The cries of 'over-reaction' are as predictable as they are simplistic. Epidemiologists and pubic health experts knew they were coming, because avoiding a disaster brings little thanks.
As Australia emerges unevenly from its soft lockdown, anxious and still responding to COVID flares, it is the envy of much of the world. Alongside success achieved in places as varied as New Zealand, Vietnam, Taiwan, South Korea, Iceland and even austerity-inflicted Greece – the contrast with those that have suffered disastrous outcomes is obvious.
And yet the naysayers still question the painful necessity of the lockdowns, even as study after study demonstrates how the measures have avoided or delayed hundreds of millions of infections.
The United Kingdom, uniquely and even justifiably proud of its National Health System, first chose instead to ignore expert advice and offer up its venerated NHS as a funeral-pyre sacrifice to COVID and the gods of conservatism. Today more than 43,000 British are dead. (You know what would help NHS healthcare workers more than clapping? Earlier border closure and adequate access to PPE!)
Sweden pursued a Claytons lockdown founded on an ideological mix of misplaced intellectual-exceptionalism and responsibility-abdicating libertarianism (my eyes are rolling...). It has not gone well.
Despite making up less than 40% of the Nordic population, Sweden now accounts for five out of of six Nordic COVID deaths. Sweden has twice the population of neighbouring Norway but twenty-times the COVID mortality.
And then there is the Land of the Free, the United States. The wealthiest country on the planet, now the epicentre of the pandemic with well over 2 million infected and 120,000 deaths. A disaster due to a failure to act either early or decisively, a dash of magical thinking and an embarrassing absence of leadership.
It is disappointing that the main contribution the United States is currently making to the global COVID response is to serve as a warning to other nations.
The common theme among these failures is the inability to develop a rational response guided by expert advice. A virus does not care for your wishful thinking. A virus does not care for your political posturing, your dog-whistling or your belief in national uniqueness. A virus is the honey-badger of microbiology.
Which leads us back to the braying calls of 'over-reaction'. Whether former politicians, conservative economists, or performance artists playing opinion writers, they are all making the same mistake: misattributing causality and misunderstanding the purpose of modelling.
As my friend @jamesdgriffiths suggested, it's like angrily claiming "the boy cried wolf" while around us our neighbours are decimated by packs of hungry wolves.
"We've had so few wolves here – why did we even bother with these fences!?"1
To label Australia's successful COVID response an 'over-reaction' is an irrational, reality-defying argument that willfully ignores the terrible suffering happening globally. The same accusers denied the threat early in the pandemic, opposed the need for significant action, and then threw out the false choice of the economy over health.2 It is indefensible that they now attack these very measures because they have actually worked.
Models by their very nature are dynamic, each unique and covering a spectrum of outcomes. For policy makers they are not about accurate prediction, they exist to offer an abstracted mathematical view of the real world that can be used to answer 'what if' questions.
What if we do nothing? What if we quarantine arrivals? Close businesses? Schools? Socially distance? How much hospital capacity could we need? How close can people safely approach Peter Dutton? Should anyone ever approach Peter Dutton? What if public behaviour does not change at all?
For the greater public, model projections are even more critical. They warn and motivate us to act, to change our behaviour so as to avoid disaster. At their best, the most dire models are self-defeating prophecies.
It is ridiculous to decry the success of Australia's COVID response by pointing at the avoided worse-case scenarios of the initial projections.
The models incorporate a complex world of assumptions and necessary simplifications, producing a metaverse of outcomes – almost all of which were bad. Some were very, very bad.
Their purpose was to show an uncertain population 'this is the suffering that could happen', so that it might not.
So instead we are happily condemned to a paradox of avoidance.3
Or Homer Simpson's unintentionally insightful comment: "You know, we're always buying Maggie vaccinations for diseases she doesn't even have!" ↩
This false dichotomy pushed early in the pandemic, pitting the economy against the health-needs of the population was both philosophically immoral and is now demonstrably wrong. Economic prosperity is tightly intwined with the community's health – sick people tend not to be particularly economically productive, and the dead even less so. Several studies now show that the public moved to alter their own behaviour and reduce their economic activity before lockdown orders came into effect. Similarly, countries that have opened up have seen marked reluctance of their communities to return to pre-pandemic levels of cosumption. It turns out it's not so much the government enforcing lockdowns that tanks the economy, but the risk of a contagious fatal disease when buying groceries. The economy will recover by controlling the pandemic as quickly as possible. Never forget that the economy serves the people, not the converse. ↩
I searched for an existing term for this phenomenon, but stayed with 'the paradox of avoidance'. Surely disaster experts and public health specialists must have something they already use to describe this? The paradox of prevention has pleasing alliteration, but is an existing public health term that describes a different prevention dynamic. @DrLKVaughan suggested 'Leavitt's Law' after Michael Leavitt – but not only was Leavitt talking about resistance to action before a pandemic hits rather than the perception after success, more importantly there is already a Leavitt's Law in astronomy – and it seems doubly wrong to erase the historical legacy of another woman of science. My friend @jgolshevsky suggested 'victory blindness' which does have a nice ring to it… ↩