Australia’s Tragi-Comic Covid Response

Australia’s Covid response has been less one of outright tyranny, but more a combination of a blundering bureaucracy acting alongside the disruptions of diversity.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Australia’s Covid response has rendered the country a global laughing stock. Over recent months, footage of the heavy-handed response by Australian authorities to largely innocuous events has gone global, with the country now a byword for a form of tragi-comic health tyranny. Yet what is not normally appreciated is that this authoritarian outburst is less one of tyranny tout court, but more a consequence of bureaucratic ineptitude and the country’s cosmopolitan model.

First, whilst not excusing the copious amount of state overreach we’ve witnessed, some clarifications are in order as to what exactly Australia’s Covid response has and has not entailed. For one, the protests have largely not been the actions of a principled citizenry, perturbed by the presence of government mandate, or of the effects of a novel vaccine, but by disgruntled social minorities. Some were protesting the latest cause de jour whilst others were protesting for protest’s sake, with violence itself a tempting enough cause. While recent protests in Melbourne were largely the actions of the city’s militant construction unions, rioting as their privileged exemptions to Covid restrictions were removed. Moreover, the construction of facilities in Queensland do not portend an antipodean re-run of the European concentration camp, but are being erected to house returning travelers.

And almost none of this would have been any different if we’d had an America-like access to arms. The state would still maintain its monopoly on violence — its raison d’etre as Max Weber observed — and any demotic firepower would of course be dwarfed by that of the state. A scenario many critics of the Australian response saw first-hand when regions of the US were themselves locked down for months on end with little public backlash. With all of this of course indicative of the proclivity to project one’s own political proclivities and neurosis onto foreign others.

Again, it pays to remember that while large parts of the world were ravaged by Covid in 2020, Australia was one of the success stories par excellence. Given some sheer luck (geographic isolation) and prudent political management (the closure of foreign borders; and the now-standard measures: social distancing, density limits and so forth), by the end of last year Australia’s Covid fatalities were a fraction of those seen elsewhere. Aside from an outbreak in Melbourne, the initial import of the virus was largely quashed, leaving the majority of Australians to lives that were almost entirely unaffected by the tragic events unfolding around the globe. Indeed, even granting the current tyrannical scenes, Australia’s per-capita figures are still superior to most, averaging around a quarter of the global average.

A state of affairs that has largely been accepted by residents and seized upon by state premiers, imposing their often draconian measures in the knowledge that they’ll be seen as saviors. Moreover, given the political class’ long-held consensus on a high immigration intake, the closed borders have given many Australians a welcome respite from what had become an increasingly stagnant quality of life, marked by declining GDP per-capita, a fall in social trust and a diminution in urban amenity (contrary to the popular image, Australia is one of the most urbanised societies on earth).

Yet the reason Australia’s capital and second-most populous city are still subject to harsh restrictions, and why Sydney was only released from months of lockdown a week or so ago, is because of series of poorly-made decisions, reflective of the country’s broader ineptitude. Realising that their ‘zero-Covid’ strategy of quasi-permanent closed borders was untenable, Australia’s principle state governments followed the rest of the world and sought a return to normalcy through vaccination. Yet typically, this shift in stratagem soon ran into problems.

With the federal decision to base Australia’s Covid response primarily around the Astra Zeneca vaccine interrupted by rare — yet not illusory — blood-clot deaths, the vaccine’s banning by select European countries, and by concerns raised by state health authorities. The Astra Zeneca vaccine was thus tarnished in the eyes of the public and hence shunned, with scores of vials left unused or forwarded on to third-parties. Meanwhile, the only other real alternative, Pfizer, was in short supply and others such as Moderna were nowhere to be found. We are thus witness to the farcical scene of an increasingly irate public, weary of interminable lockdown, and a government maintaining its repression as it’s unable to supply the vaccines on which it’s predicated its return to normalcy. A more Kafka-esque moment we’ve yet to see for quite some time.

Not only has this bureaucratic bungling affected Australia, so too has its cosmopolitan model. In what will not surprise anyone familiar with life ‘Down Under’, the 2020 outbreak in Victoria (Australia’s ‘Massachusetts on the Murray’) was yet another blow to the state’s much vaunted multiculturalism. As Covid spread, the reigning Labour government made a typically partisan decision with foreseeably tragic results. Instead of treating the virus with the seriousness it deserved, officials prioritized ‘diversity’ over efficacy by quarantining returning travelers in inner-city hotels — run under the aegis of ‘inclusion’ and staffed largely by unqualified minorities — rather than outsourcing it to the army or by placing it in a more medically-suitable locale.

The result of this was as predictable as it was tragic: the broad public diffusion of the virus, an enhanced infection rate in the employees’ home communities and the leakage of the virus into the city’s nursing homes. A failure which sparked thousands of cases, over 800 deaths and the strengthening of what is now the world’s longest lockdown. With all of this only eclipsed later in the year by the Potemkin-like procedure which was the government’s own enquiry into their failings and the feigned amnesia used by the engineers of these events to avoid prosecution under their own industrial manslaughter laws.

To make matters worse, the scenes of Melbourne, 2020 were repeated in Sydney, 2021. Contrary to coverage implying that images of soldiers in Australian streets were representative of a continent-wide embrace of totalitarianism, this deployment was a local and necessary response to the excesses of the city’s cosmopolitanism. After quashing an outbreak earlier in the year in Sydney’s more homogeneous Northern Beaches, then-Premier Gladys Berejiklian deployed the army to the more culturally-diverse south-west due to the deepening spread of the virus and the persistence of many of its residents in flouting government mandate.

And as in Melbourne, this has had tragic effect. At last count, the number of cases in New South Wales had ballooned to 64,000 and the number of deaths to over 400. With much of this owing to the aforementioned flouting of government orders, particularly the home visitor limit, given the indoor transmissibility of the virus. A development which many groups have publicly admitted, yet one that provoked stringent counter measures by the state. That such actions appear disproportionate may well be so, yet with governments also responsible for the health system and with the threat of hospital overload very real, such measures are largely necessary.

This has also been exacerbated by linguistic diversity as well. For one, there has been the problem in some suburbs of having no form of common idiom as such, with around one million Australians — just under 5% of the population — having almost zero facility with the national language. Even with the best will in the world (a presumption that’s highly unlikely) effective communication between government and all of its citizenry has been complicated by the problems innate in cross-cultural interactions and translation as such, with officially-translated materials often riddled with errors, and interactions between authorities and some migrant communities highly fraught.

And these problems are not trivial, but have a direct impact on policy. Given the prevalence of certain groups in not fully adhering to restrictions or ignoring them entirely, governments have been forced into using the blunt policy tools of lockdown or curfew as a form of ‘catch-all’ response. Aware that certain sectors are unwilling to act in the common good, governments — like frustrated teachers — have had to impose unjust restrictions on the many owing to the actions of a recalcitrant few.

All of the above is, of course, a broader problem innate to multicultural societies. With an expansion of the state and a recourse to legalism necessary in nations that have withered away the natural ties that exist among a people. With familiarity, trust and custom having to be replaced by the power of the state and the other forms of apparatus needed to regulate civic behavior. With much of our Covid response further confirming the (normally taboo) doubts that critics of cosmopolitanism have long held: i.e. that cohesive societies, ones high is Asabiyyah, perform better in general and in extremis than diverse ones, with the latter permanently torn between the tensions of the tribal and the political.

Unsurprisingly, given the incendiary nature of these things, anyone seeking to bring such issues to light is denounced with the usual epithets or confined to the margins. A scenario we’ve seen in Australia with the case of Andrew Bolt and repeated in a series of similar examples around the world; such as Pat Buchanan in the US, Nigel Farage in the UK and current presidential candidate, Eric Zemmour in France. This is not to mention the mere existence of nations like Hungary –the current liberal bete noir — and the strange silence regarding societies such as South Korea and Japan, which are somehow allowed to buck the global cosmopolitan trend without further comment.

With the problems unearthed by Covid yet further evidence of the fragility of the Western political edifice. As our decades-long laissez-faire experiment of forcing an increasingly disparate range of people into coexistence under the aegis of the market strains under the weight of its own contradictions. A situation that may itself be terminal with the historical re-emergence of China and by what American author Michael Anton has observed is the ‘anti-natural’ stance of the reigning — ‘blue American’ — liberal regime.

The results of which we’ll all live long enough to see. Yet, to conclude, whilst Australia’s Covid response has not been as tyrannical as it’s been portrayed, it has been tyrannical; vastly inferior to many comparable nations, and much worse than it ever needed to be. Yet it’s also a problem that’s almost entirely self-inflicted. It’s a failure forged through years of political apathy, and through a myopic insistence on short-termism and diversity over what should have been a more considered emphasis on harmony and long-term unity.



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RJ Anderson

RJ Anderson

RJ Anderson is an essayist based in Australia. He can be contacted via: