Pandemic politics

The politicized landscape

In Australia cases and deaths are trending down for now, but we can expect both to rise as the five states and territories that have so far kept the virus at bay open their borders and ease local restrictions.

Governments of those states and territories are understandably cautions. Most are cautiously opening up, but it seems that most will wait until they have achieved a 90 percent vaccination rate for everyone over 12 (around 77 percent of the population) before they open up more fully as New South Wales has done. That is somewhat at odds with Morrison’s nagging about 80 percent of the 16+ population as a point for opening up – a nag directed mainly at Queensland and Western Australia because their voters had the audacity to elect Labor governments.

The Victorian Government’s pandemic powers bill has provided a lightning rod for everyone who has a grievance, or is just harbouring pent-up frustration after long periods of lockdown. Some in the legal community have carefully-considered objections to aspects of the proposed legislation, but they are more likely to be writing letters, talking to parliamentarians and using means of protest more genteel than threatening to kill the Premier.

Anti-vaxxers, Nazis, Andrews haters, Labor haters, “sovereign citizens”, perennial discontents and even the occasional Liberal member of the Victorian Parliament have joined in the demonstrations outside Victoria’s Parliament House. We should not be surprised to see such a strong far-right presence: six months ago ASIO warned that extremists would coalesce around Covid-19 issues. But we should also be aware of extremists’ tactics of dispersing themselves around an otherwise quiet demonstration, waving their flags and placards, to give the impression that they constitute the whole gathering. (Those red flags with the British Union Jack in the corner are the ensign of the Sovereign Citizens, a bunch of people who refuse to pay taxes or obey any laws they don’t like, while having no trouble driving on public roads or using public hospitals.)

Ever the opportunist, and ever campaigning rather than attending to the business of government, Morrison has joined the fray. He has finally gotten around to condemning the protesters’ violence, but in a Trumpian sequelto that condemnation he had words that the protestors would surely interpret as a statement of support:

It’s time for governments to step back and for Australians to take their lives back and for Australians to be able to move forward with the freedoms that should be theirs. They should be able get a cup of coffee in Brisbane when you’re over 80 percent regardless of whether you’ve had the vaccines or not.

There are votes – primary votes and preferences – to be harvested from that mob, but pandering to them can come at a huge cost to the nation.

Morrison is effectively giving permission for that last three, five or ten percent of adults who are resisting vaccination. Such support has no doubt energised small businesses breaking the law by defying vaccination mandates.

This is seriously detrimental to the national interest, because the difference between, say, a three percent and five percent level of unvaccinated people might be the difference between a future with close to herd immunity and rare outbreaks, and a future with frequent small but annoying and costly disruptions to personal and business plans. We don’t know where herd immunity lies, but no one should thwart the possibility of achieving it. It’s irresponsible for anyone, particularly a prime minister, to lend support to those who oppose vaccination.

Morrison’s statement is also consistent with a pre-election narrative about Labor: a Labor government would be a government of cripplingly high taxes, oppressive regulation and overwhelming pressure for conformity. It has echoes of American Republicans’ mantras circa 1965. It’s partly a classic scare campaign and partly a pitch for a Coalition program of austerity, privatization and further cuts to public services.

To return to the Victorian pandemic powers bill, barrister Julia Kretzenbacher, a member of the Victorian Bar's Human Rights Committee and former President of Liberty Victoria, has given a considered explanation and critique of the bill on Schwartz Media’s 7am podcast: Death threats and nooses: How a pandemic bill sparked far-right protests. She explains why legislation is needed, and how, in most aspects, this proposed legislation incorporates more protections of civil liberties than the legislation on which the government has been relying up to now to deal with the pandemic. She is generally enthusiastic about the proposals, but she has a number of specific criticisms, shared by other members of the legal community, which she hopes can be addressed in a reasoned process in amendments.

A statement similar in tone but differing in detail, has been made by Catherine Williams of the Centre for Public Integrity: Welcome changes: new pandemic laws worthy of cautious optimism. She too has suggestions for improvement, but she does not want to see the bill rejected.

Understanding vaccination and Covid-19 risk

Research by behavioural economists and others confirms that most people are very bad at understanding risk. We vastly overestimate the magnitude of certain risks, such as being involved in an airplane accident, while we are comparatively blasé about others. That’s understandable: if we were rational abut risk there would be hardly a poker machine in the country.

The possibility of adverse reactions from vaccines has been one factor driving vaccine hesitancy, even though the risk is tiny, and is dwarfed by the risk of contracting coronavirus for the unvaccinated.

Also, because some people who are fully vaccinated contract Covid-19, and some of them die, people tend to under-estimate the benefit of vaccination, even though the risk of contracting Covid-19, and the risk of death from Covid-19 is many times greater for the unvaccinated than the unvaccinated. Research shows that unless we can be assured of 100 percent protection against adverse events we tend to devalue any measures that give us a high level of protection.

Using real data from the Commonwealth Health Department and the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, the ABC’s Markus Mannheim has developed a simple graphical way to illustrate the risks of vaccination reactions and of contracting Covid-19, without using fractions (1/2000000) or percentages (0.00005%) : What can 1,000 Australians show us about the risks of COVID-19 infections and vaccines?

Why have some countries done better than others in dealing with Covid-19?

Writing in The Financial Times Andrew Jack reports on early research findings, based on analysis of why some “developed” countries have done so much worse than others in dealing with Covid-19: How Covid wrongfooted the health experts. Why, for example, has the US, with its large expenditure on health care, done so badly, while some other countries have done so well?

One explanation, easily understood by people who live in island nations, is that countries that were able to shut their borders while vaccines were developed did well.

There are also not-so-obvious findings. Researchers find that Covid-19 mortality rates have tended to correlate with citizens’ underlying health conditions, such as obesity and diabetes. More basically, those countries that have accessible and affordable health care, in well-administered systems, have coped well in suppressing mortality. America’s system, the world’s most expensive as a proportion of GDP, churns through large amounts of money, but it falls down badly on universality, equity and efficiency. That system has not done well in dealing with a pandemic.


See the separate web page of hyperlinks to generally reliable information and analysis about Covid-19, including data on vaccination and the WHO Covid-19 epidemiological updates.