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

You have to admire the hubris of much of the right in Australia, as the Victorian July COVID-19 crisis unfolds. With some hard choices having to be made (with some highly questionable politics), the critics have gone from the particular to the general pretty quickly.

As we noted here (and as pretty much everyone else did), the use of privatised service providers for hotel quarantine was a disaster, and there appears to have been other errors — from lack of translated materials, to an Anglocentric view of family structures and interactions — that suggest a state government more interested in projecting an image of toughness, than in actually being rigorously efficient.

But it’s a pretty big leap from that to the suggestion that the reoccurence of COVID-19 in Victoria is going to be a unique occurrence. That seems to be an expression of magical thinking — that this crisis will be brief, non-recurrent and easily subject to human will.

None of these propositions have been remotely borne out by the last few weeks, in the world, or here.

The more likely scenario is that Victoria’s COVID-19 reflared because the state had beaten it earlier than anyone else, and the release of tight controls led to a rush back to a sociality that was bound to re-spread the virus.

If that’s the case, then within a few weeks the virus will start to reoccur in all the places now crowing, in a barely disguised fashion, about the Victorian disaster. Should that happen, it will happen differently than in Victoria, but the same.

The virus will simply have found another pathway — a sports match that shouldn’t have been held, a hospital that got something very wrong. If, as seems undoubtable, the effective reproduction rate (the R-0 rate) is above one, then, absent a vaccine, the virus is always going to find a way back to spreading.

The example of the US appears to bear this out. The virus flared quickly and appallingly in New York City because it was a major connection point to Western Europe, with a high population density and comprehensive social distancing a near impossibility without lockdown.

New York got its outbreak under control and then the outbreaks in all the rest of the states began to rise. There has been some variation depending upon the degree of lockdown, but the new rise is general. It was always coming. Now it’s here.

Should COVID-19 start to return in other Australian states, it will remind us of what we already know: that this virus is here to stay for a while.

It seems important to keep rethinking, re-examining what this virus is — and what viruses are in general.

Clearly, the world is a massive virus factory, in which the planet’s fauna serve as a unified habitat for the ceaseless recombination and evolution of viruses, most of them harmless. 

Perhaps there has even been a series of coronaviruses, going global or partially global and yet undetected by societies that not only lacked the technology to identify viruses, but the conceptual framework to even conceive of them.

This creates a supreme paradox in our handling of the virus. We are trapped between knowledge and answer. We can identify its action but do nothing about it.

The science that makes that possible has, to a degree, driven out an earlier religious-fatalistic worldview that would allow us to continue life in an uninterrupted fashion, accepting its deaths as the way of the world.

The fact that the virus targets the aged, and those with chronic conditions, has made it impossible for us to simply accept it as fate, since that would be unjust, especially as regards the non-aged, chronically ill. The clash between the virus and medical technology renders it terrifying.

Once you get the fire in the lungs and go on a ventilator, beyond a certain age or with some chronic conditions, your chance of dying is 50%; naked, sedated, wrapped in plastic, a tube snaking down your throat, with no family or friends around you.

There is every indication that, absent a vaccine, COVID-19 could just go round and round and round, taking a fresh slice of the highly-exposed each time.

That is quite aside from the possibility of multiple infections by separate strains, and the occurrence of new viruses entirely. A just-released Spanish study suggests that only 5% of people have developed antibodies to the virus. That would suggest herd immunity is unachievable.

If that were its only effect, we would begin to accept that, to start to alter the way we live together, creating high-risk communities or separates social spaces for example.

And to quietly accept a new and realistic way of thinking about whether and under what conditions one would end one’s life to avoid being drawn into a hospital process that sweeps beyond one’s control. Life would then return to full volume, with a shifted ethic.

But in the meantime it has become clear that the early model of COVID-19 as something that either kills you, or comes and goes, is false.

It now seems that having had COVID-19, even for the young, will leave one with an array of persisting conditions from lung damage to cerebral effects, and that the range and seriousness of this is unknown. So to leave the virus to come around and around again may leave hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, with life-limiting damage.

That makes a shift to a “fatalist” and targeted model of virus minimisation that much less likely. But let’s face it, if such permanent damage is common and widespread, we don’t really know what to do about this.

And we are not even remotely prepared for these occurrences. We have not yet accepted the truth of the virus. The haphazard way in which the lockdown of nine public housing towers in Melbourne is an example.

The fact that police-heavy lockdowns, chaos at the scene, lack of planning for the chronically ill, the lack of a smooth system for supply of food and necessities, and the reliance on charity, shows that no one in the Andrews government had planned for this possibility, which could have been foreseen as part of a “bounceback”, even before the second wave comes.

But so too is the cheap baiting of the Andrews government by its competitors; not because the Andrews government does not deserve it, but because we can be sure that there has been no real second-stage planning anywhere else either, and the same chaotic scramble will occur elsewhere too.

And possibly, just possibly, it won’t happen at all — the thing will be tamped down.

But does anyone believe that this will be the last of these? And that the duty of governments now is anything other than to make real, clear-eyed, comprehensive, and publicly-engaged plans for the fire in the lungs next time?

And does anyone believe we will?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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