labor’s $300 offer to encourage vaccination would have the ability to end or at least cut down the lockdown time. Overall, Labor’s $300 offer is substantially more than Scott Morrison’s skimpy $25 food voucher – a mini-compensation for the economic hardship during the 2020 lockdown. Well, the $25 vouchers were just another PR joke.

While Scott Morrison rejects returning $300 per person of tax-money to Australians, he is very happy to waste “almost $3.4m for each person in offshore detention”. Tormenting the innocent in remote detention centers does not come cheap as the case of the Biloela family shows.

In any case, Labor’s $7.5bn vaccination incentive plan is rather minuscule compared to the $100bn we spent on twelve submarines which, let’s face it, are of no help in a Coronavirus pandemic. Yet each and every one of Australia’s 25 million people will have to fork up $4,000 for the U-boats.

Most obviously, Australia’s conservatives put their money – well, our tax money actually – where their mouth is. Scott Morrison’s right-wing government rejects a comparatively small incentive but is very happy to spend thirteen times as much on militaristic toys-for-the-boys. Meanwhile, Australians are months away from reaching a vaccination rate well above 80% which would allow Australia to end the lockdown in a safe way.

In the end, British philosopher John Stuart Mill might have been right when he said, “Conservatives are not necessarily stupid, but most stupid people are conservatives.” Australia’s conservatives may not only be stupid, they are also trapped in their very own ideology of neoliberalism. As the philosopher Theodor W. Adorno once said, “Immovably, they insist on the very ideology which enslaves them.”

Thomas Klikauer is the author of German Conspiracy Fantasies.