(Image: AAP/Dean Lewins)

Australia was still in the grip of the bushfire crisis when the first media reports emerged about a new virus in Wuhan, China.

“Chinese health authorities are trying to identify what is causing an outbreak of pneumonia in the central city of Wuhan, officials say, after the tally of cases rose to 44,” the ABC reported on January 4, just days after China had — reluctantly — “fessed up” to the World Health Organisation about it.

At that point we were still talking about Scott Morrison forcing people to shake hands, and the abuse being meted out to him over his failure of leadership over December and between Christmas and New Year. Two days later, he announced a $2 billion bushfire recovery package, amid questions about whether the budget surplus he had declared “delivered” would still arrive.

The year had thus began in political chaos, with a previously dominant prime minister under siege, the Coalition again embroiled in fighting over climate action and the Nationals at war with themselves.

But coming toward all of us, moving faster even than the bushfires that killed 33 Australians over summer, moving as fast as commercial passenger aircraft could carry it, was a virus of relatively low lethality, but highly contagious, and a serious threat to older people.

By the end of February it was dominating the media. By the end of March, Australia, like most other developed countries, was in virtual lockdown, with whole industries closed, the economy in free-fall and tens of thousands joining the jobless queues — literally queues, thanks to government bungling — every day. There are now over a million cases of the virus worldwide.

Along the way, Australia’s future changed. Even under the best scenarios, the economy has been fundamentally altered, and its future will be one of bigger government, higher tax and more regulation. Under the worst scenarios, a depression beckons, with major industries set to remain shadows of themselves.

Much will depend from here on how America handles what looks like an Italian path toward hundreds of thousands of deaths.

For Australians, the virus is the second of two sharp blows, following catastrophic climate change-driven bushfires, themselves the culmination of an extended drought. Between human-induced climate change and the likely origins of the coronavirus in a Chinese wet market, it seems that Nature will, after all, not be mocked.

A universe normally blandly indifferent to our existence has given us a double-tap to remind us that we’re here under sufferance, and if we make even relatively minimal changes in the parameters of the environment we inhabit, they can take us into a Ballardian dystopia, or much worse, within weeks.

Epidemics, both bacteriological and viral, are a central feature of human civilization; you can’t have large numbers of people living together without creating the perfect conditions for pathogens to spread. Whenever the billion-years-long history of viruses and bacteria is written — and whoever writes it — humanity and its cities are likely to provide a brief interlude in a much longer evolutionary story.

But increasing globalisation, of course, has been the new urbanisation for viruses — their hosts had to survive sailing ships in the days of the bubonic plague, then steamships in the early 20th century. But then aviation arrived to enable a virus to get on a plane in New York and be in Europe within hours. Now, cheap aviation means pretty much everyone from anywhere can transport viruses to new, exciting breeding grounds across the globe.

And you can imagine viruses are particularly pleased we cram thousands of older people into confined spaces with no escape and sail them from country to country, purely for leisure.

For the first time, however, we have a pandemic in the age of mass internet use. A significant proportion of the workforce, normally found in an office, is now in their study, on their bed, in their kitchen or on their couch, juggling children, pets and colleagues.

Teleconferencing and remote working have, despite the efforts of advocates, remained marginal in most office-based workforces; how many businesses, having been forced to experiment en masse with staff working from home, are going to return to leasing costly office space to house workers? Will we “snap back” to life pre-virus? Or will working from home, quieter roads, emptier public transport and deserted CBD office buildings become more common?

Who, in turn, will bear the financial burden of all that empty commercial office space? How many building owners will go broke, default on loans, undermine bank balance sheets?

That’s just one example of how the future, in the space of a few weeks, has dramatically changed — changed at a pace that left us all reeling. The government, many of us felt, moved too slowly to deliver its three emergency packages, each of dramatically increased size. And yet it moved absurdly fast by previous standards.

Three and a half months passed between the Rudd-Swan government’s first and second stimulus packages during the global financial crisis (GFC); the Morrison government delivered three packages in 18 days. The third of them was a stunning $130 billion, which in one hit is about 80% of the entire debt racked up by Labor over the course of its time in office dealing with the consequences of the GFC

When Labor did it, the Coalition opposed stimulus spending, complaining that all that additional borrowing would “crowd out” the private sector and that it was wasteful. News Corp and the ABC both ran aggressive reporting campaigns against the Labor programs. Conservative economists mocked the spending, arguing people wouldn’t spend stimulus payments. When it kept Australia out of recession, they insisted it was China (where the government had, erm, also launched a colossal fiscal stimulus program) that saved us.

There’s not a peep from any of them now. The crisis has not merely changed the future, it’s changed the past as well. Never was Robert Lucas’ reluctant observation “I guess everyone is a Keynesian in the foxhole” proven more true.

There’s no whisper of “crowding out”, no concern for the possibility of waste. Liberals who led the charge against Labor stimulus like Malcolm Turnbull and Joe Hockey now cheer on far bigger spending. Other critics have fallen conspicuously silent. 

As we’ve noted at Crikey for some time, the Coalition is the party of big government in Australia, not Labor, and it has now cemented its claim to that title for all time.

Still, not much gets done in politics without hypocrisy greasing the wheels along the way, and here it’s been the lubricant for the biggest government intervention in Australian history, rerouting us into a very different future. We could call that future “post-virus”, but that would never be accurate. It’s a viral world, after all. We just provide transport for them.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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