In February 2021, the New York Times prematurely anointed the Chinese Communist Party the victors in a “people’s war” against Covid-19. While the rest of the world struggled to contain the disease, China had all but emerged from the crisis, the paper’s happy narrative maintained. A year later, with China’s desperate efforts to preserve its “Covid zero” policy now failing to arrest the disease’s spread while also undermining the regime’s integrity, the Times has found another nation whose example shames the United States. Reporter Damien Cave submits Australia as a model to which the U.S. should have aspired, but his dispatch from Down Under paints a wildly revisionist portrait of the nation’s experience under lockdown.
In “How Australia Saved Thousands of Lives While Covid Killed a Million Americans,” Cave posits that Australia succeeded where America failed. Despite the two nations’ similar demographics, cultural tendencies, and population distribution, the U.S. presided over a mass execution whereas Australia did not. His theory of the case is that Australians are blessedly governable, and Americans are not.
Australians have a “lifesaving trait” that Americans lack: “trust, in science and institutions, but especially in one another.” Cave cites research which found that Australians are more likely to acquiesce to governmental edicts, which contributed to “the common good” by facilitating the widespread observance of Covid-mitigation measures. “Covid-containment measures required letting go of what psychologists describe as ‘sticky priors,’” Cave continues, “longstanding beliefs tied to identity that often hold people back from rational decision-making.”
In Cave’s telling, the Australian people largely tolerated what one of his sources conceded was a “somewhat authoritarian approach” to this public health crisis. Indeed, the country has managed to adopt many of the left’s communitarian policy preferences. It is a country “where compulsory voting has been suppressing polarization since 1924,” a nation that benefits from “a national health insurance program and a hospital system that includes both public and private options.” And “in Australia, the gap between rich and poor, while widening, is less severe than in the United States.” All this allegedly contributed to a condition where “rule-following was the social norm,” leaving the country better off by almost every metric.
We have no reason to doubt that Cave filed this dispatch from Melbourne, but the nation he’s describing doesn’t much resemble the one that struggled through some of the most draconian Covid restrictions in the developed world. And in privileging risk-mitigation over almost every other aspect of the human condition, his report is an example of how the American left misread the public’s tolerance for social and economic repression in the name of public health.
Cave’s report praises Canberra for adopting a centralized and aggressive approach to containing the pandemic well before the U.S. In Melbourne alone, the city of 5 million experienced six lockdowns totaling 262 days—the longest period of forced isolation in the world. Its border controls were so strict that thousands of Australians traveling abroad found themselves separated from their families and unable to return to their homes. Even domestic travel between Australia’s regions was severely curtailed. The government abandoned lockdown as a policy after 80 percent of the country had been fully immunized, but some territories maintained prohibitions on elective surgeries, singing, dancing, and “mingling” well into this year.
We might attribute Australians’ “rule-following” as much to the nebulous concept of social trust as to the severe legal consequences associated with rule-breaking. In parts of the country, residents faced arrest for traveling more than five kilometers from their homes. South Australia implemented an electronic-monitoring regime that randomly targeted citizens, forcing them to provide proof of their current location, and dispatching police to the homes of those who failed to comply. When venues reopened, citizens were compelled to perform mandatory electronic check-ins to prove their vaccination status or be denied service—an emergency measure that is hardening into a Chinese-style social-credit system.
Protesting against these conditions became a criminal act. Soldiers policed Australia’s streets and low-flying military helicopters barked orders at the public to disperse lest they face mass arrest. And yet, despite the government’s efforts to deter and police dissent, this nation of placid conformists regularly rebelled.
Australia’s truck drivers organized anti-lockdown and mandate protests designed to shut down the country’s highways. Mass demonstrations against the mitigation regime were not uncommon events, as was the deployment of riot police in Australia’s cities. Some of those protests turned violent. Protesters were pepper-sprayed, and hundreds were arrested. Police were filmed going door-t0-door assessing whether there was any “planned protest.” Indeed, the protests against the Covid-mitigation regime soon became a justification for the regime’s continuation—as much a measure of prevention as a punishment for those who were “reckless” and ignored the authorities. The word “protest” does not appear in Cave’s reporting.
Cave concludes his report by observing that Australia’s vaccination program was so successful that Covid doesn’t even register as a political issue. “Australia has a federal election on Saturday,” he wrote. “Covid is far down the list of voter concerns.” The same could be said of America, where Covid is roughly on par with “homelessness” as an issue on the minds of prospective voters. But that does not retroactively justify what researchers publishing in Frontiers in Public Health describe as the Australian government’s futile and detrimental mitigation regime.
“Costs associated with depression, anxiety, and well-being have represented a significant burden of the lockdown,” they wrote. “In Australia, recent research supports these findings that there was a considerable decline in community mental health in adults due to the pandemic-related restrictions.” That experience will have unknowable effects on Australian society, and they will continue to manifest many years from now in unforeseeable ways.
As it was when the Times set out to praise Chinese authoritarianism and its mastery of microorganisms, the objective of this piece seems not to present an accurate portrayal of Australia’s pandemic experience but to indict America’s approach. Americans’ attachment to their liberties is presented as a problem to be solved. A more comprehensive review of Australia’s draconian pandemic regime suggests that is a good problem to have.