Australia’s “cultural cringe” – an obsession with wanting to know what foreigners think of its country and culture – means it is happy, for instance, to allow its head of state to come exclusively from one English family residing at Buckingham Palace.
It also makes it a country consumed with wanting everything it does to be thought of as “gold standard” and “world-class”. Many Australian politicians and bureaucrats, in trying to explain a new policy or defend a dreadful, failing one, will at some point describe it with those stock phrases.
It was no surprise to hear them rolled out again in the time of Covid. Government officials hailed the country's hotel quarantine system as a "world-class" way of containing the virus. Prime minister Scott Morrison described the state of New South Wales's test-and-trace strategy as the "gold standard" in Covid-19 suppression.
But hotel quarantine has sometimes helped spread the virus, with air conditioning allowing the airborne pathogen to travel from room to room. Most of New South Wales, Australia's most populous state, is locked down, including Sydney, the country's biggest city, with a population of more than five million. Melbourne and Adelaide are also in lockdown. Just 13 per cent of the country is fully vaccinated, only 30 per cent has had even one dose, and more than half of aged and disability care residents and workers are still unvaccinated.
There is nothing gold standard or world-class about these figures, which put Australia bottom of the chart for vaccinations among OECD countries.
Rollout vs ‘race’
In March, when it became obvious that Australia was struggling to secure supplies, weeks after the government had approved the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines, Morrison repeatedly said the rollout was “not a race”.
Last week, he said he regretted using those words, but not before he had first gone onto Sydney radio station KIIS FM to deny he had soiled his pants in a suburban McDonald's in 1997. The radio hosts did not bring up the long-standing rumour, Morrison did, saying near the end of his interview, "Can I clear up one thing from ages ago?"
AstraZeneca and Pfizer are the only vaccine options in Australia, with the latter in short supply due to an initial order of just 10 million doses to cover a population of more than 25 million.
Australia failed to hedge its bets on vaccine options, putting most of its money on AstraZeneca. Public broadcaster ABC reported that Australia mishandled its negotiations with Pfizer in talks going back to June and July last year, with junior bureaucrats showing a “rude, dismissive and penny-pinching” approach.
Australia's Covid failures have not just come at the federal level, though. New South Wales state premier Gladys Berejiklian repeatedly lambasted the premiers of Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia for lockdowns and shutting their borders.
When the Delta variant found its way into Sydney last month, Berejiklian refused to put a definition, as Victoria had done, on who should be classed an essential worker. She said people should just use their “common sense”. That worked so well the entire city and surrounding regions are now in a lockdown that is likely to last well into August.
Berejiklian called on other states to send Pfizer vaccine doses to Sydney, but they refused. However, federal health minister Greg Hunt found an extra 50,000 Pfizer doses for New South Wales anyway. The Western Australia and Northern Territory governments questioned where the extra vaccines suddenly came from, but Hunt denies any favouritism had been shown to New South Wales.
Missing in the mix is Australia's plentiful supply of AstraZeneca. It is producing a million doses every week, with much of this being exported to Pacific island nations, Indonesia and Vietnam. But many of the doses that remain in Australia are getting close to their use-by date as people put off by the minute risk of a blood clot take what may turn out to be a bigger risk and wait for a Pfizer dose.
On Monday, Hunt said he expected Moderna and Novavax vaccines would also be available in Australia by the year’s end, but he may find that five months is a long time in politics.
An actual gold standard that Australia is meeting at the moment is its swimmers’ performances at the Olympics. But that distraction will soon be over and people will again start to notice that Australia’s Covid-19 response is nowhere near world-class.