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As the virus surges, the economy will be back on the meds

Scott Morrison, as with so many leaders around the world, is having to adjust to the reality that the world right now is not as they would have it. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
Scott Morrison, as with so many leaders around the world, is having to adjust to the reality that the world right now is not as they would have it. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

ANALYSIS

The world's leaders have been so keen to put the pandemic behind them they have pretended it doesn't exist or dismissed it as a hoax or a kind of mass hysteria at one extreme, or hurried it out the door at the other as though it might evaporate through sheer willpower at the other.

One of the biggest deniers, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, is now infected himself, just as one of the early dismissers of the coronavirus's severity, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, himself went through the most serious of ordeals.

Now, the coronavirus is demonstrating even to the successful and cautious nations that there really is no quick way out.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been champing at the bit to open the economy since the early success in suppressing case numbers, pushing states to open their interstate borders and commit to deadlines for moving through their three steps to reopen businesses, which ironically were supposed to be completed this month.

He has been preparing to announce a different kind of stimulus in his budget update on July 23, a package that is not about keeping businesses alive but helping them grow again, and weaning everyone off government support.

When he addressed the Press Club on May 26, Morrison characterised the coronavirus stimulus as a kind of drug addiction, telling the nation: "You've got to get your economy out of ICU. You've got to get it off the medication before it becomes too accustomed to it."

There has been a relapse.

As he spoke on May 26, just 16 cases were active nationwide. The daily count of new cases hadn't hit 30 for more than five weeks, and it would be more than four weeks more before it topped 30 again. Cases that were diagnosed in that period were overwhelmingly among people returning from overseas and already in hotel quarantine. For two months, the virus was subdued.

Then, on June 25, 37 cases were reported, 33 of them in Victoria. And thus it began. In the 14 days since, Victoria has recorded a dizzying more than 1100 cases. Only 10 per cent of the cases over the past week have been among returned travellers, deputy chief health officer Nick Coatsworth told us on Wednesday. The virus picture has reversed.

Just as dizzying have been the decisions of state leaders, who moved at their own pace to reopen businesses to this or that number of patrons, introducing new steps into the three-step opening process and giving them names like "2.2" as though they're new-model mobile devices, and introducing selective border crossings, barriers and quarantines.

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Even on Wednesday, the ACT announced a move to 25 patrons in small venues at morning tea-time - and by afternoon tea it was gone. Canberra's vice venues were all to reopen on Friday, pub numbers were to be uncapped, clubs back in business and food courts alive again. But all appears set to be postponed, as Canberra was spooked by the sudden news of three cases, all imported from Melbourne.

Morrison has insisted repeatedly in the eight weeks since the easing of restrictions began that once reopening started, momentum would be forward. There must be no going back because of the damage to business confidence and the economy. As Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said this week, the recovery is "a confidence game".

But now we go backwards.

Morrison has also pushed hard for states to open their internal borders, but kept meeting resistance until states eventually relented and named various dates this month to lift the barriers. Now that, too, is all aflux.

Morrison tortured his explanation on Wednesday about why the Victorian border closure was different to the border closures he has railed against over so many weeks. His position on borders hasn't changed, he said. Victoria has "self-isolated".

"We'll continue to maintain our position that Australia is one country," he said. "This is about Victoria isolating itself, not other states shutting itself off from Victoria. And there is a key difference in that."

Which is not strictly correct, since states and territories have closed their borders to Victorians, not the other way around.

But Morrison, as with so many leaders around the world, is having to adjust to the reality that the world right now is not as they would have it. The economy will not reopen for now; the prize we all chased, even as we sprinted, staggered and stopped to tie the toddler's shoelaces, has suddenly vanished. And the measures Morrison announces on July 23 will have to adjust to match. The economy will need the meds for some time yet.

The pain in the Prime Minister's voice was palpable on Wednesday as he acknowledged that reality.

"You can imagine a business that had just started opening up again and now they've got to close down again. Heartbreaking. Frustrating," he said.

But, he said, "there are no guarantees with a global pandemic. You need to deal with the situations that are in front of you."

This story As the virus surges, the economy will be back on the meds first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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