(Image: AAP/Scott Barbour)

The next stage of the COVID-19 period in Australia has begun — a stage which largely consists of believing, erroneously, that the next stage in the COVID-19 period has begun.

Having locked down nationwide with a great deal of collective commitment and solidarity, no-one really mentioned the prospect of reopening for a few weeks, save for a section of the now discredited ideological right and a few “anti-politics” whackos on Twitter.

But now that the rate of infection, serious symptoms and death has been slowed and is on the way to being flattened — for the moment — the talk of reopening the economy has begun. And once started, in Australia, it has started to take off, and to propagate the illusion that we will soon be stepping back into our old life, wholly unchanged, powering along, going to all the restaurants tralala.

Haha, no.

We know this deep down, but we are not yet admitting it to ourselves. Any form of reopening is going to be fraught with risk, uncertainty, and the possibility of a terrible reversal of our success to date.

Working on the assumption (no more than that) that the lockdown has sharply limited cases and deaths, one can see the possibility that the process of reopening may be difficult to calibrate.

What if even a 10% or 20% degree of reopening creates sufficient population “bridging” to restore COVID-19’s R-E (effective reproduction rate) to somewhere closer to its R-0 (basic reproduction rate) of between 1 and 2.5, which would allow the virus to begin to once again spread exponentially? At that point we would be in great difficulty politically.

The clear imperative would be to pull back reopening to a lesser degree. But would that be possible, socially and politically? Yet, by the same token, how possible would it be to maintain our current levels of lockdown? We would have a few more weeks before we would begin to see organised and politicised lockdown breaches, of a manner akin to the US, though different in style and size.

The world is in a jam as regards COVID. The manner of its presentation may vary from place to place, but it is the same dilemma. We simply don’t know enough about COVID-19 itself, its budding off of separate strains, the possibility of reinfection of those who have had it, its mechanism of action, and its mutative capacity. With our awareness of that uncertainty, magical thinking arises and re-arises.

Most recently it has attached to hopes that a vaccine might be both readily possible, and available this year. That time frame (together with the magic technofix of shoddy tracking malware) looks suspiciously like part of a Kubler-Ross style “death-bargain”: OK, we say collectively, we’ll write off 2020 if we can return to life next year.

One’s suspicion would be that the talk of a vaccine “this year” may well be driven by political, corporate and institutional PR, all positioning themselves without any real regard for the actualities of the matter.

The reliance on vaccines — which are, after all, not a technology per se, but a repurposing of given nature, an admission that we lack the technical capacity to challenge the virus with specific tools — would give substantial delay in any case.

With the chronic underinvestment in, and profit-based misdirection of, global public health research, that delay is increased. Nor does the prospect of a vaccine guarantee any end to the process — you know, like that flu vaccine we take once in our lives and are protected forever, right?

If, as I’ve suggested, COVID-19 is the real start of a “viral age”, a product of a certain level of human mobility, intersection of modes of life (the animal market and the international airport), and the immutable structure of human biology, then this is just the beginning of the beginning.

Knowing whether it is or not — or even some indication of such — would help plan the next stage. For if it is not, then a commitment to extended lockdown, and a very slow reopening, would be rewarded with the avoidance of tragedy.

But if that darker possibility is the case, then we are simply delaying a substantial adjustment, not merely politically and socially, but culturally and existentially. Should this be a virus which will repeatedly evolve beyond our capacities to tame it, then the different strategies — Australian lockdown v Swedish “managed spreading” — will come to seem relatively minor variations, looked back on.

But you start from where you are. Clearly, the only rational process would be a very, very slow process of reopening, centering first on the revival of small workplaces, cafes, etc with limits on numbers in confined spaces, and, grim as it may be, wearing masks in public.

The longer the time-gap between reopening measures, the better we’ll be able to get useful readings of reproduction rates, which would give us the opportunity for maximum steering of our response.

In Australia, this could be done using our geographical separation for maximum effect. By maintaining interstate travel bans, and adding regional ones, we could, say, minimally reopen Perth and south-western Western Australia in one way, and north Queensland around Cairns-Innisfail in another mode, and see what works.

We won’t of course — that would be too well-planned and rational. The immediate political task will simply be the unlovely job of talking back to peoples’ fantasy that this will all be certainly and easily over — and of the willingness of a government to succumb to that temptation.

The main agents of that sort of sacrifice of human life to “the economy” are the ideological right. They all but destroyed their credibility over the last week. But they’ll be back, and their beguiling message will connect with an understandable, quasi-instinctual, drive for face-to-face social connection, beyond our immediate groups.

Keeping that living possibility separate from the death-drive of the economy expresses what every good radical knows: that sometimes caution is the most radical act of all.