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Epidemiologists and unexpected lessons



A striking feature of the Australia’s path through Coronavirus has been the coming out of epidemiologists and social biologists. From being little known members of small institutes they became rock stars, invited to press conferences, deferred to by politicians, selectively chosen for comment by the media, but also resented by representatives of big business and defenders of individual freedom.

The resentment is understandable because their expert advice has urged restrictions on freedom that business groups wanted removed, and their advice has prevailed. But perhaps it also points to deeper differences between the two approaches. The business lobby looked for a response that focused on the big, the certain and the technological. Scientists concerned with the spread of epidemics and the response to them focus simultaneously on the big and the small, on the probable and the human.  

Those who wanted to remove restrictions in the interests of economic growth wanted certainty in naming a timetable for freedom and in fixing in advance the conditions that must be met, and promising certainty. Without certainty about laying in supplies, contracting staff and opening premises, it is difficult for big businesses to operate. They wanted a hard science that could deal with large quantities, organise deliveries on time, find the technological challenges to sourcing and delivery. If they had in mind a relevant field of expertise it would be mechanical engineering.

Instead of that, they got epidemiology, assisted by the human sciences. It is paradoxical in that it also deals in very large numbers — trillions of viruses, large human populations and potential infections. But at is centre is the need to predict the behaviour of small and uncertain things and to give advice based on that behaviour. The cause of the pandemic was the simplest and smallest of beings — a protein and a prick, as the Coronavirus was described. It had the capacity to change unpredictably and so defeat the defences marshalled against it. Those defences lay partly in technology — vaccines — but also necessarily in the changed behaviour of large populations of people and in the acceptance by individual persons of those changes.

Both the spread and the restriction of infection have been shaped by human behaviour. The epidemiological response also lay in modifying that behaviour through large scale organisation to dismantle shared workplaces, close schools and shops, limit freedom of movement and of association in groups at pubs, churches and sporting grounds. These are precisely the activities that mediate economic activity and underpin social life. Instead people were asked to live restricted lives with all the effects that this had on their mental and physical health and on their financial security.

The target of the sweeping organisation, of course, was the variety of people and groups who were affected by these measures and particularly of those who would be most at risk of catching and spreading infection. Together with the aged and the elderly in nursing homes, these included people who are least valued in society: the people who were mentally ill, homeless, unemployed and immigrants. Their health, crowded accommodation and presence on the streets meant that they were more likely to be infected and to infect others.


'Instead of relying on economically competitive individuals to generate wealth, society now depended on people’s readiness to sacrifice themselves for others.' 


They also included people who in their work were exposed to infection, including nurses, doctors and quarantine staff. Among them were the least noticed people whose work, often at the risk to their health and lives, was the most significant. They included people involved in caring for the aged, delivering food and supplies, ensuring the integrity of quarantine, and cleaning in nursing homes and hospitals. They were often lowly paid, less likely to be vaccinated, and forced to work casually in more than one job to support their families.

These formed part of the vast interlocking network of relationships that epidemiologists and other experts had to take into account when evaluating responses to the coronavirus. Each of these relationships was subject to change as the virus mutated, transmission times shortened and social conditions also changed. In such a world the inability and refusal of experts to name definitively the dates for loosening restrictions and reopening the economy, even after a serious program of vaccinations has begun, is both necessary and principled.

The answers depend on many variables: the number of vaccinations, their take-up by vulnerable people and areas, the compliance with restrictions, the effects of mutations in the virus on health and on infection, the pressure on hospitals, health workers and others, the spread of infection despite tracing and other controls, and the harmful effects of lockdown on people, to name just a few. Any judgment about opening times will depend on a series of other provisional judgments.

The response to the coronavirus, too, disclosed the gap between the value of the work of different groups of people and its remuneration and esteem. People involved in caring for the aged, delivering food and supplies, ensuring the integrity of quarantine, and cleaning in nursing homes and hospitals were among the least well paid. But their contribution to the community was of vital importance and far greater than the highly remunerated executives in business and politicians. The discrepancy between the value of work and its remuneration was shown in the spread of the virus in nursing homes by people forced to support their families by working on different sites.

The deeper challenge posed by epidemiology and allied sciences to the received wisdom about business lay in the reconsideration of values prompted by the necessary response to the virus. Instead of relying on economically competitive individuals to generate wealth, society now depended on people’s readiness to sacrifice themselves for others. Governments, in turn, had to support people in order to avoid economic collapse. The dignity of each human person, the care for the common good and the precariousness of all human enterprises were the pillars on which a resilient society needed to be built. The central questions were human, not technological.


'The values of big business have triumphed over the values whose adoption proved central in responding to the coronavirus. But the victory will come at a cost to social cohesion.' 


If we look in retrospect at the effects of the coronavirus and of the response to it on Australian society, we can see on the one hand the move from big to small, from competitive to cooperative and self-sacrificing, from the exclusion of people who are marginal to inclusion and protection, from the institutional settings that viewed managers, financiers and investors as the most important in society to the recognition that the most important were actually those looked down on and badly paid. Those re-evaluations were the sign of well-functioning society.

On the other hand, the outcome of the response to the virus has revealed an opposed dynamic. Wealthy individuals and corporations have grown richer while those on precarious incomes have grown in number. Those left unemployed in the lockdowns have had their support sharply reduced. House prices and rents have risen. The most valuable members of society still need to work multiple jobs to support their families. The comfortably off are vaccinated while those more in need of it, and more vulnerable to its spread are not. The emblem of the values espoused by the Federal Government remains its encouragement to large corporations to milk Jobkeeper, to retain their profits from it, and to have their identity concealed.

It is evident that the values of big business have triumphed over the values whose adoption proved central in responding to the coronavirus. But the victory will come at a cost to social cohesion. It will also make it more difficult to put out the fire next time. 



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Victorian Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton speaks to the media. (Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, epidemiology, Coronavirus, Covid-19, vaccinations



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Existing comments

I found this article excellent and I feel somewhat embarrassed that I as a retired 79 year old that I and my family are enjoying out lives up on the Sunshine Coast and virtually free from restrictions.

I am fully aware of the dire straits of many of my fellow Australians especially in NSW & Victoria.

Many of the comparisons in the paper speak of a lack of fairness and balance, as to where government support aught to be targeted.

I thank Andrew for this authentic and enlightening commentary.

Keith hunter | 16 September 2021  

Nailed it.

ray | 17 September 2021  

Great assessment! Suggests that revolution is not necessarily a bad thing particularly when it favours the oppressed.

john frawley | 17 September 2021  

I would suggest that the epidemiologists are not teaching any new lessons. The principles they espouse have been taught at Medical Schools in Western society for at least the last 230 years and practised in some aspects in Jewish society at least 3000 years ago. I vividly recall being the sickest I've ever been, along with others in my year at university medical school, over the Easter holidays. We had all been compulsorily vaccinated against all known major infectious diseases during the week or so before the break in preparation for our introduction to the wards of the teaching hospitals. In those days the care of the sick rather than our own interests was the first priority. How big business and self-interested ignorance has changed all that!!! Incidentally, none of us died over that Easter and none of us ever had to treat the diseases against which we had been vaccinated because the diseases were virtually wiped out (smallpox, tuberculosis, typhoid and paratyphoid fever) by vaccination in the wider community. In more recent times vaccination has wiped out German measles with its heart disease in children, measles and poliomyelitis with others in the queue awaiting a similar fate. There is no discussion to be had - vaccination is the greatest weapon we possess and fortunately, unlike our other great weapon, antibiotics, we can't abuse it in the pursuit of income as has happened with antibiotics. Once vaccinated it's all over for the bugs despite what some "experts" in the media, politics, big business and the backblocks of human ignorance proclaim.

john frawley | 17 September 2021  

Freedom lovers don’t resent science. They resent “rock stars” trumpeting a questionable political consensus. Science thrives in a climate of free speech where testable propositions can be put forward and rebutted, yet there is a highly coordinated narrative on Covid in the corporate media.
The ABC promotes as an expert, Norman Swan, who is a journalist who was a GP. Yet they were highly sceptical of a real infectious disease expert, Peter Collignon, offering different advice. And when a group of infectious-disease epidemiologists from Harvard and Stanford proposed an alternative to lockdowns, against the political consensus, they were censored. Google was deciding the correct science. Facebook censored any suggestion the virus leaked from a lab.
The WHO refused to consider aerosol transmission of the virus. Then QUT’s Lidia Morawska compiled data proving the pandemic spread through aerosol particles in the air.
Lockdown measures have destroyed small businesses and the jobs of battlers. The big winners have been big government and big business. Politicians in Queensland and Victoria have had huge pay rises, and Victoria’s public sector wage bill has increased 71% under Daniel Andrews.
“Never let a good crisis go to waste” advised Obama’s Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel.

Ross Howard | 18 September 2021  
Show Responses

Well said. The purpose of lockdowns seems to be legalised forced wealth transfer.

marita | 20 September 2021  

Andy, I always love your stuff but that's partly because I rarely have reason to disagree with it. When Ray, whose threshold is far more exacting, gives you the 'thumbs up' you know that really means something! Good on Both of You!

Michael Furtado | 19 September 2021  

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