The scramble for toilet paper was just the first surprise of the COVID-19 outbreak…why weren’t we better prepared?

If the coronavirus were to be considered a test for humankind we would all be feeling pretty nervous about the result right now. An F-minus seems in order. And one imagines we haven’t even got to the hard part of the test yet.

The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has revealed much more than our predilection for toilet paper. But even that deserves a moment’s reflection.

The scramble for toilet paper in the nation’s supermarkets reveals a hitherto little seen aspect of the Australian fundament, and more is the pity that it did not stay out of sight. And if you are wondering, either definition of fundament will suffice.

Here are the three stages of the Great Australian Toilet-paper Stampede: initially a quaint unexpected consequence of the developing coronavirus contagion, then mildly disturbing as supermarkets took to assigning security guards in the toilet-paper aisle, and finally a sense of despair that neither calls for calm nor public shaming could arrest the irrational mania for paper products.

Oh, for the days when the paper wars referred to circulation battles between The Age, the Herald Sun and The Australian. (Readers in other cities insert your own mastheads.)

The good news for Australia’s daily newspapers is that for critics who have long maintained that newspapers were only good for toilet paper, the rush for actual toilet paper suggests otherwise.

It’s difficult to attribute this behaviour to the “great unwashed”, for clearly these are people of impeccable hygiene.

Why then this collective conclusion that stockpiling toilet paper somehow outsmarts the coronavirus? Especially as the virus, little troubled by borders, perforated or otherwise, is now criss-crossing the globe with contemptuous abandon. For now, there is little clue as to when and how the warehoused toilet paper will make its mark.

The impact of the coronavirus has way outstripped the initial mealy-mouthed assurances of calm and calls for perspective from politicians and grandees such as Alexander Downer.

Downer tweeted a few days ago: “So far this year 4,000 people have died from covid19, 92,000 from flu, 320,000 from HIV/AIDS, 256,000 from road accidents. Perspective!”

As of this morning federal finance minister Mathias Cormann was inclined to agree with Downer. Cormann told breakfast radio that he was still contemplating a visit to the Melbourne Grand Prix even as the Victorian government and Formula 1 organisers were preparing to shut down the event. Perhaps Cormann was sanguine about the effect of the coronavirus because he has adequate provisions of toilet paper.

Much more than a nasty cold

By the end of the day, even the ponderous Morrison government finally understood that the coronavirus is much more than a nasty cold and that it is spreading more rapidly than was initially held.

The historic cancellation of the Melbourne Grand Prix has cast doubts about the start of the AFL season next week – with the prospect of matches taking place without spectators under consideration – and the NRL season, which commenced this week, is a week by week proposition. In the meantime, Cricket Australia has banned crowds from the Sydney Cricket Ground for tonight’s Australia-New Zealand game.

These are conversations that would have been considered unthinkable a year ago. However, with the Morrison government today accepting the advice of national, state and territory chief medical officers to ban gatherings of more than 500 people, many more of these unthinkable conversations will be taking place around Australia.

While we’re at it, another conversation worth having is why it has taken more than two months since the first report of the outbreak on 31 December 2019 for such crowd bans to be considered. Instead, even as the number of coronavirus cases increased around the world, authorities and organisers of large cultural events in Australia insisted their events were safe, with plenty of free hand-wash to be made available. It is only a matter of good luck that Australia has not had serious breakouts of the virus.

Similarly, the Morrison government took its time before announcing its $17.6 billion economic stimulus package. This is supposed to assure Australians that the government was being methodical, considered and proportionate – blah, blah, blah. This was a government that placed cosmetics ahead of what was important for Australia. It was more concerned with not appearing to “rush” its response, as the Rudd government allegedly did in response to the global financial crisis, and with being more “targeted”, again, unlike the Rudd government’s supposed haphazard approach to stimulating the economy. (Scott Morrison’s visceral, not to say un-Christian, hatred of Kevin Rudd and former Treasurer Wayne Swan has been something to behold.)

$750 handout is laughable

If we think the cultural impacts of the coronavirus are going to be significant – and they will be – they will be dwarfed by the economic hits. The Morrison government has at last publicly given up on its spurious budget surplus, but is not yet moved to prepare the community for a recession. (A technical recession, that is; many Australians have been living in recessionary conditions for some time.)

It seems absurd that it’s even a matter of debate whether Australia will go into recession. It almost certainly was going to anyway; the coronavirus pandemic simply seals it.

Government one-off-payments of $750 to six million Australians from 31 March might soften the blow of a weak economy belted by the coronavirus, but even that’s a best-case scenario. The coronavirus is going to expose all those households that have been teetering on the edge for the past decade. The idea that $750 is going to make a difference to anyone is laughable; it won’t even touch the sides of most household debt, which is where most of it will go.

COVID-19 has been revealing in so many ways.

Here we are, humankind in the 21st century – enlightened, beneficiaries of scientific breakthroughs, holders of unprecedented knowledge, enjoying record good health, wealth and peace – and we’re fumbling around in the dark, unprepared, displaying wholesale panic, fear, greed and stupidity.

A noticeable feature of the coronavirus pandemic has been the lack of international co-operation between governments. So much for that top-secret World Government that was supposed to be pulling the strings behind the scenes. Instead, it’s every government for itself, every government, with a few notable exceptions, apparently run by Laurel & Hardy. (With apologies to Laurel & Hardy.)

Of our response to COVID-19 it can be concluded that we have learned nothing from the past and the future is a place for which we are ill-prepared.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is just as pessimistic on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher

 

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