Who Has to Die? The Question of the Right to Live with Covid-19
Posted on September 28, 2021
It started with an atypical Facebook rant I read whose rhetoric soon took a turn for the weird. Expressing anger at the Victorian government, its policy of lockdowns and its impact on the young it said, “They’ve lived their lives,” referring to those aged in their seventies and beyond. “Death is at their doorstep,” open-up and let others live.
Indeed, the Covid-19 debate these past few months in Australia has seen a shift. Over a year ago I wrote about this devil’s math when the issue of “living with Covid” was still conjecture. I compared it to the eugenic notion of survival of the fittest as a sociological tool. I compared it to the euthanasia policies of 1930s Germany where the weak and mentally infirm were killed in carbon monoxide vans. I concluded that living with Covid-19 without a vaccinated herd broke every rule of civilised society.
We’ve seen the impact on countries who’ve tried to live with Covid. One in 500 Americans are now dead, a former French health minister has been arrested for “endangering life”, the Canadian province of Alberta has apologised for “getting it wrong”, the Swedish experiment has failed, and death tolls seen throughout Europe, the subcontinent and Asia have been incredulous.
By intent, living with Covid in Australia till now has meant living “Covid-zero”. Albeit for New Zealand, its international borders have remained closed. Each state and territory, bar one, has beaten Covid-19 including its Delta strain through hard lockdown.
That was until this year, when in June, the New South Wales government unilaterally changed course and let the country’s first Delta outbreak run free. “Lockdowns are not the Sydney way,” NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said.
By the time Delta’s caseload had forced that state into lockdown, it had crossed the border into Victoria who fought it to zero, only to see it breakout anew. Today, Victoria sits locked down. Its Delta numbers are on an upward trajectory towards 1,000 community cases a day, matching NSW’s.
Berejiklian was the first Australian premier to declare the policy of Covid-zero over. It came with prime ministerial support. What’s shaken the Australian conversation, however, is that Victoria’s premier Daniel Andrews has joined them. Once the deliverer of doughnut days, Covid-zero is no longer Victorian policy while other states and territories remain zero-firm.
Stepping back to July this year Australia’s National Cabinet, comprising all states and territories, signed off on a plan calling for the reopening of their constituencies based on vaccination targets determined by a think tank called the Doherty Institute.
Doherty modelled an Australian population aged 16-plus at various inoculation rates. It defined “full vaccination” as receiving two-doses of either Pfizer or AstraZeneca.
Modelling focused on Covid’s Alpha strain—half as virulent as Delta. Doherty advised that at 70% double-vaccination and at 80% double-vaccination, Australia could reopen in some form so long as case numbers remained low and testing, contact tracing, isolation and quarantine (TTIQ) ran side-by-side.
It’s just that this modelling was conceptually opaque, somewhat vague and not reflective of NSW’s uncontrolled Delta status, nor did it quantify a “herd”. It was sufficient though to formulate a National Plan, and Gladys Berejiklian used it to release a roadmap pronouncing the end of living Covid-free.
Just days later, Daniel Andrews released his roadmap too. Victoria’s lockdown would end at 70% two-doses, while living with Covid would begin at 80%—but with a catch. Andrews first called in the Burnet Institute, another think tank, to check Doherty’s math. His concerns were threefold: Would Victoria’s Covid cases surge? Could its hospitals cope? And what might a surge mean in terms of Victorians’ health?
Burnet’s findings were chilling. It said that Victoria’s hospital and intensive care systems could be overwhelmed, and that Covid cases and deaths per day by 2022 could each number in the thousands; Burnet’s modelling did test against the Delta strain.
Nonetheless Andrews said, “We are opening up, no doubt about that, and there will be no turning back.” Referring to community Covid fear he said, “We have got to normalise this. We have got to pass through and beyond this pandemic … There will be pain.”
Which begs the obvious question. “Pass through” to what “normal”?
If reopening bodes an enormous Covid death toll, then who do Berejiklian and Andrews intend should die? From this we derive the ethical conundrum:
Does an Australian government have the right to sacrifice anyone to a virus at all?
Victoria’s constitution, and enshrining legislation, clearly prevent it from doing anything that puts the lives of its citizens in danger. The Victorian Equal Opportunity & Human Rights Commission paraphrases the state’s “Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities” as follows:
Every person has the right to life, and public authorities in Victoria must respect your right to life when using force, delivering medical treatment …
A reading of section 9 of the Act says:
Every person has the right to life and has the right not to be arbitrarily deprived of life.
Where subsection 7 says:
A human right may be subject under law only to such reasonable limits as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society based on human dignity, equality and freedom, and taking into account all relevant factors …
So, we ask. What limits on a Victorian’s right to life might be “justifiably reasonable” and equitable to make a person vulnerable to Covid-19?
The Andrews government might argue that Covid-19’s lockdowns have caused death through domestic violence, suicide and abuse, which is true. It might further legitimately argue that lockdowns have otherwise impaired people’s mental health, childhoods and businesses to their detriment.
But who decides whether the life of a potential suicide victim is worth more than one whose immune system will place them in an ICU or on their kitchen floor where they too might die?
The answer is no one. And no life is worth any business’ bottom line.
The ultimate dilemma then, is whether reopening a state to the risk of lost life, even with vaccination, is reasonable? That answer must depend on whether all reasonable mitigations have been made and in Australia’s case they have not.
Financial relief has been unreliable. Efforts to reduce domestic violence and abuse have been insufficient. National efforts to build and sustain mental wellbeing and community morale have been non-existent. Third dose Covid booster vaccines have not yet rolled out. Children have not yet been inoculated to build a meaningful Australian herd where Doherty’s 80% 16-plus demographic equates to just 64% of the Australian population.
And on this point, Australia has not even modelled the impact of a triple vaccine regimen on the Delta strain. Here, we might find its death toll more flu-like and thereby “medically reasonable” as we accept with the flu each year.
Rather, governments and some media houses have helped sow dissent. Were this an actual geopolitical war, their ad nauseam anti-lockdown, anti-vaccine narratives would be considered fifth columnist.
Voice these questions on social media where this argument began, and whether pushed by political lobbies, business interests or those eager to benefit from conspiracies the response will be vitriolic.
This is not to say that vitriol will not intentionally benefit some politicians. Federal and Victorian elections are due in 2022 and living with Covid makes an easy policy to sell where 24/7 talk can drown out the mourning.
Still, the concept of living with Covid, is deceptive.
“Sacrifice to reopen” is a more apt policy title. At least that aligns with the debate constitutional lawyers may now face in pursuit of preserving life alongside healthcare workers whose endurance will soon be tested.
It’s a debate we must have.
The truth of the matter is that very soon across Australia the fit will die alongside the unfit, the carer alongside the patient, the politician alongside the voter, and the innocent alongside the guilty in a deliberate game where life has been gambled for expediency.
No one will know for whom death will come, nor where the collateral damage will fall. Orphaned children? Divided families? Lost bread winners? Foregone tradition?
Worst of all the National Plan has no end date charting when this death toll will cease. No think tank has yet been asked to predict it.
If you don’t yet know when the killing will stop, how can you have a plan for the living?
© 2021 Adam Parker.