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William Prescott: Australia is starting to reach the limits of what its coronavirus strategy can do

Originally from Adelaide, Australia, Will Prescott recently completed a PhD thesis on interwar Conservative Party history at the University of Oxford.

It is fair to say that the UK hasn’t had the best Covid-19 response among developed countries. Its infection and death rates, though not dramatically worse than much of Europe, are still awful by global standards. Now in its third lockdown, and even with infections falling, it is still not entirely certain when Britain will return to normal.

In contrast to the UK’s ongoing woes, Australia’s response is often upheld as a role model: a country that has all but eliminated the virus, and whose population leads an almost restriction-free life.

There is no doubt that Australia has had a better crisis than the mother country. At the time of writing, Australia’s Covid death rate was just 35 per million. If the country had Britain’s death rate of 1,767 per million, its death toll would be over 45,000, as opposed to its current 909.

Economically, while Britain suffered its worst contraction in 300 years, Australia’s GDP has substantially rebounded. Life is almost, though not completely, normal. In my home city of Adelaide, I can do things unimaginable in the UK, like enjoying a pint or going out to lunch. I can see friends whenever and wherever I want, and mask wearing is rare.

Part of the reason for this success is that, unlike the UK, Australia went hard on the virus, and went early. Borders closed in March 2020, nearly a year ago now, before it became firmly established Australia. In Britain, by contrast, the virus had spiralled out of control before any serious border curbs were introduced.

Despite its successes, however, the Australian approach is unsustainable in the long term.

Shutting yourself off from the world isn’t cheap. Tourism, though propped up by domestic travel to an extent, is in a far weaker state than in February 2020. Higher education, dependent on full fee-paying international students, has lost most of this once-lucrative revenue stream. Migration, a significant driver of Australian economic growth, is now at record lows.

While the economy appears strong, it is being propped up by government stimulus, which cannot last forever. Hardly surprisingly, the Government is now talking about reopening borders once the population has been vaccinated.

Border closures also come at a real human cost. Caps on arrivals, necessary given the limits on the hotel quarantine system, and the prohibitive cost of flights mean that tens of thousands remain stuck overseas. Some are in dire straits. The Government’s treatment of stranded Australians is beyond disgraceful. Beyond sympathetic Facebook posts, leaking email addresses, offering loans for the truly desperate, and a pitifully small number of repatriation flights, Australia has all but abandoned its citizens to their fate.

Dan Andrews, Victorian Premier, even suggested that Australians be barred from returning at all unless they have compassionate grounds for doing so. I only made it onto my economy-class flight because my mother was terminally ill, and my airline was reasonable. You should not need a terminally ill relative to enter your own country.

Perhaps even more importantly, international border closures do not, as claimed, break the cycle of lockdowns. In their more honest moments, ‘Zero Covid’ supporters admit this. Since flying back to Australia in mid-October, there have been lockdowns in AdelaideBrisbanePerth, and Melbourne. Ongoing lockdowns are inevitable given that it seems impossible to stop leaks from quarantine hotels. Lockdowns are essential if the goal is to keep infections at zero. While the duration and effects of these three to five-day lockdowns are trivial compared to the UK ones, they are still disruptive.

Even though life feels normal, the situation is precarious. It was only through sheer luck that that the South Australian outbreak was caught early, and there is no guarantee that contact tracing efforts will always succeed in identifying every new case.

Travel within Australia remains difficult as states frequently close their borders to each other to prevent infections spreading across the country. Exploiting his state’s longstanding separatist tendencies, Western Australia’s Premier closed his people off from the rest of the country for 222 days last year. Border changes mid-flight are not unheard of. Australia has not been this physically split since federation in 1901. For the many Australians whose families are divided between states, this means prolonged separation, Christmases missed, funerals delayed, and weddings postponed.

I make no attempt to deny Australia’s success in controlling the virus, nor do I suggest that Australia erred in its early border closures. But I am saying that these restrictions can only be short term, and only to buy time for vaccines to be rolled out or new treatments to be discovered. In the long term, the economic and human cost is too high is too high a price to pay for a very fragile normality. Ultimately, unless it remains isolated forever, Australia will have to learn to live with the virus just like everyone else.

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