29 March 20
An MP called for a chat on Friday morning as he drove through his electorate.
On one side of the road he passed the local Centrelink office and a queue of the newly unemployed stretching 300 metres.
On the other, he saw a swarm of police raiding a local brothel, where all concerned were evidently flouting the ban announced this week on such “personal services”.
For some, this crisis is devastatingly real. For others, it doesn’t seem to exist.
There is a fault line, too, when it comes to how best to tackle the coronavirus. A fault line that deepened this week.
The “lock-downers” argue tighter restrictions are the only way to stop the virus spreading. They also reckon this will mean the least economic cost in the long run. It’s a twin argument to save lives and jobs.
Jacinda Ardern, Boris Johnson and plenty of medical experts fall broadly into this category.
Anthony Albanese has also been pressing the case for more urgent steps now. “If we think we’re going to take action next week, we should take that action today,” he says.
The gradual step argument
Then there are the “gradual steppers” who want to keep people in work for as long as possible.
Scott Morrison, the premiers and the Chief Medical Officer fall broadly into this category, with some wanting to step more gradually than others. They, too, argue their case on both economic and health grounds.
The economic grounds are simple. The more people who can stay in work, the better for their own sakes and the sake of a functioning economy on the other side of this.
The health grounds being put forward by the “gradual steppers” became clearer this week too.
Without explicitly referring to domestic violence, suicide and social breakdown, it’s clear this was the Prime Minister’s grave concern when he gave a stark warning on Tuesday night.
“I am very concerned about the economic crisis that could also take a great toll on people’s lives, not just their livelihoods. The stresses that that will put on families. The things that can happen when families are under stress,” he said.
“I am as concerned about those outcomes as I am about the health outcomes of managing the outbreak of the coronavirus and it is a delicate task for the National Cabinet to balance those two. Lives are at risk in both cases.”
It’s a somewhat more sophisticated version of Donald Trump’s “we can’t let the cure be worse than the problem” position.
It’s a legitimate debate
So who’s right and who’s wrong? The “full lock-downers” or the “gradual steppers”?
It’s difficult to know at this point, but it’s not fair to accuse those dissenting from the Government’s position of playing politics. This is a legitimate debate.
It must also be acknowledged that weighing these risks and making these decisions is an unenviable task. It’s too early to judge whether the Prime Minister has made the right call.
While the coronavirus curve continues to climb too steeply in Australia, there have been some fragments of better news in recent days. The number of new cases each day in NSW and Victoria has fallen slightly.
The measures adopted so far should also start to have a greater impact in the days ahead. Shutting the border to foreigners and as of today forcing all Australians coming home to spend two weeks locked up in a hotel room should also slow the number of cases being imported. This is still the biggest component of the overall caseload.
Closing pubs, clubs, cafes and restaurants should help slow the spread of the virus. So should the social distancing everywhere else.
The problem is the time lag required to measure the success of these steps. According to the Deputy Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly, it’s going to take at least two weeks.
That means we can’t be certain for at least another fortnight whether tighter restrictions are needed. By then, of course, it could be too late.
Hibernation costs money
The Prime Minister is sounding optimistic. “We are getting on top of this,” he confidently declared after Friday’s National Cabinet meeting. Time will tell.
The state and federal leaders are also trying to work out a way to allow small business to go into “hibernation”, by convincing banks, smaller lenders, power companies and landlords to freeze rents, lease payments and power bills.
Thousands of small businesses have already let their staff go, have zero income, yet still have to pay the mounting bills.
They either need a “freeze” or more will cut their losses and fold, leaving a deep hole in the economy on the other side of this crisis.
The hibernation plan will require the cooperation of many players and no doubt more funding from the Federal Government and the big banks.
Without it, those queues outside the Centrelink offices will still be there when this virus has passed.