TLDR: How is Australia like France back in 1986? Both suffer from expert advice that is impossible to rationalise, guided by an economic ideology, and which makes an outlier of the nation in the face of a global health emergency.
Australians - struggling in disbelief - are witnessing an increasingly arbitrary, shambolic and piecemeal pandemic response from Scott Morrison.
As he and AHPPC Head Dr Brendan Murphy stubbornly dig in to an irrational position on schools, hairdressers and more, the parallels with France's expert advice after the Chernobyl disaster are obvious.
In 1986 alarms in Swedish nuclear reactors began to go off, as if a local nuclear disaster had occurred. All of Europe went on radiation alert, and soon discovered that a nuclear disaster had occurred - not in Sweden - but at Chernobyl in the Soviet Union.
As the Canadian author John Ralston Saul observed in his book "Voltaire's Bastards":
In the weeks that followed, it became clear that there had been massive contamination of food products across the continent. Milk and cheese were destroyed in most places. Italy destroyed its vegetables and kept children in doors. Contaminated animals were killed and burnt.
While other nations took drastic action, France behaved in a very different manner:
Curiously, France alone seemed to have been spared by the winds bearing clouds of radiation. Life went on. Milk, cheese, vegetables and animals were eaten. As citizens looked at the daily maps of radiation movements in their newspapers, they could not help but be confused by the Cartesian elegance with which the winds carried contamination to the north and south, leaving a neat hole in the middle large enough to accomodate France.
French experts were so programmed to look out for the interests of the nuclear industry and "protecting their citizens from the moral dangers of knowledge properly understood" that they behaved the same during that disaster.
What happened in countries which engaged openly, honestly and rationally in response to the disaster?
Interestingly enough, in those countries which dealt most openly with the dangers of the Chernobyl accident, the citizens took their right to panic to heart. They listened carefully to all warnings and advice. They did not eat what they were told was dangerous. They did not complain about lost crops. They kept their children indoors. No one ran amok in the streets. They used common sense to panic with dignity.
How about France?
And when, in France, the knowledge began to filter through that they had been treated like children, the citizens reacted with a certain anger. First, French lamb was rejected at foreign borders as toxic. France's experts blamed this on foreign ignorance. Then even French herbs were turned back from Japan. The international press began to concentrate on the refusal of Paris to admit that something serious had happened. Gradually the French citizen's confidence in the nuclear system was shaken. In the weeks that followed, the revelation of undeniable deceit forced a certain openness upon the experts.
What the then French Government's response to Chernobyl and the Morrison-led Government's response to the threat of COVID-19 have in common is this:
Expert advice that is impossible to rationalise, guided by an economic ideology, and which makes an outlier of the nation in the face of a global health emergency.
While many comparable nations are taking rational action to drastically reduce community interaction - a logical response when dealing with global pandemic of this scale and impact - Australia continues to act in a seemingly arbitrary, inconsistent and illogical manner.
Read on a for a collection of examples, and a final brief conclusion.
All schools in the UK, and most in the US, are closed to the majority of pupils (with exceptions for the children of critical workers and vulnerable children).
They are adopting the well-understood concept of the precautionary principle:
The principle is often used by policy makers in situations where there is the possibility of harm from making a certain decision (e.g. taking a particular course of action) and conclusive evidence is not yet available.
Australia still isn't.
In the face of a devastating global pandemic, Dr Brendan Murphy once again asserted that a key reason for not closing schools was because:
there is no evidence that we have of major transmission amongst school children. We don't know whether that might occur.
But he has it completely backwards.
Faced with a high-risk situation and lacking evidence, the rational approach is to act conservatively and close schools down, as the UK and US have done.
In fact it's Murphy's own advice to keep schools open which demands strong evidence: where is the evidence children are not susceptible to community transmission?
As many have also pointed out, the separate talking point about children's susceptibility to symptomatic disease has nothing to do with transmission (the whole point of a pandemic response), and additionally ignores the consideration of teacher welfare.
But to truly comprehend the depths of irrationality here consider the Federal Government's advice on aged care visitors:
visits by children 16 years and under are not permitted except in special circumstances
- in schools children are incredibly low-risk and any re-evaluation demands high supporting evidence
- in aged care homes they are assumed to be high risk with no supporting evidence required
UPDATE: In a development that should surprise no-one, the Morrison government has reversed their instruction to limit hairdresser appointments to 30 minutes, instead of listening to the lobby's pleas to be part of the lockdown. See our latest article on this debacle.
The Government is going to increasing lengths to stress how seriously they are taking the situation. Here's Dr Murphy again:
We are very worried about the rate of rise in the number of cases of coronavirus in Australia, particularly over the last few days. It is a very, very steep growth and it's very concerning.
And yet hair appointments are still okay, as long as they don't last longer than 30 minutes?
In a public health emergency this grave it's hard to reconcile the Government's professed seriousness with directives this nuanced and arbitrary.
While it's entirely possible the AHPPC is convinced that a 30 minute snip is okay, and a 31 minute snip isn't, it's incredibly difficult for the general public to imagine how a hairdresser could follow the instructions on physically distancing to 1.5 metres at all times.
Unless of course, they were engaged in some Edward Scissorhands cosplay.
Lockdowns, or 'Be Careful What You Wish For'
Morrison keeps saying over-and-over that extreme lockdowns mean extreme timeframes. In the most recent update his warnings became ominous:
Be very careful what you wish for.
Why such resistance to a temporary, extreme lockdown? Why such fear-mongering?
We know that if we cut off all transmission paths then an exponential rise in viral infections becomes an exponential drop, as human immune systems extinguish the pathogen. This holds the promise of a faster journey to removing lockdowns and allowing society to get back to some level of normalcy.
Yaneer Bar-Yam of the New England Complex Systems Institute has laid out compelling reasons for why an extreme lockdown can be as short as 5 weeks in the US, recently penning a piece in USA Today outlining his position: We need an immediate five-week national lockdown to defeat coronavirus in America.
Back in Morrison's Australia however, there is not even an ounce of uncertainty around these fear-based assertions of at least 6 months of extreme lockdown.
Well, be careful what you wish for on something like that. Be very careful because that will need to be sustained for a VERY long time. And that could have a very significant and even more onerous impact on life in Australia
Is that convincing enough for an educated and increasingly questioning society?
Dissenting voices in universities, civic organisations and professional bodies are now demanding to see the modelling (see: Australia's leading scientists call for data underpinning COVID-19 decisions to be made public).
Modelling which presumably backs Morrison's implied assertion that more relaxed social distancing results in a shorter period of impact. Or does it?
It's a curious position, considering the University of Sydney's latest modelling predicts that more extreme social distancing results in faster eradication of COVID-19:
France in the Summer of 86
Like Australia today France suffered through a period of expert advice that seemed logic-defying and irrational - and in France's case this had disastrous consequences for its citizens.
Coverage in the immediate aftermath included this from the New York Times (Trying to Quell A Furor, France Forms a Panel On Chernobyl):
French nuclear officials asserted for two weeks after the accident April 26 that France had been virtually spared from dangerous increases in radiation levels because of its location and prevailing winds. They acknowledged over the weekend that some parts of the country had suffered radioactivity 400 times higher than normal.
But publication of the figures so belatedly has touched off a sharp debate and charges that French nuclear officials engaged in a cover-up to allay public concern about nuclear safety and France's heavy investment in nuclear power.
France's public crisis-of-confidence in expert advice revolved around a claimed cover-up of information and active deceit.
Australia's is different, and relates to the independence, clarity and transparency of its decision-making processes and decrees.
On the subject of independence, a final, ironic parallel can be drawn from that Times article 34 years ago. First the excerpt:
''We already have two Government-run commissions to monitor nuclear safety,'' said Guy Marimot, spokesman for France's Green Party, which is critical of nuclear power. ''What we need is an independent commission of non-Government experts with access to reliable information and the resources to inform the public in a timely fashion.'
And what happened today in Australia?
Morrison announced yet another politicised advisory group, headed by Nev Power, an ex-mining industry CEO.
So it goes.
Perhaps there's a universal truth here: in a time of national crisis we should always rely on independent and empowered expert bodies to decide, communicate and execute national health strategy.
We live in hope.
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