Riot police firing rubber bullets into lockdown protesters. Rescue dogs being shot to prevent volunteers travelling to collect them. Nighttime curfews and one hour of exercise per day. Five-kilometer travel limits. Soldiers patrolling suburbs to enforce lockdowns. Health bureaucrats advising the citizenry not to stop and talk to their neighbors while walking their dog.
What the hell is happening Down Under? “Totalitarianism,” says Tucker Carlson. “Australia has lost its collective mind,” according to Ben Shapiro. “If we invade Australia we will be greeted as liberators,” argues Jack Posobiec. Has Covid-19 really turned one of the world’s oldest democracies into a dystopian health dictatorship? As my Polish grandmother used to say, things are rarely as good or as bad as they appear.
First, some background to the current crisis. Australia has been the victim of both its success and its failure in tackling Covid. At just under 1,000 deaths, Australia has had the second-lowest mortality among the OECD countries (after New Zealand). It stands at just over 36 people per million of population, versus 1,853 for the United States. It helps, of course, to be an island nation that had closed its international borders at the start of the pandemic. The border remains closed today, with permits required to come to Australia (issued in limited numbers and limited circumstances) and to leave it. The few arrivals are subject to a 14-day quarantine. In addition, state governments have from the outset reacted with hard lockdowns and closures of their own borders. Flattening the curve was so successful that it prompted the transition to the elimination, or “zero Covid,” strategy. Hence, nowadays a mere handful of new cases is enough to send a state capital city with a multimillion population, or even an entire state, into lockdown in an attempt to contain and suppress an outbreak.
Success in keeping the infection numbers and deaths down has bred complacency, which in turn has led to failure. Starting late and slowly, the vaccination program has been plagued by problems, such as the locally produced AstraZeneca vaccine, on which the federal government made its big—and sole—bet, generating serious side effects. Such problems are extremely rare, to be sure, but in an overall climate of public health hysteria, these issues proved catastrophic for public confidence. Still, the rollout has sped up significantly, and the population is approaching an 80 percent vaccination-rate target, lured in part by the carrots of eased restrictions in the future.
To those half-jokingly tweeting about invading and liberating Australia, I have some bad news: Australia does not want to be liberated. Strong majorities support the harsh measures. Several state elections over this time have seen incumbents comfortably reelected on platforms of acting tough against Covid, amid messaging that those advocating a lighter touch want to kill your grandma. In Victoria, where the left-wing Labor government has been by far the harshest and most trigger-happy—Melbourne has been under “hard” lockdown for more than 200 days so far—polling suggests only a small dip in support, not nearly enough to unseat the administration. The consensus can be distilled into the following: Look at the rest of the world! Our government has kept us safe so far. We can’t allow what has happened in the United States or Europe to happen here.
American readers might be surprised at such a supine public attitude in the face of some of the hardest and longest-lasting Covid restrictions in the developed world. To the extent that Americans think of Australia, they might think of a staunch ally in wartime, or perhaps a relaxed but tough and rough-around-the-edges country that has produced Crocodile Dundee and a long procession of Hollywood’s leading action men. All that might be accurate, but the truth is that Australia simply does not (and never did) possess as strong a libertarian streak as America. For all the jokes about theirs being a “nation of convicts,” Australians have always been far more statist and beholden to authority than Americans.
A powerful coalition of those with the most to lose and those who have not lost anything is driving the official “zero Covid” fantasy. The media has piled on, helping the government to terrify the population. The Fauci Syndrome is strong in Australia, too: health experts and bureaucrats have tasted unprecedented fame, power, and influence, and continue to be among the main drivers of the most ridiculous restrictions. The ever-growing section of society directly or indirectly dependent on taxpayers for its livelihood has been well care for during Covid-related upheavals. Those most at risk of death or serious complications remain strongly supportive of government “protecting” them from the virus. And the so-called laptop class also hasn’t had a bad pandemic, with many enjoying being able to work from home.
This leaves a minority of Australians driven to despair by isolation, lockdowns, travel restrictions, and the disappearance of their livelihoods. Service industries, particularly hospitality, have been hardest hit by forced closures and other restrictions. The economy continues to chug along, as the money printer in Canberra churns out tens of billions in handouts. The open federal money tap has allowed state governments, mostly in the hands of the opposition center-Left, to go to extremes; in any case, the center-Right small-business constituency is suffering the most. This is not a sustainable strategy, even if the governing center-Right has largely given up on fiscal responsibility.
The success in suppressing Covid comes with other price tags. The single-minded obsession that no one get sick and die from Covid is being paid for by a slowly unfolding mental-health crisis. Social isolation and dislocation are taking their toll in terms of rising suicide, depression, substance abuse, and domestic violence. Physical health suffers, too, as treatable conditions don’t get treated in the health system that now seems to have only one goal.
How long can this last? If it was up to the drunk-on-power politicians and bureaucrats who have found a winning electoral formula, health experts who have found relevance, and the deathly scared who have found a sense of safety (and, for some at least, the frisson of being a part of something big and important), the answer is “forever.” Which is why the federal government—belatedly trying to orchestrate a return to some normalcy once certain vaccination levels are reached—finds its efforts contradicted by state governments and health experts arguing that the vaccination target actually needs to be (the unreachable and unrealistic) 90 percent or 95 percent, that lockdowns should continue even with a highly vaccinated population, and that international borders should stay closed indefinitely. That this is not great marketing—get vaccinated, but you still won’t be able to do anything!—needs no genius to recognize. Sadly, little evidence has materialized of any major shift in public sentiment. The powers that be still find it easy to taint the opposition to their “zero Covid” policies as callous, anti-science, anti-vax, right-wing extremists.
Will people finally start getting restless as the rest of the developed world slowly returns to normal? Here’s wishing. For now, Australia remains a salutary lesson—an example of what can happen when an easily isolated population is subjected to a relentless scare campaign that plays to existing prejudices and exploits popular innumeracy and lack of critical thinking. The land Down Under is now a Galapagos archipelago of fear, on its own evolutionary path to a utopia where no one ever dies (but terms and conditions apply). Like the Galapagos tortoise, too, the solution is to withdraw inside its shell—but let’s hope it’s not for 150 years.
Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images