By Marcus Honesta
Whilst trawling through the weekend newspapers looking for inspiration for what I would write about this week during these most strange and unsettling times, I came across an article in the weekend Australian which I thought was inspirational.
Whilst strictly speaking, it is not about marketing or advertising, it is however very much about communication. I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly with the author Janet Albrechtsen. Unlike many, she spoke with clarity and understanding of the human spirit. Many may not agree with her sentiments and thoughts, however as Voltaire once said:
I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.
Janet Albrechtsen is an opinion columnist with The Australian. She has worked as a solicitor in commercial law, and attained a Doctorate of Juridical Studies from the University of Sydney. She has written for numerous publications including, the Australian Financial Review, The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Sunday Age, and The Wall Street Journal. Her article said:
In Letters to a Young Contrarian, Christopher Hitchens writes that the essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks but in how it thinks. It is intellectual curiosity that matters most. And right now we need more of this key ingredient. A healthy democracy does not die in a pandemic.
Let’s be clear. No one has the wisdom of Solomon or the prophetic powers of Apollo. But finally, this past week, many more people are publicly asking if the cure is worse than the disease. We need more of this intellectual curiosity instead of joining the cheer squad for the Morrison government or the more hysterical Canberra press bubble.
It means probing government decisions, checking herd mentalities, raising differences between expert advice, and understanding that bureaucrats advising governments about the current economic responses to COVID-19 never lose their jobs in a crisis. We should not accept medical advice as the sole source of truth either. Not only is it both contestable and contested, but doctors have a laser-like focus on medical issues and have little or no knowledge of, and sometimes not much interest in, the social, economic or cultural consequences of their advice.
A few weeks ago, Guardian Australia political editor Katharine Murphy wondered whether dealing with COVID-19 might be the revenge of the experts. Beware of those who assert that “experts” equal a consensus, or accepted wisdom, or settled orthodoxy. Remember Brexit? These phrases are often used by people who pretend to love a rollicking debate — but only when it suits them. On some matters, they claim consensus to shut people up.
As American intellectual Walter Lippmann once said: “Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.” And happily, not all people think alike. Consider the comments this week from newly appointed Deputy Chief Medical Officer Nick Coatsworth, an infectious diseases specialist at Canberra Hospital. In an interview on ABC radio on Thursday, Coatsworth said the effectiveness of imposing harsher rules around social isolation to deal with COVID-19 is “a contested point”.
Coatsworth also challenged the ABC’s message that the broadcaster’s medical reporter, Norman Swan, is the go-to guy on COVID-19. “I disagree with Norman when he thinks that this is going to be over in weeks if we go for harder and faster lockdowns,” Coatsworth said. “I don’t think they’ve thought through the impact on Australia and Australians of doing that.”
It is no bad thing to push back. John Ioannidis, a professor of medicine in epidemiology and co-director of Stanford’s Meta-Research Innovation Centre in the US, questions the official death rate of 3.4 per cent put out by the World Health Organisation.
No one can accurately tally up unrecorded cases of COVID-19 and that single fact renders the modelling inaccurate. If the true fatality rate is closer to 1 per cent or even lower, Ioannidis says, then “locking down the world with potentially tremendous social and financial consequences may be totally irrational”.
Veteran left-liberal commentator Thomas Friedman also has broken from the pack about this pandemic. Writing in The New York Times this week, Friedman is asking whether the cure is worse than the disease. Friedman spoke with David Katz, founding director of Yale University’s Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Centre in the US, who questions the current “horizontal interdiction” — basically, shutting down commerce and limiting movement by large parts of the population.
Katz posits a more surgically targeted “vertical interdiction” strategy to sequester and protect the more vulnerable after a short, sharp period of lockdown of two weeks, rather than a longer, unsustainable and economically ruinous approach that will deliver its own devastating health costs.
Katz suggests that “the rejuvenating effect on spirits, and the economy, of knowing where there’s light at the end of this tunnel would be hard to overstate”.
“Risk will not be zero,” he told Friedman, “but the risk of some bad outcome for any of us on any given day is never zero.’’
Again, none of us has the perfect set of answers. And no leader should be demonised for changing tack. US President Donald Trump wants to reopen the US economy by Easter. It may not happen, but Trump offers hope instead of the dark, uncertain and confusing tunnels many of us face in other countries.
It was breathtaking to hear Anthony Albanese claim this week that the Morrison government needed to avoid a tension “between dealing with the health issues and dealing with the economic issues”. Is he kidding?
Was this brazen politics or reckless stupidity? There are devastating social costs arising directly from decisions to shut down businesses and shunt away people.
If Albanese cannot grapple with that, then he has no rightful claim to be the alternative prime minister.
The tensions are immense. Poverty kills people, too. Losing your job through no fault of your own is soul-destroying. Facing extended unemployment can wreck the prospects and futures of millions of people. People and families need to know how they will pay their bills and buy food.
Government Services Minister Stuart Robert assured me on Sunday evening that the myGov bureaucracy was primed for huge numbers of newly unemployed Australians desperately seeking help on Monday. It had already been road-tested by the bushfire crisis, he said.
This is not a time for cockiness. The system crashed the next day under the weight of demand. I had passed on the minister’s assurances to try to allay the concerns of hardworking decent people who lost their jobs on Sunday night.
Can Robert imagine what it is like to stand in a long line on a pavement during a pandemic to ask for money because a job has been taken from you overnight by a decision made by government?
The next day, Robert tried to wash the egg off his face by claiming there had been a cyber hack attack. It wasn’t true.
Robert still has his job.
We are tearing at the social fabric of communities, shutting down footy and pubs and church services. GPs tell me of their concerns about the devastating mental health consequences of enforced social dislocation. Are we potentially creating a powder keg that we will one day rue?
Being forced into lockdown in dysfunctional and even dangerous households doesn’t bear thinking about. But we must, surely, consider all these tensions as part of every single decision made to deal with COVID-19.
A woman who lives on South Australia’s Yorke Peninsula, 165km from Adelaide, was due to have a hysterectomy in Adelaide on Thursday. On Wednesday morning, she was told all elective surgeries were cancelled, effective immediately because of government directives. Early Wednesday afternoon, she was told her surgery would go ahead after a change to the rules. Later that day, she was told it was cancelled again. Her distress is immense.
At another Adelaide hospital, a nurse went to work on Monday, only to be told to stay home the next day because of new self-isolation rules that applied to her after a trip to Sydney on the weekend. On Tuesday, she was asked to come to work after all. She was told that the rules about self-isolation applied only to people arriving after Tuesday 11am.
This confusion is across industries, across the country.
To be sure, leaders are doing their best in the most frightful circumstances. As the Prime Minister spoke to the nation on Tuesday evening following a meeting of the national cabinet, who could imagine telling the country that a funeral must have no more than 10 mourners, or that a big birthday party for a two-year old cannot go ahead in these times?
It is unthinkable. But that does not mean we must be unthinking.
It is indeed unthinkable, yet here we are. Clear thinkers like Janet Albrechtsen deserve our thanks and applause. We must all start thinking and planning for post coronavirus. Most importantly we must not lose hope. Without hope then there can be no vision, no reason to get out of bed in the morning, and God forbid that should happened. Perhaps our political masters should stop and consider this matter. To neglect this would indeed be truly unthinkable.