Who’s to blame for Australia’s second wave? If only it were that simple

Jenny Mikakos has resigned as Victoria’s health minister. But the problems that the state’s hotel quarantine program face are structural, and enduring

When things go wrong, people look for someone to blame. It’s a normal human reaction. No matter how big or complicated the problem is, holding an individual responsible can be pretty cathartic.

In fact, sometimes the bigger and more diabolical the issue, the more eager we are to look for a scapegoat. It can give us an illusion of control over a situation that ultimately we can’t really influence.

COVID-19 is no exception. It’s a pandemic. There’s so much we don’t know about it. The virus is mutating. It totally reshaped the way the world works and the way we live in just a few months. But the havoc it has wreaked in our daily lives, the economic sacrifices, and the deaths, mean there’s a strong desire to hold someone to account.

Nowhere is this more clear than in Victoria, where the second wave plunged the state into a strict, months-long lockdown. While Europe opened up just in time for summer and English holidaymakers spammed Instagram with photos of themselves gallivanting around the Italian countryside, Melbournians spent a bitter winter trapped inside their houses.

The economic toll mounted. The death count went up every day. By and large the public supported the government’s decision to institute a harsh lockdown, but questions remained about why Victoria, out of all states and territories, had ended up in this awful situation.

And now, eight months after Australia’s first recorded case of the coronavirus, we’ve seen the first ministerial resignation related to any local government’s handling of the pandemic.

Victoria’s health minister Jenny Mikakos dramatically quit after the state’s Premier, Daniel Andrews, held her ultimately responsible for the management of the failed hotel quarantine programme. The programme’s failures had been interrogated at length by an inquiry established by Andrews.

“No amount of political bloodletting can put the virus back into quarantine”

It heard that the government’s inability to run the quarantine programme properly led to the virus leaking out from returned travellers to hotel staff and security guards, who in turn spread it throughout the community.

According to testimony given to the inquiry, the government’s mishandling of the programme led to 18,000 infections and just under 800 deaths. But accountability was still elusive. A litany of senior ministers and public servants denied responsibility for the key decisions that led to the outbreak. There was more feigned innocence than the infamous Shaggy chorus:

It wasn’t me, said the police minister.

It wasn’t me, said the jobs minister.

It wasn’t me, said the health minister.

However, unfortunately for Mikakos, the Premier decided that the charade of obfuscation and denial needed to end and someone had to be hung out to dry.

When she quit, Mikakos said she “strongly disagreed” with Andrews’ decision to pin the quarantine failures on her. “I have never wanted to leave a job unfinished but in light of the Premier’s statement to the board of inquiry and the fact that there are elements in it that I strongly disagree with, I believe that I cannot continue to serve in his cabinet,” she said. “I am disappointed that my integrity has sought to be undermined.”

A new health minister was quickly sworn in, and the state went back to dealing with the daily drudgery of life in lockdown.

So, how do we feel? Someone has finally been held responsible for the pandemic’s worst elements. That means things are going to get better, right?

If only things were that simple.

First, let’s figure out if Mikakos’ resignation will change anything for the better in terms of Victoria’s predicament and where the government goes from here. In the short term, the answer is a pretty direct no. Resignations don’t undo the past. The virus got out of quarantine and into the community. No amount of political bloodletting can take that back.

And even if Mikakos was ultimately accountable for key elements of the programme, the inquiry has heard that responsibility was spread out across multiple departments and ministers.

Victorian Minister for Health Jenny Mikakos
Former Victorian health minister Jenny Mikakos. Credit: Darrian Traynor/Getty Images

But, on top of that, the problems Victoria has faced go much, much deeper than a few ministers. The countries that handled this pandemic the best are those that learnt from past experience with infectious diseases like SARS, and invested in strong public health teams.

Over the past couple of decades, Victoria has been cutting back on its public health funding. It has the worst resourced public health team in the country. Its contact tracing efforts, so vital to crushing virus transmission, were overwhelmed early on. Millions of dollars needed to be handed to private sector companies to create a new, improved system.

The hotel quarantine breakdown was again the result of outsourcing, cutting corners and a precarious and vulnerable workforce. Individual ministers might be accountable for the fallout, but they couldn’t have fixed these problems on their own. They are the result of long-term policies, implemented by both sides of politics. We are currently reaping the decisions of a previous generation of lawmakers who gutted the public sector. In good times, it barely functions without breaking down. In bad times, like a pandemic, it collapses.

Resetting this approach is going to take much more than a ministerial resignation, or even a few. Of course, that doesn’t mean the current generation of politicians should be let off the hook. I’m not very forgiving of our elected representatives. They get paid enormous sums of money to represent us. They wield huge amounts of power. And they do it all by choice. If things go wrong, it’s entirely apt that they own up and take the hit.

A system where the government currently in charge can shrug off its responsibilities by blaming those who came before just won’t work.

But when it comes to serious, complicated issues like those wrought by COVID-19, we owe it ourselves to go a bit deeper. Accountability and blaming someone might be cathartic. But unless we fix the structural issues that got us into this mess, we’re just choosing smug satisfaction over learning from our mistakes.

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