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Government response to COVID-19 must be scrutinised

Although COVID-19 cases clustered in metro areas, the indiscriminate nature of lockdowns means the regions will suffer the economic costs, potentially for longer. Even though Australia is recovering, we must examine the mistakes government made.

Some areas of Australia never had a case of coronavirus, but almost all businesses faced restrictions and were prevented from trading. The National Cabinet, at their last meeting on December 11, finally started to discuss the problems specific to regional areas; but for many such moves are far too late.

Poor planning and an inability to tailor virus measures for specific areas are only a couple of the problems with Australia’s coronavirus response.

The inability to clearly articulate what would cause a scaling up, or reduction, in restrictions was a feature of the pandemic response from the beginning.

We were told we had to shut down to ‘flatten the curve.’ Then the COVID-Safe app was supposed to help restrictions ease. Then we were told, because of the possibility of a ‘second wave’, it would be difficult to re-open because we did not have ‘herd immunity’.

We were told restrictions could not be eased, even in areas without a single case. And, as the recent South Australian lockdown shows, things can change very quickly and without warning. This ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown, which forbade people from even exercising, outdoors, on their own, was quickly abandoned, but such uncertainty makes it especially difficult for businesses to plan and creates unnecessary anxiety.

This lack of clarity persisted for months into the pandemic — after normal life all but stopped for most Australians.

All but ‘essential’ businesses were prevented from trading – although if you are a small business owner whose livelihood depends on trading it is difficult to imagine how your business could not be ‘essential’.

The speed at which restrictions were scaled up caused real problems because they were indiscriminate. For example, farms are currently facing seasonal labour shortages due, in part, to the combination of international and domestic travel restrictions.

The Morrison government has now realised the threat this shortage poses and are offering incentives for people to work on farms – incentives that have thus far been a failure.

Policy mistakes will happen when decisions are being made quickly, however it should have been obvious an office poses a different threat to a fruit orchard. Compromises, such as allowing interstate travel for farm work, could have been made earlier on to avoid labour and potential food shortages.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 response did not adequately consider most trade-offs.

Over the course of the pandemic, job loss, the inability to find a job, and financial stress were the most reported stressors. Interestingly, the percentage of Australians reporting such stressors increased from June to October of this year.

Unemployment has reached 7 percent – although real unemployment is likely to be closer to 10 percent. Youth unemployment is also higher than the national average (15.6%), with regional areas, like Toowoomba where youth unemployment is 25.2 percent, hit even harder.

Calls to fix this problem with more and more government assistance need to be viewed cautiously. Financial assistance cannot provide the meaning and stability of a job. And unemployment can cause a deterioration in mental health.

This is concerning as, over the past 10 years, the suicide rate for males and females has been increasing, with young and middle-aged people most likely to be impacted.

These problems with the virus response were compounded by a lack of transparency and accountability over key decisions.

Power was concentrated to a small number of leaders and health experts. Even though many might argue it was necessary to listen to the experts and ‘follow the science’ in a health crisis, this does not justify the shutting down of parliament or the refusal to release important information used to make decisions.

Further, in a liberal democracy, decisions need to be made by elected leaders and they cannot simply abdicate all their responsibilities to a small group of experts.

We will undoubtedly face similar crises in the future, and if we simply deploy the 2020 playbook, under the assumption it functioned well, we risk repeating the same mistakes.

In a crisis, perhaps more so than any other time, we cannot allow good governance to become a victim of panicked and ill-considered decision making. You cannot stop normal life, watch unemployment, and despair increase, without asking some serious questions.

The perfect should not be the enemy of the good, but complacency should not be the enemy of good government.

Monica Wilkie is a Policy Analyst at the Centre for Independent Studies and author of the analysis paper Victims of failure – how the COVID-19 policy response let down Australians