NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast last week devoted an episode to the folly of hindsight bias and the assumption we make that if there’s a bad outcome, then the processes that led up to it must have been flawed.
Hidden Brain cited the horrific example of police officer Joseph Gray, a drunk driver in Brooklyn who ran a red light and accidentally killed a 23-year-old pregnant mother of two and her unborn child. Gray was sentenced to 15 years jail for his crimes, which many felt appropriate given the horrific ramifications of his actions.
Gray’s real crime was driving while intoxicated, something that happens all too frequently. Had Gray been pulled over a block before the accident occurred, no one would have died and he would have potentially lost his licence for six months. Instead, it was both drunkenness and bad luck which led to the tragic fatalities.
The Victorian hotel quarantine outbreak, which triggered a second COVID spike and its more-than 700 deaths is in the same category.
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The main criticism of the Victorian government is that it chose to use private security guards rather than defence force personnel to supervise hotel quarantine. The guards then contracted the virus from returning travellers and it ran rampant through the northern suburbs of Melbourne.
The problem with this narrative is that other states, including “gold standard” NSW and WA, used private security guards who also breached basic rules. Moreover, security guards make far more sense than the dystopian scenario of heavily armed soldiers patrolling an Australian city like a scene out of The Handmaid’s Tale.
We blame Dan Andrews for the private guards because that is what led up to the disaster. But it wasn’t the real mistake. The three big errors the Victorian government has made were less obvious.
The first real mistake was Victoria’s inept, highly centralised, pen-and-paper-based contact tracing capabilities. Andrews stands accused of reducing the size of Victoria’s contact tracing team (a claim he has denied) while the virus was multiplying in late May and early June.
In June, when contact tracing should have been in full swing, Victoria had a team of only 56 people using no technology. Several months earlier, NSW had wisely scaled up its digitised and localised contract tracing to more than 150.
The second mistake Victoria made was quarantining all travellers in commercial hotels. As we discussed last week, Australia and New Zealand are virtually alone in forcing hotel quarantine. Instead, we could have used basic devices like ankle tags to make sure returning travellers were properly quarantining at home and forcing only those who tested positive on arrival into state-run facilities.
The sheer volume of people being quarantined led to the mass hiring (and non-existent training) of guards. Had there only been one or two hotels used with a small team of trained guards, it’s highly unlikely that there would have been a second wave.
The third error? Failing to properly account for all the costs of lockdown on society. Andrews was far too cautious in May. While NSW was quick to reopen its schools, it took Andrews six more weeks to fully reopen (before Victoria slipped into its horrific second wave).
Andrews then cherry-picked his medical experts to justify his overly-cautious approach in August and September, allowing him to allege medical justification for the harsh lockdown. In August, Andrews based his stage four lockdown on the advice of Tony Blakely, who a few weeks earlier had released a research paper which recommended a hard, six-week lockdown to try to achieve “elimination”.
When Blakely turned against Andrews in September, Andrews suddenly stopped relying on Blakely’s advice and turned to the Burnet Institute, which in July claimed Victoria’s lockdown would save 18,000 lives. (The Burnet Institute has been part of a group of bodies to receive millions of dollars in COVID-19 funding from the Victorian government.)
While epidemiologists criticise the seemingly endless lockdown, Andrews persists, petrified of the political consequences of a third wave. Meanwhile, a Melbourne doctor this week warned that she was “treating between 15 and 20 mental health conditions each day, compared with about five a day last year”.
The Andrews government woefully mishandled its COVID-19 response which has led to almost 800 deaths. But it was an incompetent public health response, a lack of common sense and a paranoid political will to survive that were the problems — not private security guards.