(Disclaimers: I’m politically aligned to the right, live in Melbourne, and the current outbreaks are far from over)
COVID has become highly politicised; we might more accurately say it has brought out the worst of our political partisanship. The national cabinet is a fractured mix of a Liberal Prime Minister and mostly Labor State Premiers. The state response has followed a pattern along political lines, with Labor Premiers favouring lockdowns, and Gladys in NSW playing a lone hand in seeking to keep the economy open as much as possible. But now, she is struggling with a significant outbreak of the ‘delta’ variant. Given all that has transpired and all that we have learned, is anyone capable of shifting their view? I am.
Victoria went “early and hard” against the first delta outbreak, rushing to a “lockdown 4.0” that went for two weeks. During the outbreak, we were critical of Victoria’s alleged improvements to contact tracing; surely if it was up to standard, we would not need a lockdown? But fear was spreading about the more contagious delta variant, with claims (later shown to be mistaken) that it could transmitted through “fleeting contact“.
NSW, on the other hand, boasted “gold standard” contact tracing, and had avoided mass lockdowns. Where it did come to lockdowns or stay-at-home orders, it was done at LGA level rather than across the entire metro area or the state (which is much larger than Victoria). Both Melbourne and Sydney are geographically large cities, and while there is significant movement of some people around the city (side question: why aren’t the people who travel around the most – and therefore the greatest risk as spreaders – prioritised for vaccination?) it was possible to bring outbreaks under control using those methods and still keep the economy humming along.
Her strategy worked … until the current NSW delta outbreak. Why did it fail and what can we learn?
I think it failed for two reasons: firstly, because Gladys underestimated the way the delta variant spreads (not as bad as Victoria made out, but certainly more contagious than previous variants) and therefore did not go hard enough and fast enough with lockdown measures. The second reason is than when restrictions were imposed, Sydneysiders did not take them very seriously. They’ve had it so good for so long, that they didn’t think the restrictions were really needed.
This second reason highlights the pivotal difference between Dan and Gladys: the ‘trust balance’.
I lost trust in Dan back in August last year, after his government’s repeated failures that led to our extended lockdowns and the constant language of fear and control. That put him into what I call a ‘trust deficit’. In that situation, anything his government subsequently said or did was judged with a healthy dose of scepticism. Indeed, the continued alarmism and rush for extreme measures like lockdowns meant that when they said contact tracing was upgraded, I didn’t believe them. If indeed it was upgraded, why the continued lockdowns? If they kept using the same blunt tools, what evidence is there that anything is being done better?
How does one get out of a trust deficit? By going the extra mile to increase trust. How does one increase trust? By being more open and transparent. The continued language of fear, and the lack of any transparency over how they are deciding on the various restrictions, and what we the people need to do for lockdowns to end means he has done nothing to regain my trust. Indeed, as I write this, we are now in our fifth lockdown (at least this time he didn’t insult us by calling it a “circuit-breaker”).
By her success in striking a balance between keeping the economy running and the people safe, Gladys built a strong ‘trust surplus’. Time and again, she showed that infection levels could be controlled with measures other than lockdowns.
How does one lose a trust surplus? By screwing up, and by not owning up to it or sharing information freely. This time, Gladys screwed up. While she has definitely lost a degree of trust, she had built up a healthy balance prior to that, and that has helped maintain her standing. I’ve been #GunningForGladys, and I still am. It’s possible that her previous success in keeping COVID at bay contributed to a complacency (in the people, in government, or both) when for the first time, they really had to go hard.
Remarkably, as a result of these latest outbreaks, I have actually changed my opinion! I have revised my view of the Victorian contact tracing system, and now think it is as good as any others. The evidence points to the differences in the recent outbreaks between NSW and Victoria being about underestimating the delta variant rather than contact tracing capabilities.
Victoria and WA have been lockdown-trigger-happy. Lockdowns are the bluntest of tools – and they are quick to impose them (“snap”) and very slow to release us back into regular life. The economic blow to small business is huge, and the emotional blow just accumulates with each one. While NSW have shown that there is another way, their record is now blemished. Once they get back to COVID-zero, it will be interesting to see how they respond to the next outbreak (and it’s fair to say there will be further outbreaks).
It is also evident that governments are treading a fine line in their response to outbreaks. Just a day or two can make a material difference. Gladys has been comfortable at the margins, and until now that has worked. Dan and others have erred on the side of caution in favour of lockdowns, but the consequence has been economic devastation. They count COVID cases, but not small business failures or cases of depression (more about this in another article).
In the words of a previous Prime Minister, we should be “alert, not alarmed” to the threat of COVID. We are served neither by complacency nor alarmism. Oh, and quit the fuss and just get vaccinated already!