coronavirus police state covid-19
(Image: AAP/James Ross)

With the nationwide lockdowns heading into the fourth week, the question of when and how they will start to be modified is coming to the fore.

Prior to considering that however, and the many issues arising from lockdowns, it’s worth pausing for a moment to observe that they appear to be working.

Nations that imposed lockdowns early, and had not been the first hit, have been spared the larger tolls of those who were haphazard or late with their application. 

Australia has had 61 deaths so far; the UK with around two-and-a-half times our population, has had 12,000-plus. 

That’s thousands of deaths that might well have been avoided: deaths that were, in many cases, terrifying and ghastly, passing rapidly from gasping for breath, to being stuffed into crowded wards on supplemental oxygen, and then the ventilator and the sedation.

Knowing, as you slip into unconsciousness that if you do die, this is the moment of your death; naked, invaded by machines, plastic-covered, the unit filled with the sound of alarms never switched off, and above all alone, with a plastic-gowned nurse holding your hand — if they are not urgently required at the bed of someone who might be saved. 

And that’s if you get a ventilator. 

The triage people speak of — aged people calmly renouncing treatment with a wearied hand — is a made-for-TV movie, if reports from inside hospitals (such as Nicholas Kristof’s harrowing report for The New York Times) are to be believed.

It is at least in part because of the manner of the death that lock downs have been given such substantial social consent.

But supporting the general policy is one thing, renouncing any sort of citizenship role is another. Police overreach and silly enforcements have been pushed back against early (the racial and class bias of such are more resistant), and there are other issues: leaving casual workers, visa holders and stranded students out of financial relief schemes; lack of PPE for medical workers; retail workers’ lack of control over their own conditions; and rent and mortgage relief among the most pressing.

But the general issue remains one of the power relations between government and public at a time when a strategy requiring the state regulation of life at a micro-relational level seems to work, and has broad public support.

Parliaments should be sitting in a modified manner, and it’s a disgrace — and corrosive to public life — that both Coalition and Labor governments have not only suspended parliaments but gleefully channelled a sort of soft-fascist disdain for parliaments as “talking shops” to score a few points.

But beyond actually having accountable government at the apex we need a change in the way that government circulates the research it is relying on to come to its decisions.

This remains, by and large, a black box. 

We know the government has experts advising them, but we don’t have much access to it. We should. This is an opportunity to change the archaic relationship of citizens and government, in which governments are not required to show their workings in reaching a decision.

We need more information now, not less. 

We need to know what papers governments’ experts are relying on, so public groups can make their own assessments and arguments.

This is no longer an industrial society with a mass population of limited formal education, going to regimented factory and office work. Now 40% of people have degrees, millions of adults have year 12 level science and maths. 

In general, it would be a good thing if we had ever-greater access to the raw material of decision-making on all fronts; but in particular there needs to be as little inequality of information as possible in enforcing, and gaining consent for, extraordinary measures like social lock downs. 

Dan Andrews and Scomo aren’t autocrats, they just play ones on TV. If we really have greatly flattened the curve, and are now considering a near-elimination strategy for COVID-19, then some form of lock down would have to be continued while the weekly death toll falls from its already low pitch. 

At some point that will simply crack. There’ll be one weekend where a few thousand people come out to hang out, and police will be overwhelmed in trying to limit it; the next weekend, it’ll be over.

That’s especially so if governments try and re-open retail and workplaces, while social lockdowns aren’t in place. 

There’s already a disjuncture between the policing of parks, etc, and the fact that large chains remain open and treat their staff as cannon fodder, without any workplace consultation about conditions. 

The valiant Retail and Fast Food Workers Union has collected a petition of 1300-plus JB Hi-Fi workers demanding store closures (don’t hold your wheezy breath waiting for the SDA to do the same).

Wildcat branch closures need to be next. If the staff of a particular store don’t feel safe, they should unilaterally lock the doors. That includes supermarkets; it may soon need to include medical centres.

Those would be serious moves. But it’s all serious now. All the more reason to have more information, not less, about what we are being asked to consent to.