Presumably it is mere coincidence that Sunday, when Daniel Andrews will hopefully reveal Victoria’s road map out of stage four lockdown, is also Father’s Day. But the confluence strikes me as neat because the pandemic has brought paternalistic overtones to the relationship between Victorians and their Premier.
Premier Daniel Andrews: have we been ‘good’ enough to ease restrictions?Credit:Paul Jeffers
Like dads, Andrews doles out punishment and reward for behaviour good and bad. He is now dangling interstate travel for Christmas if we toe the line – our expectations of roaming New Zealand in a trans-Tasman bubble having been managed down these past dispiriting months.
A month ago, Andrews’ announcement of stage four restrictions came with a gentle fatherly rebuke. “I know Victorians are with me when I say, too many people are not taking this seriously. And too many people not taking this seriously means that too many other people are having to plan funerals for those they love.”
The statement wasn’t wrong, exactly – surely any number of people not taking the pandemic seriously is too many people – as much as it was beside the point.
We’ve since had scientific confirmation of what was then merely rumour: Victoria’s second COVID wave is almost entirely traceable to overseas travellers in the state’s bungled hotel quarantine. In other words, the people not taking the pandemic risk sufficiently seriously were in fact the government officials tasked with overseeing the most serious and risky component of Australia’s pandemic defence.
On Sunday, Andrews’ tone and content should acknowledge that the original sin – the original screw up – was not ours but his government’s. And that the public wants reciprocity from the government: a promise of accountability “going forward”, as the detestable phrase has it.
Personally, I’m an #IStandWithDan’er – as in, I derive reassurance from the fact he’s the one leading from the lectern at the daily coronavirus briefings, the opposition’s contribution to this crisis consistent only to the extent a squeaking door in the wind is consistent.
But while we don’t know the precise mechanism by which the virus travelled from seven returned travellers at two hotels to the staff and security guards – who then set it loose in the community – the quarantine inquiry shows a system disaster was waiting to happen. Disaster lurked in the confusion about which government department was in charge, the hiring of private security guards through a chain of subcontractors, the haphazard infection control protocols.
It lurked, allegedly, in COVID-positive guests on early release, guards told to re-use gloves and masks out of sight of CCTV cameras, guards carpooling, smoking, even sweating profusely in the case of one poor sod. And it lurked in the only-in-Victoria affectations: a quarantine officer receiving “diversity training” but no instructions on using protective equipment, Victoria Police officers allegedly expressing squeamishness about a “military presence” in hotel quarantine.
Our collective humiliation is stinging. NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said she’d delayed introducing this week’s border bubble with Victoria because of earlier difficulties in obtaining information about testing rates and case numbers from regional Victoria.
Closing the border was among the hardest decisions she’d made, she said, “hand on heart”.
Get the feeling she’s enjoying this just a tad?
But smugness can only go so far given the many countries overwhelmed by a second COVID wave. It is easy to be smart after the fact. Which is all we’re asking of the government now.
Alongside its instructions about the steps we must take for restrictions to loosen, the government should reassure us about the steps it will take to guard against a third COVID-19 wave.
Such as maintaining the recently bolstered army of contact tracers for rapid deployment.
In August, Victoria’s coronavirus contact tracing team was reportedly about half the size of NSW's, despite a case load nearly 28 times bigger. Less than a fortnight ago the state’s contact tracing unit was still using a slow and error-prone pen-and-paper COVID-notification system. Close contacts of positive cases have reported waiting weeks before authorities got in touch. And so on. Let’s get some reassurance the Andrews government can emulate the embarrassingly efficient and well-resourced contact tracing operation in NSW.
Let’s also hear of the government’s plan for enforcing quarantine and isolation. This is pandemic control 101. What good is masking-up to walk the dog if more than a quarter of people with the coronavirus insist on leaving home, as was the case when army officers went door-knocking? Though, to be fair, until recently even this group was allowed outdoor exercise (their human rights were at stake, after all – #onlyinVictoria). What good, if most people weren’t self-isolating between getting tested and getting results?
The government rightly offered payments to casual workers forced to choose between skipping quarantine or skipping their weekly income. Might this compassion be combined with quarantine surveillance measures such as electronic tracing? If not, well and good – just make the thinking transparent.
Make everything transparent in managing the state’s chronically under-resourced private nursing homes, the source of most of the 400-plus aged care deaths. Talk about nursing homes and we’re instantly stuck in the labyrinth of shame that is Australia’s aged care system, a shame for which the Commonwealth, as regulator of the private facilities, bears most responsibility.
The aged care crisis has forced cross-agency co-operation between Victoria and the Commonwealth, but the public needs to hear detailed war plans on staffing and protocols to ensure future outbreaks won’t again turn homes into death traps.
As a father himself, Andrews knows that repeatedly scolding your kids without admitting to your own mistakes breeds resentment, or despair. The former, in our current circumstances, emboldens the death cultists, conspiracy theorists and Sam Newman to wreck the public health effort. Despair, on the other hand, will keep the cautious among us hunkered down and economically withdrawn, bags packed for a one-way dash to the border.
Julie Szego is a regular columnist.
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