Over the weekend, the New York Times carried a story headlined “How Australia Saved Thousands of Lives While Covid Killed a Million Americans,” written by Damien Cave. Cave claimed that Australia’s comparatively low COVID death count is down, in the main, to “a lifesaving trait that Australians displayed from the top of government to the hospital floor, and that Americans have shown they lack: trust, in science and institutions, but especially in one another.”
As a dual American-Australian citizen and resident of Sydney throughout the COVID policy fiasco, and equally as one of Australia’s most outspoken anti-lockdown economists since March 2020, seeing this coverage made my stomach turn.
No, Australia’s “trust in institutions” has not served it well during this period. What has happened is that we have seen how corrupt and/or incompetent the people in charge of our institutions really are, and – to our horror – how our misplaced trust in those institutions has led to an abject failure of our systems of democratic oversight and accountability.
The same “trust in science” that saw Australia ride to the top of the global class for HPV vaccination several years ago (my children were in that cohort) has been manipulated and hijacked in this period to produce broad-based support for the most damaging health and economic policy decisions I’ve seen since emigrating here in 2003 from the US.
Cave’s article goes on to praise Health Minister Greg Hunt and Prime Minister Scott Morrison for their actions in this period. He claims that Australia’s better results on COVID and on the economy relative to the US, according to current measures, are because our cultural tradition of “mateship” made us into docile compliers during COVID times, thinking all the while that we were looking out for one another by staying away from each other, wearing masks, keeping our kids home from school, and getting vaccinated.
While he didn’t mention the corrosive vigilantism that crept into our local communities in the past two years, shaming the unmasked or those on unapproved jaunts to the beach, Cave does praise our disgraceful, inhumane treatment of Novak Djokovic that was broadcast around the world.
I wholly reject this laudatory portrayal of Australia’s performance during this period. Hunt and Morrison, far from being heroes, have betrayed the trust of the Australian people. Our tendency towards “mateship” and our pro-social nature caused us to obey rules they and others in positions of power sold to us as “for the greater good” that in fact delivered horrific losses to our country that will cripple us for a generation.
Few in Australia publicly questioned these policies in 2020 and 2021, in part because when they did, speaking from personal experience, they were vilified in the public square of social media as granny-killing Trumpkinaut death cult warriors and pieces of human excrement.
In short, the trusting Australian people have been had. Australia has been shown to have produced some of the most docile, authority-loving, uncritical people in the developed world: people ripe for brainwashing and manipulation. Unlike our COVID results, our sheepish national culture cannot be explained by our geographic location, our high levels of sunshine, or our demography. It goes back far further than that, as I have argued elsewhere.
How damaging, exactly, has the Australian COVID policy suite been? Independent scholars around the world have produced damning cost-benefit analyses of the COVID policy decisions taken in many countries, from the UK to New Zealand, while governments themselves have been conspicuously mum on the topic. Australia’s government, like most others, has left its COVID policy choices undefended except by brazen claims and selected monocular “modelling simulation” results.
In the deafening silence, I have been working in my spare time on a CBA of Australia’s lockdown policies, and just released it last week. The Executive Summary is freely downloadable here. My analysis, extending the draft CBA supporting my testimony to the Victorian state parliament in August 2020 and compiled with the excellent assistance of ex-Victorian Treasury economist Sanjeev Sabhlok, estimates that the Australian COVID lockdowns have directly cost more than 30 times what they possibly could have delivered in benefits.
This tally can be made in the currency of dollars, or in the currency of human well-being – the quantity that matters most at the end of the day, or at least that should matter most, to those entrusted with the stewardship of a people.
Australia’s history is bejewelled with a glittering chain of luck. In COVID times, this luck was on display again as the “lucky country” found itself with auspicious geography and demography. Politicians from both major parties, the Liberals and Labor, exploited this luck to sail to success at all levels of government for two years on the false narrative that the lockdowns they implemented prevented so many deaths from COVID that the destruction they wrought was all worth it.
My analysis shows to the contrary that even under assumptions highly generous towards lockdowns, the maximum number of COVID deaths postponed by Australia’s lockdowns and border closures is about 10,000. This compares to a quantity of human damage directly due to lockdowns that is over thirty times greater than the human savings represented by those 10,000 lives.
Unlike the costs of COVID, the costs of lockdowns are spread far more widely across age categories, with massive losses in areas like mental well-being, physical well-being, future government expenditure, and future earnings due to decisions such as stay-at-home orders and school closures – not to mention the effects of extended lockdowns on less-measurable drivers of social flourishing like the development of anti-social habits, productivity losses, and lower levels of trust in institutions like our healthcare system that were complicit in COVID policy mismanagement.
Many of those spared death in 2020 or 2021 from COVID are succumbing now in 2022 as our borders re-open, meaning that enduring the horror of lockdowns “saved” only a couple of years of life for a large fraction of Australia’s eventual COVID victims. COVID is more severe on older people, meaning that the policy of delay produced worse outcomes for the elderly.
Australia is now experiencing far more COVID deaths and infections than when lockdowns and other draconian restrictions were being imposed, while COVID restrictions have largely been eased on the back of triumphant politicians’ claims that the COVID injections have been the game-changer that we all needed to escape lockdowns and start to live normally again.
As we head into a federal election on May 21st, the major parties’ candidates really don’t want to talk about COVID. I wonder why?