July 25, 2021

JAMES MORROW: Covid Mania Returns Australia to Its Roots as a Nation of Prisoners: Citizens in Sydney may leave their homes only for ‘essential’ purposes and not go more than six miles.

It’s hard to know exactly when Australia’s pandemic response crossed the line from tragedy into farce. But future historians could do worse than pinpoint the moment when Sydney’s chief health supremo told the city’s residents to stop being friendly to one another when they ventured out to buy essentials, lest they get themselves and others killed.

“Whilst it is in human nature to engage in conversation with others, to be friendly, unfortunately this is not the time to do that . . . don’t start up a conversation,” scolded Kerry Chant, the endlessly tut-tutting chief health officer of New South Wales, at a news conference last week. “We want to make sure as we go about our daily lives that we do not come into contact with anyone who could pose a risk.”

Never mind that you can’t even go near a shop without a mask, she said. Masks aren’t foolproof and this is, in her words, “no time for complacency.” A simple g’day, in other words, could be deadly.

Happily, most of us who live in Sydney ignored the warning. Supermarket checkout staff remained as chatty as ever behind their masks after Dr. Chant handed down her edict. My local butcher was more than glad for the chance to tell me how things were “a bit slow,” but added that she “can’t complain.”

Given this level of official hysteria, an outsider might imagine that Australia is a Covid charnel house. In fact, all of Australia is recording around 150 coronavirus cases a day. The current outbreak of 2,000 or so cases total over the past month has been associated with eight deaths so far, almost all of them people over 70.

This in a nation that records, on average, about 460 deaths a day from all causes. Cancer kills nearly 50,000 Australians a year. Shark attacks killed eight in 2020.

A good 18 months into the pandemic, the nation is still trapped in April 2020. Adelaide and Melbourne are hoping to come out of lockdown in some form this week; Sydney, the economic engine room of Australia, is likely to remain under restriction through at least August.

Australians need permission from the federal government to leave the country—applications succeed about half the time—and Australia’s states throw up their borders against one another at the slightest hint of trouble. Residents of Sydney may leave their homes only if it is “essential,” and not stray more than six miles when they do.

This is before discussing the economic fallout from the latest lockdowns. Billions will be spent by government or lost by businesses as a result. A restaurant-industry representative told me last week that many chefs and waiters are leaving for greener pastures. Many iconic restaurants will likely never reopen.

So how did Australia become a hermit kingdom? Geography plays a large part. By mistaking their good luck for brilliance in being able to pull up the drawbridge to the world at the start of the pandemic, Australians quickly became trapped in an “elimination” mindset that is now officially referred to as Covid Zero.

Politics, too, conspired to create this outcome. Labor state premiers (the equivalent of U.S. governors) quickly learned to play Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s center-right government like a fiddle, forcing the commonwealth to bail states out for the economic wreckage created every time they locked down their cities or shut their borders.

Elected officials have allowed their judgment to be replaced by that of the new priestly class of health mandarins like Dr. Chant, on whose edicts the country hangs. Hiding behind the “health advice” of such officials has become the national sport of Australia’s politicians. Earlier this year federal health secretary Brendan Murphy declared that vaccine distribution was “not a race,” which became a mantra picked up by the prime minister to justify an initially cautious rollout. As a result, only around 15% of the nation has been fully vaccinated.

Don’t trust the experts. They aren’t trustworthy, and they aren’t actually very expert.

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