On August 3 last year, Victoria’s chief health officer, Brett Sutton, tweeted a photo of swim coach Dean Boxall thrusting his crotch forwards and rolling his head backwards in celebratory ecstasy. Victoria had recorded no new cases that day. Sutton thought that the naysayers had been proven wrong. Victoria’s strategy to eliminate COVID-19 by locking down hard and fast had prevailed once again.
He was spectacularly wrong.
Only a few days later, Premier Daniel Andrews placed Melbourne into its sixth pandemic lockdown. The stay-at-home orders would not end until late October, by which time Melbourne had staked a claim to being the most locked down city in the world.
For decades, it is going to be asked: how on earth did it come to this? How did the people of a modern, freewheeling, cosmopolitan city end up consigned to their homes, shut out of their offices and their schools for so long?
With Lockdown, The Age’s chief reporter Chip Le Grand has written the book to which people will turn for answers. He knows the inner workings of Victorian politics better than anyone and he brings all this expertise to bear to the lockdown question.
Through a series of penetrating interviews with almost all the leading players – politicians, public servants, medical experts, journalists and commentators – Le Grand paints a searing portrait of a set of decision makers who, giddy with their remarkable early success, became fixated on a single strategy for dealing with the pandemic and were unable either to appreciate its costs and limitations or to consider alternatives.
Le Grand is careful – perhaps overly careful – to say that he does not blame anyone for the choices they made during COVID-19. These were extraordinarily stressful times. He also provides the evidence that shows that Australia as a whole emerged from the pandemic with far less loss of life than could have been expected.
Nonetheless, there are truly breathtaking moments in Lockdown when he lays bare the personal behaviour of those who controlled the lives of millions.
These moments include the time when Andrews is said to have turned against Sutton for sharing data with people beyond his inner circle. Consequently, the premier not only refused to speak with his chief health officer, but would not even look at him during their press conference together. Le Grand tells us that this treatment is known as being in the freezer: “a cold, lonely place where Andrews puts people who disappoint him”. It is a genuinely jaw-dropping description, more reminiscent of a Roald Dahl children’s villain than of a professional pandemic manager.
Not that the scientific advisers always come across much better than the politicians in Le Grand’s narrative. Professor Allen Cheng, one of the architects of Victoria’s strategy, gets a particularly rough ride. Cheng is presented as more dogmatically dedicated to the “zero COVID” strategy than his colleagues. He is also seen desperately trying to defend his decision publicly to warn against use of the AstraZeneca vaccine for younger patients, a striking low-point with potentially devastating consequences.
Of course, people will dispute these individual judgments but few can argue with Le Grand’s peerless ability to collect the gossip from Melbourne’s big beasts. Readers come away from the book understanding just how restricted the worldview of those running a state in pandemic eventually became, especially in a country locked off from the world.
This focus on the decision makers does have some less desirable consequences, though. Most of all, it means that the voices of those who suffered most from the pandemic do not feature particularly prominently.
Lockdown does have a brilliant opening chapter about the heavy-handed lockdown of housing commission towers in July 2020, complete with the revelation that Andrews’ soundbite – that he cares about “human lives” and not “human rights” – was also deployed by the Filipino dictator Rodrigo Duterte. But beyond this, ordinary Victorians do not get much of a say.
Fortunately, others have collected their stories. The online reports of the Commission for Children and Young People, for example, make a vital accompaniment to Lockdown. You can read their harrowing accounts online. “I am scared,” one said, when the sixth lockdown began. “Lockdown hasn’t been good in Melbourne,” another continued. “I really struggled last year missing … not being able to be a teenager. It took a massive toll on my mental health. I was at my worst.”
Another put it more starkly still. “Every day sucks,” she said, before adding, “I am mad at the media as I feel invisible and my struggles feel unheard.”
Chip Le Grand’s Lockdown does not tell us about these struggles directly. But it does tell us how and why people were forced to endure them. And it has done us all an enormous service as a result.