A tale of two pandemics – but will this one be kind to Daniel Andrews?
For our free coronavirus pandemic coverage, learn more here.
It has been a tale of two pandemics.
There was the pandemic of 2020 and 2021, when Victoria became one of the most locked-down jurisdictions on the planet as the Andrews government attempted to beat the virus back from whence it came.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews. Credit:Joe Armao
And there has been the pandemic of recent weeks, during which the virus has raged seemingly unimpeded through Victoria and the rest of the country.
The public health response – and the politics – are vastly different.
This time, there are very few rules in place to control the spread of Omicron, aside perhaps from some mask rules and density limits that feel like sandbags thrown in the path of a tsunami.
QR check-ins are being used only sporadically. Contact tracing is virtually non-existent.
The testing regime is under severe stress. The state government can only proffer a vague guess about how many cases are out there.
On Monday Health Minister Martin Foley said one-in-40 Victorians (or 2.5 per cent of the population) have the virus. But that’s only what the official case figures tell us.
The actual rate of infection is probably towering above that, with huge numbers of Victorians either unable to get a test, or no longer bother to report results.
Acting chief health officer Ben Cowie on Monday said the true rate of infection was probably more like one-in-25, or 4 per cent.
People queueing for COVID-19 tests in Melbourne. Credit:Joe Armao
“So one in 40, or 2.5 per cent, is only those who are confirmed,” he said. “I think it would not be out of the ballpark to suggest that something like 4 per cent of the Victorian population has COVID-19 right now.”
Many businesses are under severe stress as they battle staff shortages caused by positive cases, isolation requirements, and a lack of tests.
Those problems have been greatly compounded by supply chain nightmares and a precipitous decline in consumer demand. Tourists are leaving regional Victoria in droves, with restaurants and cafes unable to keep their door open.
As a tanned and relatively relaxed-looking Daniel Andrews put it on Tuesday, having returned from a Christmas break, the comparison between then and now is “interesting”.
“We’ve gone from a situation where we had the lion’s share of cases, where we kind of had a different pandemic … than the rest of the country. The way this Omicron variant is spreading now, pound for pound, you’ve got … arguably more cases in many other parts of our country.”
Interesting indeed. For a man who fronted up to face the media for so many consecutive days in 2020 to explain why Victorians needed to accept so much tough love, the government’s “let it rip” attitude to the latest Omicron outbreak seems like a significant about-face.
A key difference is that this time the government has few choices to do anything other than let it rip – at least to an extent.
Omicron is a different beast: unbelievably infectious, roaring through the community, and yet, for the vast majority of people, far less severe.
Empty restaurants in Southbank.Credit:Joe Armao
Add in the notion that double-dose vaccination seems to do little to stop people getting the virus, and it becomes clear that the health, economic and political cost-benefit equation has changed.
The economic and social costs of stricter measures such as lockdowns would probably now vastly outweigh the marginal benefits that might be achieved in controlling the spread by imposing tougher restrictions.
Yet if the death toll continues to climb, the government may have no choice but to tighten up restrictions, particularly if our hospitals become swamped. As many people have pointed out, the wickedness of Omicron has more to do with the sheer weight of numbers than the severity of the disease per se.
The political equation has also changed for Mr Andrews. Having last year created the impression that vaccination was Victoria’s ticket out of the pandemic, the idea of imposing yet more lockdowns and school closures on a bone-weary public is being viewed within government ranks with extreme trepidation.
There are, however, some political upsides for Andrews. As he noted this week, where Victoria previously had the lion’s share of cases, the disease is probably now just as prevalent in other jurisdictions, in proportional terms.
This has blunted the state opposition’s ability to direct the blame towards the state government, as it did in 2020 and 2021 over hotel quarantine and other failures. Omicron is now mostly a national issue.
Even so, things are now finally balanced. The government’s big hope is that the wave looming above us will soon peak, crash and begin to dissipate. According to the modelling, that’s likely to happen towards the end of this month or in early February.
For now, the government is resisting demands from desperate businesses for further spending to help keep them afloat. And it is resisting calls by some epidemiologists for tougher measures to slow the spread.
And all the while the death toll and the economic and social costs continue to mount. For the Andrews government, the stakes have never been higher.
Most Viewed in National
From our partners
Source: Read Full Article