On the meaning of ‘competent’, and the need for perspective — Victoria’s COVID response
February 2021, Victoria. The never-ending campaign of politically-motivated attacks against Premier Daniel Andrews and his public health team do seem to be increasingly desperate, and decreasingly consistent when it comes to their logical or factual basis. However, a theme I have identified over the duration of this pandemic has been one of labelling the Victorian government as “incompetent”. In rebutting this notion as a whole, I feel I can offer a more personal take, and present my thoughts on the importance of looking outward, and putting ourselves in true perspective now, more than ever.
I was born and raised in the United Kingdom, and moved to regional Victoria with my immediate family when I was a high school student. I now live and work in Melbourne — undeniably one of greatest cities in the world! The rest of my extended family all still reside in the UK, and I maintain semi-regular contact with my Grandfather, now in his late 70s. While communicating virtually with elderly relatives can be, for want of a better word, ‘entertaining’, I think we all appreciate at least on some level the need to keep in touch. From the way he writes his emails, and his mood when talking on FaceTime over the last year, it is regrettably clear that the rampant spread of COVID-19 throughout the UK has taken a toll on my Grandad’s mental health. He may not openly express how fed up he is feeling, and this may be because he is from a generation for whom ‘depressed’ referred more to an emotional state than a bona fide mental health condition, and that (for men in particular) a stiff upper lip is better than a trembling bottom one. But it is hard to avoid the reality that when it comes to the handling of COVID, this has been an immensely upsetting 12 months him, with no real end in sight.
This is why I shudder when I hear Daniel Andrews’ Victorian government singled out as “incompetent”. My mind immediately goes to my Grandad, cooped up at home, doing the right thing, but seeing his country and community fall ever deeper into the throes of this horrible virus. When we speak, he often bemoans the individuals that he sees flouting the restrictions, but I think in the case of the UK, the fish very much rots from the head. The catastrophic loss of life, and the knock-on effects on the rest of society are and were entirely avoidable. The UK government under Prime Minister Johnson have consistently failed to communicate a clear public health message; have consistently failed to speedily introduce the measures that their own experts have recommended; have consistently failed in contact tracing efforts; and only implemented a hotel quarantine program in February 2021, nearly a year after the initial COVID outbreak. Even Government ministers and advisers have committed blatant lockdown breaches, serving to not only spread the virus itself, but to further muddy the waters when it comes to how the community are expected to behave as a whole. So when, as my Grandad points out, there are a great many individuals not following the rules, you could be forgiven for asking ‘what actually are the rules, and what incentive is there to follow the advice of a government so patently incompetent?’
Look now to the situation in Victoria. Community morale is, on the whole, pretty good, the overwhelming feeling is one of safety, and we enjoyed a virtually COVID-free Christmas and New Year. Our health service has not been brought to its knees, meaning people can get tested swiftly and receive top class medical treatment where needed. More crucially, healthcare resources have not needed to be scrambled and diverted, meaning that non-COVID-related medicine and surgery can continue as usual. Public health advice relating to COVID is clearly communicated, there is never any doubt that Government policy is guided by expert medical advice, and contact-tracing is world-leading to the point where you can see the list of exposure sites on any reputable news website well within 24 hours of a case being identified. These are realities that are not lost on my Grandad, who looks on in amazement at the stark difference between the relative normality of post-COVID Australian life, and the total chaos of the UK.
Victoria also has a functioning hotel quarantine system, not that this is the impression you get from the right-wing press here in recent days. The fact of the matter is that when we have people coming and going, eliminating the spread of COVID with 100% efficacy and permanency is simply unrealistic. The key question is whether we are minimising the potential for COVID leaks to happen, and if/when they do, whether we can successfully snuff them out. I think it is abundantly clear that this is the case in Victoria, as it is throughout the rest of the country, and with our antipodean neighbours in New Zealand. Naturally, there have been leaks and outbreaks, but can the suspiciously selective critics of the Andrews Government name a single state or country the size of Victoria (even from the ones that have handled COVID comparatively well) that has never experienced leaks of this nature?
So to the dissenters and to those enticed into the blatant Labor Party-bashing here in Victoria, I implore: Please consider very carefully your definition of the word ‘incompetent’. Consider whether your version truly describes our State’s Government, or whether it is a lapse into the ever-persistent rhetoric from the right-wing press designed to divide our community. Incompetence in this context suggests a systemic and repeated inability to deliver on basic obligations and otherwise reasonable expectations. I would ask you to think how unbelievably hard it is to contain a violently contagious virus, especially this one that the global medical community have only known about for just over a year. Think about the exemplary leadership, confidence in medical science, and community compliance that led to us crushing a second COVID wave more quickly and comprehensively than anywhere else in the world. Think about how few people worldwide can say that they wake up each morning and see new COVID figures in single digits. Think about how good your Christmas and New Year was compared to just about everyone else across the globe. Think about how lucky we are to live in Australia, and how much this has been reinforced over the last year. And finally spare a thought for my Grandad, an elderly man struggling to keep his spirits up while suffering through the consequences of a genuinely incompetent COVID response.
16/02/2021 | Melbourne, Victoria