OPINION

COVID-19 shows us big fixes need big ideas

POSSIBILITIES: Now's the time to consider what problems we might solve if we tackled them like we have COVID. Picture: Shutterstock
POSSIBILITIES: Now's the time to consider what problems we might solve if we tackled them like we have COVID. Picture: Shutterstock

Back in the early days of COVID, when there was still a mainstream audience for claims of beat-up and overreaction, people who didn't want to encourage any more government spending used to point out that flu killed lots of people every year and we didn't make a fuss about that.

That view missed the mark even then, and it's aged badly. But they did have a point ... even if it's not the one they thought they were making.

In 2019, Australia had about 300,000 cases of flu and 800-odd deaths from it; in 2020, we had about 20,000 cases and very few deaths, because COVID precautions also worked to prevent flu.

It turns out that flu deaths weren't a fundamental constant of nature. They were a choice we were making (choosing not to wear masks, choosing to gather in large numbers, and so on), except that we didn't know we were making a choice because we hadn't noticed there was an issue. People do get used to things, even when it's people dying in large numbers.

I grew up in the 60s, and I didn't at the time see the era as a slaughterhouse. Nobody did. We would have said, if asked, that we lived in a golden age of medicine that put our ancestors to shame. And that was true, too, compared to what went before. Even though the death rates of the 1960s, if they came back now, would mean another 100,000 Australians dropping dead from heart disease every year - a toll that would make COVID look like a cat scratch.

Hindsight's a wonderful thing, but you can have hindsight about hindsight, and it's really rare to see a society that can notice what's wrong at the time it's happening. We did get ahead of car accidents and cigarettes, where activists were able to change our perceptions of risk, but that's about it. Generally, people don't get agitated about long-standing menaces, only new ones.

And that is, to a large extent, why long-standing menaces continue. It's hard to develop a sense of urgency to mount a national campaign to wipe out a condition we've always taken for granted anyway.

So here's the challenge. What are we taking for granted now that we shouldn't? We put our minds to COVID, and it looks as if we're going to be able to get that under control in a year or so. What's next?

So here's the challenge. What are we taking for granted now that we shouldn't? We put our minds to COVID, and it looks as if we're going to be able to get that under control in a year or so. What's next?

Malaria hasn't killed as many people as COVID this year, but it's been on the job for thousands of years longer and it adds up. We could abolish malaria worldwide if we wanted to, for a fraction of what we've spent on COVID.

By and large, of course, Australians don't get malaria. If we wanted to keep our good deeds local, what then?

We could wipe out child poverty, we could end homelessness (actually, we did a pretty good job on both of those during the "all in it together" time a few months ago, but then we seemed to get frightened by our own boldness and we're talking about winding it back).

We could fix our carbon problem by paying coal miners to stay home and not dig coal (there are a lot fewer coal miners than there are baristas, and it worked for them).

But can we afford it? Well, we just did. We spent billions - worldwide, trillions - on something that wasn't in anyone's forward budget. It didn't increase inflation, or drive up interest rates, which are now trending into minus figures because the world literally has more money than it knows what to do with.We have the money - we need the big ideas.

We should begin each morning by looking out the window and saying, "let's borrow a billion dollars and fix something." We should judge politicians by how ambitious their visions are. We should face up to the reality that reality is a damn sight more flexible than we think it is.

We're not going to be able to fix everything. In Star Trek, they can produce everything they want out of the replicators, and there's still enough conflict to keep the Enterprise crew busy. But the problems of Star Trek are more interesting than ours - that's why we watch it - and we shouldn't settle for anything less.

Denis Moriarty is group managing director of OurCommunity.com.au, a social enterprise helping Australia's 600,000 not-for-profits.

This story COVID-19 shows us big fixes need big ideas first appeared on The Canberra Times.