Unlike any other country in the world Australia has real control over its borders, and this is the time to exercise that control. By dramatically limiting the number of infections coming into Australia we can, if we act right now, slow the spread of the virus in Australia.
But given the number of cases already present we also need to act decisively to slow community transmission domestically. That likely means shutting all schools and universities for four weeks. This would cause significant disruption, but could be achieved by simply moving holiday periods forward and contemplating a different school calendar for the rest of the year if the threat can be contained.
Scott Morrison has tried to be reassuring, telling people to go about their everyday lives as usual. That’s a mistake.
Businesses will need to expand the ability for as many workers as possible to work remotely. This isn’t possible for everyone, but the more we do the slower the spread of the virus.
These measures might seem radical, but we’re going to end up there anyway. Japan has closed its schools – but too late. Italy has locked down a quarter of the country – but too late. China shut down Wuhan – but too late.
Why are we, as a country, waiting to experience all the pain of dramatic containment measures without getting any of the benefits of those measures? For the pain, economic and social, will come.
The government has yet to announce a stimulus package targeted at the most affected sectors of the economy, like universities and tourism. That will have to happen, and it is welcome. But what the government really needs to accept is that, to prevent mass contagion and panic, we need to acknowledge a pre-emptive hit to the economy north of $100 billion. That’s roughly 5 per cent of annual GDP.
By shutting major parts of the economy down for a month we might well be able to stem the outbreak, and gain valuable time to prepare a public health response. That’s more time for hospital beds to be made available, more time for treatment measures to come available, and more time for a vaccine – which might be 12 months away – to become feasible.
Right now, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has tried to be reassuring, telling people to go about their everyday lives as usual. That’s a mistake. Unlike during the Great Depression, we have a lot more to fear than “fear itself”. We have mass contagion to fear. We have decisions about who lives and who dies in rationing access to ventilators to fear. And “going to the footy” might sound nice, but is a recipe for disaster until the virus is contained.
There are hours, not days, for the federal government to act decisively. It’s a shocking thing to contemplate, but the only option we have left is fortress Australia.
John Howard famously hoped that Australians would feel “comfortable and relaxed”. It’s worth remembering that he, as prime minister, was willing to act decisively to help achieve that. He did so with gun buybacks in the wake of the Port Arthur massacre, and he did it economically by introducing the Goods and Services Tax.
There is a difference between panicking and acting decisively when necessary. It’s called leadership. And this is Morrison’s time to lead.