COVID lockdown highlights the best of our society, not the worst – ABC News

Ronald Reagan once said the nine most terrifying words in the English language were “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

How apposite must those words of the former actor turned US President sound right now with Australia’s two biggest cities – Sydney and Melbourne — in COVID lockdown.

A health emergency is now a police crackdown with cops on some Sydney streets, some even on horseback, with powers to punish people for their own good.

What’s more, in Sydney’s south-west residents have complained of patronising and demeaning treatment. Fairfield City Councillor Dai Le told ABC TV’s The Drum this week that people in her area believe residents of other Sydney suburbs have not been treated this way and they feel like second-class citizens.

Click here for NSW COVID-19 health advice in: 

This is what happens in a state of “crisis”: fear fuels more fear, anxiety piles on stress, everyone becomes suspect and people are vilified.

Yes, there are some who either mistakenly or sometimes deliberately break the rules. But it is hard to argue that Sydneysiders are acting in reckless, thoughtless ways, flouting lockdown and putting everyone’s health at risk. Instead I see people placed under enormous strain, through no fault of their own, who are overwhelmingly doing the right thing.

Tens of thousands are being tested for COVID-19 each day, some waiting in queues for up to several hours. The roads are less clogged and shops are nearly empty as people stay home. Friends and family are separated, many unable to go to work, some have seen their businesses go bust. Most are enduring it with extraordinary grace and good humour and displayed great diligence for the common good.

Millions of people who will in all likelihood never get COVID (remember in a population of 25 million Australia has had a total of fewer than 32,000 infections) have lost their liberty, generally without complaint.

We are seeing the best of our society, not the worst.

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Reframing the message

Sydneysiders have been told that this is the “scariest time”, some people advocate an idea that there is no living with COVID, only dying with COVID and many feel locked in some kind of vaccine “Hunger Games”.

Even at its worst this was not true. COVID has a death rate of around 2 per cent  — heartbreaking for those families who have lost loved ones – but contracting COVID is not automatically a death sentence.

Closed off from the world as we are and trapped in a bubble of our own success we don’t know what a crisis is. Indonesia, which is now recording more than 50,000 cases a day, is in crisis.

Sydney, generally with fewer than 100 new cases a day and with the majority of those already in isolation, is not in crisis by comparison. For those who sadly end up in hospital, then we have a world-class health system to treat them; something that is not the case for so many other places in the world.

If there is a crisis in Australia, it is more likely to be for those businesses hit hard, and people who don’t know how they will pay their bills.

police on horses outside the fairfield hotel

ABC News: Tim Swanston

The tone — and the response — needs to be reasonable

What should be presented as a reasonable health response to a relatively low level outbreak, by global standards, is instead cast in breathless terms by the hyperbole of the 24/7 news era where no adjective is ever enough and each hour must be more dire than the last.

This is not the language of science.

French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy says in his book The Virus in the Age of Madness that “it is the epidemic of fear, not only of COVID-19, that has descended upon this world”.

He warns of the dangers of a “collective panic, aggravated by news channels and social networks”, and argues that we are “herded” into a “parallel universe in which nothing else, anywhere was news – and in so doing, drove us quite literally mad.”

We choose to overlook or diminish the success we have achieved against COVID, like the rapid development of vaccines that will in time beat back the virus.

We forget how remarkably Australia has performed. Through good management, some good fortune, responsible government, and a great commitment from ordinary Australians we have managed to largely escape a pandemic that has ravaged the world.

We all realise Australia needs to do better with vaccine roll-out and yes there have been quarantine failures and at times clumsy mixed-messaging from government.

But we are a rich, remote country, with a big landmass and a population the size of a single Chinese city, sharing no land border with another nation. We should be thankful.

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Play Video. Duration: 3 minutes 59 seconds

Play Video. Duration: 3 minutes 59 seconds

The real crisis is elsewhere

Having survived the worst of the pandemic and lived COVID-free often for months at a time, we are now becoming conditioned to seeing every small outbreak as a looming disaster. Listening to some, you would think we cannot rest until no one ever falls ill, is hospitalised or, God forbid, dies.

That’s not how Australians live. We live with risk and ill fortune or poor health — even death — everyday.  

Our focus on COVID averts attention from other risks.

Chinese national flags are flying near a steel factory in Wu'an, Hebei province, China,

Reuters: Thomas Peter

The Status of Global Air Report reveals more than six million people died from air pollution last year – at least two million higher than the number of COVID deaths. Around nine million people die each year from hunger and hunger related diseases.

Those problems, and problems of poverty, war and tyranny, will remain when COVID has passed.

There were 11 million hospitalisations in Australia last year and despite a year of COVID that number was down on the year before.

Each year more than a thousand Australians die on our roads.

There are around 50,000 deaths from cancer. Around 20,000 die from heart disease.

Last year there were 700 flu deaths and tragically each year around 3,000 people take their own lives.

The mix of freedom and control is key

You’d wonder how we survive it, but we do. More than that, on balance we do an amazing job of it.

Why? Because of people. People make a society.

Government is there to assist and provide where necessary and bring some order but even more important is knowing when to get out of the way. Trust is the magic ingredient of democracy: trust in people.

Unlike communist or fascist visions of utopia, in democracies people are not meant to be blank pieces of paper upon which government writes the rules and determines our fate. But COVID has tested democracies around the world. The pandemic has played out against a global retreat of democracy and a rise of populism and authoritarianism.

We have edged closer to what the Romanian political scientist Vladimir Tismaneanu – who experienced the brutal regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu – warns is “the age of total administration and inescapable alienation”.

Countries like Brazil or India ruled by populist strongmen have not fared well. COVID revealed the weakness and failures of Donald Trump’s presidency as it did at times for Boris Johnson in the UK.

Close up of face of man shouting in a crowd of pro-Trump rioters at the US Capitol in Washington

Reuters: Leah Millis

Getting the mix of freedom and government control right has been critical to success against COVID. It is a constant negotiation against a virus that changes shape and presents new challenges.

Extreme forms of state-ordered lockdown and isolation to fight coronavirus remind us of what Tismaneanu calls “the frailty of liberal values”.

Democracies are a partnership of government and people and it is that partnership that will get us to the other side of COVID, if we don’t damage that compact in the process.

People can survive this without the media or politicians whipping up fear or throwing around words like crisis and war with no context of what real crisis and war look like.

Ronald Reagan was only partly right: sometimes the government is there to help. We need the government to facilitate vaccines, provide health cover and assist with financial relief for those who have been hit hard.

Sometimes we even need governments to tell us what is good for us and occasionally to protect us from our own stupidity. But we don’t need them to treat the people like they are stupid.

Stan Grant presents China Tonight on Tuesdays at 8pm on ABC News Channel and 10:30pm on ABC TV.

This content was originally published here.