When are politicians going to admit that Australia’s quarantine system doesn’t work?
Unless the corona virus has learned to swim or started clocking frequent flyer miles on the back of seagulls, it is coming into Australia via the official quarantine system set up by each State and Territory.
Quarantining a virus agile enough to escape a Level 4 viral lab staffed by professionals in hazmat suits requires the strict segregation of people and resources. Australia is a bloody great big island, so we have a head start on the concept of ‘isolation’.
Given this geographical blessing, only a bunch of complete morons would decide to quarantine travelers inside ordinary hotels in the middle of densely packed major cities staffed by non-professionals who go home every day on public transport and mix with the general population.
This is not a system of quarantine – it’s a wing and a prayer to a god that’s off watching the footy.
Five years ago it was unthinkable that a conservative government would break with its founding values and brush aside Constitutional, civil, and international Human Rights law. Keep in mind, the government which tried to ban Australians returning from India is the same group of politicians who fought to bring in ISIS brides who defected to marry terrorists and wage war against Australia.
When they tell us that these Covid measures are ‘for our own safety’ it is a little hard to take them seriously. Was it safe to deliberately import terrorists? Is it safe to let China occupy our ports? Is it safe to sit below the international minimum fuel stocks? Is it safe to endanger Australia’s energy grid with foreign owned renewables?
‘Safety’ has become a buzzword whose meaning fluctuates with the polls. This was proved beyond doubt when the subsequent outrage over the travel ban saw it overturned within 48 hours. Suddenly the government decided that it was safe to return from India. The science did not change. The quarantine system did not change. All that changed were the headlines in the press.
Do not mistake this for a declaration of confidence in hotel quarantine. These high risk arrivals are being taken to the Howard Springs facility in the Northern Territory, but they still have to touch down in Darwin as there is no purpose built runway to enforce absolute quarantine. The mercy flights are a half-hearted effort, with testing before departure in India kicking people off who test positive to Covid, leaving them to take their chances with India’s failing health system – which defies the entire point of allowing the flights to Australia.
This bizarre situation was followed by unhelpful headlines from the Howard Springs facility complaining of a spike in Covid positive cases. Well obviously. That is the point of the facility. It would not be much of a quarantine facility if it only received healthy people and let them hang out for a while. Howard Springs should accept the reality that all of its arrivals will be Covid positive.
While politicians run around inventing fines to punish citizens for arbitrary Covid rules, we are yet to receive an apology for their systemic political incompetence. For decades, successive governments have ignored reports highlighting Australia’s complete and utter inability to deal with an infectious disease outbreak. Thousands of pages and millions of dollars have been spent outlining the problem, all of which was tossed in the ‘too hard’ basket with politicians declaring that controlling infectious diseases had become an impossible task in a globalised world.
Australia was home to the longest system of successful quarantine in the world.
Ships were held in the harbour or unloaded into specially-built quarantine stations, which now either sit in ruin or linger on as museum pieces. There were no exceptions to quarantine. The modern idea of exemptions and privileges afforded to the wealthy, famous, or politically significant is based upon influence, not science and has bred an environment of resentment from ordinary citizens.
Australia’s strict quarantine procedures had loosened by the time World War I brought the Spanish Flu onto the nation’s shores. The war facilitated the large movement of people at the same time that resources were stretched. The nation found itself fighting the existential threat of conquest at the same time as a truly deadly flu. Even so, it was held back for three months before escaping into the population. Victoria was the problem child, refusing to admit to a quarantine failure that allowed the spread of the virus over State lines. Eventually anarchy descended, with the States acting independently of Federal control in violation of the Quarantine Act (the predecessor of the current Health Act).
All of Australia’s quarantine stations were closed when air travel overwhelmed the possibility of isolating and controlling outbreaks. Even without quarantine, there were plenty of precautions that a sensible government could have taken to lessen the impact of a pandemic.
We still employ the Medieval practice of mixing infectious people with vulnerable patients in overcrowded hospitals. Instead of building more hospitals, politicians have been too busy throwing billions of dollars at wind turbines and solar panels for their billionaire mates. In possibly the most reckless behaviour possible, self-appointed medical experts routinely instruct the entire population to descend upon Covid testing facilities in densely packed cities, ensuring that the most likely carriers of the virus cough all over thousands of healthy people.
In reality, the last piece of serious work done on Australia’s response to pandemics was in the aftermath of the Spanish Flu where the Quarantine Act was reformed into the modern Health Act.
Originally, there was some confusion as to whether pandemics were the responsibility of individual States or better managed by the Federal government. Generally, the latter was considered to be the best option and that is how things began during the Spanish Flu. After the whole show descended into chaos, it was once again decided by everyone that yes, the Federal government is the responsible party when it comes to infectious diseases, even though health is otherwise regarded as a State issue.
If this was all sorted out in print half a century earlier, why did we see an outrageous level of confusion surrounding responsibility in the opening year of Covid?
The press have gotten themselves into the habit of parroting social media one-liners, and so it took them a really long time to hunt down and read the Quarantine Act. For months they mistakenly said that the States had legal control of all health issues, which gave politicians the freedom to ignore the formal advice laid out in previous reports and set up a convenient system of ‘let’s do whatever we want’.
What is clear now that the dust has settled, is that politicians panicked at the thought of actual responsibility. For the best part of fifty years, Australia’s politicians have coasted along without having to make big decisions. Winston Churchill took on more political risk in his average afternoon lunch break than our mob have endured over their entire careers.
In all probability, Scott Morrison knew from the outset that he – and he alone – was the responsible party for Australia’s response to Covid. Wielding his legal authority to command the States and micro-manage their action plans must have looked like political suicide, especially given that most of the States are Labor.
Sole responsibility carries the double-edged sword of absolute risk weighed against all the political credit. It is no secret that leaders who face terrible crises and succeed become extremely powerful and difficult to unseat at election. On the other hand, repercussions – whether they are directly the fault of the government or not – are turned into a rally cry that hounds governments out of office.
Scott Morrison is a political coward. He immediately delegated the handling of Covid to the States with the creation of the National Cabinet. In doing so, he put the lives of Australians behind the needs of the Party. The nation was left with a roulette wheel of premiers, many of whom turned into terrifying dictators in the absence of Federal oversight.
Taking a back seat to responsibility did not do Scott Morrison any favours. Labor premiers, who were unpopular before Covid, thrived by handing out money from the Federal Treasury. The premiers took all the credit for the welfare while blaming the Federal government for international border closures that decimated State businesses.
It is astonishing that throughout the seemingly endless press conferences given by premiers, no one from the press stood up and asked why they had not built more hospitals. After all, it is the States who are responsible for making sure that the facilities exist to house patients in the event of a crisis and they do not have to apply for permission to do so.
State premiers and the Federal government have had two years to start building medical facilities and quarantine stations to deal with the global pandemic. Instead, they have decided to make up for their failures by criminalising basic rights and leaving Australian citizens to die in other countries. Their abandonment of responsibility as our appointed protectors flies in the face of their expensive marketing campaigns claiming that the government is ‘keeping us safe’.
When it comes to politics, cringe-worthy slogans are easy, but action is hard. The strategy for Covid seems to be to ‘wait the crisis out’ and keep locking everyone in their homes when things go wrong. This is not good governance, it is madness.
The only reason that Australia has been getting away with hotel quarantine is due to the small amount of people coming in and even then, cases escape quarantine all the time. If Covid was a deadly pandemic like its kin of previous centuries, we would be in trouble. To put it in perspective, the Black Death is likely to have killed 5.6 billion if it was running wild today. The truth is, most healthy people will never even know they had Covid, and so the mistakes of our quarantine system largely go unnoticed.
Now that there are plane loads full of positive cases from India headed for quarantine, we will see the systemic failures first hand. The premiers have some awkward press conferences on the horizon, and they have only themselves to blame.
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Alexandra Marshall (@ellymelly on social media) is the host of "Curtain Call", a Good Sauce show exploring the leading personalities in the culture war. She writes on liberty, philosophy and geopolitics. You can find her on Twitter or read her articles over at her blog.
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