The era of unprecedented ignorance
What else could go wrong? First, we had a global pandemic. Then we had to deal with the devastating impacts of harsh health restrictions designed – we were told – to protect us. Instead, they resulted in a mental health crisis, years of lost learning for our kids, and the crushing of small businesses.
In my home state of Victoria, the situation is even worse.
The number of people awaiting vital surgery could fill the Melbourne Cricket Ground, and newly leaked documents show numerous Victorians have recently died waiting for their 000 call to be answered. Cost-of-living pressures are hitting families hard as the price of fuel and food sky-rockets, but the Andrews Labor Government continues to raise taxes to fund its massive infrastructure blowouts: $24 billion since coming to office.
As if to top it all off, we have a full-scale war threatening in Eastern Europe with the potential to reorganise the international order for the worse.
At every step of the way over the last two years, our leaders have been at pains to tell us how unprepared they are for these crises. The Covid pandemic was ‘unprecedented’ – we’ve heard it a thousand times. Now, the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine is ‘unthinkable’ – the word is repeated again and again in television news bulletins, on social media, and in print.
And yet, few things have more precedents throughout history than plagues and wars. Our unpreparedness is an indictment, which led to rushed decision-making, massive Covid policy failures, and a scramble to arm Ukraine when its vulnerability had been obvious for years.
Why so many members of our ruling elite were ‘surprised’ that a pandemic hit us is genuinely baffling. A global pandemic has been the eventuality atop every Western government’s risk matrix for at least the last fifteen years; widely recognised as a more significant threat than terrorism or Global Warming.
With greater connectedness through globalisation, it is just too obvious. Pandemics were always going to happen, as they have a thousand times throughout history, often with far more severity than Covid.
Only a historical illiterate could ever say that plagues and pandemics are ‘unprecedented’, or that the responses to them are not largely obvious: including the closure of borders to arrivals from infected areas.
The Netherlands shut itself off from England in 1563, avoiding a severe plague. Spain did the same to France in 1720 and managed to avoid the savage Marseille plague.
Here in Victoria, Daniel Andrews has justified his cack-handed and authoritarian response to Covid by repeatedly saying there’s no ‘play-book’ for a pandemic. This is another Andrews lie.
As with pandemics, so it is with war. Why should we be surprised?
Please don’t misunderstand me. The inevitability of armed conflict between global actors in no way lessens its horrors. Realism in foreign affairs enables us to be prepared for events that – whilst appalling – are able to be foreseen and therefore planned for. Conflict between Russian and Ukraine is certainly one such event, having occurred so many times throughout history.
Since the 17th century, the Russian tsars were called the rulers of Great, Little, and White Russia (Little Russia referring to modern-day Ukraine). Ukraine, and its capital Kyiv, has always been vital to Russia’s quest for identity.
Even if leaders didn’t know this, the Russian annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbas region have clearly telegraphed Russian intent in Ukraine for the best part of a decade. War there is tragic. Yet, unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last ten years, it is no surprise.
Post the fall of communism in the late 80s and early 90s, progressives told us that a new world order of never-ending peace and prosperity had been ushered in – the ‘end of history’. Free trade and economic interdependence made war impossible. This was always rubbish. Dangerous rubbish.
It was also just a re-run of earlier, demonstrably incorrect, arguments.
Progressives – so-called Whigs – pushed the very same idea in the very early 20th century after a long period of peace in Europe and again following the Industrial Revolution. War was unthinkable, we were told, as advanced nations were too economically interconnected. Then came the carnage of the first world war.
Despite the dreamings of those on the left, we have not reached – nor will we ever reach – Utopia. Read the Bible. Read the Koran. Read any great religious text, or any work of philosophy. The fact is, life is suffering.
Human ingenuity will continue to provide cures for diseases. We can (and should) try to neuter the baser instincts of humanity and its leaders.
The last two years have demonstrated the futility of Utopian thinking founded upon the arrogant notion that we are the first generation in all human history to be able to tame not just ourselves but also pathogens: those tiny war-mongers.
There will be more wars and more pandemics. Recognising this immutable fact will allow us to prepare, unlike this time.
Dr Matthew Bach MP is the Victorian Shadow Attorney-General and Shadow Minister for Child Protection and Youth Justice.