It’s just a week since the video of three women yelling and fighting over toilet rolls in a supermarket in the Sydney suburb of Chullora went viral.
Last Sunday evening, the day after the Chullora incident, about 87,000 people attended the Melbourne Cricket Ground to watch the final of the women’s T20 cricket World Cup in which Australia defeated India.
So, here’s the paradox. Two women engage in an alleged affray amid widespread concern about toilet roll supplies at a time of COVID-19 — and receive international coverage. But the fact that close to 90,000 people attended a public function in spite of awareness of the virus is barely commented on.
The evidence suggests the vast majority of Australians are reacting to the presence of COVID-19 in their midst in a considered and responsible way. There appears to be an increase in handwashing, a positive move in any circumstance.
Beyond that, Australians are using public transport. Most have followed the advice of the Chief Medical Officer, Brendan Murphy, that apart from those dealing directly with the virus it is not necessary to wear face masks. And most supermarkets have not been drained of produce. Even so, some with an ideological axe to grind have used the medical emergency to express their alienation about contemporary Australia.
Even before “the battle of Chullora”, sections of the left saw empty toilet roll shelves as a sign of the nation’s plight. On March 3, ABC Radio presenter Wendy Harmer tweeted that this was “a testament to all those selfish, shiny arses we live with”. In short, Harmer has nothing but contempt for many Australians.
The following day, the normally considered Crikey columnist Bernard Keane tweeted, with reference to the rush on toilet paper buying, that “Australia is suffering a moronavirus not a coronavirus epidemic”. We don’t know why some people sought to stock up on a product which has no causal link with COVID-19. A misjudgment about the proper response to a virus does not justify an assertion that morons have taken over the land.
Also on March 4, ABC Radio National presenter Jonathan Green tweeted: “They panic-buy toilet paper and they vote; just sayin”. But who are “they”? Those who have cleared shelves of toilet paper may have better judgment about some social, economic and political matters than the likes of Green.
It seems Green would like to ban certain groups from participating in the democratic process at election time. However, the success of Australia under most Coalition and Labor governments indicates that Australians make reasoned choices when it comes to lodging their vote.
It is true that some conservative or right-of-centre types — the likes of Sydney broadcaster Ben Fordham and Melbourne columnist Rita Panahi — have condemned panic-buying. But not with the sense of alienation exhibited by some on the left.
Queensland One Nation senator Malcolm Roberts weighed into the debate with a tweet illustrating empty toilet roll shelves in a supermarket. His message was “Australia gets a taste of socialism”. This overlooks the fact that empty shelves in socialist or communist societies are invariably a sign of a lack of supply. Not panic-buying.
As early as March 3, Guardian Australia columnist Van Badham saw the toilet roll rush as “a powerful symptom of general mistrust in the capacity of Scott Morrison’s leadership and his Liberal-National government to protect Australians from danger”.
According to this view, it’s all the Prime Minister’s fault. But if, as Badham believes, Australians do not feel safe under Morrison’s leadership, then surely their priority would be to panic-buy such necessities as food. For the most part this has not happened.
Indications are that, so far at least, Australians have reacted responsibly to the pandemic . Just as our predecessors reacted responsibly to the influenza pandemic that afflicted the nation in 1918-19, killing 15,000.
Morrison and Health Minister Greg Hunt have acted responsibly in accepting advice from health authorities on how to limit the spread of the virus. Health specialists have performed up to the high standards we expect of them.
And Josh Frydenberg has produced a comprehensible economic plan primarily designed to protect businesses (particularly small ones) and private-sector employment. It’s public servants who enjoy job security in economic downturns.
All this has come about with the broad, if not universal, support of Anthony Albanese and the Labor opposition. It’s a tough job for any government to strike the right balance between minimising the spread of COVID-19 and maintaining confidence but the Morrison government has done well.
On Thursday, the Prime Minister announced he would be going to the football this weekend. Since then he has accepted advice non-essential gatherings should be limited to 500 people, as of Monday. Australia survived the influenza pandemic a century ago and will get through this one as well. Give or take occasional panic-buying.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute. Read his Media Watch Dog blog at www.theaustralian.com.au