Ikea is open today in Sydney from 10am to 9pm. They have an online catalogue and will deliver, but yes, it’s open to us all too. My nearest Bunnings has been open since 6am, and will close 7pm. Tradies (who can keep working) need supplies, and they have cards to prove their work status. But non-tradies can go to Bunnings too and buy whatever they like, no questions about “essentials” or “necessities” asked.
If you want stationary supplies, you can get on down to Officeworks. You might want to sit a while and print some photos while you are there.
Think your garden could so with a makeover? All plant nurseries are open. And what about a haircut? No problem – many are open and your hairdresser, even if he’s Edward Scissorhands, certainly won’t be cutting your hair from 1.5 metres away.
And fancy a new pair of shoes, a shirt or dress? Off you can go to a department store. Furniture? Yep. Open as usual. A new TV to help your isolation? A hair dryer or coffee machine? Sure, go out right now and just walk in. No problems.
But meanwhile, we read stories and hear people calling into radio about being fined, warned or moved on for sitting reading or eating on a park bench or sunbaking, or simply driving – sometimes alone. Police are patrolling beaches and parks.
Yet we aren’t hearing any stories about police frisking shoppers coming out of any of the shops above and quizzing them to explain why each of the goods they have just purchased are essential. The shops haven’t been told to rope off non-essential items. It’s all for sale.
Each time we hear a government official, police spokesperson or politician summarising how we should understand home isolation and self-distancing we hear the litany of food and medicines purchasing, distanced exercising in a maximum of two people (unless in the one family) and visiting family members who live elsewhere, within the guidelines (one person only).
However, the current gazetted NSW guidelines list of 16 “reasonable excuses” starts off with an “excuse” far wider than being out to purchase food and medicines. The first point explains that you can be “obtaining food or other goods or services for the personal needs of the household or other household purposes (including for pets) and for vulnerable persons.” [my italics]
Neither “needs” nor “purposes” are anywhere defined in the guidelines. But Prime Minister Scott Morrison told the country on March 31 that his wife had gone out to purchase jigsaws “Our kids are at home now, as are most kids, and Jenny went out yesterday and bought them a whole bunch of jigsaw puzzles. I can assure you, over the next few months we’re going to consider those jigsaw puzzles absolutely essential.”
Unless he was openly declaring family lawlessness, Morrison’s example role-modeled a process of legitimate individual decision-making: his household regarded non-nutritious or medicinal jigsaws as “absolutely essential” and a justifiable reason for leaving their house. Others might equally regard regularly buying cut flowers, stocking up on new plants for the garden, buying hobby, art or musical instrument supplies as essential to their household “needs”.
The NSW government’s very broad guideline would seem to have been worded in the way it was to provide such latitude. But the contrast with what it states and the constant far narrower emphasis on food, medicines and exercise is stark.
Let me here be emphatic. In concert, quarantine, social isolation and distancing, and the virtual closing of Australia’s borders together appear to be to not only flattening the curve of new cases, but to be quite rapidly reducing the daily rate (see graph below). Importantly too. as an island continent, Australia has very non-porous borders compared with the great majority of the world’s nations in Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Americas where many nations have several land borders.
The changes we have seen in the last week owe a great deal to Australians having taken home isolation very seriously. Citymapper’s global mobility index shows people in Australian cities have dramatically decreased their movement. Sydney for example, has fallen from 121% of normal movement on March 2, to 17% on April 5. As many infectious disease experts have warned, any rapid abandonment of current policies that saw equally dramatic rises in movement (and erosion of self-isolation) could see the fall in daily new cases reverse. And as we have seen in nations like Italy, Spain, France, Germany and the USA, this can be very, very rapid and catastrophic.
It is beyond important that we sustain high levels of home isolation and social distancing when we need or choose to go outside.
The contradictions between the constant narrow framing of where you can go when you leave your house, reports of over-zealous policing directed at individuals engaged in very low risk activities and what the government guidelines currently say we can actually do, risk eroding trust in important government messaging.
People are not stupid. When they are told repeatedly they should only go out for food, medicine or exercise and then see the car park at Bunnings, Ikea and Officeworks chockers with cars and people pushing trolleys, they join the dots that this just doesn’t add up. Maybe the other messaging is shonky too, many will reason. Crying wolf has always been fatal for public health messaging.
Absolute transparency, as far as our current knowledge allows us to go, should be a cardinal principle of all communication in this crisis. It makes no sense that we are told to keep a minimum of 1.5 from others in the street or in shops, then read the truly bizarre “Hairdressers and barbers can continue to operate under strict new rules. The 4 square metre rule and social distancing must be observed.”
The hairdressing example may be nit-picking (sorry …) but hassling people driving or quietly reading and getting some sunshine in a park risks fomenting corrosive community conversations about other political agendas and disproportionate surveillance.