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Future plague: What have we learned by living through the Covid pandemic?

Experts in economics, public administration and health are keen for a detailed debate on how Australia better manages the next pandemic, writes Craig Johnstone.

Nov 30, 2022, updated Nov 30, 2022
 (AAP Image/Luis Ascui)

(AAP Image/Luis Ascui)

Nothing we ever do is perfect, particularly when we are in uncharted territory like a worldwide pandemic. Still, it’s becoming pretty clear that Australia’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic was a lot more imperfect than it could have been.

As Australians put lockdowns behind them and get used to living with the virus, the necessary but painful job of thinking about what could have been done better and what mistakes to avoid next time has begun.

Questions like: Does the Victorian election victory for the government of Dan Andrews vindicate its hardline approach to the pandemic, which caused police to visit policy dissenters in their own homes and Melbourne to suffer a lockdown nearly as long as any other city in the world?

Or does the NSW Supreme Court’s decision this week regarding the invalidity of penalties imposed on Sydney residents who breached lockdown rules, causing the government of that state to waive or repay millions of dollars in fines, point to a massive overreach in dealing with the virus?

Part of that process of trying to learn from the pandemic took the form of a 90-minute forum organised by the Brisbane Dialogues group earlier this month. At Woolloongabba’s beautifully restored Princess Theatre, a group of panellists well-schooled in various aspects of the pandemic contemplated how to manage a similar upheaval next time.

The discussion was intense and at times lively. Which was no surprise given the panel included economist and trenchant critic of many aspects of the offical pandemic response Gigi Foster, Mater Health Services director of infectious diseases Paul Griffin and moderator Peter Varghese, University of Queensland chancellor and member of the privately-funded inquiry into how the crisis was handled.

One of the most considered contributions came from longtime senior public servant and former Productivity Commission chair Peter Harris.

Harris, a longtime senior public servant, was chief executive of the National Covid-19 Coordination Commission for the first six months of the pandemic, charged with advising national cabinet on non-health aspects of responding to the crisis such as job security and business recovery.

A large part of the job was ensuring collaboration between government departments and agencies.

He had a lot to say about not reinventing the wheel but using the disaster response structure we already have, spend money on and review regularly as the best way to deal with another Covid-like event, what he calls a “civil catastrophe”.

He is also very wary of putting health professionals in charge of things next time and adopting the “command and control” approach that saw many restrictions on personal freedoms imposed without any debate.

“Why don’t we borrow from that which — we’ve got a structure for fighting fire and flood in Australia?” asked Harris who, when he was in charge of the Victorian department of Sustainability and the Environment, saw the devastation and death that arose from the tragic Black Saturday bushfires in 2009.

He says the existing management structure for handling natural disasters was left on the shelf throughout the pandemic.

“We resource it, every year we review it, we improve it,” he said. “But I don’t see any likelihood now and I couldn’t see any likelihood then, that we were drawing on the lessons from that which we had invested in and the community has a reasonable degree of confidence in.

“There’s no parallel at all between that kind of response to civil catastrophe and how a pandemic is managed.

“The pandemic was managed by a set of expert committees and yes there were politicians who had immense power under biosecurity legislation but in the end there were committees and there were not at all interested in the judgements of anyone who was not a health professional.”

“We actually had a structure from which we could borrow if we wanted to so that instead of thinking about the next pandemic, think about the next civil catastrophe where we have to suspend business as usual.”

That could be a massive heat wave event, he said.

“It would be a lot better if we designed for the next civil catastrophe than simply design for the next pandemic.”

For her part, Gigi Foster, Professor of Economics at the University of NSW and co-author of a new book titled The Great Covid Panic, described the official pandemic response as “one of the most extreme policy making eras in Australia’s history”.

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“We entered a phase where we forgot many things very quickly,” she said.

We forgot the prior plans we made here in Australia and elsewhere for how to manage respiratory pandemics which never included locking down whole healthy populations. We forgot that hospitals in normal flu seasons sometimes do get overwhelmed, otherwise we would have too many hospitals.

“We forgot that masks of the kind won in surgical theatres are basically useless to protect people against transmission of respiratory diseases.

“We forgot the impact of money printing that is not commensurate with increases in productive economic activity. Of course, we are seeing inflation today.”

She said crowds formed off the back of a fear of the virus which obsessed about “one thing and forgets about everything else”.

The result was a “tyranny of experts”, exploitation of people by governments and the private sector which led to more economic inequality, Foster said.

She argues for citizen committees with the power to appoint top bureaucrats to “break the link between money and power”.

At the end of the evening, Peter Varghese summed up some key points where the pandemic response was out of step with community expectations, chief among them being transparency of advice and the importance of sticking to plans.

“I find it surprising that whatever pandemic management plans existed prior to 2020 were basically completely ignored,” he said.

“I think it’s vital in any democracy that people understand the basis on which decisions are made. Thee great benefit about make advice more transparent is that it is open to debate.”

“I think we probably all agree that the basis on which decisions were taken was far too narrow and that narrowness shaped decisions which didn’t reflect the range of trade-offs that need to be made. I think the need to avoid extremes is something we could probably all agree on.”

The debate didn’t stop there. The organisers of the Brisbane Dialogues are planning more such events in 2023.

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