How long the lockdown lasts is not just a medical question – it's a democratic one
by Richard Denniss
[Originally published on the Guardian Australia, 15 April 2020]
Just as economists should never be used to tell Australians what kind of society we “must” live in, medical scientists, and indeed climate scientists, should never be used to tell us what we “must” do.
The role of experts is to inform us about the likely consequences of our choices, but it is the role of our democratic representatives to make those choices.
For too long in Australia, economics has been used to tell Australians that we must cut taxes, we must cut working conditions and we must spend less on public services, if our economy is to be “competitive”. But, of course, we didn’t have to do anything of the sort.
Experts and academic jargon were used to narrow the options available to us on the democratic menu, and the result was both poor economic outcomes and a frustrated population. We must not make the same mistakes when talking about Covid-19 and the hard choices we face about “where to from here?”.
Medical science can tell us how to manage Covid-19’s spread through our community. And medical science is our only chance to develop either a cure or vaccine, which scientists say is at least 12 months away. But while medical science can tell us how to pursue such strategies, it cannot tell us which ones we “must” pursue. That question is one for us and our elected representatives.
Federal and state governments have, to date, done a great job of managing the spread of Covid-19. Where wealthy countries like the US and UK have seen cases and deaths tragically soar, Australia has largely contained the spread.
There have been deaths, but not a single person has died due to a lack of medical care— because we have contained the spread effectively enough that our intensive care wards aren’t over-full and our medical staff aren’t stretched to (complete) exhaustion.
Some mistakes were made and some decisions were poorly communicated but, overall, Australian leaders have responded quickly and effectively to the advice of our medical experts. As a result, Australia has succeeded in largely dodging the first bullet this pandemic sent our way.
But where to from here? If we want to ensure that no one catches Covid-19, our medical experts have shown us that they know how to deliver on that goal. We need to keep our borders closed, we need to stay at home as much as possible and we need to ensure there are no large gatherings of people. It’s not fun and it’s not cheap, but it works.
The question is, do we want to keep “crushing the curve” by keeping 25 million people locked in their homes, and out of their beaches and parks? That’s not a medical question, it’s a democratic one. The sooner we acknowledge that, the better our democratic debate will be. We don’t need to pit scientists against each other to resolve such a question, we need to pit arguments and options against each other.
Australians often choose to ignore experts, whether they be lawyers, economists, film critics, pollsters or medical doctors. If we always listened to economists, we wouldn’t just have a carbon tax, we could also have toll roads as far as the eye can see. If we always listened to lawyers, most people would never go to court. And if we always listened to doctors, we would have banned alcohol, tobacco and junk-food advertising decades ago. Medical science knows how to save a lot of lives, but it’s a democratic decision as to how much of that advice we should take.
The advice from medical experts says that, at best, a vaccine is 12 to 18 months away, and could come with potential side effects that are yet unknown. Australia can choose to keep all our borders, beaches and schools closed until a vaccine is found, but if we make that choice, we must do so knowing that such controls could continue indefinitely. No doctor or scientist can make that decision on our behalf.
Obviously, no one wants the horrific scenes from Italy and the US to be repeated here in Australia. While there are other paths besides locking the population down or letting the virus rip, there are obvious risks to exploring such unmarked trails.
Reasonable people looking at the same range of information will inevitably disagree on both how long we should stay locked down, and which unmarked trail to follow when we do take our first tentative steps away from the current restrictions.
But, like it or not, those questions will need to be asked and answered in the coming weeks. We must admit that while sheltering in our homes and locking up our borders has helped drive the spread of the virus down towards zero, hiding from the world and each other for another 12 months will not make us “stronger” or “more resilient”. It will just make us more stressed, isolated and impoverished.
Australian governments have done a great job of avoiding the first wave of this pandemic. But their swift action based on the best science did not buy us safety, it bought us time. We now have the chance to use that time to make good, but likely not perfect, decisions about what we do next.
The benefits of domestic and international lockdowns need to be held up against the physical, psychological and economic costs to individuals and communities.
With no prospect of a vaccine for at least a year, it’s obvious that a rigorous approach to hand washing and social distancing needs to stay in place. But not all questions are that straightforward. For example:
Should restaurants stay shut for 12 months or should they allow tables of four or less to dine together?
Should non-essential retail stores stay shut for 12 months or should they allow limited numbers of customers in at any point in time?
Should airlines stay grounded for 12 months or should people be allowed to fly if they don’t sit next to a stranger?
Should schools stay shut for 12 months or should they open with strict social distancing between students and teachers?
Just as there is no “right answer” to how fast we should let people drive, there is no right answer to which activities are too risky in the age of Covid-19. Medical science can tell us how to prevent the spread of a disease, but it can’t tell us how much risk we should take. And while there is no right way to judge how much risk is too much risk, there are better and worse ways to have democratic debates about such decisions.
We need to be open and honest about the role of evidence, the role of democracy, and the limits of both. Just as scientists will disagree about which are the most important restrictions to keep or remove, so too will our politicians disagree about which experts to listen to. It was ever thus, but that didn’t stop us from curtailing smoking, drink driving and measles.
Sadly, the debate about climate change science and policy has ruined much of Australia’s faith in democratic problem solving. It’s an understatement to suggest that when it comes to the role of fossil fuels in heating our planet, there has been too much politics and not enough evidence.
But just as it made no sense to politicise the science of climate change, it makes no sense to politicise the science of Covid-19. Just as there is no “right” amount of climate change to cause, there is no “right” amount of COVID-19 to allow to spread through the community. While many climate scientists have argued that we should limit global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, that number isn’t chiselled in stone. It’s a democratic compromise, not a scientific fact.
From a risk point of view, 1.6C would be better than 2C (and 1.3C would be even better still). But while the science around what happens if we continue to increase greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere is clear, the science of choosing the right amount of risk has never been, and never will be, crystal clear.
The same issue now confronts us with Covid-19. As with climate change, the safest number to aim for is zero. But as with climate change, many people don’t think that it is necessary or desirable, or even possible, to aim that low.
Until a vaccine is invented, we are going to need to have a very hard, very important conversation about how much risk to accept from Covid-19. The science will not be crystal clear, there will be differing views from well informed people and hard choices will need to be made, often in real time, regardless of how uncertain the consequences of those choices are. Hopefully, when debating these questions, we can treat the scientists with respect and cut our politicians a little slack.
When we are finished with this crisis, maybe we can take a fresh look at the fact that in the 30 years since Australia first agreed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, we have nearly doubled the amount of coal and oil we burn, saying it is “uneconomic” to do otherwise.
Richard Denniss is the chief economist at independent think tank The Australia Institute