At the next federal election, in about two years, voters will indicate what they think of the government's response to the Wuhan virus pandemic. Will they reward Scott Morrison for his handling of it, or will they punish him for the consequences of that handling?
If the election was held this week, he would be rewarded. He has acted firmly and with determination to "flatten the curve". We now have many thousands of ICU beds and ventilators with less than a hundred required for virus cases.
He has committed hundreds of billions of dollars to mitigating the economic harm caused by his shutdown measures. For the next six months there will be a veritable torrent of money flowing from the government into the pockets of people and businesses.
He has established a new cooperative arrangement with the states which, apart from things like playing golf, going to the beach, crossing borders and police belligerence, has resulted in a mostly consistent approach. And he has explained his thinking on an almost daily basis.
But these are early days; people are still fearful about catching the virus, adjusting to working from home and social distancing. Things will be quite different in two years. Is Morrison and his government thinking that far ahead?
There is no doubt our economy will be shattered by unemployment and business failures. The tourism industry, which the government has simply shut down, was worth $46 billion and employed 700,000 people. Higher education, also a massive earner of export income, will be devastated with no foreign students. Our innovative service exports – legal, accounting, consulting, design and so on – will be reduced to a dribble. And with most other countries also in recession or depression, even our export stalwarts of iron ore and coal will be well down.
It's also unlikely Australians will be able to leave the country, or return if they do. Whether consciously or because fewer cases simply make better media fodder, the government has abandoned flattening the curve in favour of eradicating the virus. Assuming it succeeds, the only country to which Australians could safely travel will be New Zealand, which is already close to eradication. Foreigners won't come if they have to go into quarantine on arrival, and Australians won't leave if they are required to go into quarantine on return.
If the government has a plan, it is based on the assumption that an effective vaccine will be available sooner rather than later. With a strategy of eradication, the country can only open up to the rest of the world if most people are vaccinated. A similar level of immunity could be achieved by allowing the virus to circulate, as in Sweden and Taiwan, with most people becoming infected and recovering (while protecting the elderly and other vulnerable people), but we're no longer doing that. All our eggs are in the vaccine basket.
If a vaccine is developed, it will be a first. There is no precedent for what is being pursued. A vaccine for the common cold, for which corona virus is one of the causes, has long been sought. And it is beyond ironic that it will not be possible to test the vaccine for efficacy in Australia or NZ because the virus is not circulating in the community. If we are to escape our self-imposed isolation via a vaccine, it will only be because other countries have chosen a different path.
In my view it is heroic, in the Sir Humphrey sense, to assume that an effective vaccine will be developed, tested and produced in sufficient quantities for 80 percent of Australians to develop immunity (the level required for herd immunity, a term with which I am familiar as a former veterinarian), by the next election.
Perhaps it will happen, but if it doesn't Australians will be locked inside their island, obsessively sanitising everything that enters, paranoid about keeping out foreigners, and pretending the enormous growing national debt and descent into poverty does not matter.
And as much as they might like the fact that they are no longer prevented from going to the pub, a coffee shop or restaurant, I doubt that will be sufficient to prevent voters from looking for an alternative political solution. If they choose one that favours social ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, Morrison's legacy won't be what he hopes.