With Australia’s biggest state plunging deeper into the grip of the ferociously infectious Delta strain of the coronavirus, Premier Gladys Berejiklian consoles herself that things could be much worse.
At her news conference confirming a new record 478 cases in one day for New South Wales, the premier reminded us that the US state of Florida, with 21 million inhabitants, has 150,000 infections.
Her point at face value was to highlight how infectious the Delta strain really is, but if it was to elicit gratitude from an increasingly frustrated populace it was always going to fail.
True, Australians can be grateful for some significant small mercies.
Unlike the United States of America, anti-vaxxers, Covid-denying extremists and conspiracy theorists in this country are a loud misinformed minority on the edges.
Our prime minister, premiers and chief ministers reject these prescriptions, made more often than not in the name of personal freedoms, as dangerous rubbish threatening the public health of the nation.
In America, the states with conservative Republican governors like Louisiana, Texas, Florida and Mississippi who refuse to mandate masks and social distancing, and encourage vaccination, have been particularly hard hit.
America’s Public Broadcasting Service quotes the US Director of National Institutes of Health, Dr Francis Collins, bemoaning the “heartbreaking situation where 90 million people are still unvaccinated”.
Dr Collins says these people are sitting ducks for the Delta virus, “and that’s the mess we’re in. We’re in a world of hurt”.
Locked-down world of hurt
NSW, Victoria, the Australian Capital Territory and now the Northern Territory are all in a locked-down world of hurt not because their political leaders believe vaccines are useless or dangerous but because they didn’t get enough of them sooner.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s announcement on the weekend of the late purchase of a million doses of the Pfizer vaccine from Poland was as welcome as it was fresh evidence that he needed to play desperate catch up.
Sure, we can be grateful that Morrison is scouring the world for spare vaccine and for finally talking to the head of the giant pharma company, Albert Bourla, to clear the way.
And we can even breathe a sigh of relief that eight weeks into an incremental and failing lockdown, Ms Berejiklian is finally really, really serious.
But in both cases, ‘better late than never’ doesn’t quite cut it.
And judging by the stories leaking out of Sydney and Canberra, both the Prime Minister and the Premier know it.
NSW cabinet divided
The NSW cabinet is reported to be bitterly divided, with the Premier said to have been rolled wanting to do more earlier on the advice of her chief health officer, Dr Kerry Chant.
The belligerence of the state’s Health Minster, Brad Hazzard, before a parliamentary inquiry last week, where he resented the notion of accountability and kept speaking over Dr Chant, lent weight to stories her advice was being sidelined.
The Prime Minister and his top health adviser are reported to have been urging NSW to do more much earlier, a leak that smacks of self-serving spin given that days before Berejiklian imposed the first stage of the lockdown, Morrison praised her reluctance to act.
Whatever the case, as a piece of crisis management, the confusing, contradictory and belated messages and actions have been as counterproductive as the crude politicisation of the pandemic in the United States.
No wonder Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan is reserving the right to keep running his state’s pandemic protection policies his way, no matter how rosy the predictions of the national vaccine rollout are.
The ACT’s Chief Minister Andrew Barr is far from happy with Premier Berejiklian’s handling of the lockdowns.
On the day he announced a two-week extension of his own shutdown, with infections increasing especially among school age children, he bemoaned the fact the NSW Premier didn’t go harder weeks ago.
Provoking his anger is the fact that the first identified Canberran in the outbreak has the Delta strain from Sydney and no one at this stage knows how he got it. A scary prospect is that it came into the territory via an asymptomatic carrier.
Morrison is now telling the nation “it is clear that for the lockdown to work it must work” – one of the more facile statements from the national leader, but at least he has twigged to their purpose.
Business – large and small – is now calling for a nationally consistent approach once the holy grail of 80 per cent of the populace is fully vaccinated, a figure increasingly seen as needing to include children in the cohort of those jabbed.
The Prime Minister on Sunday said his government doesn’t have a policy on vaccine passports or mandating inoculation for workers.
Proactive leadership, it seems, is still not in the Prime Minister’s bag of tricks.
Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics