Saturday 21 March 2020

Australia: Less hoarding, more social distancing, please!

Here is a view from an outsider, Salvatore Babones, about how Australians might more effectively "flatten" the curve of Covid-19: 

With all international flights cancelled and the coronavirus spreading like wildfire (sorry: "like a bush fire") here in Australia, it may be that the only salvation for us self-isolating expats is to charter a cruise ship and set sail for Japan, in the hope that if we claim to be there for the Olympics, they will let us in. Anything might be better than staying in Australia. It's like Italy four weeks ago: lots of government directives, little actual action.

Unlike in Italy, where many in the country's ruling elite dismissed the seriousness of the epidemic until it was too late, Australia's politicians are careful to maintain a proper decorum in their solemn pronouncements on controlling the disease. But pronouncing and doing are two different things. On the record, Australia is taking all the right steps. On the ground, it's a different story.

In Australia, the risk of novel coronavirus is compounded by that of a second, endemic disease: proformalism. A term of my own coinage, PROFORMALISM is the practice of box-ticking the letter of the law while completely ignoring its intentions. Australia is overrun with proformalism, in good times and bad.

For example, international students who want to study at Australian universities have to achieve a minimum test score on an English language exam to get in. If they pass the test, then pro forma they need no further assistance with English during their studies. If they can't pass the test, they can substitute a one-year "foundations" program in English that has a curriculum equivalent to the test. Having completed this program, do they have to retake the test? Of course not, since pro forma the program taught them English to the same level. You get the idea.

So when the Australian government prohibited gatherings of more than 500 people, the big theatres didn't close. They just limited ticket sales to 500 people per show. Planning a wedding reception, now that the limit is 100 people? No problem: hold it in a tent next to the wedding hall, and you're fine. How can schools stay open with the government has mandated a "social distance" of 1.5 meters (6 feet) between people? Easy: principals have been directed to tell students to spread out. Everyone is safe.

Australia has a strict 14-day self-isolation policy for travellers arriving from overseas, so passengers arriving at international airports are being handed printed fliers telling them to self-isolate. Mission accomplished. A cruise ship arrived in Sydney on Friday, and it turns out that several of the passengers have tested positive for coronavirus. But in the meantime, 2700 people were allowed to disembark, leaving their e-mail addresses in case they had to be notified. I'm sure the e-mails will go out. Whatever isolating they did in the meantime must have been fine.

I moved to Australia in 2008, and the country has been very good to me. I don't have much to complain about. But the one thing I've always found incredibly frustrating is this Australian practice of proformalism. Several of my supervisors subscribe to this newsletter (hello, Michael!), so I won't go into details, but it is absolutely endemic in my university workplace. I've also seen it first-hand in Australian hospitals and experienced it in dealing with the Australian government. I don't know how deep it runs in the private sector, but if any of you do, I'd love to hear from you.

As I write this, Friday night, I am literally looking at a group of 20-somethings holding a roof party on a nearby building, and I can hear several other parties going on around the neighbourhood. Australia is in for a tough time. Good luck, Lucky Country. You're going to need it.