How do you end a lockdown then?


ralysis: How will it end?

In April this year, we recommended a viewing of this interview with Professor Johan Giesecke, the former Swedish State Epidemiologist, and now a principal advisor to the World Health Organisation and the Swedish Folkhälsomyndigheten (Public Health Agency):

In this interview, Giesecke stated with crystal clarity why lockdowns in response to covid will not work in democracies. “How do you get out of it?” he asked.

Lockdowns can work in China, because governments can impose them and withdraw them at will. But in democracies, governments are pushed and pulled by voters, and once voters have been subjected to fear and panic by their governments, they will not allow their governments to ease restrictions if the fear and panic remains.

This is precisely the problem Australian governments now face.

Giesecke’s insight into social psychology, as well as epidemiology, is profound. It is light years ahead of the thinking of Australian governments and their so-called ‘expert medical’ advisers, who are, simply, politically-appointed public health bureaucrats. Alone in the Western world, the Swedish Public Health Agency is independent of government, an independence enshrined in the Swedish Constitution of 1921, precisely to ensure that public health advice is and remains independent of politicians.

How far-sighted was this?

In Australia, we are now witnessing the exploitation of ‘expert medical opinion’ by governments in the service of unashamedly party-political agendas. Queensland has a state election in October and WA in March next year. In both cases, the governments are trashing not only the social, psychological and economic well-being of their people for short-term partisan politics, they are trashing the Federation and the idea of a commonwealth.

What Giesecke understood in March, but which Australian governments and their media barrackers have not understood, is that lockdowns generate paralysis. There is no short, quick lockdown.

There is closure of some activity, then closure of more activity, then a relaxation of restrictions, then a reappearance of the virus followed by a re-instatement of closures of businesses, borders and schools, with, as time goes by, a disintegrating societal capacity to sustain any of the above, followed by political and social division and highly discriminatory economic damage, followed in turn by deepening resentments and a downward spiral of trust.

All of this was known in March. It should have been discussed intelligently across the nation. It wasn’t. We had no public debate in our principal institutions of democracy. The ABC failed abysmally in facilitating this kind of national conversation.

We have discovered in the last six months what an immature and fragile democracy we are. There is no end in sight to the current paralysis. The economic stagnation will be prolonged indefinitely.

How will it end? In the last six months, the Swedish approach to covid has been vilified by many. But there is now an emerging consensus that all countries will end up with something like the Swedish path – it’s just a question of how long they take to transition out of the shutdown phase into a post-shutdown phase. This may take years in some cases.

In Australia, it will certainly take years, and it will not occur at all without major political disruption. Our political class – Labor and Liberal, Left and Right – are too heavily invested in the shutdown strategy for them to concede its failure anytime soon.

How will it end? It will only end through pressure on the political class to come clean, admit failure and apologise for unleashing catastrophic social, economic, psychological and healthcare devastation on the country. No other scenario is imaginable.

This is our 10 Point Plan for managing the virus carefully and sensibly, without lockdowns, without trashing the economy, and without leaving the elderly and at-risk to fend for themselves without personalised supports. This plan was adopted by The Sensible Centre in March and it remains current.

1. Australians who are not at high risk of complications due to age (over 70 years) or medical conditions (such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease or cancer) should resume normal activities while continuing to practice social distancing and careful hygiene maintenance (regular washing of hands). This means:

a. Schools and universities should reopen.
b. Sport and leisure activities should resume.
c. Cafes and restaurants should reopen.
d. Religious activities should resume.
e. Elective surgery should resume in hospitals.

2. Bans on gatherings of over 100 people should continue.

3. Domestic travel should be permitted. Closure of state borders should be lifted.

4. Entry to Australia should remain restricted for the forseeable future.

5. All epidemiological data, modelling and forecasts used by Australian governments should be made public, without redaction. All health, social and economic data held by Australian governments concerning the impact of covid-19 should be publicly available.

6. All people over the age of 70 years with high-risk medical conditions (such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease or cancer) should be supported with a designated Circle of Support around them of 6-8 family, friends and neighbours, under strict medical supervision.

Circles of Support are an established social mechanism widely employed in the disability and mental health fields to build an intentional network of civil society support around vulnerable people. In this crisis, their role is to secure the basic needs of people over the age of 70 while in isolation from the public. This would include:

a. arranging for home deliveries of groceries, pharmacy items, hygiene supplies
b. regular contact and social support, via telephone or socially distanced personal contact
c. assistance in paying bills and coordination of daily living arrangements
d. arranging specialist health and well-being support

7. Rates of family violence, suicide and serious episodes of mental illness are increasing during this crisis. Formal services are woefully ineffective, and tend to be oriented to post-crisis support rather than prevention. Localised supports based in civil society (families, neighbours and mentors) are essential to prevent an epidemic of personal and social disintegration.

Governments, however, are focused only on formal services, and have failed to support the building of localised civil society networks of mutual support. Without these, our capacity for resilience is weak. The infrastructure for these has to be built quickly from scratch.

8. We need to build civil defence infrastructure at micro-local levels to support people over 70 and those at risk of violence, suicide and mental illness.

We favour precinct-level networks (200-400 households), connected online and in-person, as infrastructure through which to enable mutual supports and information flows that involve the whole of the population in mitigating risks and ‘looking after each other’.

‘Civil Defence’ is a concept in international law, drawn from the first additional protocol to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949. It defines Civil Defence (Article 61) as:

“… the performance of some or all of the undermentioned humanitarian tasks intended to protect the civilian population against the dangers, and to help it to recover from the immediate effects, of hostilities or disasters and also to provide the conditions necessary for its survival…”

In Australia, the State Emergency Services grew out of this notion of civil defence. These SES structures are now largely moribund, absorbed into state government bureaucracies and detached from citizen initiative.

A new multi-purpose model of civil defence infrastructure is urgently needed as essential working infrastructure, not only for dealing with covid-19 effectively, but also for natural disaster prevention, preparedness and response; local climate change mitigation and adaption; and civilian organisation for national security preparedness.

9. Economic activity should resume as normal.

The decision of Australian Governments to shut down the economy and compensate (some of) those affected with handouts of taxpayers money is not sustainable. The shutdown is decimating the small and family business sector; pushing the consolidation of ownership in fewer and bigger conglomerates; reducing market competition; and sending debt into trillion dollar levels.

A resumption of normal economic activity is essential, including suspension of bailouts for industry sectors including universities, airlines, media, agribusiness, and tourism, and discontinuation of the profligate $130bn JobKeeper scheme.

10. We need a government of national unity to fix the mess.

The country can not afford governments based on the old party politics. If any of us were selecting people to manage this crisis, we would seek out people with a track record in solving problems and fixing things. Instead, we have Premiers, Federal Ministers, and their inexperienced advisers trying to lead when virtually none of them have a track record in fixing anything. They tend to hide behind ‘expert medical opinion’ instead of subjecting all advice to critical scrutiny, and weighing it up against a wide range of other considerations.

The economic devastation imposed by the political class in 2020 will have to be fixed in coming years. To do that we will need a high level of social consensus and a genuine government of national unity.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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