Melbourne ground zero for lockdown harms, says health expert

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A Victorian government spokesperson said it had provided a range of post-pandemic support including reducing barriers for women returning to work, revitalising town centres, dining vouchers to stimulate the hospitality industry, tutors in schools and a $12 billion repair plan for the health system. The state budget allocated $1.3 billion for mental health and wellbeing.

The Great Barrington Declaration, an open letter published in October 2020 and since signed by more than 900,000 people, questioned the wisdom of population-wide measures to reduce the spread of the virus and advocated “focused protection” of the elderly and others most vulnerable to serious COVID-19 disease.

Melbourne in the midst of lockdown six in August 2021.

Melbourne in the midst of lockdown six in August 2021.Credit:Jason South

At public speaking engagements in Melbourne and Sydney this week, Bhattacharya conceded this argument was difficult to prosecute in Australia, one of the few places in the world where, for a time, the virus was eliminated after the initial wave of infections.

He said Australia, particularly Victoria, was a victim of this success, as it made it politically untenable for governments to adopt a different approach – even once the social and economic costs of lockdowns started to mount.

“The COVID-zero response in Australia actually worked in March 2020,” he told a meeting of conservative think tank the Institute of Public Affairs. “You rid the country of the virus and that success led to the misery that followed over the next two years.”

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Speaking at the same event, former prime minister Tony Abbott added his voice to calls for a royal commission into our pandemic response.

“The Morrison government, certainly, can justify its response as mirroring that of nearly every other government and as being more effective in terms of fewer lives lost, but honestly, it is hard to see two years of collective hiding under the doona against a virus as anything to be proud of,” he said. “After two lost years, our resolve must be never, never, never again.”

A poll conducted by Resolve Public Monitor and published this week in The Age indicates that despite Victoria recording more COVID deaths and spending longer in lockdown than any other state during the first two years of the pandemic, the Andrews government is on track to be comfortably returned at the November state election.

The state government lifted this week one of its few remaining COVID public health orders: the requirement to wear masks on public transport.

Bhattacharya’s sharpest criticism of Australia’s approach was directed towards our slow vaccination rollout. He said while the absence of significant outbreaks in late 2020 and early 2021 contributed to a sense of COVID-19 complacency, our use of vaccines was ill-conceived.

Premier Daniel Andrews and Health Minister Mary-Anne Thomas in July.

Premier Daniel Andrews and Health Minister Mary-Anne Thomas in July.Credit:Luis Enrique Ascui

Instead of setting statewide vaccination targets as a pre-condition to lift lockdown, the vaccine program should have been more narrowly aimed at elderly and other vulnerable people, he said. “If the Australian government had followed that path of using the vaccine for focused protection of the old, then you would have avoided a full year and more of lockdown.”

As an outspoken dissenting voice against the prevailing COVID-19 response of developed nations, Bhattacharya said he was subjected to death threats from the public, vilification by colleagues and, at one point, a campaign by US health authorities to discredit his views.

He said it was easier to critically examine pandemic policies now that the COVID crisis had eased but warned against the political reticence of governments to review the decisions they took.

“The fear of the virus is finally starting to subside,” he said. “People are still fighting over the wisdom of lockdowns. There’s still people who want more. But more and more, people have come to realise that those policies have not worked and have been tremendously harmful, and are open to hearing what the harms are.

“I have no interest in pointing fingers, but I do have a very strong interest in having an honest assessment so that we don’t ever do this again. Lockdown should be a dirty word. It should be something we think of and shudder in horror next time we have a pandemic.”

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