Two questions virus critics should ask


Australia truly is the Lucky Country. We don't just have one Chief Medical Officer, we have thousands of them.

And now that the nation is facing the biggest health crisis we've ever seen, every single one of them is dispensing their medical advice for free. How blessed we are.

More cynical commentators than me might complain that this advice is random, ill-informed, unqualified and often illiterate but in fact it is remarkably consistent.

Indeed, the pattern seems to follow a three-step process:

1. Government and Chief Medical Officer issue advice based on latest scientific information;

2. Random person ignores advice and googles "coronavirus";

3. Random person then complains that the advice is confusing.

RELATED: How the virus jumped from animals to humans

Part of the confusion appears to derive from the fact that unlike most social media users, medical experts tend not to endlessly scream "JUST LOOK AT WHAT'S HAPPENING IN ITALY!!!!!!" in their daily public briefings.

While I am hesitant to offer my own medical or indeed geographical advice, this may be - and I am only guessing here - because Italy and Australia are two different countries.

But don't take my word for it. Take the word of, say, the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee - the peak expert body that advises the government during public health emergencies.

In a briefing this week, the AHPPC said: "Without diminishing the significance of the rise in case numbers, it is worth noting that the situation with our first 1000 is somewhat different to that of other countries."

How different? Well, when we hit that mark we had only seven fatalities compared to more than 20 deaths in Britain, 30 in Italy and 35 in the US. We also had one of the highest testing rates in the world and it took longer than most countries to get from 100 to 1000.

"This suggests that we do not have as large a proportion of undetected cases in the population, as was likely the case in the USA, Italy and other countries," the AHPPC said. "Our early detection and control work was effective."

The death toll rising in Italy has made people anxious about the ruthlessness of the pandemic. Picture: Matthias Rietschel-Pool/Getty Images
The death toll rising in Italy has made people anxious about the ruthlessness of the pandemic. Picture: Matthias Rietschel-Pool/Getty Images


Not according to Karen from Facebook. She saw a picture of Italy on the news and her husband once visited there so she knows what's really going on.

Another expert medical body is the Queensland Teachers Union, which threatened to call a strike unless Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk closed the schools.

As a result, the Premier went within three days from announcing that schools were perfectly safe and would remain open to all students to announcing that they would be closed to all students except the children of essential services workers.

You see, it is a little known medical fact that the children of essential services workers possess a special gene that makes school perfectly safe for them but not for anyone else.

And so even as the catastrophist wing of the commentariat is singing the praises of nurses and shelf-stackers and utility workers who are physically on the frontline in fighting coronavirus, it is also perfectly happy for them to be the only ones with their kids stuck in schools that are mysteriously unsafe for upper-middle class families. What selfless citizens they are.

It is this same selflessness and medical expertise that drives so many of the catastrophists' other policy platforms, such as that all hairdressers should lose their jobs. Sure, this hasn't been recommended by the actual Chief Medical Officer but what would he know? He's probably never even been to a hairdresser.

And unlike the government, the doomsday commentariat's policy making has been remarkably consistent. Not one of the people saying Australia needs to go into immediate lockdown now criticised the government when it literally locked down people coming in from China in the earliest days of the virus's spread.

Not one of them accused the government of racism or hysteria or exploiting the crisis to justify its reopening of the Christmas Island detention centre.

And unlike the government and medical experts, all of them knew that the virus was coming and it was going to be catastrophic. The only reason nobody told the government is because they were too busy moaning about all the other things it had f***ed up.

Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy has become a familiar face during the outbreak. Picture: AAP Image/Lukas Coch
Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy has become a familiar face during the outbreak. Picture: AAP Image/Lukas Coch


Now as anyone who knows me knows, I'm not exactly the head cheerleader for this government but I am quite fond of Australia. And it's hard to shake the sense that for some it doesn't matter what the PM does, they are actively willing him to fail. Sometimes there is a fine line between predicting disaster and praying for it.

Personally I have grown quite attached to my life and my house and so I wish him every success in tackling anything that threatens either.

Fortunately there have been some small signs of hope. While it is far too soon to get excited and there is still a long way to go, in the three days to Friday the increase in the number of new cases seemed to have slowed - although community transmission is still a major concern.

Infectious diseases physician and microbiologist Peter Collignon, a professor at the ANU Medical School, observed on Friday night: "Still early but epidemic curve looks like it's falling. Hopefully that fall will continue and what we are doing now will cause it to keep on falling."

Unfortunately the rates ticked back up again on Saturday but this is not a disaster as long as the increase can be kept in check and doesn't explode exponentially as it did in the early days and weeks. This is known as flattening the curve and flattening the curve has been the government's strategy all along.

University of Melbourne professor of epidemiology Tony Blakely has been explaining this process very clearly for days now - that the whole point is to slow the spread of the virus to manageable levels, not stop it altogether. That requires patience and calm, two qualities sorely lacking in the social media age.

"You don't go in too hard because you actually want the infection rate to pick up a bit and then hold," he told the ABC.

Or as he explained it to the far funkier readers of "If we are going to 'flatten the curve' then we need to chill a bit."

That's a pretty simple message on the biggest news site in Australia from one of the top experts in the country. And yet panic merchants are still squealing that we need to shut everything down now because it's trending on Twitter.

You also have to wonder how many of those calling for total and immediate nationwide lockdowns are spending their own in leafy suburban homes or stately Victorian terraces instead of sharehouses and studio apartments. You have to wonder if it's their jobs that will be instantly terminated.

Because it's easy to wish for a recession when you're rich enough to ride it out. It's not so easy when you're a waiter who's been wiped out or an aircraft engineer now stacking shelves at Woollies.

Of course everyone has the right to voice their opinion - and some of the contrarian views come from very smart minds.

But for others so sure that everything we're doing is wrong here are two simple questions they might wish to ask themselves to bring the issue into sharp relief:

1. Am I as smart as Australia's Chief Medical Officer?

2. Am I going to lose my job?

The hard truth is we are facing both a health crisis and an economic one. We have to do whatever it takes to stop the coronavirus from crashing our hospital system but we also have to do whatever it takes to stop it from crashing our economic system, because if the economy crashes, society crashes.

The cruellest part is that the restrictive approach needed to save our hospitals is the opposite of the expansive approach needed to save our economy. This is the great corona paradox.

We are balancing thousands of lives against hundreds of thousands of livelihoods and the threat of even further loss of life in the future as poverty and unemployment cuts people down. Every decision we take has to be measured against the impact it will have not just across society today but in the months and years ahead - and all of this with infinite uncertainty as to what that impact will be. It is an all but impossible needle to thread.

And so for my two cents, I reckon having graduated restrictions that can be escalated or eased as the situation requires - as opposed to the sledgehammer of universal lockdowns based on no medical evidence - seems like a pretty sensible way to go. And most of the people in charge seem to think that too because that's exactly what we're doing.

And if anyone thinks they have a better idea to stop a global pandemic while solving the most crippling economic crisis since the Great Depression then perhaps they should put it in an email.

Originally published as Two questions virus critics should ask

Meghan, Harry ‘struggling to cope’ in LA

Meghan, Harry ‘struggling to cope’ in LA

Dream of a blissful new life has quickly turned into a nightmare

Fresh confusion over virus 'detention'

Fresh confusion over virus 'detention'

Thousands of Melbourne public housing residents have been provided with "detention...

Man in iconic 9/11 photo dies from virus

Man in iconic 9/11 photo dies from virus

This man miraculously survived the 9/11 terror attacks