Charlie Stevenson Keenanite Zoom discussion of Australia and Covid 19

Parlor, Mike Obiala’s small double room, Keenan Hall, Notre Dame, 1964

Perhaps violating secrecy provisions of the Keenanite Zoom sessions, Joe Hale forwarded two Charlie Stevenson reports on his country of residence:

Hello Everybody,

It was great talking and listening to you all today.  We never got around to discussing the Covid-19 issue.  I suppose it’s been so politicized that some of us might have been reluctant to bring it up (lest we face the wrath of the Zoom-Meister).

I didn’t want to let it go without saying that I wish all  you and your loved ones well.  Please take precautions and stay safe.  What follows is an account of how Australia has dealt with the pandemic.  If you’re interested, read on.  If not, don’t (I don’t want to bore you).  I’m presuming that most of you won’t get much news about Australia from your normal sources.

Australia, with area of Charlie Stevenson residence circled

For what it’s worth, Australia has been spared the worst effects of the pandemic.  They don’t call us “The Lucky Country” for nothing!  We are lucky to have only a limited number of points where international travellers can enter the country – and we are, basically, a huge island – no land borders with any other country.

Our federal government is Conservative – a coalition of the (confusingly for Americans) Liberal Party (economic and social conservatives) and the National Party (also socially conservative, a Farmers’ and Rural areas party).  Despite that, they took strong measures very early in the crisis to shut down all international travel into and out of Australia.  China was locked out first (before the US did anything) and Europe was also locked out a week later.  Apparently, our leaders were advised by the medical experts that they had two choices, basically, lock the place down quickly, invoke stringent social distancing measures and severely restrict all travel (which would obviously hurt the economy) OR simply advise people to take precautions, without any regulatory compulsion, and let the virus spread until there was “herd immunity” (which would lead to a relatively large number of deaths, especially among the elderly).

Our Prime Minister, Morrison, is a great Trump fan.  Trump has given only 2 state dinners in his presidency and one was for a visit by Morrison.  On the other hand, Morrison is a committed, church-going evangelical protestant Christian.  Together with his Treasurer, Frydenberg, who is a practicing Jew, Morrison decided that they would not be morally responsible for large numbers of deaths among elderly Australians and, therefore, took stringent measures to lock down the nation.  At the same time, they also threw huge amounts of money at the problem, in an attempt to minimize the effect on the economy – outright “pandemic payments” to people on pensions (eg., Aideen and  I carry “Commonwealth Seniors Health Cards”, which give us discounts on pharmaceuticals, among other things – we have received $1,500 each so far, with another $500 to come this year); grants to small businesses to keep them operating; top-up payments to the recently unemployed to maintain something like their normal wages; etc. –  amazingly socialist policies for a conservative government.  They’ve gone from a central policy of reducing government debt at all costs (cuts to social security programs, cuts to public service numbers, etc.) to a policy of spending like a drunken sailor to keep the economy moving.  If the Labor Party had been in power and done the same things, the conservatives would have been screaming bloody murder about saddling debts on our grandchildren.  (NB:  I vote Labor, by the way.  Not to introduce politics into the discussion, or anything . . . .)

Australia has a land area about the same size (and, curiously, about the same shape – though upside down) as the 48 States (ie., not including Alaska and Hawaii), but our population is concentrated around the seacoast areas, with the vast interior very underpopulated, and our total population is about 26 million (roughly the same as Texas – slightly less).  The country is a federation of 6 states (all former British colonies) and 2 territories.  The states and territories are largely responsible for running their hospital systems (though the federal government funds them) and control the public health systems within their own borders.

3 of the states and both territories have Labor Party (ie., left-wing and socially progressive) governments; the other 3 states have conservative governments.  In an effort to coordinate the fight against the pandemic, our Prime Minister established a “super cabinet”, consisting of the leaders and treasurers of all the state and territory governments, as well as the federal P.M. and the federal treasurer.  Getting all the governments together worked well in the beginning of the crisis.  There was only one serious outbreak in March-April (originating in the state of New South Wales, where Sydney is), caused by beaurocratic bungling which allowed over 3,000 passengers from a cruise ship to disembark and scatter around the country (and overseas) without being checked or quarantined.  That slip up led to almost 500 cases, world-wide, and almost 40 deaths.  Otherwise, the vast majority of cases of covid-19 appeared in people under quarantine after overseas travel.

We have since had a second, more serious, outbreak in the state of Victoria (where Melbourne is).  Arriving travellers being quarantined in hotels were guarded by private security personnel, who were not properly trained and who didn’t enforce the rules (and even fraternized with the people in lockdown).  As a result, Victoria has had a “second wave” of infections and relatively large numbers of cases and deaths.  After more than a month of very strict controls (all restaurants, bars and public entertainment venues shut; no travel outside the home without a valid reason; no visits to aged care facilities, no face-to-face schooling, etc.), that outbreak is now under control.

Since the beginning of the crisis, most of the states have closed their borders to interstate travellers, allowing only essential economic traffic to enter.  This has hurt certain sectors of the economy, most notably tourism and tertiary education.  The conservatives are now arguing for immediate relaxation of the restrictions, while the Labor Party states are resisting such a move.  Things are slowly getting back to something like normal, though we are all still encouraged to observe social distancing, to wear masks in places where people gather in large numbers, and to get tested for the virus if we have any of the symptoms.

The results for Australia of all these measures can be seen in the statistics.  Since March we have had a total of just over 27,000 cases with 900 deaths (nation-wide).  Approximately 2/3 of the cases and ¾ of the deaths have been in Victoria (their “second wave”).  Compare this to Texas (about the same population): 870,000 cases and 17,500 deaths.  The US, as a whole, with a population of 328 million, has had 8.19 million cases and 220,000 deaths.  If we had the same rates of infection and death as the US, we would have had approx. 650,00 cases and 17,400 deaths.

I live in the state of Queensland, population about 4 million, bigger than Alaska and more than 3 times the land area of Texas.  We have had just under 1,200 cases and 6 deaths (almost all in the southern part of the state, where the large population areas of Brisbane and the Gold Coast are).  Up here in Far North Queensland, we’ve only had 35 cases (no community transmissions) and no deaths.

Of course, it only takes one infected person to kick off a whole new outbreak, but we are quietly confident that testing and tracing measures are in place to deal with such events in the future.

The city of Cairns (approx. 150,000) where I live, is largely dependent on tourism.  The city has more hotel rooms per local population than any other part of Australia.  Apart from hotels and restaurants, the tourist industry also relies on people taking boat trips out to the Great Barrier Reef, experiencing the local Aboriginal culture, exploring the rainforests (ie., jungles), etc.  We have huge unemployment as a result of the lockdowns (though federal and state programs have poured money into small businesses to keep them afloat) and it will take a long time to recover.  Still, most of the population here accept that the economic cost has been worth it.  As one old fellow, being interviewed on the local radio, said:  “Dead people don’t eat in restaurants, stay in hotels, or take reef trips.”

I hope that gives you a good picture of the situation here in Australia.  Aideen and I feel quite safe, though we do still practice social distancing, hand washing, etc. – just in case.

Once again, best wishes to  you all and to your families.  Stay safe and well.


The second Charlie Stevenson note (submitted for extra credit) explains Australia’s voting mandate:

Yes, Australia is one of the few countries in the world with compulsory voting.  If we fail to vote without a valid reason, we are fined.  We can vote in advance of polling day by mail or by in-person, pre-poll voting, as well as voting on polling day, of course.

Australians, like Americans, don’t like much being told what to do.  Nevertheless, I haven’t heard many complaints about compulsory voting.  It’s been there forever and I guess people are just used to it.  I doubt very much that it could ever be introduced in the US.  Despite the assumption, which superficially looks logical, that left-wing parties are helped by compulsory voting (ie., it’s people at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder who don’t vote if they don’t have to), various research studies (both here and in the US) have shown that people who don’t vote, or who wouldn’t vote if they didn’t have to, are divided pretty evenly on the question of which party they support.

On the issue of Australia’s convict past . . .  Like the US, Australia’s population has grown rapidly for the last century or more, due to various waves of immigration.  It probably started with our gold rush, which was 25 or 30 years after California’s.  Lots of Irish and Italians arrived then, to look for gold (as did quite a few Americans) and the Chinese came in large numbers – usually to service the gold field settlements by growing vegetables and fruit and by setting up restaurants and laundries (much more reliable sources of income than gold prospecting).  After WWI, we got lots of Italians, who tended to settle in northern parts of Australia and grow sugar cane.  After WWII, there were initially lots more Italians and quite a few Croatians and Serbs (not the best of friends . . .).  After the Viet Nam war, we had an influx of boat people from there (who were warmly welcomed at the time, in contrast to more recent boat people from the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Sri Lanka, who’ve been incarcerated as illegal immigrants and shipped back home whenever possible).  We also had a large influx of Chinese after Hong Kong was returned to Chinese rule in 1997.  A lot of them were wealthy and well-educated, as opposed to most earlier immigrants, who tended to be poor farmers, fishermen and laborers, on the whole.  We now have quite a diverse population with the cultural mix that brings.  While our population base is still largely European in origin, you would notice quite a lot more Asian influence here than you see in most parts of America.

The Australian economy relies heavily on immigration/population growth.  The impact of the covid-19 crisis that will hurt our economy most severely is the total lack of immigration this year.

Another outcome of our growing and diversifying population is that anyone who can trace their ancestry back to an original convict transportee wears that like a badge of honour.  It’s like Americans with ancestors who came over on the Mayflower.  It’s also worth remembering that, while many transported convicts were thieves and prostitutes, there were also quite a few political prisoners from Ireland.

One final point.  The penal colony in New South Wales was established by the Brits in 1798 to replace their lost penal colonies in the Carolinas.  Funny, you don’t often hear about the convict ancestors of the people in North and South Carolina . . .


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