I read a piece in the New Yorker by Anthony Gottlieb about the Cambridge mathematician Frank Ramsey1, a person of whom I had never heard. Reading about Ramsey makes one feel inadequate. He was a mathematics lecturer at Cambridge but made major contributions in the fields of philosophy, mathematics and economics. He was acknowledged as a genius by his contemporaries, and some of his most important ideas were not appreciated until decades later; now better appreciated, they continue to influence contemporary philosophy. His contribution to pure mathematics was often tucked away inside papers on something else. Two theorems that he used to investigate the procedures for determining the validity of logical formulas became the basis of a branch of mathematics known as Ramsey theory, which analyses order and disorder. When Ramsey later published a paper on economics about rates of saving, economist John Maynard Keynes called it “one of the most remarkable contributions to mathematical economics ever made.” Its most controversial idea was that the wellbeing of future generations should be given the same weight as that of the present one. He added that discounting the interests of future people, is “ethically indefensible and arises merely from the weakness of the imagination.” Ramsey’s impact was significant, especially when you realise that he died just over a month before his 27th birthday, in January 19301,2.
Gottlieb also noted that Ramsey had many parallels with the Scottish philosopher David Hume. In his ‘Treatise on Human Nature’, Hume wrote that the human mind “has a great propensity to spread itself on external objects”1,3; that is, to mistake its own thoughts for features of reality. These two factors: the “weakness of imagination” and the hubris in mistaking one’s thoughts for reality are both pertinent in these times, because it characterises the hubris and the lack of imagination demonstrated by most modern governments, particularly those of a conservative persuasion. This is exemplified by halfwits like Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Scott Morrison whose conception of the dangers inherent in the word ‘pandemic’ were completely lacking. Once the virus did strike their respective shores they were incapable of dealing with it.
The mind-numbingly narcissistic simpleton Trump said in February, 2020, that the SARS-Cov2 would weaken “when we get into April, in the warmer weather – that has a very negative effect on that and that type of virus”, and “It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle – it will disappear”. In May, when the number of cases was still increasing he said “Coronavirus numbers are looking much better, going down almost everywhere“, and cases are “coming way down”. This was a few weeks before the second wave began in earnest. In the middle of June, as the second wave was just starting, and the US was getting over 20,000 new cases per day, he said the pandemic was ‘fading away. It’s going to fade away”. In early July, when the US was getting over 50,000 new cases per day, he announced that the pandemic was “getting under control” and that 99% of Covid-19 cases are “totally harmless”, at a time when the case death rate in the US was about 4%, with about 15% being severe cases. In late August, Trump said that the US had “among the lowest case-fatality rates of any major country anywhere in the world”. At that time the US sat about the middle of all the countries hardest hit by the virus. Also in late August, Trump said he had “launched the largest national mobilization since World War II” against COVID-19, and America “developed, from scratch, the largest and most advanced testing system in the world.” This was a lie. His government’s coronavirus response was a failure because of flawed and delayed testing, entrenched inequality that has amplified Covid-19’s effects, and chaotic federal leadership that’s left much of the country’s response up to the states to handle. Numerous times since August, he has said that the US is “rounding the corner” and “rounding the final turn” at a time when it had registered 200,000 Covid-19 deaths. At the current death rate in the US, by December 12th, it will have reached 300,000 dead, almost three quarters of what the US lost in the three and half years they were in World War 2. These are in addition to his idiotic ramblings about ingesting disinfectant or sticking an ultraviolet light down your throat4. Whether Trump actually believed what he was saying or was just reverting to his usual lying to make himself and his gullible trumpettes feel better about the disaster that was befalling them, one can only guess.
Like Trump, Boris Johnson seemed to believe that he knew more about what to do in the face of a pandemic, than almost anyone else. He refused to listen to the advice and recommendations coming from the World Health Organisation (WHO), from China and from Italy. The WHO advice was to use every possible tool to suppress transmission. That meant testing and isolating cases, tracing and quarantining contacts, and increasing hygiene measures5. Surprisingly, from 24 January, Johnson missed five meetings held by COBRA, the government’s top-level emergency committee, to discuss the coronavirus threat, before finally attending on March 26. On March 12, the UK abandoned any containment measures and announced that community case finding and contact-tracing would stop. The aim was then not to stop people getting the virus, but to slow down transmission, while protecting the vulnerable. This horrified many epidemiologists and several of them published a report of modelling on March 16 which estimating that without a suppression effort, up to 250,000 could die in the UK. Johnson responded that day with a recommendation for social distancing, avoiding pubs and working from home if possible. But there was still no enforcement, and it was left up to individuals and employers to decide what to do. Many people were willing but unable to comply as shown in a report from March 20, again by epidemiologists. Three days later, Johnson then introduced a more stringent lockdown and economic support was announced. In that intervening time between March 12 and March 23, tens or hundreds of thousands of people were infected5. Johnson’s toying with herd immunity has condemned many thousands of his countrymen to die horrible deaths, vainly hooked up to ventilators as their lungs are destroyed. The UK was one of the last developed countries to go into lockdown, and the UK has suffered one of the highest death tolls in the Western world. At the time of writing, it has recorded 1,766,819 cases and 62,566 deaths which, on a per capita basis, is worse than the US7, and both nations have a long way to go before the pandemic is done with them. The vaccine is the only real hope they have.
Our own Prime Minister, Scott Morrison was also lacking in his response to the pandemic. On January 20,the Communicable Disease Network requested a coordinated national health response, and Australia’s chief medical officer, Brendan Murphy, convened a meeting of his state counterparts to discuss developments.The national incident room was activated and Murphy’s group, the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, endorsed enhanced border measures for the three direct flights a week between Wuhan and Sydney – but not mass screening at airports. This was about the time the first case was recorded in Australia. On February 29, Morrison initiated the government’s coronavirus emergency response plan. However, he stated that normal life would go on: “You can still go to the football, you can still go to the cricket, you can still go and play with your friends down the street, you can go off to the concert and you can go out for a Chinese meal.” The following day, health ministers met in Melbourne, with the main concern being aged care. Only Queensland, which had already declared a health emergency, and New South Wales, understood what was coming. One official at the meeting stated: “There really was no national leadership at that point”. The clear impression from the states at the time was that the federal government did not understand the seriousness of the pandemic. On March 10, Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews explained to journalists that “extreme measures” were coming; that schools would be closed, entire workforces would be working from home, sporting events would be cancelled. Morrison announced that there would be a ban on non-essential gatherings of 500 or more effective Monday, March 16th, but that he would be going to the football on the previous Saturday night, stating there was no cause for alarm. Shortly after that, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton was diagnosed with the virus after coming back from the US8, so the football was off the agenda.
While the economy is largely the federal government’s concern, and the states manage health systems, there was concern in New South Wales and Victoria that tough restrictions necessary to stop infections were not moving fast enough. The weekend of March 21 was when this all came to a head. The Ruby Princess debacle triggered finger-pointing between NSW Health and Border Force, as it led to a spike in infections throughout the nation. The populace was clearly not taking the pandemic seriously because of the mixed messages coming from the federal government and the fact that Morrison was more concerned with announcing a stimulus package than the spread of the pandemic. Berejiklian and Andrews were alarmed at this, and felt public health restrictions needed to be imposed more quickly. The tension between the two levels of government was perhaps epitomised by one event: Morrison was at a press conference announcing round two of the economic stimulus package when a reporter asked him to comment on the proposed “total shutdown on non-essential businesses” by Berejiklian and Andrews. Federal political reporters had been briefed during the press conference, which the news channels were broadcasting live. Morrison was not happy at being so clearly embarrassed, but had to acquiesce8.
Now that Australia’s second wave has blown over and vaccines are being rolled out around the world, the first report of the Senate inquiry into the Morrison government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has found a range of deficiencies in the response and concluded the national health strategy was not clearly explained to the public until July. The report of the Labor-chaired committee, tabled on Wednesday night, states the government “did not have adequate [public health] plans in place either before, or during the pandemic” and it “failed to properly prepare the aged care and disability sectors for the pandemic”. It suggests the Morrison government was responsible for “significant failings in the aged care sector prior to, and during, the pandemic”. The report also notes that deaths in aged care facilities “account for 74.6% of all deaths from Covid-19 in Australia”. The report stated that the government was unprepared; failing to anticipate crippling staff shortages and a high volume of requests for personal protective equipment,” and “it failed to learn important lessons from early outbreaks at residential aged care facilities in NSW and was too slow to respond to escalating community transmission in Victoria”.9
I have written before on Morrison’s slow reaction to the pandemic, and compared it to the rapid reaction of Taiwan, which at that time had 422 cases and 6 deaths. At that same time, Australia had 6,654 cases and 72 deaths10. Now, Taiwan has recorded 724 cases and 7 deaths, while Australia now has 28,000 cases and 908 deaths. This pales into insignificance alongside the UK which now has 1,797,783 cases and 63,082 deaths, and the US which has 16,039,393 cases and 299,692 deaths7.
Niki Savva, from Murdoch’s Australian ‘newspaper’, hardly a ‘lefty’, has said: “Morrison stopped travel from China but waited too long to block travel from the US. He opposed lockdowns, he opposed school closures, he opposed state border restrictions, he opposed wage subsidies, he opposed pandemic leave and he suspended parliament”11. On the radio, Morrison said “we’ve just got to understand that we’ve got to live with the virus. The idea that you just shut everything down and put all the borders up, that is no way to live with this. That is not sustainable”. If it hadn’t been for the premiers fighting against this sort of lack of understanding, we would likely be in a similar state to the UK. This Morrison trope of ‘we have to let a few people die so we can protect the economy’ has been shown to be a false dichotomy and preventing the spread of the virus and the deaths that go with it is better for the economy. Australia escaped this disastrous outcome by the skin of the state and territory governments’ teeth.
The damage which the hubris and lack of imagination of people like Trump, Johnson and Morrison, who think that what they believe, rather than what experts know, is important, is measured in corpses; hundreds of thousands of them.