Whatever else you can say about him, Chris Uhlmann sure has a way of getting the crowd on his feet. Two days ago, the headline of his op-ed piece — “blah blah grandparent loving embrace blah kill them who are we to stop them?” — shot around social media, the only public sphere remaining.
As the pelted rocks bounced off him, Uhlmann took to Twitter — a medium he purports to despise — to denounce people for not reading past a sensationalist headline (if only he had some sort of, I don’t know, editorial position which allowed him to control the pitch of Age/SMH headlines).
He was right, in that the article itself was somewhat more tentative than the headline.
Trouble is, it was also vacuous. On an issue that it is crucial to get right, Nine’s political editor could offer no statistics or grounded argument, only a rollcall of cliches about lockdown as “the cure worse than the disease”.
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The piece was just another example of what has occurred among the ideological right over the last two weeks.
As the left, progressives, centre and most of the institutional right has remained committed to erring on the side of caution in supporting lockdown, the ideological right has peeled away, taking up a position that is pure “politics-first”, a simple rejection of inconvenient facts and forces that appear from outside the political realm.
This is inevitable, because the ideological right has, for some time, not been a political formation that is in a relationship with external reality.
The Thatcherite world they wanted — a strong state enforcing traditional values and a “free” market within that — has been blown to pieces over the last decade as politics has been realigned.
One side is now a multicultural progressivism attached to the most dynamic parts of the economy, while the right relies on the rhetoric of a statist economic nationalism drawing support from the near-defunct, subsidy-dependent industrial base.
COVID-19 is a more insistent real than they have so far had to deal with, which exposes the inadequacy of their arguments, and their unwillingness to talk about the real problems all the more.
The position supporting lockdown is this (it is necessary to repeat it, since none of it appears in right-wing articles): COVID-19 appears to have a basic reproduction rate (R0) of around two, which means that anyone with it will infect two other people under normal conditions.
That is a basic exponential rate, doubling for every step of infection spread. If that period is, say, a day, then the population of Australia could be infected from a single case in a 25-day period.
The object of lockdown and social distancing is to detach the effective reproduction rate (RE) from R0, and push RE below one, at which point the virus will eventually die out under maintained conditions (so far as I understand it).
Lockdowns imposed early in the virus’s spread — by Australia, NZ, Denmark and others — appear to have pushed the RE sharply below one quite early, thus saving thousands of people from nasty deaths and many thousands more from debilitating lung damage.
The right have latched onto this achievement and argued that it is evidence that forecasts of exponential growth were wrong.
In fact forecasts of exponential growth were acted on, thus turning an exponential progression (one, two, four, eight…) into an arithmetical (one, two, three, four…) one, in which only three or four new fatalities are added per day.
The corollary to that is that if a process of arithmetical growth is then allowed to return to exponential growth, it will immediately trash any advantage gained immediately.
If it takes you 10 steps (with a step as a day) to slow the exponential growth, then you’ve hit 1000 cases (1024 to be exact, two to power of 10). If that is allowed to resume growth, then it is 2000 on the next day, and your 10 days preventive work has been wiped out in one day (even with a time lag of effect). The RE has rejoined the R0.
In other words, there’s an asymmetry in the process (in terms of human interests; not mathematically), which can wipe out hard won gains immediately.
Hence the wariness about coming out of a lockdown. It’s not something you can try and then reverse your decision with no great cost. And the maths shows why that is.
Now here’s the thing, with the ideological right’s claim that these low rates would have happened anyway or that an exponential process will not revive itself: it is impossible to tell whether people like Adam Creighton and Andrew Bolt simply do not understand the maths of the situation, and how swift action altered it.
It’s impossible to tell whether, in concluding that it’s been a beat-up and “no worse than the flu” they are being (dimwittedly) honest, or if they do understand it and are being duplicitous to a cynical and nihilistic degree almost beyond belief.
The same goes for Uhlmann’s fact-free piece — there is no indication within it that Nine’s political editor has even considered the maths associated with the virus, or understands it.
There is a strong undertow of fatalism in Uhlmann’s piece, and one can’t help but wonder if such arises from his Christian literalist views, scorning science altogether.
There is one piece of the “back to work” mob that has some figures, and that’s Sam Lovick’s piece in Wednesday’s AFR, in which Lovick — an economist, not a public health expert — using “authors figures”, suggests an “accelerated removal” of lockdown would see 3000 extra deaths, largely from a shortage of ICU beds as a mini surge occurs.
So, near 3000 triage death sentences of people who might otherwise live, something Lovick doesn’t really spell out.
Also omitted from the piece is the real counter-strategy that is being talked of: that of bringing COVID-19’s RE down so low that virtual eradication becomes possible. That would put his death calculations in a starker contrast.
The problem, then, with the ideological right is not calculations of unit cost per human life, mortality curves, etc. All that has to be done, and some sort of modifying of lockdowns may be necessary fairly soon.
What is largely absent from its discourse is any acknowledgement that this is an actual, sodding virus, with a process of replication that has the mathematical capacity to overwhelm us, to reverse all gains rapidly, and — not yet much talked of — to not only resurge, but mutate.
How does that occur? Because their legitimation of global capitalism demands that nature be constructed as a passive and dominated force, bent to our ends.
The reverse cannot be credited. That is the root cause of climate change denialism, which persists because the full catastrophic effects are decades delayed.
COVID-19 is the nemesis to that hubris, immediate and unsparing, and in the face of it the ideological right retreats into cliches, rubbery figures and pious hopes, rather than asking hard questions about how we get out of this and what needs to change before it all happens again.