In August 1990, the army of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded neighbouring Kuwait. The UN Security Council demanded an immediate withdrawal of Iraqi troops, while a NATO official said the aim of the sanctions which had been imposed by various nations was ‘to cripple Iraq totally, chiefly by refusing to buy any of their oil’1.
Thirty years ago, when the Hawke government decided to join the attempt to oust Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait, I seem to remember the late, great Paul Lyneham interviewing Bob Hawke at the time, and asking how many body bags would need to be sent with any Australian troops. However, I can find no reference to that online, even among the transcripts of Prime Ministers speeches, interviews etc.2, so maybe it didn’t happen as I remember it. While I was searching for it, I stumbled across other interviews between Lyneham and Bob Hawke. One of those concerning the invasion of Kuwait and the Australian participation is interesting to read. Lyneham asks the questions and Hawke answers them3. There is no “I do not agree with the premise of your question” or “I don’t comment on gossip”. However, that is another story dealt with elsewhere4. What I am on about here is the price of a life. In my memory, Hawke was very upset that Lyneham asked about the reality of the cost of his decisions in lives.
Scott Morrison has said that we cannot shut the country down in response to a second wave of Covid-19 infections to try to eliminate the virus. This was in response to renewed debate around whether Australia should respond to the latest outbreak and a spike in community transmission with more forceful lockdowns. Furthermore, Morrison said on Wednesday elimination was impractical, which was at odds with Victoria’s chief health officer Brett Sutton who told reporters it was an idea “worthy of consideration”. Sutton added that any shift in the public health strategy would require consideration by chief medical officers and leaders through the national cabinet5.
The Premier of New South Wales, Gladys Berejiklian said on July 14 on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s 7.30: “As much as we’d love to have elimination, as much as we’d love to be able to be in that state, it’s not going to happen in New South Wales”6. She received effusive support from a former Victorian Liberal Premier who tweeted on July 15: “Congratulations! NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian correct [sic]. You can’t shut down every time you have a cluster of cases. Here in Victoria we must learn to manage the virus and keep our lights on”7. Of course, the Murdoch hack, Adam Creighton, who clearly still thinks he is an epidemiologist, was also on the ‘don’t lockdown’ bandwagon, presumably at the behest of his editor at The Australian. He said: “After weeks of ‘second wave’ hysteria that’s put 5m people in lockdown for 6 weeks, still only 17 people in ICU in Victoria with Covid-19 (over 4000 ICU beds avail). Meanwhile 107 Victorians are dying EVERY DAY from other causes”8. This follows his tweet on March 30 when there were 18 dead (there are now 111) around Australia; in that, he said: “This deliberate economic and social catastrophe is unnecessary. It will tear us apart for a generation. 18 dead. Why not quarantine the elderly, stop travel, keep people in work and avoid economic collapse?” Admittedly, being a Murdoch hack makes him impervious to evidence, which was freely available on the web at the time, as I then explained9. Even then, it was clear that for a proportion (now about 30%) of people who are treated in intensive care and do recover, damage to lungs is permanent. One of the authors of a recent review in Nature Medicine has said “Physicians need to think of COVID-19 as a multisystem disease, … There’s a lot of news about clotting but it’s also important to understand that a substantial proportion of these patients suffer kidney, heart and brain damage, and physicians need to treat those conditions along with the respiratory disease”10.
New Zealand has eliminated the disease from its shores, with the only cases now coming from Kiwis returning from overseas, most notably from India, Australia and the USA, and all of whom are in isolation11. The last new case in New Zealand was in late May, and from June 9, New Zealand lifted almost all Covid-19 restrictions after there were no remaining active cases in the country. Under new rules, social distancing is not required and there are no limits on public gatherings, but borders remain closed to foreigners. Shops and other businesses are open, people can go to cafes, restaurants, pubs, sporting events, weddings, funerals, and travel on public transport12,13. Life has largely returned to something approaching ‘normal’. New Zealand has a population just over 5 million, and has had 1,547 Covid-19 cases and 22 deaths. That is 309 cases per million population, and 4.4 deaths per million, and these are relatively static. Australia has now had 10,487 cases and 111 deaths. That is 411 cases per million population and a similar 4.4 deaths per million14, and these seem to be slowly increasing with the outbreaks in Victoria and New South Wales.
The main concern of the conservatives mentioned above is to keep the money flowing through the economy at the insignificant cost of a ‘few’ more deaths as outbreaks like that in Victoria and New South Wales recur. This does make you wonder where the real journalists are these days; those with enough gumption to ask people like Morrison and Berejiklian how many lives they are willing to sacrifice in a bid to placate people like Creighton’s boss Rupert Murdoch. It also makes you wonder where Australia’s economy would be if the Morrison government had been as aggressively successful as the Ardern government. However, that would be pointless; the Morrison government is simply incapable. They have, as they say, their eye upon the hole and not upon the doughnut. That is why we are going to suffer a much more prolonged viral agony than those across the ditch. That agony will be measured in lives.
I keep thinking how different the response to this would be in Australia, as well as many other western nations, if the disease mostly killed those under thirty and those over sixty were almost immune. I am pretty sure that there would be very few objections to the view that the virus should be eliminated. I am also pretty sure that the economic cost of doing what was necessary to achieve this would have been regarded as secondary to the goal of elimination. Even those in the safer groups, those over sixty, would have supported this strongly. In Vietnam and Taiwan, countries where older people are valued, and genuinely regarded as being an important part of society, there was no question about the approach, and it is working. We have embraced a cult of youth, to the extent that even older people try to behave as though they were still children, and in many cases think like children. The simple minded, childish, materialistic obsessiveness of so many has created a moral vacuum at most levels.
In the 1919 pandemic the second wave mostly killed fit young adults, but the results were probably worse than we have now…so far. I think the reaction to this pandemic would have been different ONLY if it was politicians and their ilk in danger. They care for nobody but themselves.