Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg (Image: EPA/Valerie Blum)

Greta Thunberg (maybe) gets COVID-19. Scott Morrison continues to confuse people. And can we fight the virus without throwing away what’s left of our civil liberties?

ScoMo leaves it late… again

At another late-night (by Australian standards, at least) press conference, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a raft of new restrictions that indicates Australia is inching its way toward a full-scale lockdown.

Overseas travel is now banned (it was previously just advised against). Weddings are limited to five people, funerals to 10. Shopping centres and bottleshops remain open, although people are advised to stay home where possible.

Eating in a food court is out. Beauticians are now closed, but hairdressers can stay open for appointments under 30 minutes. Outdoor personal training with under 10 people can run (the prime minister spent a weirdly long amount of time discussing barre).

And the rules around schools, source of much confusion, remain unchanged — they will essentially stay open. But the press conference, which clocked in at almost an hour, raised many further questions.

Why deliver such an important address at a time when most people have tuned out? Why spend so much time on the confusing minutiae?

To confuse matters further, the government finally began sending out mass text messages to Australians, telling people to “stay home if sick”. That seems inconsistent with Morrison’s plea to stay home unless absolutely necessary.

Over the last week, the government’s communications strategy has come under fire for producing confusing messages, and failing to cut through to many Australians. On last night’s evidence, that still looks like the case. More worryingly for Morrison, he even lost Warnie.

Nev steps up

Today, Morrison seemed to get the message about night-time briefings. At a midday press conference, he announced a new COVID-19 Coordination Commission, led by former CEO of Fortescue Mining Group Nev Power. Other members include former Labor minister Greg Combet and ex-Telstra CEO David Thodey. The prime minister also announced all non-urgent elective surgery would be postponed from midnight tonight. 

Facing questions about the government’s patchy communications issues, Morrison still managed to take a quick swipe at reporters.

“I’d ask the media to be patient,” he said.

Stop the boats

The decision to let passengers off the Ruby Princess is shaping up to be one of the worst made during this crisis. For some inexplicable reason, passengers, some clearly displaying symptoms, were allowed to get off the ship and head into the community last Thursday.

By Tuesday, 133 cases were linked to the Ruby Princess. One passenger died. The majority of the 149 new cases recorded in NSW were linked to the boat.

So who was responsible for the staggeringly incompetent decision? At a confidential party room meeting this morning, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian reportedly blamed Australian Border Force (ABF). According to The Australian, the ship told ABF there were no sick passengers, even as an ambulance was called for the woman who later died.

But in a rare press conference this morning, ABF Commissioner Michael Outram pointed the finger back at NSW Health, claiming the department had made the call to allow passengers to disembark, and had failed to send doctors on board to swab passengers.

Meanwhile, eight more cruise ships are set to dock this week.

Let’s not get too Orwellian here

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic brings with it the challenge of enforcing the necessary lockdown measures without cementing a police state that will last well beyond the virus. 

Yesterday, NSW Police Minister David Elliott discussed the option of tracking people’s phones as a way to implement social distancing for new arrivals.

At Macquarie St yesterday, NSW MPs rushed to pass laws giving police even greater powers. Part of the NSW government’s emergency bill allowed police to arrest a person they suspect has breached a public health order without a warrant. Such an order used to last just three days, but can remain in place indefinitely under the new rules. 

And as we head towards a tougher lockdown, we’re likely to face even more restrictions on our freedom of movement, and a heightened police presence on the streets. But with parliament deciding not to sit until August 11, we’re unlikely to get any clear checks and balances on state power.

Faltering economy

As the virus’ spread accelerates, so too is the sense of impending economic doom.

New research suggests 10% of Australians lost their job in the past week, as Centrelink offices around the country had queues snaking around the block.

This morning, Virgin Australia announced it was slashing domestic flights by 90%, and standing down 8000 workers. 

In the US, meanwhile, Donald Trump seems to have found a typically unhinged solution to balance keeping the economy afloat while halting the spread of the virus: send people back to work anyway.

The president, who has previously downplayed the threat of COVID-19 and dismissed it as a hoax by the Democrats, announced the country would re-open for business in a few weeks, even as 136 more Americans died.

Trump is reportedly very worried about the now-tanking sharemarket, and had previously pinned his re-election hopes on the prospect of a booming economy. 

Greta goes viral

Teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg this morning announced it was “extremely likely” she’s had COVID-19. Thunberg, who is now “basically recovered”, said she and her father began feeling characteristic coronavirus symptoms after returning from a trip around Europe two weeks ago, and urged young people to take the virus seriously.

Peter Fray

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Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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