Melbourne today is a strange dichotomy of glorious autumn paradise and depressing post-apocalyptic wasteland. The sole topic in the words and keystrokes of residents is the lockdown, with recriminations and defences the prevailing narratives. Instead of adding to the maelstrom, let me instead suggest how I believe the current situation can be handled differently and perhaps more happily.
Leading in a Western democracy is no easy task. The key objective for leaders was best summarised by the American founders in their “self-evident” truths: that leaders are the protectors of their citizens’ unalienable rights.
This balance is hard. Preserving life means that avoiding premature death is vital, but at the same time citizens’ liberties are not expendable. Pragmatism may require the temporary infringement of some of our liberties, as most reasonable people believe is the case with the COVID-19 pandemic. However, in such cases, leadership demands that humility and transparency are paramount. Citizens’ rights don’t just matter once every four years at election time but must be the guiding light of political leaders every day of the year.
In this context, leadership during a time of personal infringements requires fulsome explanations and supportive evidence. Each limitation must be individually addressed, data must be clear and complete, words must be simple and honest, and specific and measurable objectives must be elucidated for next steps.
In Victoria, this has all improved under acting Premier James Merlino, but I would go further.
For example, we have been told the current strain of COVID-19 – colloquially termed Indian but more correctly termed the Kappa variant – can spread with ‘fleeting contact’. However, ‘fleeting contact’ has no clearly defined meaning and the term fails to address whether it includes maskless runners huffing and puffing past walkers.
The state’s COVID testing commander Jeroen Weimar provided some specific examples of spread by ‘fleeting contact’, such as at a Telstra store in South Melbourne. But these individual examples all occurred prior to lockdown and in some cases occurred prior to May 24, before even indoor masks were mandated.
This is not to undermine the testing commander and his strong background, but rather to suggest that I would be more precise in my selection of terminology, and more elaborate in explaining whether we are seeing data after the implementation of masks and lockdown. Precision builds trust, a sense of safety, and community resilience.
Similarly, I’d advise the chief health officer Brett Sutton to cease labelling this variant with aggressively anthropomorphic terms like “beast”, which adds nothing to precision but much to fear. A front-facing health bureaucrat must use sober and precise language, particularly when they are part of a largely opaque machine that is extending a distressing lockdown.
Again, precision and transparency matter.
Where citizens must be detained in their homes for well-explained reasons, I’d ensure the population understands the objective measures that determine next steps. No one should be staring into a information vacuum when wondering if the lockdown will continue for an additional day, week or month. I would respect the electorate and share the thought process and precise data.
The restriction I believe requires the most transparent scrutiny is school closure. There may be strong evidence in favour, but there is also strong evidence to the contrary. According to Harvard and the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US, most children who become infected have no or milder symptoms, and studies suggested they do not contribute much to the spread of coronavirus to either children or adults. Closing schools doesn’t come ‘free’ and there is evidence of learning impairment and an increase in mental health consequences in children.
Perhaps there are good, sound, scientific reasons to close schools. If so, I would ensure the rationale and facts are clearly communicated together with clarity on specifically what needs to change for their reopening.
Creativity to the fore
There is a narrative in some sectors that those with economic arguments heartlessly put money over lives. The flaw in this argument is that politicians must do this every day, otherwise our entire budget would be consumed in a bottomless health bucket. The magic is balancing where that line is drawn.
Rather than completely shuttering businesses, I’d encourage more creative solutions.
Perhaps those who have been fully vaccinated can have some freedom of work and movement. Overseas data may support cafes and restaurants operating with widely spaced, outdoor seating and on a bookings-only basis. There are so many possibilities and so many idiosyncrasies between different industries that must be considered.
To its credit, the government appreciates this subtlety and has allowed the construction industry to remain open. This approach should be extended further. The livelihoods, and thus lives, of families are hanging in the balance. When one starts from a position that maximising life, liberty and happiness are equally core objectives, then creativity rises to the fore.
What, then, of health? I feel confident stating clearly that COVID-19 is a nasty disease, and the Kappa variant is a bad version of it. We do not want large numbers of people experiencing severe morbidity and mortality, as is occurring overseas though not elsewhere in Australia.
Previously the narrative was ‘flattening the curve’ to avoid running out of ICU beds, and this was well-explained and reasonable. At some point the strategy switched from containment to elimination, and somewhere a decision was taken, although not admitted, that Victoria is unable to live with the virus. This, more than anything else, needs honest and open public debate and a clear explanation.
Lastly, I would avoid the narrative that there was “no choice” but to extend the lockdown. There is always a choice, and usually many.
The hardship of leadership is making the right choices, and ideally for the right reasons. We must not lock away that discussion in Victoria.
Adir Shiffman is the executive chair of Catapult Sports and a registered medical doctor, based in Melbourne.