Aussie lockdown could outlast others
It's the COVID-19 Catch-22: The better we are at arresting the disease, the longer we suffer financial pain. But the worse we are, the more people die.
It's the give-and-take of "flattening the curve".
We know that by reducing the rate at which people get COVID-19, the more likely our hospitals can treat those who do.
But flattening that epidemic tidal wave also spreads it out. It gets lower, but longer.
Fewer people get sick. Fewer people gain immunity. More must wait for a vaccine to arrive.
Australia appears off to a good start in reducing the rate of viral infections. But various pandemic models indicate this means we are likely to be cooped up in our homes for months - or until a vaccine becomes available.
No work. No income. No investment. No tax.
It's a long time for an economy dependent on growth to go into hibernation.
We either save avoidable deaths & destroy society OR accept avoidable deaths & save society. The moral dilemma of our time.— Alexander Downer (@AlexanderDowner) April 7, 2020
Former Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer summed up the growing debate earlier this week in a tweet: "We either save avoidable deaths & destroy society OR accept avoidable deaths & save society. The moral dilemma of our time."
But there's much more to that dilemma.
Can society also survive mass deaths, knowing loved ones may have had a better chance at life in exchange for economic sacrifice?
And who gets to decide who lives, who dies, and who gets the money?
At some point, the virus will reach saturation point in Australia's population.
"According to predictions, up to 40 per cent of the Spanish and 26 per cent of the Italian populations are or have been infected already," virologist Guido Vanham told the World Economic Forum.
"And, of course, when you go over 50 per cent or so, even without doing anything else, the virus just has fewer people to infect - and so the epidemic will come down naturally."
That saturation point, however, can be achieved in different ways - and at varying costs.
Vaccination will offer an artificial boost once one becomes available in 12 to 18 months. Whereas an unrestrained infection will see the immediate crisis end sooner, at a much higher cost in lives.
Can a price be put on compassion?
It's a debate being thrashed out on social media platforms, by think-tanks and among leadership groups around the world.
"The government could lock down the entire country overnight to minimise the further spread of COVID-19, but at the cost of even more extensive damage to the economy," Jim Molan writes for the Australian Strategic Policy Insitute (ASPI).
"It aims to strike a balance between managing risks and mitigating the costs of those actions in order to maintain a strong economy and protect the livelihoods of working Australians."
Livelihood versus life. That's the choice.
It's not just investors seeing their portfolios tank, or entrepreneurs watching their dreams of grandeur fade away.
As personal bank balances sink into the red, as wallets empty and piggy-banks are raided, more and more people are asking: "At what cost?"
BY THE NUMBERS
It's well established that older generations are more susceptible to COVID-19.
But it's not that simple.
"It's logical that when you have cancer or diabetes, that you are more susceptible to infections," Vanham says.
"But what is remarkable - what we do not really understand - is that people with simple hypertension are also very vulnerable to developing this disease. So that's one of the unresolved questions."
So it's not just a matter of sacrificing a generation some already regard as a drain on economic systems and society as a whole.
It's brothers and sisters, children, friends and lovers. Which is why the argument to "accept avoidable deaths" appears doomed to die.
A collaboration of Australian universities has surveyed public attitudes towards the long-term impact of COVID-19.
It found most are worried more about the long-term societal fallout than they are about the economic shutdown and social distancing.
"In a world where social distancing is becoming the norm, and many Australians are working apart from one another, it would be reasonable to expect society to become more selfish," a report on the survey reads.
"Surprisingly, people were more worried about this exact thing - society becoming more selfish - than they were about losing their jobs, feeling lonely or catching the virus themselves."
It also found that - despite public scorn - most younger people take the crisis very seriously.
"Younger people (aged 18-49) were more worried about some impacts of the virus than older people (over 50), such as becoming infected with coronavirus themselves, being lonely, the health system being overloaded and becoming unemployed," the report reads.
It's also a question being polled in the United Kingdom.
Last week, the University of Birmingham asked the British public to define their values when it comes to the COVID-19 response.
The answers revealed 55 per cent agreed that the lives of older generations were more important to their long-term future than a quick economic fix. Only eight per cent outright disagreed.
THE STRUGGLE IS YET TO BEGIN
"People tend to be self-interested and prioritise immediate goals," says Griffith University applied ethics senior research fellow Dr Hugh Breakey.
That can be a desire to visit the beach - or expand an investment portfolio.
"Abstract concerns about risks to community infection can seem less salient than the pressures of the moment. It allows us to "neutralise" rules by inventing stories about why they don't apply to us, given our special circumstances. These self-serving excuses are a classic source of serious moral error."
But, as government advertising campaigns are striving to remind us - being selfish has consequences.
The message is aimed at getting people to adhere to physical distancing requirements. It also applies to every other level of the pandemic response.
"While laws and policies can be slow to evolve, individuals can alter their behaviours instantaneously," Dr Breakey says. "Rules and bans can be ham-fisted or crude, but ethical decision-makers can respond intelligently to their own contexts.
"An effective response to the pandemic requires ordinary people making sound ethical decisions."
It's a sentiment supported by emergency management and disaster scientist Dr Samantha Montano.
"The coronavirus pandemic does not end when you can leave your house or when scientists develop a vaccine. It ends when we have recovered," she writes for Gizmodo.
COVID-19 has taken a hefty toll on human lives, mental health, and economics. It's going to get worse before it gets better.
And even then it's just the beginning, Montano says. "Every state and territory will need to recover. Every community, every organisation, every business, every group, every family, and every individual will all need to rebuild at once."
Recovery will depend on leadership, an understanding of the challenge, and the ability to take action. None of this happens without community support.
"While disaster research shows what it takes to recover successfully, it also provides a warning for how recovery can go wrong," Montano says. "Recovery is often an inefficient and unjust experience that varies greatly for individuals and communities."
So every effort must be made to keep people on-side.
"The best time to think about how we would recover from a pandemic was before the pandemic happened, the second-best time is now.
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel
Originally published as Aussie lockdown could outlast others