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Coronavirus lie that became the truth

In the mighty 1990 anthem Freedom, the great George Michael sang “All we have to do now, is take these lies and make them true somehow”.And now, finally, we have done it. Six months after the coronavirus silently reared its head and three months after the nation went into an unprecedented series of shutdowns and…

In the mighty 1990 anthem Freedom, the great George Michael sang “All we have to do now, is take these lies and make them true somehow”.

And now, finally, we have done it. Six months after the coronavirus silently reared its head and three months after the nation went into an unprecedented series of shutdowns and lockdowns, we have taken the lie and made it true.

Finally, we really are all in this together.

For too long this somewhat nauseating platitude was the biggest myth of the corona crisis. The early promise of political unity – with the formation of a “national cabinet” of the PM and state and territory leaders – was soon proved a fig leaf with premiers pursuing their own political or ideological agendas.

Schools were closed against the advice of the chief medical advisory body; state borders stayed shut even as the PM publicly begged them to be opened. Meanwhile celebrities here and abroad parroted the stomach-turning line that them being locked down in sprawling mansions gave them some kind of solidarity with families being locked down in flats.

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But experience is a hard taskmaster and it seems that in Australia at least we have finally learnt its lesson.

After this perhaps understandable spate of soporific, cynical or just plain silly behaviour, the second outbreak of coronavirus cases in Victoria has sparked an unexpected outbreak of something else: Reason.

Former US President George W. Bush fumblingly made infamous the old adage: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” Closer to home, Laurie Oakes made the astute observation about former PM John Howard, as recalled by Peter Van Onselen in The Australian last week, that John Howard made every mistake in the book – but only ever once.

And a little earlier than both, the 18th century English poet Alexander Pope wrote “To err is human, to forgive divine”, a truism that might be eternal in philosophy but is fleeting in politics.

This brings us to 21st century Australia and a year that most of us would already prefer to forget.

It is no secret that I have been deeply critical of Dan Andrews’ overly hard line approach to COVID-19 lockdowns, most especially the shutdown of schools. I also vocally opposed the closure of schools up and down the eastern seaboard by state governments of both political stripes but Victoria’s shutdown was earlier, stricter and longer-lasting than that of NSW or Queensland.

Anyone with a passing interest in disadvantaged kids knows how hard it is to get them and keep them in school. They also know both how vitally important it is for their future and how fragile that connection can be.

Organisations from World Vision to the Smith Family to the Ardoch foundation have warned about the impact of home schooling on kids whose families simply do not have the resources or the capacity to cope with massive disruptions and demands like these. We don’t yet know exactly how many kids have fallen behind or slipped through the cracks. Probably we never will.

We also now know beyond doubt that Victoria’s more hard line extended shutdowns achieved no added benefit in the suppression of COVID-19 – this is clearly self-evident. Victoria alone went for the more extreme approach and Victoria alone is now suffering a second spike.

It is arguable that the intensity of the restrictions made some more likely to completely reject all the rules even as they were being eased but it is more likely just a case of dumb luck and similar people. What is inarguable is that Victorians went through more pain for less gain than anywhere else in the country.

However let us recall the wisdom of Bush, Oakes and Pope: One mistake, even a big one, need not be a hanging offence.

Andrews’ antagonists like to call him “Dictator Dan”, so let us also recall Shakespeare’s words about a slightly more prominent dictator: “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.”

Well lend me your ears because today I come to praise Andrews, not to bury him. Popular opinion may have turned sharply against Victoria’s darling dogmatist but it appears I am forever destined to turn sharply against popular opinion.

While it is clear that Andrews went too hard, too early and too long in trying to crush the virus the first time it is now clear that he has learned from these excesses.

Were he the totalitarian tyrant of right-wing nightmares he could have reimposed statewide shutdowns as he once threatened. Instead he has implemented intensive targeted testing – as was long ago done in NSW hot spots – and locked down only the 10 postcodes where the virus has been most prevalent.

Most importantly he has declared that children even in these areas should continue to go to school because, as he has finally admitted, there is “no real evidence that school attendance is a big driver of the spike”.

This is true, it has always been true, and the few people honest and brave enough to have said this throughout have been subject to absurd levels of argument and abuse. I and others have been accused of wishing death upon children and adults alike in a frenzy of demented and frothy-mouthed debate.

The people who did this should be both embarrassed and ashamed, although it is doubtful they have the intellectual or moral capacity for either.

But this does not mean that Andrews should be subject to the same. Political leaders acknowledging facts and acting accordingly should be rewarded not punished. Making mistakes is inevitable – fixing them is the rare thing.

Likewise Queensland and South Australia are at last opening up their borders – albeit to all except Victorians – so as to breathe life back into their withering tourist economies. It is staggering it has taken so long but it is churlish to condemn good fortune for coming too late.

There seems to be something of a reckoning taking place across the nation. The quick and panicked reaction to the pandemic has been met with the lava-like flow of the social and economic consequences.

Something like a balance has been struck, something like an understanding has been reached. An unexpected outbreak of reason has begun.

In these extreme times it is often lonely and dangerous to be moderate, and yet moderation is always where the best solutions find themselves. It is no exaggeration to say that compromise, accommodation and consensus will always be the only way we can survive as a human race.

It is a sentiment that is in short supply around the world but at least in our small corner of it there is a rebirth of rationality. At least here we can finally agree on the facts.

Finally we really are all in this together.

Joe Hildebrand is a columnist for and co-host of Studio 10, 8am-noon weekdays on Channel 10.

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