Australia’s Aim Is Zero COVID-19 Cases, but That Means ‘Zero Freedom,’ Local Says

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Melbourne, Australia is in its sixth COVID-19 lockdown and is now the longest locked-down city in the world. 

Australia has taken an unprecedented approach to fighting the pandemic within its borders, implementing extreme lockdown measures. 

Leaders across Australia have instantly put their states and cities into lockdown when COVID-19 cases are reported, believing that “zero cases [means] freedom,” Evan Mulholland, director of communications at the Institute of Public Affairs in Australia, says. 

“But … zero cases actually means zero jobs. It means zero hope. It actually means zero freedom at the end of the day because you’re not getting on with life,” Mulholland says. 

The ongoing lockdowns have led to protests in Melbourne and other parts of the country where citizens are demanding an end to the strict pandemic measures. 

Mulholland, who lives in Melbourne, joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss what life is like in Australia right now, and what lessons other free nations should heed from Australia’s handling of the pandemic. 

We also cover these stories:

  • Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin says it was the State Department’s “call” not to conduct early evacuations of American citizens and special immigrant visa holders out of Afghanistan.
  • United Airlines is firing almost 600 employees for refusing to be vaccinated for COVID-19.
  • YouTube announces it no longer will target only misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines, but also content that promotes misinformation about other vaccines.

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.

Virginia Allen: I am so pleased to welcome to the show Evan Mulholland, the director of communications at the Institute of Public Affairs in Australia. Evan, thanks so much for being here.

Evan Mulholland: Thanks for having me.

Allen: The Institute of Public Affairs is a public policy think tank that has been dedicated to preserving freedom and strengthening freedom in Australia ever since 1943. And you-all are located right in Melbourne, Australia. Melbourne has made headlines recently over its lockdowns. It’s now the longest lockdown city in the world. And some of our listeners may have heard about the anti-lockdown protests in Melbourne that have happened recently.

So if you would, for those that haven’t been following Australia’s news too closely, just explain what life has been like in Australia during the pandemic, and really, gosh, that’s over the past year-and-a-half.

Mulholland: Well, yeah, it’s been, I guess, tough for a lot of people. If you judge Australia on one or two metrics, being cases and deaths, then we’ve done rather well for a country of over 25 million people. We’ve had around 1,200 deaths and only 100,000 sort of cases of coronavirus.

Of course, we know that the rolling lockdowns required to keep Australia’s mindset of elimination strategy and zero cases affect other metrics, like the economy, like business, like education, like mental health, but for a long time up until now, the political class have been focused on cases of coronavirus and how we can bring them down.

The Australian experience to start with was actually not much different to the U.S. We had a conservative prime minister who very early on banned travel from China. And similar to [former U.S. President Donald] Trump, the media went berserk, they scorned him, saying he was xenophobic, you name it.

But due to most of the laws being made at a state level in regards to health response, the prime minister, Scott Morrison, started what’s now called the National Cabinet with him and the state premiers, so the equivalent of the governors. It actually put the state premiers on equal footing.

So originally we had the first lockdown in March, the political class told us it was two weeks to flatten the curve, to allow the hospital system to catch up. This is March 2020. And then they put out the idea that we would suppress and live with the virus.

What we actually got was a bizarre elimination strategy, this zero-COVID strategy, which was mainly spooked by my city and state, Melbourne, Victoria, which last year had an 115-day lockdown. Sure, it beat the second wave of the coronavirus, there were 1.7 hundred cases a day, but it took an incredible toll on the city.

So the whole country moved to the ultimate aim of zero cases of coronavirus. State premiers would go into lockdown, not to make sure the hospital system catches up, but for a tiny amount of cases so that it could avoid the Melbourne experience of a long lockdown.

Now, whether that works is up for debate, and up for serious debate, because Melbourne is now on its sixth lockdown. So if you want any proof lockdowns don’t work, that’s probably one of them, and has overtaken Buenos Aires as the longest lockdown city in the world.

Allen: Wow. And I know I’ve heard that, in watching some of the news coverage, people are asking that question of, do these lockdowns work? And they’re saying, “Well, Australia has seen fewer deaths. They’ve seen fewer cases.” But I think people ask, “Well, OK, at what cost to the economy, to people’s lives, and ability to do life normally?”

What has been the toll taken on Australians, on the Australian economy, on small businesses during these lockdowns?

Mulholland: It’s incredibly tough. The lockdowns have had a massive impact on business. For example, in the first five weeks of the Sydney lockdown, we estimated they cost around 10,000 jobs per day.

I think one of the worst parts of the Australian experience is that we’ve seen what we’ve called the two Australias. So the public sector, who come up with the rules, the bureaucrats, they’ve done quite well. They’ve gotten pay rises, they’ve even expanded in size. And even big business has done quite well during the pandemic and during the lockdowns.

But it’s small business—your cafes, your wine bars, your bookstores, your small grocers—we’ve seen in free fall. And it’s shocking to see because at the end of the day, what you get is a smaller civil society and a bigger government. Almost half-a-million jobs in small business have been destroyed in just the last 10 weeks.

And people in the political class talk about a V-shaped recovery, and that we’ll have a small dip, but we’ll bounce right back. But what we’ve actually seen in reality is a K-shaped recovery, where on the upward slope of the arm are the public sector and big business, but on the downward sector of the arm of the K is small business, it’s your community groups.

It’s really quite shocking to see. I mean, the government originally put in a wage subsidy last year, called JobKeeper, and basically subsidized business, the wages of all people, so they could stay connected to their employer. That no longer exists, so it’s even harder for people now going into lockdown to stay afloat.

Allen: And explain what exactly you mean by lockdown, because that can be defined so many different ways. What practically do these lockdowns actually look like? What are people allowed to do and not allowed to do?

Mulholland: OK. I’ll explain the lockdown experience in Melbourne, Victoria, that’s where I live.

At the moment in lockdown … when they go into lockdown it’s usually named, say, stage four, they say it’s a hard lockdown. That means a 9 p.m. curfew. So you literally are not allowed outside of your house for any reason after 9 p.m., except for emergency, you’re only allowed two hours of exercise a day at all. And you only have a few specific reasons to leave your home, basically shop for essential items, any sort of emergency, and exercise, but that’s about it. Otherwise you have to stay home all day.

This has caused severe impacts across the community. The amount of presentations for self-harm in Victoria has surge to record levels. Children have lost the better part of two years of their education here in the state, which is shocking. There are people that are coming up to the end of their high school that are having to be given credits and having to catch up on really formative years. I mean, young people have been missing out on the best years of their life due to these lockdowns, when we were originally told we were going to live with this virus, and the path out seems slower and slower and slower.

Allen: So have all of those factors then contributed to what we’ve seen in the news lately regarding the protest? Explain a little bit about what happened recently in Melbourne with these protests, and really how Melbourne got to that point of people being so angry that they were taking to the streets.

Mulholland: Yeah. I think the first thing to point out would be that there’s kind of always been protests against the lockdown, but probably on a much smaller scale than there was recently.

Last year we saw really the militarization of our police force, which is quite concerning. We saw one woman in particular, a pregnant woman, arrested for incitement for simply posting on Facebook about a protest; that’s how far the police have gone in tracking people’s movements and activities in response to lockdown protest and trying to stop them.

But what we saw recently in Melbourne was after the Victorian government here mandated the vaccine for construction workers, a sector that takes place mostly outside, where the virus doesn’t spread, and doesn’t deal with vulnerable people—now, you’d think for a protest like this, that construction workers would protest outside of, say, Parliament House, where the laws are made, but no, they actually protested outside of the construction union offices. Because the workers deemed the construction union was too close to the government and didn’t actually fight for them in pushing back against vaccine mandates.

So you had, in response to the about 300 of them showing up, the government then halted completely construction for two weeks in a really bizarre move, because the next day you had thousands of construction workers with no job to go to that were really angry and they came out in force.

But also what we’re seeing is, I guess, a two-tiered response. Last year, the police really cracked down on anti-lockdown protesters, but when it came to the Black Lives Matter protesters, the Victorian police were like, “Oh, we want to work with you. We understand community sentiment, and everyone has a right to protest.” And they got to go out and protest. They weren’t socially distanced.

So I guess the two-tiered response of the police as well in determining who they need to crack down on and who they don’t was really disappointing as well.

Allen: And is that sentiment pretty consistent throughout the country, that a lot of Australians are displeased with the vaccine mandates, with these extreme lockdown measures? Or is the country pretty divided on that?

Mulholland: Yeah. I think that there is a lot of division. I guess there’s less sympathy if you work in, say, the health care sector on an age care sector. Vaccine mandates, I still don’t agree with them, but some states have tried to force vaccine mandates on, say, construction workers and teachers.

That’s where you get some real division, because you’ll have a lot of people that will basically be out of a job through no fault of their own to take a medical procedure. That’s something that’s not really right.

But in terms of the division, I guess we’re more divided now than we were. And I think there was a bit of Stockholm syndrome, people were happy to be locked up temporarily to avoid being locked up longer, like Melbourne. States that locked down hard and fast and saved their state, I guess, from the coronavirus, were returned with massive majorities at local elections.

Also, the media has scared people senseless. People in Australia are more afraid of COVID than any other advanced economy. We did some polling that found that 59% of New South Wales residents in particular believe the media has been alarmist on the COVID-19 situation in Greater Sydney. So I think people are actually getting sick of it.

The media really over-hyped the impact of COVID-19. Whereas most people who were living with the virus, like in the U.S., understood it was a serious virus, but at the end of the day, you had to get on with life. People are very afraid of the virus in Australia.

Here in Victoria we actually have, already, over 70% of Victorians have a first dose of the vaccine. That’s more than most places in the U.S. Yet they’re constantly relying on the experts and the models. And we’ve seen this sort of doctor democracy whereby our political class, our political leaders have outsourced all of their decisions to the medical advice. But the medical advice is only sort of one element that you need to take into account. The job of a politician is to take into account a lot of other factors as well in the community.

So we’ve still got lockdown for probably another six weeks when we’re now one of the most vaccinated countries in the world. But they’re relying all on this modeling and expert advice to bring us a path out of lockdown that seems to be quite slow.

Allen: In your assessment, what has driven the fear of the lockdowns, these extreme measures? Because as you said, at the beginning of the pandemic, like we did as well here in the U.S., it was two weeks to slow the spread, and everyone was sort of on board, but what shifted in Australia to get to the point where you say that the police have taken on a little bit more of an extreme approach to enforcing these measures and there’s a curfew, by 9 p.m. you have to be inside? Who has been driving this?

Mulholland: Basically, a lot of the state premiers. Basically, when the prime minister started this National Cabinet, what he did is elevate the state premiers to the same level as him. So they got an incredible amount of power. They got an incredible amount of airtime. A lot of them were doing big daily press conferences, which became a performance art. So that really heightened the tone and the fear.

And a lot of the other premiers in other states really wanted to avoid the Victorian experience of having a long lockdown. So they would instantly lock down. They would, in most cases, stamp out an outbreak within about a week, but it meant that for them, zero cases was freedom. But as we go along, along, and along more, zero cases actually means zero jobs. It means zero hope. It actually means zero freedom at the end of the day because you’re not getting on with life.

So I think what was seen in Australia is when the political and cultural elite of your country slowly chip away at fundamental freedoms without hardly anyone fighting for it—and I think it can happen elsewhere, too.

Anthony Fauci, your top expert last year, actually praised Australia’s response in stamping out the coronavirus, and suggested that America should have followed the Australian experience. Whereas I would would say, “No, absolutely not. Please go the other way.” Because what it’s taken is an incredible toll on the people. What it’s taken is basically the militarization of the police force to stamp out any dissent. And it’s, as I said, taken an incredible toll on people’s mental health.

You can’t just lock people up for the better part of two years. That’s not a good way to go about living it. We’re saying now that we have to live with the virus, only now. The pandemic started in March last year, people just want to get on with life.

Allen: The New York Times recently published a story titled “Has COVID Cost Australia Its Love for Freedom?” Evan, what do you think? Has the pandemic cost Australians that deep love of freedom, and has it created maybe permanent damage regarding Australia’s freedom?

Mulholland: I think so. I do worry about how quickly our freedoms were taken away. And now Australia has this great reputation of individualism, about pushing back against authority. But what we’ve seen is that a lot of people, particularly last year, less so now, actually liked being told what to do, liked the lockdowns, liked getting through them, but these things don’t happen in a vacuum. As I said, they happen when sort of the political and cultural elites very slowly pick away at different freedoms.

And we’ve seen a lot of state governments pass emergency powers that will give them an incredible amount of power. And also one of the worst parts of it, many of them have actually canceled and suspended their parliaments, which means there’s basically no opposition in a democratic sense to what they’re saying.

In many cases, the media have been doing the work of the government, going very easy on different governments around the country and ratcheting up the fear to people, which I think has had a lot of effect as well.

Yes, Australia is a prison colony, you’d think we’d be pushing back against authority. But it’s said that we’re most likely also a country of prison officers as well.

So as I said, I think there was a bit of Stockholm syndrome, in that people just wanted a pathway through. That pathway went a different way than so many other countries. Our pathway, I think, could have been different. And hopefully in response to this we’ll see lots of reviews, and our pathway in a next pandemic, God forbid, might be a little bit more sensible.

Allen: We are talking with Evan Mulholland, the director of communications at the Institute of Public Affairs in Australia.

Evan, I know we have heard that Australia is … starting to create a reopening plan. We’ve seen the prime minister, Scott Morrison, say, “Once the country reaches 80% vaccination rate, then things will start opening up again.”

But I was also looking at, just considering the future of Australia and what is next for your country, The Heritage Foundation 2021 Index of Economic Freedom ranks Australia as the third-most economically free nation in the world, just behind Singapore and New Zealand.

So as we continue to think about the future of Australia, do you think Australia, specifically Australia’s economy, is going to be able to bounce back and have that same economic freedom that we know it’s enjoyed for so many years?

Mulholland: I hope so. And I think we kind of proved at the start, our economy kind of bounced back at the start of this year when there was about a five-month period where there wasn’t any lockdown. So I think it has proven to be resilient.

Still very much the mindset … might be a bit different to Australia, people are much more aware of China and the aggressive stance it’s taken on a lot of issues, how aggressive it’s been toward Australia. It actually put economic sanctions and trade sanctions on Australia and tariffs up because Australia was one of the first to call for an inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus.

Because, I guess, we’re so close to China geographically, people in Australia are actually much more aware of the rising power in the Indo-Pacific. The recent announcement of an alliance between Australia, the U.K., and the U.S. actually went down really well in Australia.

So we do value freedom, and Australians do support pushing back against coercive powers like China, and are very supportive of our allies like the U.S. and the U.K. on an economic front as well. Australians love free trade. Australians love trade deals. Whenever a government does a trade deal, their popularity goes up.

So I do think Australia ultimately is always going to be an economically free nation. It’s our other freedoms that aren’t economic that have been impinged upon, and also economic as well given they’ve literally shut down businesses, but I am optimistic in that sense that Australia will continue to be an economically free nation.

Allen: And what are the lessons that you think other countries should be taking from Australia right now?

Mulholland: Well, that lockdowns don’t work. If lockdowns work, Melbourne, Victoria, where I am, wouldn’t be in our sixth lockdown. It’s impossible to get rid of a virus. Now, some people think that it is, but that would require Australia being closed off to the world forever.

Australia has a hotel quarantine system where if you decide to come to Australia, you have to quarantine for two weeks in a hotel before you’re allowed out into the general community. Now, what’s annoyed a lot of people is that there are some who are able to skip that process, U.S. celebrities—for example, Zac Efron—and whoever else are able to skip that process, but regular people are not.

So a lot of Australians through the entire pandemic have been stranded overseas because airlines have severely limited their flights. But I do think, slowly, we’re getting to a path out. But if Australia had time again, I don’t think it would be doing what it did. And it’s not a guidebook for any other country at all into how to properly manage a virus.

Australians have become obsessed with case numbers. And that mindset is only just changing. The mindset, always for a pandemic like this, should have been on deaths and hospitalization, building medical capacity to cope, so your hospital system can cope with an outbreak, and then getting on with life. That’s how a normal country should go about dealing with a pandemic.

Allen: Evan, before we let you go, just tell us a little bit more about the work that you all do at the Institute of Public Affairs in Australia, and also how our listeners can follow your work and get involved if they want to.

Mulholland: Yeah, no worries. Well, the IPA was, as you said earlier, started in 1943, started by a bunch of industrialists, including Sir Keith Murdoch, the father of Rupert Murdoch, lots of big Australian weights of industry pushing back against the tide of literally socialism.

So the Institute of Public Affairs has played a key role over so many decades in fighting for freedom in Australia, fighting for freedom for the next generation, working with young people in our universities to support free speech and free exchange of ideas. And also, a world class research program looking into things like the dignity of work, like the rule of law, like our fundamental freedoms, which definitely matter most at the moment.

We receive absolutely zero government funding as a matter of principle. That means we can only do the things we do with the support of our generous supporters. We’ve got over 7,000 members around Australia.

So if people want to check out the IPA, they can head to ipa.org.au. There’s a lot of research on there, opinion pieces, media appearances, reflecting on the current state of Australia, particularly the pandemic. We’ve done a lot of research on lockdowns, not just on lockdowns, but the economic impact of lockdowns, the mental health impact of lockdowns, the educational impact of lockdowns as well.

So yeah, head to ipa.org.au, and people can see our research.

Allen: Excellent. Evan Mulholland, the director of communications at the Institute of Public Affairs in Australia. Evan, thank you so much for your time.

Mulholland: Thanks for having me.

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