State of Disaster

Stephen Minas, August 7, 2020


At first, finding myself in Australia during what became a global pandemic seemed to be a stroke of dumb luck. Until June, Australia’s coronavirus record was one of success. The Australian government assessed that the coronavirus would develop into a pandemic long before the World Health Organization made the same call. At the start of February, Australia imposed a travel ban on non-citizens coming from mainland China (within 24 hours, the first COVID-19 death outside mainland China would be reported). On 20 March, the travel ban was broadened to encompass the rest of the world. Only Australian citizens and residents would be allowed to travel to Australia, and each would be required to undergo quarantine in a hotel for fourteen days.

Australia is a federation, in which states have important responsibilities relevant to the management of the pandemic, such as running hospitals and police forces. The country’s early success in managing the pandemic has been partly attributed to effective coordination of national and subnational governments, principally through a ‘national cabinet’ which brings together the prime minister and the first ministers of Australia’s six states and two territories. By 9 June, Australia (population 25 million) had reported 7,274 COVID-19 cases. On the same date, the state of Victoria (population over 6 million) reported zero new cases.

From zero, the rate of new cases in Victoria began a precipitous ascent: 21 on 17 June; 75 on 29 June; 108 on 4 July; 191 on 7 July; 317 on 16 July; 484 on 22 July; 723 on 30 July. By 7 August, Australia’s cumulative total of COVID-19 cases exceeded 20,000. 13,867 of these were in Victoria. On the same day, Victoria recorded 450 new cases, New South Wales eleven and South Australia three, with zero new cases in the five other states and territories. Tragically, 266 deaths had been recorded, with 181 deaths in Victoria alone.

This second wave was preceded by unsettling evidence of complacency and self-congratulation within the Victorian government. In mid-June, when South Australia announced it would not be reopening its border with Victoria, the Victorian premier’s response was to ask ‘why would you want to go there?’ Since then, as Victoria’s crisis intensified, the borders of other states also slammed shut to Victorians. In early June, Victoria’s top bureaucrat boasted to a reporter that ‘the response to date has shown an increase in confidence and trust. And with that confidence and trust, I think comes licence. I think there is now the greatest opportunity in my time as a career public servant for that licence to shape the economy, service systems and more generally create a more equitable, inclusive and progressive society’. Two months later, the Victorian premier estimated that a further 250,000 people would be ‘stood down’ or otherwise sent home from work as a result of the latest lockdown measures, effectively doubling the number of Victorians stood down since the start of the pandemic. The state government now estimates that unemployment will reach nine percent for the first time since 1996, with Victoria’s budget deficit and debt also tipped to skyrocket.

What went wrong?

There is mounting evidence that the implementation of hotel quarantine for returning citizens and residents was hopelessly flawed, allowing the virus to leak into the broader Victorian community. In contrast to other states, where state police and the Australian defence force were involved in quarantine management, the Victorian government outsourced the crucial task of guarding returned travellers to subcontracted and poorly (or barely) trained security guards. There have been lurid allegations of inappropriate contact between potentially infected guests and guards. As one reporter summarised the debacle: ‘When the Victorian government decided in late March to put private security contractors in charge of hotel quarantine in Melbourne, it was putting the lives of its constituents in the hands of an industry known for shady operators, wage theft and opaque contracting practices’.

On 13 July, Victoria’s chief health officer stated (on the basis of genomic sequencing data that remain under wraps) that a ‘very significant proportion’ of new cases were linked to the hotel quarantine breaches, and moreover that it was ‘conceivable’ that all new cases stemmed from the bungled programme. In early August he reiterated that ‘a very significant proportion of our current cases were linked to hotel quarantine’. The hotel quarantine disaster comes amid allegations of other failings by the state government, such as the under-resourcing and understaffing of the public health team responsible for ‘preventing the transmission of communicable diseases [and] managing outbreaks’. Depressingly high numbers of people ignoring stay-at-home orders have also been revealed.

In response to the current outbreak, the Victorian government declared a ‘state of disaster’ and has imposed the toughest COVID-19 lockdown measures yet experienced in Australia. Having worked as an adviser in the office of a previous premier, I have nothing but sympathy for the decision-makers and those advising them during this unprecedented pandemic. It has however been disheartening to sit here and watch the state government lose control of the situation, letting slip what was a globally enviable position. The mistakes which enabled the virus to spread in the Victorian community could well amount to the most costly failure in the history of Australian state government. This is not a case of being wise after the event. Every one of Australia’s other states and territories have so far managed to avoid this scenario, making Victoria at once a grim outlier and a cautionary tale. The situation requires accountability, not least to clarify responsibilities and learn lessons for ongoing pandemic response.

At the start of July the Victorian government announced an inquiry into the bungled hotel quarantine programme, headed by a retired judge. Unfortunately, the premier used the fact of this inquiry’s existence to deflect any and all questions relating to hotel quarantine, as if some sort of sub judice rule applied. On 5 August, the inquiry issued a public clarification that ‘there is no general restriction or prohibition which would prevent a person from commenting publicly or answering questions to which they know the answers on matters which are the subject of examination’.

Last week, moreover, Victorians were treated to the astonishing spectacle of the health minister, fronting question time in parliament for the first time in almost seven weeks, refusing to answer a single question on the pandemic, instead fobbing MPs off with promises to get back to them in writing. This behaviour notwithstanding, the global COVID crisis is demonstrating that ‘in seasons of great peril’ (and contrary to the old Roman practice) there is a pressing need for more transparency and accountability in decision-making, not less.

The situation in Victoria raises important questions about government accountability in times of crisis. Few people would expect a perfect performance from government in the current circumstances. Similarly, critics on the libertarian Right who want governments to open up and, in essence, let the virus rip are, in my estimation, complaining to a fairly sparse audience. People expect their governments to do what they can to protect them. That is the social contract’s bottom line. People will tolerate a lot of inconvenience, and downright economic pain, to that end. What they won’t tolerate, I suspect, is demonstrable failure to achieve this, particularly when all other Australian state and territory governments have incomparably better records.

Like everyone else in Victoria, I wish the state government only success in getting the situation under control. Beyond that, and no less importantly, good government requires accountability, and in Victoria’s democracy the buck stops with the premier.

This blog post reflects the author’s personal opinions only.

Stephen Minas | Melbourne | August 7, 2020

Published by pzumbansen

law professor.

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