Lockdown by Chip Le Grand (2022) 234 p.

Plenty of people were surprised to see I was reading this, and were happy to express an opinion on what they’d rather do, usually of the arm-in-a-woodchipper variety. Nobody enjoyed the Melbourne lockdowns, even though most of us thought they were necessary, and whatever your political opinions on the matter at the time the prevailing mood now is that it was a shitty period in our lives which we’re just happy to move on from. I totally understand that sentiment, but on the other hand: it was a hugely unprecedented, intensely strange and (not to be a drama queen about it) deeply traumatic time in Melbourne’s history, and therefore in our lives. It would be kind of weird if we never looked back on it at all. It’s a period which deserves thoughtful reflection, a careful examination of the decisions which were made at all levels of government, and a consideration of what it meant as a collective experience. Unfortunately you won’t find much of that in Chip Le Grand’s Lockdown, a book which presents itself as a piece of serious investigative journalism and occasionally manages to accomplish that, but is for the most cherry-picked, agenda-driven and fundamentally shallow, serving only to arrive at the conclusion Le Grand had clearly already settled on when he was on the editorial board at the Age in 2020 and 2021, let alone by the time he was sending this off to the editors in 2022. That conclusion, more or less, is a vague and insipid notion that we went too hard and too far, an unspoken implication maybe we should’ve been a bit more like Germany and Sweden, without actually having the guts to present the facts on what that would’ve entailed or what it would’ve meant for Australia at large.

Let’s begin with that last part, in fact. It’s fair enough that a book focusing on the uniquely long lockdown experience of Melbourne and Victoria should, well, focus on Melbourne and Victoria: but Le Grand comes as close as possible to ignoring the existence of the rest of Australia, continually implying that the policies Victoria pursued were determined in Spring Street alone. Early on he bemoans the existence of a false “binary proposition: either you supported protracted lockdowns in pursuit of COVID-zero – an epidemiological nirvana where you have no local transmission of the virus – or you supported no public health interventions at all.” Describing COVID-zero as a “nirvana” (the first of many weasel words creeping into a supposedly objective book) implies that it was an impossible heavenly dream, automatically presenting it as an un-serious option. It ignores the fact that at the time that policy (framed as “no community transmission”) was unanimously agreed upon by National Cabinet, in June 2020, Victoria was the only state failing to achieve it. Every other jurisdiction bar New South Wales was already joyously revelling in its fruits, and New South Wales was only experiencing outbreaks – about a dozen or so a day, which they would keep under control with contact tracing and then eliminate by October – because Victoria’s hotel quarantine breaches had spread across the Murray. This is merely the first of many times Le Grand implies that Victoria should have pursued a suppression policy, which would’ve required less aggressive interventions, rather than an elimination policy. If Victoria were an island nation-state in the South Pacific, that would be a perfectly valid point. It is not. It is the second-largest state in the federal Commonwealth of Australia, bound not just by geography but by supply lines; while the other states could close their borders to us for non-essential travel, they could not reasonably do so for freight, and if we’d bucked the trend and gone softly on policy and accepted thousands of cases a day, those other states would not have remained COVID-free for long. (This basic fact was made plain in mid-2021, when the hubris of New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian allowed a Sydney outbreak to spiral out of control and ultimately condemned Victoria to another long, hard winter lockdown.) Nor was it a secret to Victorians in mid-2020 that Australia in general, compared to the outside world, was a COVID-free paradise. In July 2020 I watched a BBC News package about pubs reopening, with capacity limits and ordering from QR codes and social distancing remaining in force, all that general anxiety of “living with” a strange new virus nobody was vaccinated against, a bleak mockery of returning to “normal”; and I also looked at Instagram and Facebook and saw my friends and family in Western Australia (or basically any other part of Australia plus New Zealand) gloriously living life as though it were 2019 again. I knew which outcome I wanted Victoria to strive towards. The decision of the state government to agree to a national de facto COVID-zero policy was not just a matter of patriotic altruism: it was an acknowledgement of the fact that the other states would fiercely defend their COVID-free status, and that if we couldn’t get our own situation in hand we would be cut off from the rest of the country indefinitely. To present that policy decision in isolation (and later in the book Le Grand will, irrelevantly, compare Victoria’s death rates to other nation-states) is either naive or dishonest. This Victorian solipsism feeds into Le Grand’s engagement in the very same Sydney/Melbourne-centric thinking that has long plagued Australia and continued to plague us during the actual plague: as Bernard Keane put it at Crikey, a view that Victoria and New South Wales are the only places that matter and “what happens outside the south-eastern corner of the country is seen as a provincial eccentricity at best.” In describing what it meant to lock down Melbourne, Le Grand presents this deeply weird passage:

Before the pandemic, greater Melbourne had just nudged past five million people and was forecast to overtake Sydney as Australia’s most populous city. Not everyone was comfortable with how fast Melbourne was growing and but it was a measure of the city’s success that so many people wanted to come here: to live, to study, and just to have fun. Where the economy of Western Australia is built on digging stuff out of the ground and selling it overseas, are two largest export industries are education and tourism. Put another way, our primary business is bringing people here, in massive numbers, through temporary migration schemes. At least, it was before the pandemic.

It’s extremely dishonest to stick the word export before the word industries and then claim that tourism and education are Victoria’s “primary business” (neither are – or ever were – anywhere close to it). But never mind the bean counting: it’s just deeply weird and very telling to insert an irrelevant sledge at WA into your explanation of why it was bad for Melbourne to lock down.

WA and its premier Mark McGowan came in for plenty of stick from commentators in Melbourne and Sydney during the whole run of the pandemic, as did Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, for their refusal to open their borders to states suffering COVID outbreaks; strangely, Tasmania and South Australia, which also had strict border rules for much of the crisis, never seemed to cop much flak from the press for preserving not only the lives of their citizens, but also their freedom to attend a packed stadium or sweaty nightclub or a university lecture theatre, and to do so in total safety. Tasmania and SA are both smaller states, so there were fewer sad stories of people being refused entry to see dying families etc; but they also had Liberal governments. Draw your own conclusions. Le Grand, predictably, only has harsh words for McGowan and Palaszczuk. (He also later falsely claims that WA “sealed itself off for nearly two years from the rest of Australia;” in 2021 WA’s borders were only closed to the two states recording cases, not the other three, which is why I watched on social media as my friends and family members went holidaying in the Northern Territory and Queensland; but I shouldn’t really be surprised that someone like Le Grand considers Victoria and New South Wales to comprise “the rest of Australia.”) I personally think it’s extremely poor form to say (or actually imply, because he never has the cojones to outright say it) that Melbourne should have just abandoned elimination and run a European-style mitigation policy, but also that it was selfish and un-Australian for the COVID-free states to protect their own. “Parochial” was a word that got thrown around a lot during the pandemic by people in Sydney and Melbourne. That means “having a limited or narrow outlook or scope,” and that shit runs both ways.

And I know I’ve been harping on about this for a while now, but I think it’s indicative of Le Grand’s unexamined bias that permeates every aspect of the book, and this one really annoyed me: possibly the most irritating demonstration of WA-bashing in the book is Le Grand’s sympathy for the two Melbourne Demons supporters who were jailed in Perth after engineering an elaborate plot to travel to the Northern Territory, change their driver’s licenses, and then enter Western Australia in order to attend the relocated AFL Grand Final; across the book Le Grand cracks the violin out for them no less than three times, noting that “the Demons had not won a premiership for fifty-seven years,” as though anybody gives a fuck, and demonstrating that he not only doesn’t care about the majority of Australians who don’t live in Melbourne or Sydney but also has his finger nowhere near the pulse of general public sentiment: the attitude of Western Australians towards those two was that they were reckless fuckheads, and the attitude of Victorians towards them was that they were entitled fuckheads. But just as you can determine Le Grand’s voting habits from the way he talks about Dan Andrews, you can determine which team he barracks for by his repeated use of this incident (of all things!) as a demonstration that WA had lost the plot. It’s weird and it’s telling.

Anyway, let’s move away from the negative for a moment and focus on one thing Le Grand does well: the third chapter, Woefully Unprepared, in which he actually engages in the kind of good local investigative journalism the Age used to be useful for. This is a chapter which focuses on two of Australia’s biggest objective failings of the pandemic, certainly the two biggest in Victoria: our inferior contact tracing system and our poorly-managed hotel quarantine system, which together were to blame for the second wave that plunged Victoria back into lockdown while the rest of the country spent the rest of the year in that COVID-zero “nirvana,” or something very close to it. Much anger ensued from the comments of then-prime minister Scott Morrison (already deservedly in Australia’s bad books because he more or less relinquished all responsibility to the states and became the invisible man during the pandemic) that New South Wales had a “gold standard” contact tracing system, which stung in part because it was true: over and over again, New South Wales managed to contain and eliminate outbreaks while Victoria fumbled. Why that was so is extremely complicated in the way that only a situation involving the public health bureaucracy can be – and no doubt a firmer answer will emerge in the inquiries and royal commissions to come – but the short answer is that New South Wales simply had a better-funded and decentralised public health system that understood its local communities better and could more easily scale up a department to handle an obscure practice better-known from the (relatively glacial, compared to a respiratory disease) HIV crisis of the 1980s and 1990s; whereas Victoria’s health department, after decades of cuts and restructuring by governments on both sides of politics, was blindsided. The hotel security guard issue is a bit murkier (and again, Le Grand only contrasts it against New South Wales, ignoring that other states also used contracted private security guards without issues) but appears to boil down to departmental buck passing. It’s clearly a deeply complex story and I don’t necessarily trust Le Grand’s account to be unbiased, since he certainly isn’t elsewhere, but it’s good nonetheless to see him take a solid crack at it. The contact tracing and hotel quarantine failures are arguably the most impactful public policy catastrophes of our lifetimes, and it feels strange that most Victorians probably still don’t know anything about it.

It’s also good, in theory, of Le Grand to focus on the underexamined vulnerable populations. He opens another chapter with an anorexic who suffered severe deterioration during lockdown, and in discussing outbreaks in aged care homes (a major driver of deaths in the 2020 wave and another major failing of both state and federal government) also argues that in attempting to protect “the elderly” at all costs we robbed them of what made life worth living in their final years. This is a fair point on the face of it, but drifts towards the morally gross yet dismayingly prevalent notion that COVID was only ever a danger to 90-year-olds with but a few years left to go at the nursing home anyway. Le Grand doesn’t deign to give a voice to the 60-somethings or the 70-somethings or the 80-somethings who weren’t in nursing homes, which is most of them; the people at high risk of death from COVID who were living full and active lives but wouldn’t have been if the virus had been running as rampant as it was in most other countries: forced to cut themselves off, pre-vaccination, from the rest of society for their own safety. Nor do we hear from the disabled, the immunocompromised, the cancer patients, the organ donor recipients and all the other people who fit into the category of “vulnerable,” who lived otherwise normal lives but – had they been living in a laissez-faire zone like the US or UK – similarly would have had to withdraw from society. Le Grand simply ignores them, preferring to imagine a more convenient world in which the people we were trying to protect didn’t actually want our help at all. This is not to say that the experiences of the young, the anorexic, and the nursing-home-bound are not worth telling: of course they are. But to fail to balance that with the other side (and in terms of numbers, I’m not sure it is a “side”) is dishonest and frankly gross.

Le Grand further puts his thumb on the scale with talk of “protracted lockdowns.” That was something which only became clear in mid-2021, after New South Wales’ fuck-up. The Victorian government was not sat down at the start of the pandemic and informed precisely what the outcome of its policies would be, in terms of days in lockdown vs days of COVID-zero freedom. Hindsight is 20/20, and from our emergence in the spring of 2020 to the onset of Australia’s FedEx-delivered Delta outbreak in May/June 2021, life in this country was pretty fucking sweet. Unlike in Europe (much of which spent the winter in lockdown or semi-lockdown) or North America, you didn’t have to worry about catching the virus; you didn’t have to enter every situation with a personal risk assessment or a consideration about which disabled or elderly friend or relative you might pass it on to because you went to the pub. I missed out on Christmas 2020 with some extended family in Sydney because they live on the Northern Beaches, a neighbourhood which went into lockdown for a few weeks (Australia’s biggest lockdown, during that period) after an outbreak; but since half of Europe was back in hard lockdown at that point it hardly seemed unfair, and by mid-January the good burghers of Narrabeen and Dee Why were back at their gyms and cafes. Australia’s states and territories had gladly coalesced around the notion that – at least for the time being – COVID-zero was worth preserving and a short, sharp lockdown beat a long, protracted one. (I still remember watching BBC Breakfast – at work, not for fun – and seeing the hosts amazed that Melbourne went into lockdown during the Australian Open for just “a single case;” as British journalist Mike Bird who was based in COVID-zero Hong Kong noted, this suggested people still didn’t quite grasp the whole “pandemic” thing.)

This is something which bothers me a lot about the armchair rear-window critics of Australia and New Zealand’s elimination strategy: a consideration only of COVID deaths vs the costs of lockdown, never taking into account the (considerable) time we spent out of lockdown in a society that was by default much freer than anywhere else in the Western world, and the benefits that came from having that. Le Grand spends several pages on the impact of the snap Melbourne lockdown announced before a Sunday Valentine’s Day in Melbourne in 2021, and fair enough, those would’ve been devastating – but would those business operators have preferred to be in London across that timeframe? A better journalist, when posing the question, might have asked them that, or even asked restaurateurs in London (or Berlin or New York or whatever), instead of just airing the grievances of Melbourne hospitality operators who concede that it was necessary to save lives but ignore that (and this applies to a discussion of any aspect of COVID-zero policy) it was never a choice between lockdown and business as usual. If the virus were rampant, it doesn’t matter if a bar or restaurant or nightclub were allowed to open: you would not be seeing the same patronage you did in 2019. Le Grand himself cites movement data tracked by Jack Thompson at the University of Melbourne, showing that immediately after snap lockdowns it took quite some time for life to return to the city as it had been before. Le Grand presents this as a criticism of the COVID-zero policy rather than a demonstration that people were scared of the virus. What, I wonder, would that movement data have looked like if Victoria were recording hundreds or thousands of cases a day like the rest of the world, in a country where very few people had yet had the opportunity to get vaccinated? I know I certainly wouldn’t have been doing much. As it stands, instead, I spent that summer and spring at beer festivals and movie theatres and restaurants and a very rewarding in-person internship, secure in the knowledge that there was no COVID anywhere near me. It’s perfectly fair to examine the costs of extended lockdowns and ask whether it was a worthwhile transaction; but to consider “lives saved” as your only metric in the positive column, with no consideration of the other benefits, is simply dishonest.

Lockdown contains some good examinations of the failures of the Victorian public service and the Victorian government, and it’s not exactly a polemic; but it’s certainly a book littered with inaccuracies, blind spots, an anti-Labor bias that keeps appearing like rising damp, and a tiresomely predictable failure to consider that the rest of the country exists and matters beyond New South Wales and maybe Queensland. Most annoyingly of all, it increasingly feels like its conclusions were reverse-engineered; a pre-determined outcome informed by the personal opinions Le Grand formed during the lockdowns rather than any of the investigations and interviews he conducted while writing it. There will be better books by better journalists to come about the unique and bizarre experience Victorians endured – but this one, I think, is ultimately destined for the bargain bin and the pulping machine.