Well there is some upside to the clear fact that COVID-19 is returning across the Western world, and that is that it is steadily, relentlessly hammering down our illusion that we have beaten this, or even come close.
We were always going to have to face this full on, and better sooner than later.
Across Europe, areas that believed themselves to have gotten through it are now re-entering lockdown. Belgium, which has played a useful role as the most honest tallier of coronavirus deaths (its numbers are sky high because it actually counts everyone who died from it, rather than excluding the very old and the untreated) is now going into very-hard lockdown, limiting people’s personal contacts to five, and in-supermarket shopping to 30 minutes.
Italy, Spain — all are starting to reflare. In the UK and the US, it might be very difficult to spot a reflaring until it is, well, virulent, because the first part of the first wave was never really tackled.
Other governments may now quite possibly envy those countries’ chaotic insouciance, as it has trained their populace to accept rapid death on a vast scale and regard any mitigation of it as a triumph. But the downside of that is the potential for a genuine tsunami of a second wave if the virus does not confer immunity.
But there is an equal and opposite problem with an early lockdown, and a collective and concerted response to it.
For it comes with the illusion that the virus can readily be defeated, simply because we want it to go away. It restores the hubristic belief that there is some necessary relationship between our desires and nature’s actions. We have only really had that belief since the invention of antibiotics and the defeat of polio.
The era when your teenage child could die from a cold contracted while walking home in the rain, or a twitch in the leg was the start of what would end in an iron lung, is still within living memory.
At its worst, this has created a sort of magical thinking, especially among the knowledge class, in which the can-do spirit of the ’80s and ’90s social movement era has been repurposed to defeat the virus (because, to echo Peter Cook, it had such great success in abolishing the global nuclear arsenal).
If we hand-make enough masks, yell at enough Karens, we’ll win.
No we won’t. The virus has already won. We’re playing defence and loss-minimisation now.
We need to look that clear in the eye if we are not to lapse into an irrationality symmetrical with the whacko right. We need to remind ourselves what the lockdown was for: not to defeat the virus, but simply to prevent the sort of US-style event that is on a par with that other US contribution to world culture — the unstoppable tyre fire.
We did stop that, and we have consequently set a hugely exacting standard for success, one we will not meet. We were always going to have to have a strategy to come out of lockdown — and Melbourne’s lockdown and the coming Sydney lockdown aren’t it. They’re just another stopgap. They deepen the magical thinking, tempting us to believe that one more will do the trick.
How can the virus be so indifferent to our desires? We now have a group of public health professionals and economists advocating for eradication. But none of the articles of this type that I’ve seen seem willing to explain the maths of this, or what they mean by eradication, which is never zero cases.
In the absence of that I worry both that such professionals are not thinking through the real social practicalities of extended lockdown, harder lockdown, etc, and factoring that in; and/or that they themselves are caught up in social policy magical thinking, which underplays the complexities of directing social life, a position strengthened by the endemic arrogance of the medical profession.
If you’ve got a case for eradication, make it — but we need the figures.
The next stage of magical thinking is full-on superstition, in which the mere mention that the virus will not be easily defeated becomes occasion for abuse. That appears to have occurred with reaction to the appearance of economist Gigi Foster on Q&A last night. Foster advocates opening up the country on a cost-benefit model.
Well, I’d prefer to hear an epidemiologist rather than an economist on that argument, but the suggestion that such a viewpoint not be heard, and that it is dangerous to do so, is aggressively stupid.
It’s a notion of words as viruses, and the non-elite public as a mass ready to be infected. We need more debate of these matters, not less. Indeed, there is no reason why the left-right divide should fall along the lockdown/non-lockdown divide.
Initially, it did, because the chaotic ideological right rolled over their anti-science position on climate to include all of medical science. But that was simply a nuisance — one continued by Josh Frydenberg’s desperate (or distracting) Thatcher-Reagan necromancy.
Now we have to face the question of what we do next. A post-lockdown strategy doesn’t mean an open up, let people die so bars can reopen idea. In fact, it demands more radical ideas for social reconstruction — in work hours, economic structures, urban processes, education — than does the deep-freeze of new lockdowns.
But I cannot see any way of proceeding now other than a sustained, detailed, widely-involved debate as to whether eradication is possible in Australia, the absolute minimum it would involve, and wide soundings and samplings about whether we want to do that.
Until we have that discussion, and commit as a nation to a sustained strategy, we are still prevaricating, hoping for a miracle, and praying to old gods of a dead politics, who have gone as silent as the grave.
Which at least clarifies the mind. I told you there was an upside.