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Australia’s draconian streak means that it is struggling to find the Covid exit lane

A zero-Covid strategy can come at the expense of basic human decency.

By Louise Perry

In 2003 the philosopher Nick Bostrom wrote a paper on the existential threat posed to the universe by artificial general intelligence. To illustrate his argument, Bostrom described a hypothetical AI whose sole goal was to manufacture as many paperclips as possible, “and who would resist with all its might any attempt to alter this goal”.

Intent on its mission, the “paperclip maximiser” would destroy the Earth and use the raw materials to manufacture more paperclips. Next it would move onto neighbouring planets, and ultimately – if it could – the whole universe.

The parable of the paperclip maximiser has become well known among those who caution against the risks of AI. It can also be used to demonstrate the dangers of single-mindedness more generally: if you set your sights on one goal, you can end up destroying everything standing in your way.

The Australian approach to Covid-19 has a whiff of the paperclip maximiser to it. Alongside New Zealand, so-called Fortress Australia has put some of the world’s strictest public health measures in place to protect against the disease, including banning its people from leaving the country.

Suggestions earlier this year that the Australian state and federal governments might relent on their zero-Covid strategy seem to have been forgotten, as a terror of a new variant has led to the deployment of quarantine camps for travellers and anyone who has come into contact with an infected individual. On 1 December, three detainees who escaped from the disturbingly named Centre for National Resilience in Howard Springs, Northern Territory, were arrested.

Anyone who has travelled to my family’s home country in normal times will have noticed that it is no stranger to severe public health measures. For instance, Australia has tough regulations on importing any plant or animal product, even unwittingly. Once, when travelling alone with my six-month-old brother, my mother was picked out by sniffer dogs at Melbourne airport and forced to unpack her belongings on the floor of the baggage reclaim hall. It turned out that the offending item was a plastic box containing tiny traces of baby food. The customs officials were not sympathetic.

The harshness of the country’s importation policies is in keeping with the other authoritarian laws and regulations that often surprise foreigners familiar with Australia’s reputation for carefree “throw another shrimp on the barbie” gaiety.

In Australia, it is illegal to cycle without a helmet, and illegal to cross the road at an intersection if a pedestrian light is red. The country’s deportation laws are among the strictest in the Western world, not only for humans but also for animals. When Johnny Depp brought his dogs Pistol and Boo with him to Australia in 2015, he was told that if he did not remove the animals from the country within 72 hours they would be euthanised (the incident set the hashtag #WarOnTerrier trending on Twitter).

It’s therefore unsurprising that the Australian federal and state governments have been so willing to pursue the authoritarian measures demanded by the zero-Covid strategy, and also unsurprising that voters have mostly cheered them on.

Their efforts have been helped by the alarmist reporting in Australian media, which is effective in part because few in the country have direct experience of Covid. My friends don’t know a single Australian who has had it, whereas I can think of only a handful in my British social circle who haven’t caught it over the past two years. It is easy to overestimate the threat of an unknown danger.

I’m not a libertarian. I do accept that there are some circumstances in which the measures employed by the Australian government would be necessary. What I dispute is that the current circumstances merit this level of state control.

Covid-19 is not the Black Death. It’s a nasty respiratory illness with an infection fatality ratio that’s probably about ten times greater than seasonal flu, although flu is more dangerous to children. But we now have vaccines, and the UK and Australia have fully vaccinated a sizeable majority of their populations. It was wrong to say, in the early days of the pandemic, that this disease was “just flu”. But armed with the vaccine, the comparison is apt.
And yet Australia can’t seem to find an off-ramp, despite the human misery resulting from its punitive restrictions. To give one example: in May this year, Sarah Haider and her husband, Moe, were in quarantine in a Brisbane hotel when she experienced pregnancy complications at 30 weeks and was taken to hospital.

Sarah gave birth to their son, Ilyas, without her husband present, since he was prevented from leaving the hotel with her. Ilyas was born by emergency C-section, and Sarah was not allowed to hold her baby, or even look at him, since he was delivered behind a surgical curtain and then immediately removed from the room.

She spent eight days confined to a Covid quarantine ward, separated from her newborn. Both parents were double-vaccinated and both had tested negative for the disease upon arrival in Brisbane. But “we can’t afford to take risks” Queensland’s health minister, Yvette D’Ath, said when asked about the case. The paperclip maximiser was intent on its goal.

The Australian critic Clive James once quipped that the problem with his countrymen wasn’t “that so many of them are descended from convicts, but that so many are descended from prison officers”. This has never felt truer.

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This article appears in the 09 Dec 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special