After almost seven weeks under lockdown, here in Victoria, there is a new mood of hope. Stage 3 restrictions are still in place, but the streets are getting busier with cars, and petrol has suddenly jumped from 90 cents to almost 120 cents a litre. The shopping centres are also starting to fill with distracted shoppers meandering with open wallets once more, as they purchase discretionary items such as new clothes, new phones, and new toys for the kids.
On this weekend just passed, I took my own wife and two young children to Chadstone in Melbourne's south-eastern suburbs. Before parking the car I took the opportunity to take a Coronavirus test on offer outside the centre. Nurses in masks, gloves, and disposable blue plastic robes braved the chilly winds to probe drivers' throats and interior nasal passages with swabs. If taking a test and downloading the government app will assist in moving things along, then I am personally willing to do my part. The privacy issues exist as with all information gathering these days, but I believe strongly enough in the cause of protecting each other and in our democratic safeguards to take the gamble.
Our key mission at Chadstone was to buy Lego, deemed 'essential' by my kids who are understandably suffering from the imposed isolation that began on 24th March. Learning at home has been both positive and negative. Family bonds have been strengthened, and also tested. It has been demanding on our time, but most importantly on our emotional resources. It also needs saying that the teachers at our local public school have been amazing in creating accessible online content using Compass, Seesaw, and Zoom platforms. Nevertheless, home learning is closer to an impoverished form of home schooling, and while many parents are adapting with great spirit and good humour, many of us are simply not experienced or skilled enough to be effective substitute teachers for over a month at a stretch.
We have been personally affected too. As a consequence of the pandemic, my wife lost her first full-time job in the travel industry after less than 12 months, and my own sessional work in adult education has become non-existent. Thankfully, we have some financial resources so are not on the breadline, but there is enough stress and worry to make every day an exhausting challenge. My wife, who is religious, prays constantly for guidance, while I myself dread to think how others in less fortunate circumstances are coping. News about a spike in self-harming among adolescents and younger adults is particularly concerning, and it is hard not to feel some confusion and even anger at government policies that have led to increased economic and social stress, however necessary and well-meaning their intent.
After meeting with the National Cabinet last Friday, the Prime Minister announced his three-step plan out of this economic shutdown. The good news is that sections of the economy will re-open in stages, starting with things such as small restaurants, cafes, schools, libraries, and golf courses. However, state premiers will choose exactly which steps will be taken and when to implement them. Scott Morrison has shown grit and determination in the face of this crisis, but he has been unable to unify the states under his leadership. The PM proposes, while the Premiers dispose. The iron grips of Andrews and Berejiklian have been particularly unpleasant for many of us.
Without mentioning the significant collateral damage of the restrictions, the Prime Minister began by saying we should "be thankful". He also tried to provide some hope, saying we are "winning the fight" against the Coronavirus. Yes, the so-called curve has flattened, showing fewer reported cases, but I am skeptical that this means we have achieved anything on our own. An alternative theory proposes that the virus trajectory has been minimally influenced by shutting down the economy, and that closing national borders has been most significant.
There were other platitudes such as "every job matters" and "every life matters." This is very noble sounding, but nonsense in economic and social terms. Limited resources mean that difficult trade-offs and compromises must be made. The PM has also proposed the creation of a "COVID-safe economy" to be achieved sometime in July. I am not certain what 'COVID-safe' means, other than the name of the government tracing app, and of course the virus will still be here come July. There will be no vaccine by then, either. I imagine it means getting back to work and protecting ourselves as much as possible. In other words, it will be 'safe enough' for us to tough it out. A lesson for the snowflakes of society that cannot come soon enough.
To be fair, the public has gone along with restrictions until now in an extremely positive spirit, the latest idiotic protests excepted. The initial news of the pandemic created a surreal sense of uncertainty that left enormous room for governments to move. News and advertising media have also been instrumental in promoting a whole new culture of COVID-safe behaviour. However, most developments touted as new ways of doing things seem superficial and faddish to me, such as baking bread, elbow greetings, and making cloth toilet wipes. Whether there will be a complete sea change in terms of human existence remains to be seen.
If the lockdown has in fact been a great success, it seems odd to lift all restrictions by the middle of winter, when viruses are more likely to spread. The unspoken truth is that these restrictions have merely bought time, and delayed the inevitable exposure to COVID that the community must face. The lockdowns are unsustainable, both socially and politically, and Blind Freddy knows there is no way to protect every single one of us in a 'COVID safe' world. In fact, the future presented by the National Cabinet looks very similar to the Swedish model, widely decried as too lax. Supporting the health care system and protecting the vulnerable are the sine qua non, along with voluntary social distancing, and working from home if possible. The question remains why it has taken so long to reach this pragmatic outcome, and at what overall cost.