Current Issue #488

Slings and Arrows:
A city in pandemic mode

Mariangela Cruz / Shutterstock

Before the current crisis, a runaway pandemic like COVID-19 didn’t even crack the top six most likely emergencies covered by the city’s Emergency Plan.

As the city dips into early winter, leaving behind what in hindsight was a recklessly carefree summer of crowds, a number of Adelaide certainties have now been set in fresh concrete. No- one who has a job they don’t much like is looking to leave it any time soon. Trading in many services has ceased; cash flow has virtually frozen. Online scammers are ruthlessly targeting the vulnerable. Many office workers have now been ‘working from home’ (WFH) for many weeks. Young families who bought into ‘contemporary’ housing with small rooms and no yards are now awakening to the domestic consequences of Adelaide’s developers carving large old blocks into tiny allotments and building cramped, multi-storey boxes. Government planning changes that allowed these to spread throughout the city and inner suburbs never anticipated WFH – often with the whole family underfoot.

By now the novelty is wearing thin. But there could be months to go before a reprieve. 

Pandemic risk least anticipated

Adelaide City Council has had an Emergency Plan for years. Its 2011– 16 version was based on scenarios drawing on post-war state history. Top of the list of risks was earthquake, given that Adelaide is built on a fault line. The last big one was in 1954. As the decades passed, the probability of a repeat increased, so it was kept high on the list. The next five anticipated hazards were extreme weather, infrastructure failure, flooding, accidents or fire.

A pandemic was listed seventh on a list of nine. Very low probability. Look back to ‘day zero’ (Friday 13 March 2020) when Australia was shaken awake to the awful, fast-moving reality, and it’s clear that senior politicians, advised by health experts, had to scramble fast. Days felt like weeks. Weeks felt like years. 

The law and the vulnerable

The South Australian law created to manage a catastrophe is only 16 years old – the Emergency Management Act 2004. A close reading indicates that parliamentarians debating the bill were contemplating most major disasters, but the arrival of a fast-moving pandemic was unlikely. As the Act intended, in March the police commissioner and SA Health took command and adopted a plan. The Act’s two objects were to firstly establish an emergency management framework and secondly “promote community resilience and reduce community vulnerability in the event of an emergency”.

It’s telling that the matter of vulnerability this time was quickly swamped, despite the best of efforts and assurances, given the economic consequences of a silent and deadly virus on a community reliant on transacting goods and services face to face and hand to hand and often in crowded places.

The second key word in the Act’s objects, ‘resilience’, has now been up for stress-testing. Anecdotally there’s some cracking, but SAPOL is not publicising the worst of it. Look back to the Second World War. When the Japanese started bombing Darwin, the Top End’s resilience collapsed overnight. Media reports of the panic were suppressed. Fortunately, most of the coronavirus’s ugly facts (nationally) are today being shared, in real time. 

Community disaster resilience

In 2012, SA body The Torrens Resilience Institute created a model and tool for community disaster resilience, and wrote a Preparedness Action Plan. Its aim was to “build awareness and increase community resilience through the Prepared  Adelaide Project”. However, its objectives, while laudable, illustrate how unlikely a pandemic seemed. Especially one so crippling and fast moving, system to the limit, but also brutally shut down the economy and many families’ way of life. With the (very convenient) benefit of hindsight, the 10 objectives today appear naïve. 

Here they are: 

  1. Consideration of – post-event trauma 
  2. Evacuation procedure especially the importance of smoke alarms 
  3. Age of building and the potential for falling masonry 
  4. Business continuity plans 
  5. Heat related issues (heat stroke, dehydration, exhaustion, etc.) 
  6. Outdoor furniture (i.e. damage that can be caused by unsecure/unfixed furniture) 
  7. Insurance (property and asset) – ‘ensure appropriate cover, don’t get caught out underinsured’ 
  8. Awareness of local radio announcements – ‘tune your radio to 891AM during an emergency’ 
  9. Spoiled food 
  10. Knowledge of how to report environmental crime.

In hindsight, ABC radio has done South Australia proud. But most business insurance policies excluded claims relating to pandemics, so it wouldn’t have mattered about being underinsured. And there was no contemplation in the plan of pre- disaster infrastructure stress-testing, especially online infrastructure, which got very stressed, very quickly. Some simply crashed. 

The stress of isolation

Of all the untested variables this time around, apart from the obvious disease issues, enforced isolation will have a heavy impact on South Australia’s post-2020 resilience report card. With neighbourhood networks restricted by a fear of going out, the results of that big test are yet to come. They could be ugly. Psychologists have long observed that “doing solitary” is a torture model. 

We’ll also have to wait for some time before the first objective of the action plan, “consideration of post-event trauma”, can be kicked into action. One suspects that once the virus spread risk diminishes, and a vaccine is tested and distributed (which could take more than 12 months) no-one will come knocking on your door offering post-traumatic stress therapy. At best, you’ll simply be congratulated, because somehow you survived to tell the tale to your grandchildren. Of course, when you do, they’ll probably say you’ve overdramatised it.

Especially the stuff about civil liberties restrictions, written urgently into SA and Commonwealth law, which generations in the future will have trouble believing – until they discover that some bits remain on the statute books long after the pandemic has passed. The medical traces left by the plague will be complicated, but the legal consequences could be just as disturbing – and potentially longer- lasting. 

Ash Whitefly

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Ash Whitefly is Executive Director of the Adelaide Whitefly Institute of Diplomatic Studies.

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