We owe the Black Death a drink or two. The plague which killed nearly half of Europe in the 14th Century broke out again in China in 1855, slowly making its way from the remote northern provinces to the port of Hong Kong. Emphasis on slowly.
Without modern transport to hurry the bacterium Yersina pestis toward new hosts, it was decades before the last great killer wave broke on the shores of the Asia Pacific. But break it did, and medical authorities in the newly federated Australian Commonwealth saw it coming.
They did not panic, but they did enforce severe quarantine and control regimes to limit the spread. Demolition crews tore down whole sections of Sydney’s waterfront and blocks of residential streets, where infected rats were known to have come ashore.
Thousands of citizens were forced into isolation on Sydney’s North Head quarantine station and hundreds were eventually buried there. The initial outbreak lasted until 1907 and informed the drafting of Australia’s first Quarantine Act, a bill which with other laws afforded unusually draconian powers to the various Chief Medical Officers of the states, territories and the Commonwealth.
The Quarantine Act was superseded by 2014’s Biosecurity Act, but the legacy of the Bubonic Plague was not. Medical authority and the scientific method remained the Commonwealth’s weapons of choice for dealing with pandemics.
It’s telling to compare the response of the Morrison government to COVID-19 with their painful mismanagement of the summer’s wildfire holocaust and the accelerating changes to our climate which made it so much worse.
On this issue, the government remains infected with a rich viral, load of conspiracy thinking, denial and performative stupidity. In responding to COVID-19, however, the entire political class has mostly been sober, practical and more than willing to defer to scientific expertise. Only a few of the usual suspects have beclowned themselves.
Most obviously there is no immense, and immensely powerful corporate cartel invested in denying the problem or delaying a response. No analogue of the fossil fuel lobby exists to pour billions of dollars into pseudo think tanks or captive political parties to maintain the value of their investment in a virus that may soon kill millions of people around the world.
Even Big Pharma, which will definitely profit from the pandemic, is motivated by market forces to get to a vaccine as quickly as possible. Without the weight of an industry worth trillions of dollars to distort the very fabric of spacetime and reality, there’s not much of a quid to be made in, well, distorting reality.
In a perverse way, the differences between the Murdoch media in the US and the rest of News Corp’s global empire throw this into stark relief. In Australia and Britain, Rupert Murdoch’s legions have mostly played the story straight, with a few notable diversions into tabloid bigotry during the early ‘Chinese’ phase of the epidemic. Haters gonna hate, as the kids say.
In the US, however, where the Trump Administration seems determined to outdo Beijing’s early efforts at bungling and denial, Fox News has for now jumped the COVID-19 conspiracy shark with the priapic enthusiasm of a chemtrail-huffing QAnon cult leader. But only for now.
The cable giant’s ageing target audience is especially vulnerable to this outbreak. Within a few weeks, devotion to the Dear Leader will probably give way to grave concerns about quarterly profits as the bottom drops out of the advertising market for colostomy bags and funeral plans.
It’s tough to make a buck when your customers are dead. And of course Murdoch himself, at 89 years old, is not a good chance to survive an encounter with the virus.
It’s the pile up of bodies that finally makes it impossible to ignore the science on COVID-19. The feedback loop is too fast. Even with the climate crisis intensifying every year, the worst of it is still in front of us.
Even as the predictions of its own scientists came true, and mega-fires threatened the mass extinction of native species, Morrison and his government still retreated to weasel words, evasions and straight up lies about climate change.
The screaming of koalas as they were incinerated in the tree tops made that difficult of course, but the donations from the mining industry and all those votes in regional Queensland and WA were a comfort in trying times.
With COVID-19, however, it’s our species dying. And not in some vague future. The pandemic will probably peak in June or July here, and it could easily infect up to 70 per cent of the population. It’s cool that Canberra is treating this emergency with the urgency it deserves.
When it has passed, it would be awesome if they could do the same for another emergency which will, in the end, do a lot more damage. After all, there’s some old and scary viruses about to thaw out of the Siberian permafrost.