News National Garry Linnell: Victoria cops the coronavirus blame. But there’s a major reason why it’s wrong
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Garry Linnell: Victoria cops the coronavirus blame. But there’s a major reason why it’s wrong

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Now, this sounds oddly familiar.

The finger-pointing begins quickly and Victorians, naturally, are to blame.

Slow to act and reluctant to alert the rest of the country, they allow a highly contagious virus to fester until it crosses the border into New South Wales and begins sweeping through the rest of the nation.

People are told to wear face masks and maintain social distancing to limit its devastating effects.

Rumours swirl that the pandemic cutting a swathe through the rest of the world was deliberately created by a foreign power hoping to destabilise its enemies.

But despite constant warnings from government and health officials about the lethal effects of the virus, some ignore – or just plain refuse – to take precautions.

Many hate the idea of masks.

Despite rising mortality rates and growing scientific evidence about how the virus is transmitted, they dismiss the notion of covering their face in public as being “like using barbed wire fences to shut out the flies”.

Public complacency and arrogance. State government ineptitude and cross-border rivalries. Conspiracy theories and ignorance.

Welcome to Australia in 1919 as the Spanish ‘flu, the global pandemic that will kill up to 100 million people, begins infecting up to a third of all Australians.

Garry Linnell believes mask-wearing should be mandatory. Himself included. Picture: TND

“We do not wish to cry over spilt milk or to raise any controversies (or) to labour the point or to rub salt in Melbourne’s wounds…” huffs The Sydney Morning Herald on January 29, 1919.

“But we cannot help wondering at Victoria’s complacent and short-sighted attitude in a matter of vital importance.

“The states on either side of her had made influenza a notifiable disease: Victoria failed to do so with the result that for days there were cases of infection and hosts of contacts.”

As Australia closes its borders to non-residents – and rumours swirl that the virus was initiated by the German military – the NSW government issues an order making the wearing of face masks compulsory in public.

Within a week action is taken against more than 1000 offenders. Some offenders are fined up to £2, others are remanded for future hearings.

Their excuses are varied.

Some are returned soldiers gassed in the trenches of World War I who find it difficult to breathe while wearing a gauze mask.

Others are smokers upholding centuries of indignation over their inability to have a puff.

And some – following the lead of others around the globe – claim it is a gross infringement of civil rights.

The world may have experienced staggering changes over the past century since the Spanish flu claimed the lives of an estimated 15,000 Australians.

But our reluctance to mask up hasn’t changed.

Despite emerging evidence that COVID-19 can be transmitted by airborne particles – the World Health Organisation was warned last week by more than 200 scientists about the likelihood of catching the virus from floating droplets – no Australian state has been willing to mandate the use of masks in public.

The closest we have come was last week’s “urging” by Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews for Melburnians to wear masks if they found themselves unable to follow social distancing guidelines.

In the US, a badly wounded nation deeply fractured by growing political, racial and economic issues, the wearing of masks has become so divisive it has led to assaults and even, in several instances, shootings.

A significant number of people, it seems, would rather spend a weekend trapped in a hotel room with Johnny Depp on a drug and alcohol-fuelled bender than wear a face mask or even follow social distancing guidelines.

Their refusal has spawned an industry of predictable psychological babble about “reactance” – the desire of an individual to instantly regain a cherished “freedom” if it has been taken away from them.

Now many of us – quite rightly – share a deep-rooted suspicion and dislike of anything that smacks of authoritarian government regulations.

But we are also signatories to a binding social contract; we agree to abide by laws and standards that, for all their flaws, are designed to protect the safety and welfare of the community.

It’s why you never see, as we often experienced in the 1970s, families going on holidays with the kids crammed into the back seat without seatbelts and Mum and Dad in the front puffing their way through a packet of Winfield cigarettes – with the windows shut.

What was once acceptable behaviour now guarantees any perpetrator the status of social pariah, not to mention heavy fines and potential jail time.

We need to put aside the mixed messaging from health authorities in the early weeks of the pandemic about the effectiveness of masks.

US Surgeon General Jerome Adams discouraged Americans from putting on face coverings but has now become a vocal advocate.

Most other health experts around the world now agree – incredibly belatedly given the sophistication of modern science – that covering your mouth with anything can help reduce your chances of being infected.

So surely the time has well and truly arrived to make it compulsory to wear a mask, if only in established hotspots and crowded public places where the coronavirus flourishes.

The fact that we remain reluctant to do so simply because face masks have become a warped symbol of the intrusiveness of big government shows just how little we have changed in the past century.

Garry Linnell was director of News and Current Affairs for the Nine network in the mid-2000s. He has also been editorial director for Fairfax and is a former editor of The Daily Telegraph and The Bulletin magazine