The danger in the post-lockdown era is that in our rush to move on we forget the hard lessons that have been learned about this catastrophic public policy failure.
On the basis of alarmist modelling, often commissioned by governments and amplified by sensationalist media, panicked politicians discarded all basic ideas about proportionality and the rule of law to criminalise everyday life and exert unprecedented controls over the citizenry.
From the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, all Australian governments adopted the attitude that any public health mitigation measure was on the table, and little to no consideration was given to the costs of the measures that were adopted.
This is the subject of new research published by the Institute of Public Affairs, which for the first time in Australia calculates many of the costs of the nation’s Covid zealotry up to June 2022. In the report, Hard Lessons: Reckoning the Humanitarian, Economic, and Social Costs of Zero-Covid, we find that the total economic and fiscal cost of the Australian COVID-19 response was no less than A$938.4 billion (£550.6 billion) to June 2022. This report identifies:
- $595.8 billion in state and federal Government to enforce Covid policies and stimulate the economy;
- $259.8 billion in lost economic activity because of the restrictions and economic shutdowns;
- $82.8 billion in inflation related costs due to expansive monetary and fiscal policies, a cost which is set to only increase more and more over the next couple of years.
The research also calculates how much children suffered in terms of schooling. Despite being the safest cohort in society when it comes to COVID-19, children were routinely sent home to learn remotely or not learn at all. We estimate children in the state of Victoria would have lost about 12 weeks of reading skills and 17 weeks of numeracy skills, something which for many will never be recovered.
Even on the most basic metric, lockdowns failed. In terms of the number of years of life, the costs of joblessness because of the initial nationwide lockdowns in March and April 2020 were about 31 times more costly than the maximum possible years of life saved by lockdowns throughout 2020 and 2021.
Even in the state of Victoria, whose Labor Government enthusiastically established a world-renowned Covid police state, politicians are no longer touting their pandemic response in the lead up to the state election in November.
Likewise, the former federal Liberal/Nationals Coalition Government, which was voted out of office earlier this year, rarely boasted of its Covid response.
Governments of the Covid era appear to have accepted the failure of the Covid-elimination approach, but rather than confront the reality of this failure are just pretending that it never happened.
This is not about living in the past, because the reality is we are still bearing the costs now. In terms of the resulting mental health crisis, lost learning, shuttered businesses, Government debt and inflation, we are not likely to know the full costs of the Covid response for many years to come.
Our future wellbeing as a society also demands that we remember the hard lessons of the Covid response.
We will need to deal with pandemics in the future, and it is critical to know what went wrong, and how these failures came to be.
Australians were subject to the harshest restrictions on their way of life in their history, and we should be demanding not that it should be forgotten, but that it should be remembered so that it doesn’t happen again.
Morgan Begg is the Director of the Legal Rights Program at the Institute of Public Affairs in Melbourne, Australia.