Things to remember from our year to forget

We mustn’t let the hoopla around the New Year distract us from 2020’s real lessons.

Pretty well everyone on the planet, I would think, will be glad to see the end of 2020. It’s fair to assume that numbers of Australians, within pandemic rules or not, will gather in spectacular public parties in an effort to forget the past 12 months and dream of a fire-free, virus-free 2021.

I won’t be one of them. Years ago, New Year celebrations were just a street party, if that, and everyone loved the odd fireworks display. Now, as cities everywhere strive like idiots to put on the biggest show yet, the fireworks are as common as bombs in Beirut. I’m with the family pooch – over them.

Last year Sydney’s bridge show went ahead as planned while the rest of the city was under a fire emergency. In 2020 it’s happening in a pandemic despite the potential for super-spreader events. What does it take to stop the madness? Should addicted city authorities be sent into rehab?

Supporters of these events argue that they help people put past troubles behind them and get on with their lives. But they’re escapism writ large. 2020’s fires, pandemic spread and social and political upheavals are manifestations of much bigger things afoot, which we’ll never put behind us so long as we don’t face up to them.

Take race relations. Toxic anti-Asian sentiment was just part of the racial divide that festered through 2020. Most Australians ignore the dark side of our colonial past, but Indigenous people cannot. We won’t begin to address that history of violent dispossession and unfair, unequal treatment until governments meet Indigenous people halfway and yield some authority to them.

Or the inequality gap between rich and poor, which became worse during the pandemic. A Grattan Institute analysis last August concluded that negative impacts from community infections, public health measures and government financial relief in Australia fell disproportionately on poorer citizens, those in casual work and those living in public housing.

Health economist Stephen Duckett concluded: “The pandemic has shown that we have failed at protecting at least three quarters of the ‘quartet of the vulnerable’ – the widow, the orphan, the immigrant and the impoverished.”

In the US, a recent Institute for Policy Studies report includes the astonishing calculation that if Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos gave an end-of-year bonus of $88,000 to each of his 810,000 US workers, he would still have more money than he did at the pandemic’s outset. Yet Bezos pays less tax than the lowest-paid Amazon worker.

Before I’m accused of spoiling everyone’s party, there were positive things to take from 2020. The role of science in government got a huge boost here in Australia, as it did in every country where a serious effort was made to stop the virus’s spread.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison got a foretaste of the importance of this during last summer’s bushfires, when he was roundly condemned – to the point of people refusing to shake his hand – for missing or downplaying all the stark warning signs about an unfolding climate crisis.

When the coronavirus arrived, he was primed. In contrast to his attitude to climate science, he listened hard at the outset to pandemic advice. Apart from some false starts and sporadic resistance to state lockdowns and border closures, he allowed experts free rein to dictate what was to be done.

As 2020 draws to a close, global case numbers have passed 80 million and US cases approach 20 million – one case for every 17 citizens – while Australian cases number about 28,300, or one case per 900-odd citizens. Our COVID-19 death toll is just over 900, or one in 28,000 of our population. In the US about 340,000 people have died – more than one in 1000.

There it is, laid out bare in the data: the stark difference between acting on scientific advice and relegating it to a back room.

Sound, fearless, evidence-based advice about what’s happening around us is a treasure that governments spurn at everyone’s peril. It is a relief to know that Australian leaders are capable of receiving and acting on unpalatable advice when this has proven so elusive elsewhere.

Surely those solid rewards from heeding the science of disease epidemics are not lost on the PM. Surely he now realises the potential benefits of heeding what science says about the state of the planet.

Whatever is in his mind about a resolution for the New Year, it ought to include putting aside the fireworks, the growth forecasts, the political manoeuvres and other such fantasies, and giving his full attention to what’s real.

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