Credulity, stupidity and two types of infection

As the coronavirus infection spreads it is hard not to think that it might be a good idea for one of the recently infected, Peter Dutton, to be isolated on either Christmas or Manus Islands rather than one of the various properties he owns.

The Government is obviously worried that he may have infected colleagues, or the Government offices in Sydney in which he met with them, would not have been visited by a Hazmat clad team from somewhere to sterilise the place.

Given the Government’s record on denying facts, and failing to recant lies when they are exposed, the denial is hardly surprising but letting someone in the building get some footage of the clean-up is just dumb – almost as dumb as Morrison’s proud announcement that he was going to the footy. Bookies will not be taking bets on when he denies he ever said that or refuses to answer questions about it.

However, the Government is less worried about how Dutton has infected Australian political life in many ways by encouraging hatred of the ‘other’; systematically worked towards more and more authoritarian powers; and, instead have egged him on whatever new outrages he has perpetrated.

His policies and practices are in line with the warnings from (among others) Timothy Snyder and David Runciman about how democracy doesn’t die suddenly or lapse progressively into some form of 1930s totalitarianism but by slow, incremental steps such as Trump, Dutton and the Morrison Government take. The end result is not Stalin’s Russia or Hitler’s Germany but Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

It’s easy to take solace from the ‘it can’t happen here’ attitude but Runciman, Snyder and others outline how the title of Sinclair Lewis’ novel could be made real. Indeed, with the election of Donald Trump the Lewis book, along with Orwell’s 1984, sped up Amazon’s best seller lists.

But while we can worry about what might happen through manipulation, infection and gradual authoritarianism the current coronavirus situation also highlights the other side of the coin – the credulity, irresponsibility and stupidity of many in the general public which make it possible.

Looking at some of the behaviour in Australia at present – from fights over toilet papers – to demonstrably irresponsible panicky behaviours in doctors’ surgeries is revelatory. The first is just a continuation of the phenomenon first written about in 1842 by Charles Mackay in Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.

But the second is more complex. It could be one part of the broader loss of civility in stressed societies. It could be mass or social media influenced even though print media in Australia has been fairly balanced and responsible.

Whatever, the explanation, the panicky behaviour by patients in doctors’ surgeries is causing some chaos which is probably not being helped by the Prime Minister urging anyone with doubts about their health to talk to their GP.

Many surgeries have been forced to shut down their medical on line booking system to enable them to screen callers on the basis of what they are seeking an appointment for rather than have people rock up to surgeries and ignoring any warning signs about coronavirus infection or the need to avoid interactions with staff or patients in waiting rooms.

But if the patients do get through to the surgery they then, when they get in to see a doctor, announce that they are worried they could have the coronavirus. A medico friend who has experienced the situation, replies as quietly as they can: “Well if you do, all the other patients in the waiting room will have to self-quarantine for two weeks, as will our staff, as will all the doctors and all those people will be at risk of contracting your corona virus.”

The patients, when told this, tend to be completely unapologetic and usually reply “But have I got it?”

The doctor suggests, quietly but forcefully, that they ring one of the now common hospital hot lines to ask if they meet the criteria for testing; and, stresses that they definitely should ring the Hot Line first for advice and triage and not just go to the Emergency Department”

As the doctor says of the situation: Schiller summed it all up – against stupidity, the Gods themselves prevail in vain.

And in the same vein the Greek Orthodox Church has an unorthodox approach to the virus.

The ABC reports that a spokesperson for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia, Steven Scoutas, has said anyone showing signs of illness should stay away from church gatherings.

“But once we decide to go to church, we believe there is absolutely no possibility of contracting disease from the holy cup,” he said. The cup, by the way, is apparently actually a spoon which is used again and again for all worshippers to lick/swallow/partake of the holy substance or whatever else they do with it.

“We believe that no disease or illness can exist in holy communion, which we believe is the body and blood of Christ,” Reverend Scoutas said.

Good luck with that.