Public safety becomes a casualty to the culture wars

Public safety becomes a casualty to the culture wars, by Grace Kelly.

Polls often are wrong but they have Trump on track to lose the election. If he does, it will be because of his COVID-19 response.

If the leader of any country has only one job, it is to keep their citizens out of harm’s way. Despite any other previous policy triumphs, if a leader doesn’t do everything to keep their people alive in the face of avoidable death, they won’t be appreciated.

To those embedded in the deepest trenches of the culture wars, responses to the pandemic have been framed along the clunky and dated left-right linear. Governments on the left can’t do a thing right while governments on the right are to be admired. …

The truth is, most people are not seeing the pandemic through the prism of politics. And in recent weeks, as the spectacle in the US unfolded, it was difficult not to reflect on the irony. On September 26, before Trump’s diagnosis, a government event was held in the White House rose garden. It looked like a scene from the pre-COVID era. People sat right next to each other without masks and mingled closely, even indoors.

Now there is a growing cluster in the White House. Only the most committed refuse to concede the obvious.

Imagine if someone on the other side of politics (say, Daniel Andrews) did a similar thing. Envisage a Victorian event at Trades Hall, where Labor and union people mingle closely without masks, ignoring social distancing. Imagine then that Andrews becomes infected, goes to hospital, takes a cocktail of experimental drugs, then leaves isolation to return to work, all the while claiming the virus is no big deal.

The same folk praising the President right now would be demanding the Premier’s arrest and wanting the whole of Victoria set on fire.

And this is where our lesson lies. Bitter battles between the left and the right, during a pandemic, help absolutely no one. In a time of crisis we need to unite for the common good. We need to reassure each other, lift each other up, preserve life and behave in a sensible manner. The pandemic is too serious to be used as a political cudgel.

Masks are uncomfortable and annoying, but they should not be cast as political statements. Social distancing feels weird, but we need to do it. Border closures and lockdowns are brutal, restrictive and damaging but, unfortunately, necessary. They are not a socialist plot to shut down capitalism.

In the US, one poll just released by Reuters-Ipsos surveyed 1005 US adults, including 596 likely voters. It found that 65 per cent of respondents, including five in 10 registered Republicans, agreed that “if President Trump had taken coronavirus more seriously, he probably would not have been infected”. Only 34 per cent thought Trump had been honest about the pandemic and 57 per cent disapproved of his overall response to the health crisis.

In the land of the free, another poll, by Gallup, found that by 2-1, most Americans think even healthy people should avoid returning to their normal lives and stay home to stay safe. It seems apparent that most would rather suffer the loss of freedom and wear restrictions than live in a society where the virus circulates freely.

Keep an eye on the next three elections: New Zealand on October 17, Queensland on October 31 and the US on November 3. Voters expect politicians to do everything to keep them safe, and many will vote along these lines.

Here in Western Australia, our Premier is at 90% popularity simply because he resolutely keeps the borders closed. Unprecedented popularity. Take note, libertarians. Most people don’t want others to risk our health with their carelessness or ideological stances.

Western Australia bars entry to people from jurisdictions that have circulating covid. (You can come in, but only after a two week quarantine at your expense.) The last case of covid caught in WA was about four months ago. Life is almost normal. The economy grew right through the entire period. Closing the borders and elimination has been a low cost solution for us.

Still, it would have been better if governments could have treated people more like adults. Explain the facts, let us assess the risks, and make our choices about how to avoid covid. Most people are quite sensible. Instead, especially in Victoria, we got blanket regulations on too many aspects of lockdown, enforced with cops. State power is such a blunt instrument. There have been many, many absurd cases and unnecessary restrictions.

The problem, of course, is the 10% of people who don’t take covid seriously or just know that they can take risks with other people’s lives because whatever they are doing is so important. Or those who just don’t care, because they are angry at existence. Or the sadly misinformed. Or the dangerously stupid. Hence the enforcement.

Still, how much longer? Some folks are just a little too comfortable with the new state of affairs, and there are hints that some aspects might become kind of permanent.