Scott Morrison speaks with NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian during a national cabinet meeting (Image: AAP/Sydney Morning Herald/Alex Ellinghausen)

Measuring a country’s COVID-19 success takes more than just looking at spread, cases and deaths. Or at least, that’s the argument made by a major report analysing 16 countries’ pandemic response.

Public health responses aren’t the start and end to pandemic management. There are politics and policy and how well a government functions, as well as economic management.

And according to the study, led by a team based at Harvard, Cornell and Arizona State universities involving more than 60 researchers from around the world, while it’s too early to say definitively which country comes out on top, there have been shortfalls in Australia’s response.

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We didn’t have things under control as quickly as countries like Taiwan — but we also didn’t let things slip into chaos like in the US. 

While our governments were cohesive and unified, developing COVID-19 response strategies took time — and haven’t always benefited everyone.

Our public health response was good, but secretive

Our healthcare system was never overwhelmed, but the pandemic highlighted inequalities in our population, with informal workers, migrant communities and poorer households overrepresented in COVID-19 cases and deaths.

Overall, the work of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee hasn’t been controversial. Arguments centred around pre-existing issues, from aged care management to elitism, with questions early on about the privileged being able to skip hotel quarantine while public housing tenants in Victoria were pushed into lockdown. 

The report also alludes to Australia’s secrecy — differences in expert opinions were kept under wraps. The report found independent science advice is less institutionalised by comparison with many Western countries. 

What the report misses, however, is concerns around the national cabinet’s level of secrecy

While the US had dissent among public health experts out in the open, Australia did not. There were discrepancies around the COVID-19 modelling and how it should be interpreted, but largely officials appeared unified. 

This is hailed as a success in the report — though cracks are showing.

Unity can only last so long

Australia was swift to unify its response. Politicians kept their criticism under wraps, and for the first time since World War II, the national cabinet was formed.

But it wasn’t to last. The federal government clashed with Victoria over the state’s strict rules during its second wave; the federally regulated aged care sector came under criticism by the states; and both the federal and NSW governments clashed with other states over internal border closures.

We’re not the rebellious larrikins we thought we were

As it turns out, Australians are sticklers for the rules. We wore our masks and protests against restrictions were small. Policies were tailored for a population that is self-interested and will comply with directions, but which expected the government to cater to its prejudices — one example of this is increasing welfare payments for the never-before-unemployed. 

While Australians were more public-spirited than conservative politicians gave them credit for, racial abuse did increase. But overall, Australians and civil society groups acted in solidarity — migrant justice groups and Indigenous health initiatives lead the containment response in many communities. 

Our economic response wasn’t as good as it could have been

Australia has not escaped economically unscathed from the virus — and many sectors have been hit much worse than others. Higher education, hospitality and tourism are struggling, with higher education not receiving JobKeeper. 

There’s been a rise in unemployment. The pandemic highlighted issues with precarious employment, yet little has been done to address it, with more Australians moving into casual positions. 

Economic policies were driven by the National COVID-19 Coordination Committee, which mostly consists of business leaders close to the Coalition. While casual employees didn’t get a lot of help, the gas industry did, with the sector likely to be deregulated.

JobKeeper, which is being rolled back, resulted in companies paying themselves and did little to help those on temporary visas.

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Crikey is an independent Australian-owned and run outfit. It doesn’t enjoy the vast resources of the country’s main media organisations. We take seriously our responsibility to bear witness.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
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