Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews (Image: AAP/James Ross)

Well, it’s baaaaaaaack! But it never really went away. Following a brief respite in some areas of the world, COVID-19 is returning everywhere, everywhere. In the US it simply rages on, unabated.

As the ultra hot spot of New York started to abate, midwest areas and southern areas which explicitly spurned active measures due to politics are now starting to hot up. They will presumably feed back into areas like NY and California, just as they start to get things under control.

With no national leadership to speak of, the US has set itself up to be a zone in which COVID-19 circulates indefinitely. The pitiful state of the place is a glimpse of both an alternative present and a possible future. 

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This is underlined by the situation in Victoria. After some initial hesitation when the virus hit, the Andrews government went into “rainbow bulldozer” mode, imposing order, and also ramrodding the theatre of authoritarianism — Dad Dan, strong but fair — that it loves to do.

The trouble with that is that the theatre can obscure the real need to impose order, and since Labor state ministers in our era can be a tad, well, what’s the phrase, utterly mediocre, the second part doesn’t get done. 

So it’s difficult to know whether the current Victorian outbreak is due to a particular failure in multiculutral outreach (the failure itself does not seem in doubt) or whether it would have happened anyway.

It’s quite possible to attribute a level of general causality to a particular manifestation, which is to say, if the virus hadn’t reflared at a family party in Broadmeadows, then it would have come some other way. There is not only political spin in blaming non-anglos for the reflare, there is a degree of magical thinking at work. If we could identify one cause, maybe we could…

But we can’t. The basic dilemma has never gone away. The lockdowns were meant to prevent a US-style wildfire spread, to give us breathing space to work out what to do next, and to avoid a crowding of acute medical services.

Because New Zealand appears to have managed to virtually eradicate the virus, that became the hope. But New Zealand is pretty unique in being small, rich, isolated, well-governed, well-led, and hit late.

How likely was it that a continent-nation of 25 million could mimic that? What are the odds that other states will avoid a Victorian-style flare-up? If they do, we’ll know that the Andrews government really didn’t walk the walk. If they don’t, that will make it clearer that the virus was always going to re-bounce once things began to reopen, and Victoria was first simply because it had got the virus under control first.

The right’s attempt to use this as a stick to beat Victoria’s progressivism with, and to paint as a competent alternative, of all things, the Berejiklian government (they make the trams run on time, but on non-connecting differently-gauged lines), is going to look particularly silly if Sydney becomes plague town once again. 

Things have only happened at all when they happen a second time, so the return of COVID to the West (the first hit hasn’t yet peaked in the global South) is really its debut.

Here it is, not a one-off, not a fluke, not something that happens and leaves no trace. This is the thing to be dealt with, the virus that currently has no vaccine, and may never, and may be joined by COVID-21 by the time we get one.

This is a far more grim situation than the first lockdown, which our current mass culture managed to turn into a mix of World War II nostalgia and lifestyle articles. This is working out how to move to a situation in which more life is resumed without a pretence that we can simply regard COVID as done and move on.

To a degree, it’s our mass culture that’s leading us to think like that. We’re regarding COVID as a fad, like aperol spritzes, that we passed through, rather than a situation we now have to actually deal with.

That is going to mean working out how to manage a society in which the life activities and possibilities of low, medium and high-risk people start to differ sharply.

Governments of both right and left are going to have to work out how to repeatedly reconstruct an economy whose standard key source of widening demand — the discretionary semi-luxury of entertainment, including drinking and eating out — is permanently lessened.

The obvious point is that a “divider” effect has started to set in, as laid-off employees in discretionary sectors cut back on semi-discretionary and then necessary purchases. No amount of bluster about JobSeeker bludgers is going to solve that.

If this is simply the kickback of the first wave, and not even a second wave, then it won’t matter what a government’s politics are — capitalism will have to be further reconstructed to ensure that the basic framework of economic life does not break down altogether.

And behind all this lurks the darker possibility — that COVID-19 is, or is becoming, a blood- and immune-system disease, targeting our T-cells, with the prospect of becoming much, much worse.

If that occurs, or if new and more lethal viruses emerge, in what may be the viral stage of global human history, then a total social reconstruction may be required, and an epochal cultural shift would occur. The chaos in the US would appear to be a sort of small taster, the very least glimpse of what the beginnings of that might look like.

None of this might ever happen. I pray that I’m wrong. But one way or another, it’s baaaaaaaaaack!

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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