Former PM Tony Abbott has made some baffling and alarming comments in a recent speech in London, calling for the government to consider economics over actual human lives.
"So far, with Sweden the most notable exception, governments have approached the pandemic like trauma doctors instead of thinking like health economists, trained to pose uncomfortable questions about a level of deaths we might have to live with," he said, questioning if we should “preserve almost any life at any cost”.
He then did some 'maths': “Even if mandatory shutdown [in Australia] really was all that avoided the initially predicted 150,000 deaths, that still works out at about $2 million per life saved. And if the average age of those who would have died is 80, even with roughly 10 years of expected life left, that’s still $200,000 per quality life year or substantially beyond what governments are usually prepared to pay for life-saving drugs,” Abbott said. Ugh, we’ll leave you to read between the lines.
Many have found Abbott’s lax attitude to matters of life and death a bit hypocritical. In 2017, Abbott referred to the passing of Victorian assisted dying legislation a “dreadful moral watershed”, and just last year decried NSW reproductive rights legislation as “infanticide on demand”.
In any case, Tony thinks we should “relax the rules so that individuals can take more personal responsibility and make more of their own decisions about the risks they're prepared to run”, taking a swipe at “unaccountable experts” while he was at it.
It’s worth noting that Australia has mounted one of the most successful responses to the COVID-19 pandemic in the world, likely because of an expert-led response. “It’s a case of politicians just not being in the way,” virologist Ian Mackay told the New York Times back in April. He says Australia’s success has been “a mix of things, but [thinks] it comes down to taking advice based on expertise.”
Abbott, by the way, does not have any medical, epidemiological or health-related qualifications.
And while Tony’s riff on ‘personal responsibility’ is intriguing to begin with, it’s become abundantly clear that when it comes to this pandemic we can’t just rely on ourselves.
For example, even if a locked-down Victorian was to follow every public health directive to a tee, their housemate who decides to flout the rules will probably get infected before infecting them too. These measures only work if we work together. As Victoria's Chief Health Officer has said, "the sacrifice we make as individuals is to protect everyone across the board". Tony’s ‘every man for himself’ individualism would probably put us in a similar situation to the US, which ranks as the most individualistic country in the world – and the most deadly.
Maybe the answer is to find a way to balance community health outcomes with the pandemic's economic impact; and civil liberties with a broader set of community restrictions.
The good news is that's exactly what we've been doing.
If your head is a little scrambled, make sure you pop over to WHO.int to get all of your official COVID-19 updates.
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