News National Thank our island continent – not our politicians – for getting on top of COVID
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Thank our island continent – not our politicians – for getting on top of COVID

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The snap, hard-as-nails South Australian coronavirus lockdown, now unravelled in confusion and uncertainty, looks like a case study in the fragility of the nation’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the “he said/he didn’t say” conclusion-jumping that plunged South Australia into a clearly premature state shutdown order, the broader threads on display in the past week are a moment-in-time report card on our ability to properly handle this deadly pandemic.

It’s hard to avoid an assessment that we have a mark of “must do better” at the very least.

Premier Steve Marshall greeted his fellow citizens on Thursday morning by saying it was a “very different South Australia” that had woken up. A day later it was a state of confusion, anger and frustration that people have had their lives disrupted because of misleading information.

Apart from this serious failure, the SA health administrators had handled things by the book – although some shortcomings in overseeing the quarantine hotel workforce were apparent.

Putting this scandalous misadventure to one side, the episode has put a spotlight on how state and national governments have reacted and responded, exposing an unacceptable level of unpreparedness across the country and highlighted hypocrisy, with politicians engaging in finger-pointing and boasting.

It suggests the protection from and handling the spread of coronavirus this year has been as much good luck as good management.

The worst double standards surround how other states and territories reacted to the initial SA shut down decision.

Most states and territories closed their borders to all or part of SA, with just New South Wales keeping a “open for all” policy.

Initially, Health Minister Greg Hunt wagged his finger at other jurisdictions, saying there was no case for shutting borders and suggested these actions were not consistent with “national cabinet decisions” on hot spots and the suppression strategy.

Hunt was backed by business leaders, including the Australian Industry Group’s Innes Willox, who has led fevered criticism of the Victorian government.

Commenting on the states’ reaction to the SA shutdown call, Willox opted for hysteria.

victoria south australia border
Victoria shut its border to South Australia – the first time it made such a move in the pandemic.

“A knee-jerk border closure sends a clear but terrible message to investors and nationally focused employers that there can be no regulatory certainty to doing business in Australia,” Willox said.

This stern-minded lecturing is the same attitude the Commonwealth has had since mid-year, when the July opening-up was upended by Victoria’s second wave.

While Hunt, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and other Commonwealth politicians and health bureaucrats are quick to claim credit for anything that goes right in the response to the virus, they turn sharply away from any mishaps or setbacks.

The other marked feature of how federal politicians act is that they are quick to criticise states if they are Labor while remaining either silent or understanding if they are Liberal.

This “blame Labor” attitude was at its strongest in attacks on the Victorian government during its second wave crisis and on the Palaszczuk government in the lead up to the Queensland election.

Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan nailed what was going on with a withering swipe at the Morrison government.

“It was pretty outrageous what the federal government did to the Victorian government,” McGowan said.

“Their behaviour was appalling. (Federal Treasurer) Mr (Josh) Frydenberg and some of those characters, their behaviour was appalling.

“Daniel Andrews did what he had to do, he did what he had to do … the fact they undermined, criticised, attacked the whole way along, during a period of extreme pressure, was appalling.”

When it came to attacking Annastacia Palaszczuk, Morrison walked both sides of the street – goading her in a bid to overturn her cautious border closures, direct assaults claiming she was putting Queensland’s economy at risk and vigorous third party attacks from proxies in the media and business.

Morrison even claimed he had never said he wanted Queensland’s borders opened despite several examples of him doing so.

With cheap politicking filling media space, Morrison, Hunt and Frydenberg took every opportunity to claim credit for any health success, despite the fact most of the hard work has been done by the states.

The other flashing amber light from SA was the handling of hotel quarantine – the vexed issue at the root of Victoria’s second wave.

Despite everything that was seen and heard in the inquiries in Melbourne, employees in SA’s medi-hotels (as the metropolitan quarantine facilities are known) were able to have other gig economy jobs while working on the pandemic response.

Victoria now has a policy of mandating single-source employment for those working in these facilities. Dan Andrews said this week all those with jobs in the medi-hotels were either employed by the state or were only contracted with one facility.

This should be national policy and it’s a disgrace the Commonwealth has not shown leadership on this.

The second failure is the lack of regular testing of these medi-hotel workers, with various states scrambling to set up at least weekly infection checks for employees in the days after the SA outbreak.

sa lockdown virus
Premier Steven Marshall announced the “circuit-breaker” lockdown at short notice on Wednesday. Photo: Getty

It’s clear from the often haphazard way the pandemic is handled at all levels of government – despite the national cabinet approach that Morrison lauds at any opportunity – Australia is extremely lucky to have managed as well as we have.

It suggests that if Australia wasn’t an island continent – the ultimate protection since international borders were shut – we might be in the same mess seen in Europe and the Americas.