(Image: AAP/Dan Peled)

While far from universal, the left-right divide in dealing with the pandemic has remained stark.

The Murdoch-Trumpian right — and, surprisingly, social-democratic Sweden — took a libertarian approach. The left, as Guy Rundle observed last week, swung behind the state and ended up adopting authoritarian methods of dealing with the virus, as pioneered by China at the start of the lockdown. 

Both sides continue to claim a moral victory, but this article isn’t discussing which approach was correct. Rather, it’s to explore the readiness of many to so quickly dispense with long-held beliefs in the pursuit of a lower virus toll.

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Something that has gone underappreciated since the beginning of the pandemic is the impact of border closures on the resettlement of refugees in Australia. In 2017, Australia accepted more than 24,000 refugees. That number dropped to 13,000 in 2019-20 after the Department of Home Affairs suspended the granting “of all offshore humanitarian visas … as a result of Covid-19 travel restrictions”. There’s a good chance that few, if any, refugees have arrived in Australia since then. 

Refugees by definition have a well-founded fear of persecution if they remain in or return to their home country. One wonders how many Australians indignantly criticised the federal government’s heartless approach to the Biloela family, while simultaneously championing a border policy that prevents thousands of other families just like the Murugappans from building a new life in Australia.

Perhaps coincidentally, the number of refugees we’ve prevented from arriving is very similar to the number of elderly people who would have died with COVID without border closures and lockdowns. Rightly or wrongly, we have chosen to prioritise nursing home residents over people fleeing Sri Lanka and Afghanistan — possibly not surprising given our prime minister built his career on stopping the boats. 

Then there’s wealth inequality, which has blossomed under inflationary government interventions around the world. JobKeeper, a policy notionally intended to protect low paid workers, ended up lining the pockets of Australian billionaires. Forbes reported that the average Australian billionaire grew their wealth by 59% last year, and Oxfam found that while the world’s richest recovered from the pandemic in months, it could take a decade for the world’s poorest to return to pre-pandemic levels

In basic terms, when a government forcibly shuts a society, then prints lots of money to prevent its economic collapse, that ends up being really good for rich people (who own assets like houses and shares that massively increase in price) and really bad for everyone else. 

Let’s not forget about the children, whose futures have been willingly sacrificed in the name of the COVID fight. The World Bank estimated that the pandemic could push 72 million children into “learning poverty”. The learning deficit is far from evenly distributed: a study in The Lancet found that “while learning might continue unimpeded for children from higher income households, children from lower income households are likely to struggle to complete homework and online courses because of their precarious housing situations”.

The study also noted that school closures exacerbate food insecurity issues, with many children relying on schools to provide a healthy (or in some cases, any) diet. 

Lockdowns have the additional unfortunate effect on domestic violence victims. A BBC investigation found that “two-thirds of women in abusive relationships have suffered more violence from their partners during the pandemic … [while] three-quarters of victims also say the lockdown has made it harder for them to escape their abusers”. 

Even if you willingly accept the obvious (but not necessarily correct) conclusion that lockdowns and border closures save many lives, that turns a blind eye to many issues that those on the humanitarian left once believed were important — like the wellbeing of refugees, children’s education, domestic violence and income inequality. 

There is no easy answer to how to handle a pandemic. Do nothing and some people will inevitably be killed by the silent pathogen. Do something drastic, like closing borders and businesses and schools, and it can be easy to overcorrect.

The lustre of government control may shine bright, but for many who once championed human rights and freedoms, the devil is in the detail. 

Adam Schwab is a Crikey and SmartCompany columnist, author of Pigs at the Trough: Lessons from Australia’s Decade of Corporate Greed, and the founder of LuxuryEscapes.comHe is a director of Private Media, the publisher of Crikey.

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