Consider these two statements:
The Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, has said in Parliament and elsewhere that the scale and speed of the coronavirus crisis has been unimaginable.
And Paul Kelly, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, has said on Q&A that "we've been preparing for many years for a pandemic similar to this".
They can't both be right, but can they both be wrong?
The matter of imagination is the easiest to deal with. For at least the last 20 years, the West's intelligence assessment agencies have been warning their political classes of the growing risk of a pandemic to global stability. They've renewed these warnings after we've dodged each bullet - SARS, MERS, Ebola, swine flu and avian flu - and emphasised that the risk remains.
Indeed, the US National Intelligence Council publishes Global Trends, an unclassified quadrennial strategic assessment of future risks to global stability.
These assessments, and more detailed classified versions, are produced in collaboration with the Five Eyes and NATO partners. They are pushed under the noses of political leaders throughout the West. For more than a decade, they have included the risk of a pandemic up with the risks of a rising China, a rogue North Korea and Islamist terrorism.
In their 2008 assessment - Global Trends 2025 - the council warned: "The emergence of a novel, highly transmissible, and virulent human respiratory illness for which there are no adequate countermeasures could initiate a global pandemic [by 2025]."
They continued: "If a pandemic disease emerges, it probably will first occur in an area marked by high population density and close association between humans and animals, such as many areas of China ... Despite limits imposed on international travel, travelers with mild symptoms or who were asymptomatic could carry the disease to other continents ... The absence of an effective vaccine and near universal lack of immunity would render populations vulnerable to infection."
And they concluded: "In [the worst case], tens to hundreds of millions of Americans within the US homeland would become ill and deaths would mount into the tens of millions. Outside the US, critical infrastructure degradations and economic loss on a global scale would result as approximately a third of the worldwide population became ill and hundreds of millions died."
The Prime Minister is deeply wrong. This pandemic was neither unexpected nor unimagined.
The matter of preparing for a pandemic is more opaque, as befits the opaque bureaucracy that is the Department of Health. There is a plan, sort of. It comes and goes in their published documents, and even if you pull on the wellies and wade through the bureaucratic sludge, you are left wondering, after reading them, just what it is that they plan to do.
But an interesting story emerges with a little bit of ferreting, courtesy of the Wayback Machine, that marvellous archive of the world wide web that prevents even opaque bureaucrats from rewriting history.
There is, it seems, a pandemic plan, but it is a plan from 2008 for influenza. And it is utterly anodyne. It has bleedingly obvious objectives such as "Actions will be taken to reduce the spread of the pandemic virus to minimise the number of people affected by the disease." After 147 pages of this, you wish the pandemic could just whisk you away. But even this plan sinks from view by the end of last year.
Perhaps Health just wishes that we wouldn't dig too deep. Because if we did, we'd find that, in 2007, Health was given the rounds of the kitchen by the Auditor-General because of its shabby preparedness for an influenza pandemic, in particular its pathetic management of the National Medical Stockpile (the 2008 plan is Health's fig leaf of a response). And we'd also find that in 2014, the Auditor-General, concerned that not much had happened, reported specifically on the stockpile with a laundry list of what Health had failed to do. Health then received $15 million to fix it over four years. It's still not fixed, as we can see today with urgently needed protective equipment unavailable, and doctors going to Bunnings to buy masks.
Taxpayers have spent about a billion dollars on the stockpile since it was established in 2002, and, in its first major test, it has failed.
So in a sly bureaucratic way, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer is right: Health has been "preparing for many years for a pandemic", but he too is deeply wrong in that the preparations have been largely ineffectual to the point of actually increasing the risk to the Australian population.
- Roger Bradbury is Emeritus Professor of Complex Systems Science at the ANU's Crawford School of Public Policy, where he taught postgraduate courses in emerging infectious diseases. He has worked on outbreaks in humans and other biosystems for 40 years.