A Western Society Goes Insane
The 18th-century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham came up with the idea of the panopticon, a prison designed to allow all the prisoners to be observed by one guard. What even Bentham couldn’t conceive of, despite his creative musings about schemes of perpetual surveillance, was a society like contemporary Australia. Heretofore an honorable member of the Free World, Australia has lurched into a bizarre and disturbing netherworld of bureaucratic oppression in the name of public health. Australia’s COVID-19 lockdown mania has been so all-consuming that one assumes much of it would make Dr. Anthony Fauci blanch. At the start of the pandemic, Australia determined to squeeze out COVID with lockdowns and travel restrictions, and as an island nation, had considerable success. It was the last of the G-20 countries to hit 1,000 total coronavirus deaths. But this created an unrealistic expectation that Australia could have COVIDzero as a goal for the duration and use targeted restrictions and surveillance (“circuitbreakers”) to maintain it.
As the pandemic has dragged on, this has become completely untenable and done violence to liberty and common sense in a great English-speaking nation. Lockdowns have cut a swath through the norms and conventions of an advanced Western democracy, from the suspension of a state-level parliament to the banning of protests, to military enforcement of the COVID-19 protocols. With the Delta surge, more than half of Australians are locked down, often in response to a tiny number of cases. Australian authorities don’t fool around. State premiers have vast powers and use them. In Melbourne, located in the state of Victoria, a curfew is in place and limits apply to people leaving their homes. There are hefty fines for noncompliance.
The spirit of the lockdowns was perfectly captured a few months ago by the chief health officer of New South Wales who warned, “Whilst it is in human nature to engage in conversation with others, to be friendly, unfortunately this is not the time to do that.”
Ah, yes, the public health threat of over-chattiness.
The Australian news media might as well be an arm of the public health bureaucracy and produces stilted and hysterical reports about lockdown violators worthy of some dystopian future.
South Australia has developed an app to enforce home quarantines. As a news report explains, “The app will contact people at random asking them to provide proof of their location within 15 minutes.” If they fail to do so, the health department will notify the police, who will send officers to check on the possible malefactor.
Unrestricted travel is a hallmark of a free society, but Australians can barely leave the country. Travel has been cut off between states, creating an arbitrary patchwork of states trying to isolate themselves from coronavirus cases elsewhere.
Tens of thousands of Australians have been trapped overseas, unable to come back home because of monthly limits on returning Australians.
All of this economic and social disruption and coercion hasn’t been enough to stamp out the Delta variant, which is outrunning the government controls.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison finally admitted the obvious, “This is not a sustainable way to live in this country.”
Australia initially fumbled its vaccination effort, which should have been a focus all continued from page
along. But now the country hopes jabbing 80% of the population can get it out of the lockdown box of its own making.
The coronavirus is a serious illness, and no country has gotten everything right. Australia has proven, though, that dispensing with key elements of advanced liberal society in the hopes of total victory over the virus is foolhardy and wrong.
Australia isn’t going to become a dictatorship, but this period in its national life stands as a warning for how easily core freedoms can erode away in even a well-established democracy.
Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review.