You might have heard there are "differences" between health officers of our various state and federal jurisdictions over whether schools should be closed. That's correct. Unfortunately, describing what's happening like this suggests that the split is minimal, irrelevant, and not really something you need to be bothered about.
In reality, it's anything but.
Once we actually understand what's going on there's the potential for a massive bust-up, because the reality is we're being used as a petri dish, with our children as the culture.
If you want to know why just grapple, for a second, with those arguments about the spread of the disease, flattening the curve, and the whole idea of "herd immunity".
Now this sounds great - if you're a farmer dealing with cows. It's slightly less appealing, however, to anybody who likes to be considered an individual; a person. I, for example, like to think I live in a society, rather than a herd, but when you get a persuasive politician prattling along as if they know what they're talking about, it all begins to sound plausible. For a second or two, at any rate. Then you think about what they're saying. They're consigning some people as expendable, while the rest of us build up immunity. They're privileging their desire to keep society functioning over the needs of the ordinary person.
Herd immunity accepts people will die. Is that ethical?
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The minute anyone talks about different needs, or balancing one thing against another, you can tell which side their on. They're prepared to sacrifice the individual for the needs of the many.
Same with that bell-shaped graph (and that other one, with the alarming spike). Of course we want the flattened curve, but we'd probably prefer the other graphs, the ones Scott Morrison didn't show us. Those are the plots of whats happened in Singapore and Taiwan.
Both countries were far more exposed to the virus than we were, yet yesterday (Tuesday) Taiwan (population 24 million) and Singapore (5.7 million) had, respectively and incredibly, 195 cases and two deaths or 455 cases and, again, two deaths. At the same point in time Australia (population 26 million) was well ahead - 1396 cases and seven deaths.
So, still think our public health experts are doing all they can? Perhaps we should stop the self-satisfied preening and start paying attention.
The first strategy, let's call it the Asian plan, is draconian. It attempts to halt the virus dead, literally. Lock people up and freeze interactions until the virus has worked its way through the population and come to a standstill, just as it has now in China. Despite early bungles, today the only source of new infection appears to be imported from elsewhere.
The second strategy - if you can dignify it with such a term - is ours. It assumes you can't stop the virus. It's out there and will keep reinfecting. It will spread through Italy, and Iran, the States, Africa and back again, so attempting to stop it is a silly idea. What's needed, instead, is to control its spread, slow it down, "flatten the curve". And that's another interesting graph because where, exactly, do you want to plot yourself on that particular bell curve? The whole idea is you can't. The virus will just bubble along inside society, taking a few people here and there, gurgling as they choke to death in complete isolation. "Flattening the curve" is, rather, about allowing the virus to bubble along at the lowest level possible so it won't overwhelm the health system. Young people will keep spreading the virus, but slowly. They'll get infected, but have a lower expression of disease and resistance will build up. It also means, of course, that every now and then the virus will erupt spectacularly; such as when a child who has no idea they're infectious hugs a grandparent and transmits the virus that will kill them.
What a terrible knowledge to live with for the rest of your life.
Perhaps things actually aren't OK, after all. Perhaps this government's actually just making things up as it goes along. Just look at schools, which Morrison (and the chief medical officers) want to stay open. This makes sense, if you're playing the percentages. As far as we know, in Wuhan only one child died as a result of the virus, they get infected but have a low expression of disease. This treats the way we interpret the odds of probability in the wrong way. We know, for example, that our individual chance of winning lotto is negligible but buy a ticket anyway. Who wants a better chance of winning COVID-19?
That's why Taiwan didn't muck about when it came to the health of it's children, after a couple of mistakes in the last decade. Schools there were closed: people lived. In Singapore they stayed open but with regular hand washing and temperature checks of pupils and education about COVID-19: people lived.
Here, Morrison's idea seems to be that schools will actually work to spread the virus and allow resistance to develop. If you have faith in that, you might like to consider the way NSW Health allowed travellers to simply hop off the cruise ship Ruby Princess and wander off without even the quickest of temperature checks. No tracking, no warning. This is not a case of careful risk assessment - it's a case of disastrous incompetence.
The real point is there is a massive debate that should be taking place, utilising all our public health experts. This isn't happening. Instead we're getting one path, laid down from on high, by Morrison, as if this is the best and only way to proceed. It's not.
Every action he's taken embodies choices.
We saw the dilemma in the Prime Minister's face a week ago, when he was asked if he'd be going to the footy on the weekend. A simple choice. He could've easily insisted he'd watch this game on the TV but that, of course, is not the Morrison we know. Instead, like a mastiff, he worked himself up to declare: "I'm very comfortable about it, my colleagues are very comfortable about it. Governments will make decisions, sports bodies and other organisations will make sensible decisions, but right now there is not that great risk, not that immediate threat."
How quickly things change.
Morrison was right, but it was utterly the wrong thing to say. His dismissive words established the broader tone of that initial response: she'll be right, no need to worry too much, it's all in hand, and that's how it all got started. The problem is that things aren't in hand, at all.
It's looking, rather, as if you would have been far better off contracting this disease in China instead of a first world country like Italy or the US, that balanced broader needs and concerns against the health of its people.
Chinese hospitals are also using extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or taking out people's blood, oxygenating the red blood cells, and then re-infusing it. This sort of procedure is highly sophisticated with the result that the survival rate of a patient in a typical hospital - outside Wuhan - will probably be better than that in Italy.
There's still a great deal we need to learn.
Without effective protective measures every case will infect 2.5 others and 5 per cent of those will require intensive care to survive. The real problem here is you can't do two things at once; you choose to save people or the economy. Morrison's trying to do both but risk doing neither.
There's a simple message here: try to preform a balancing act while you're standing on the high-wire and you might fall. Maybe there's a plan, a very cunning plan, and I just haven't discerned it yet.
Or perhaps the (so-called) "decision makers" just made a succession of quite understandable but actually very silly mistakes. You be the judge.
- Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer
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