Postcard From Sydney

28 June 2021

by Steve Waterson

Personal hygiene’s a funny thing. What’s important to one person is of little significance to another, which I suppose explains the range of odours that perfume public transport.

Last Saturday I was waiting behind an old lady in my local greengrocers on Sydney’s north shore. She was evidently searching for the city’s most texturally perfect tomato, touching, squeezing and caressing every one her little arms could reach, between making small adjustments to her ill-fitting and slightly sodden blue-paper mask. I was tempted, as I always am in these circumstances, to lean over, point and say to her, “Excuse me, there’s one there you haven’t touched.”

Instead what fascinated me was that here she was, engaged in a super-smearer event, picking up whatever microbes the previous old lady had left behind, but sufficiently frightened of coronavirus to wear a useless mask: useless not because she wasn’t wearing it properly, but because evidence suggests cheap masks offer at best minimal protection from the virus, whose nanometre particles go through the weave like a golf ball through the Harbour Tunnel (I know, it travels in larger droplets, but droplets dry, and then what?); at worst they concentrate and nurture whatever germs land on them in a hospitably warm and moist environment.

Masks, of course, serve higher purposes: worn voluntarily, they signal you are doing something to stop this pandemic, even if you aren’t; and when compulsory, that you are obeying the Government’s dictates and tacitly agreeing that their mask mandates are wise, effective and essential, even if they’re not.

This is where millions of us found ourselves again last weekend, directed, on pain of substantial financial penalties, to hide our faces and their offensive leaking orifices. The masks should be offensive to the intellect, both as signifiers of subservience to the rule of idiots and for the licence they give to every low-level, more-than-my-job’s-worth functionary to challenge you for not “keeping the community safe”. Wear one in the office, next to the people you’ve been sitting with for the past year: it’s a sly way of making everyone stay at home without actually ordering them to.

Not much has changed in that year. Our visionary ‘leaders’ have come up with nothing new, save a revved-up vocabulary to keep us on the edge of our toilet seats: the anthropomorphised, cunning and clever virus hides and pounces when we least expect it, for it is a “beast” that, unlike any other matter in the universe, travels “at the speed of light”.

So scary is it that everyday descriptions are inadequate. Only the language of airport thrillers and Hollywood can capture the Clear and Present Danger of Jason Bourne’s Delta Variant; that’s why borders have to be “slammed shut” and the virus “hunted down”, “crushed” and “eliminated”. “Flatten the Curve”, an early instalment of the Pandemic Wars franchise, was nowhere near sexy enough.

Sadly, instead of action heroes leading us to safety (whatever that looks like), we have premiers tootling by again in their clown cars – parp, parp! – stuffed with their supporting cast of chief chuckle officers and assorted buffoons, blindly seeking a way out of the quagmire of hypocrisy and contradiction they have created.

But look at what’s happened in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, they cry. There are a few more cases than yesterday – sorry, let me use the correct medical terminology – a cluster has erupted and exponentially exploded! Inevitably, the NSW Premier’s not-so-steely resolve finally crumbled, and a half-million people find themselves locked up like Melburnians.

I know what’s going on over there. Dad gets contact traced, has a test and to his astonishment, for he has no symptoms, turns out to be Covid positive. He’s isolated at home with his wife and two kids, and they catch it; again, no symptoms, but the major outbreak has quadrupled! No one sick, no one out in the street, but citywide fear and sorry, you have to uninvite 95 of the 100 people who were coming to your daughter’s 21st birthday party tonight.

Perhaps my version of events is incorrect, but there’s no basis to challenge it because we’re not allowed to know how many people are sick. It would be terrific if the Government would put me right and share that information.

It seems only yesterday that we were worried about people dying of this disease; then we worried about people being ill from it; last week we were concerned about people sprinkling the magic virus dust as they bounced gaily around shops, cafes, cinemas and Bunnings (a must-stop on the Covid carrier’s itinerary); now we worry about the places they might have been, and the people who visited those places, maybe – a delicious frisson of terror here – at the same fleeting moment the irresponsible spreader breezed by.

It’s all backed up with the illusion of scientific accuracy. No one needs a graph to show them infections have grown from one to three, but there it is, super-sciency.

In the absence of any details of the sophisticated evidence and top-secret advice that informs their decisions, it’s increasingly hard to resist the conclusion that our politicians and bureaucrats are pulling the rules – how can I put this delicately? – out of their well-padded arses.

Queensland authorities, we were told last week, “are keeping a close eye on community spread in NSW”. This means the epidemiologists are reading exactly the same numbers as the rest of us but doing so in a very clever, epidemiological way:

“Seven new cases today, Professor.”
“Thank you, Doctor.”
“You know what this means, don’t you?”
“I do (stroking beard), I do.”
“Lockdown?”
“Of course lockdown! Did you learn nothing at epidemiology school?”

Then they add today’s cases to the running total that began when we first heard of Covid, to inflate a mildly alarming figure. Have I missed something, or have we stopped resetting the disease tally each year? Imagine the headlines if we did the same with other causes of death: “Sixty more felled by heart attacks today: fatalities now stand at 47 billion.”

There are two ways out of this. The first relies on the coronavirus vaccines, any of whose formulations appear to reduce, and possibly extinguish, your chances of becoming seriously ill.

That news was too good for some in the media, who immediately amplified and broadcast stories about the dreadful but impossibly tiny post-vaccination chance of fatal blood clots, which are many times more common in those who catch the disease.

Now we have “vaccine reluctance”, a luxury of inaction earned by cutting off all contact with the outside world. Prison Australia has been a triumph, if your sole measure of success is how completely you block what the rest of humanity is learning to live with. Sure, there’s no outside money coming in, but we can always print more here.

The problem with suppressing the disease is that there’s no sense of urgency to get the vaccine. So far it makes no difference to your freedoms: the border closures, the mask-wearing, the rings of steel and house arrest apply to vaccinated and unvaccinated alike.

And even if it did, how do you signify your elevated status? Present your papers to pub bouncers? A badge of virtue, or maybe issue one to be worn by the unclean minority? We’ve seen that kind of thing on the History Channel.

With no attendant privileges or benefits, you’re being vaccinated to protect yourself against a disease you’d find it very difficult to catch. Fine, but if that argument doesn’t persuade your neighbours to head for the vaccine hub, so what? Why, apart from a hitherto unremarked abundance of concern for their fellow man, would the vaccinated fear the unvaccinated?

If people don’t want the vaccine, despite all the evidence that it will protect them, that’s their business. They might get a little sick, be hospitalised or even die; but they know the risks and it should be their choice.

If the Government really wants to incentivise our citizens, why not set a date to reopen our international borders? Say that all flights, in and out, will be back on from January 1st, and see how many rush for their injections before the end of the year. There will be a number who, through existing ailments, bloody-mindedness, laziness or stupidity, will never have the vaccine, so we can’t wait for them.

Instead, as many have been saying for almost 18 months, protect the elderly and vulnerable to whatever degree they desire, and let the rest of us attempt to reclaim the freedoms we took for granted.

The Prime Minister could give us a date, or the required number of vaccinations, that would unlock us; and he could try to get the states to do the same with their moronic internal closures. I have learned, to my disgust, how little power the federal government has over the second tier; how impotent it is in the face of the pompous cruelty of some premiers, who should be reminded of their heartlessness until the day they die.

But impotence need not have meant silence: the PM and his ministers could, and should, have been damning every instance of a family being robbed of the chance to farewell a parent or child, instructing their lesser counterparts in the concept of shame, forcing it through the armour of self-righteous and dull-witted smugness.

We’ve squandered an unimaginable amount of money on this nonsense. What inroads might we have made into childhood cancer, say, with $350bn? Strokes, heart disease? Alzheimer’s, if you have a special fondness for the elderly?

I said there were two ways out of this quandary: the second is very simple. Stop counting cases, lift restrictions and regulations, end lockdowns, offer protection to those who want it, leave the rest of us alone. And do so immediately.

I don’t want to sound ungrateful. I appreciate what government does for us in protecting us against all manner of risks, from food safety rules, speed limits, building codes and professional qualifications, to maintaining a defence force against bigger threats; but this unpleasant flu should be added to the list of afflictions we take personal responsibility for.

At the moment we are wrestling over the detail of what regulations are proportionate and reasonable, fighting about what our responses should be, urging each other to get vaccinated in the hope that will lead to our country reopening; and that’s precisely what our inept, bewildered leaders, with no exit strategy, want.

They, and many of my less acute colleagues in the media, have shrewdly circumscribed the debate so that we now argue about which of the infantilising Government hoops we should jump through to get back to normal.

If we step back for a moment, we might discover the hoops don’t need to be there at all.

Steve Waterson is the Commercial Editor of The Australian