OPINION: Covid: The flight from science


Crispin Hull

Guest Columnist

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Aboriginal art, Wunnamurra Gorge. Image: Wiki Creative Commons
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I have just spent two months in the north of Western Australia, and contrary to Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s glib remark, the only people in caves that I saw were those looking at Indigenous rock art.

Morrison is mistaken if he thinks that the public in what hitherto federally has been the most pro-Liberal state in Australia will applaud his demand for opening state borders and an end to lockdowns even when Covid strikes.

A similar sentiment pervades in Queensland, the Northern Territory, South Australia and Tasmania.

In these states and territory, Morrison is up against both sorts of reaction: the base and tribal, on one hand, and the logical and scientific, on the other.

The base and tribal says: “We the people of [insert relevant minor state or territory] do not want to let anyone from the south-east spreading their deadly virus into our state”. And any easing of lockdowns in those places will make the case for closed borders stronger, not weaker.

The logical and scientific says that “opening up” to ensure profits can boom, on the one hand, and the opening of borders, on the other, are two entirely different things.

NSW, Victoria and the ACT (the south-east) can “open up” so business can boom anytime they want. It does not mean that the other states and the NT have to open their borders.

In Western Australia, there is no need for an opening up. The place is already open. We went on tours, dined at restaurants and generally enjoyed ourselves.

By the way, despite the effort and distance, a big WA trip should be a must for every Australian. The Kimberley coast; Purnululu (the Bungles); Lake Argyle; the stupendous gorges of Karijini National Park; Ningaloo; the Eighty Mile Beach; and wildflowers everywhere made this veteran of numerous travel experiences just gasp.

But back to the virus. The Federal Government’s demand for easing and border openings at 70 per cent and more easing at 80 per cent of vaccination – under its interpretation of the Doherty Institute modelling – displays a dangerous and illogical misunderstanding of the scientific method. It has just used the Nobel-Prize-winning Doherty name as a marketing tool.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s announcement this week of detailed easing measures that will happen automatically as soon as vaccination rates hit 70 per cent is similarly dangerously misguided.

The Doherty modelling applies what all good science does: it builds in as many factors as possible and it leaves open the possibility of new conclusions if new evidence or new circumstances arise.

It said you can open up more at 70 and 80 per cent if cases in the community remain the same as at the time of modelling. They haven’t. Morrison and Berejiklian have illogically ripped away a premise but kept the conclusion as fact.

Before acting, a good scientist would wait until the 70 and 80 levels were reached, then assess the level of cases in the community and whether they are trending up or down plus any other new circumstance: a new variant; research on spread by fully vaccinated people etc etc.

But no, the scientific method, logic, and critical thinking have been pushed aside by public relations, marketing and propaganda.

The former are tools for seeking the truth; the latter are tools for mispresenting uncomfortable reality in the glossiest way possible, however untrue or misleading.

The scientific method, logic, critical thinking, the rule of law, free flow of information, and electoral accountability have been the basis of the surge of human progress in the past two centuries – summarised by the term liberal democracy.

This is now threatened because ignorant and foolish tribal mobs can now, via the internet, spread misinformation unchecked to the world. Previously, publishing gatekeepers put their junk in the bin where it belonged.

This has exposed the fundamental weakness of the marketing method. The trouble for Morrison is that the people one thing in the smaller states and the opposite in the lockdown states even if both are motivated by self-interest.

That conflict cannot be addressed by marketing and propaganda. It can only be addressed by science. Science would say: Keep the borders closed for now. Do a gradual easing in the lockdown states. Observe what happens. And only if the virus is controlled to an acceptable level (say, the mortality and hospitalisation of the flu before Covid struck) would you open the borders.

Morrison and Berejiklian are presenting a marketing gloss – that we can go back to the pre-pandemic nirvana of parties, weddings, funerals and football. Not the world as it is, but how Morrison with his marketing would like us to see it.

And Morrison does not even do marketing and PR well. His Fathers’ Day frolic to Sydney was not only bad PR, it revealed a singular lack of judgment. As it happens, that instance of lack of judgment has few consequences (other than to the Prime Minister’s image).

But this sort of lack of judgment has been all too evident in his policy decisions that do matter – vaccine procurement; exercising the Commonwealth’s quarantine power with force and prudence; marshalling and boosting the whole public-health wherewithal to meet the threat, instead of seeing it as an opportunity to contract out tasks to private-sector mates who are not up to the job; and the $13 billion failure to claw back Job-Keeper money spirited away to profits and bonuses by big corporations that turned out not to have been affected by the pandemic.

Pressure from business and “freedom” fools means Australia is on the cusp of a self-inflicted calamity that would squander all earlier gains. Decades of neglect or outright sabotage of the public-hospital system in favour of private hospitals owned by mates has meant that even pre-pandemic the public hospitals were barely coping, especially with ICU. Private hospitals do not do emergency ICU – they actually tell you that at their entrances.

And little if anything has been done to reverse that since the pandemic struck 19 months ago.

Opening up NSW, Victoria and the ACT too soon if combined with opening borders with other states would result in not only much death and suffering but also long-term economic damage greater than the short-term damage of lock-downs.

Let’s use science and critical thinking, not decisions based with one eye on the election and the other eye on donors. Market slogans like “come out of the cave” do not help, especially when no-one behind the sealed borders is in one.


Crispin Hull is a current columnist and the former Editor of the Canberra Times.

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