Gaming the Virus: fighting the last war cannot win the next one

Gaming the virus in NSW: how fighting the last war will not win the next one.

One of the few extraordinary benefits for sociologists of the pandemic must be the real time experiments it generates in the relation between social theory and social practice – or put succinctly, how class continues to be an issue in contemporary Australia, most sharply in neo-con libertarian jurisdictions, less so but still there in more social democratic communalist states. Alan Kohler has pointed to the failure of conservatism (he is too hopeful) while Ross Gittins sees the pattern of infection as a reflection of class (too absolute though getting there). Age, race, and gender were called out early on. The virus is alert to the best social space for its transmission to accelerate, where crowding at home, at work and travelling, poor communication, and a mobile population produce the optimum hosts. If trust fractures so that the capacity of the social order to protect people from the virus is undermined, then that social order can rapidly follow. The social remains only a step ahead of chaos, imbued with the ever-present imagined tension between individual and communal well-being.

As the public imaginary has become saturated with metaphors for the “battle” against COVID19 Delta, so the real-world takeover of the key cities in Afghanistan by the Taliban has dominated the real politik. Just as the American Maginot line at Kabul was overwhelmed by the Afghan anti-imperialists, COVID is surrounding and breaking through our defences. The Taliban is a social movement, the impact of which on modern social values and relations we may well abhor. COVID Delta is a social disease, the impact of which on our social sinews – trust – we should rightly fear.  The moment Trump decided to get out (almost the same strategy he propounded in the USA against COVID in 2020) the idea of a single line of resistance that could be sustained by the Kabul government was undermined. Giving up on COVID Zero has a similar smell about it. We must learn to live with them both, some of our leaders now pronounce.

Returning to the COVID battle, there have been calls to refresh the ANZAC spirit, stand together, and face the foe (though Gallipoli was just a better version of the Kabul withdrawal – better planned and executed but in essence the same). We have been told we will be “throwing everything at it”, and sending in our best and bravest. Instead of generals fighting the last war (though we have some of them), we have scientists, grim faced, calling on the citizen soldiers to stand firm, obey orders, and suffer for the greater good. Uniforms abound in the battle lines – police, nurses, military – some with boots on the ground, some with needles in our arms, some now with pepper bombs. Arm-chair strategists and tacticians (including yours truly) argue the toss, seeking to decipher the war plan of a now enshrined and variously interpreted Doherty Report.

Meanwhile cells of guerrillas jump the lines, acting as carriers for the virus as it seeks out the least socially integrated and most distrustful populations as its primary vectors.  It breeds too in the densely settled and impossibly crowded parts of our cities, as well as in the least well-defended outstations of urbanity. The emotions of fear, anxiety, and desperation multiply, while the elites in their palaces announce nostrums that simply erode the capacity of the key weapon, trust, to do its work of building resilience and security.

Sticking with the perhaps overworked metaphors, our best weapon against the virus remains the same one that so escaped us in Afghanistan, on the ground, people-based Intelligence. Intelligence is based on thousands of pieces of information, carefully collected and assessed, integrated and tested, applied and projected. In Afghanistan “our side” allowed our fantasies to supplant our science. Ditto in NSW as our troops chase around the landscape, always in arrears, always behind the ball.

Let us return to the claim “we are throwing everything at it”. We didn’t in Afghanistan and we are not doing it here; we fight with one hand behind our backs because we do not trust the people who are taking the brunt of the attack. We have little or any intelligence of where the virus will crest next – all we know is what has happened, not where we need to be to stop the spread. We have no real idea of how the affected populations are withdrawing from the battle, misleading us into believing that what we see is what is real.

We operate as though we need to placate the as yet minimally affected allied populations to keep them happy with the elite’s management of the war, rather than being smart and breaking the onslaught where it is weakest, while containing it where it appears strongest. We fail to ask the simplest question of our multicultural population – who are you and how do we help you to join the battle for what we call “freedom”?

In the year since it became clear that ethnicity was a proxy for many other dimensions of vulnerability (another echo of Afghanistan) , we have tested millions of Australians, many over and over. Had we at that time normalised requests from people being tested for data on language spoken and country of birth, we would have a heat map of communal vulnerabilities, and systematic guidance of where the enemy was moving, and where we should have a sense of looming threat. It took ages for this awareness to penetrate the consciousness of our strategists – in November 2020 Victoria began to see the value of this data, In February the Commonwealth began collecting the data. Neither of these jurisdictions release this information as they fear it will be used by the anti-vaxxer movement (a fifth column for the virus) to stigmatise ethnic minorities – a common enough practice without the data, and brought to a high art in the naming and shaming of ethnic neighbourhoods in west and south west Sydney. However New South Wales refuses to do so, despite the widespread affirmation from communities caught on the front line that such information would help them respond immediately and directly to the threats their people are experiencing.

In a recent Lancet article,  Daniel Pan and his colleagues explored the issues associated with the higher incidence of COVID and the poorer outcomes in the UK for Black and Asian ethnic groups. The group is trying to work out whether the social inequality(such as those identified in this article)  affecting non-Whites produces this ethnic effect, or whether there are bio-social factors that predispose non-White races to infection and severity of outcomes. In the UK they are able to ask these questions as the data is there – in Australia the data is not there in NSW, where the ideology of individual “freedom” squeezes out the reality of social impact . Even where some race data is available, as with Indigenous communities in western NSW, it was only after the virus reached the vulnerable groups that a reaction was instituted. However, the Health people could tell very quickly that Aboriginal Australians were being attacked, because they collect the data on Indigeneity, even if they did nothing about checking their low participation in testing and vaccination in the lead up. 

My approaches to Minister Hazzard have been ignored; my contact with the Premier’s office were originally treated with intense interest, and then frozen. My interactions with senior Health officials have generated tirades, suggesting I undervalued all the work their front line people had done talking with “ethnic leaders” and helping the communal pop-up clinics to operate. Yet every one of my ethnic community contacts in those areas of the battlefront are bemused and then dismayed to realise there is a weapon (collecting, processing and using ethnic language data by post code in testing and vaccine booking)  that could have helped them protect their people, and yet it has been dismissed without even a try-out. Moreover when you hear the NSW government ministers claim they have done everything possible that NSW Health has advised, remember where the opposition to testing is strongest- in NSW Health. What war are they fighting? What game do they now need to change?

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