This crisis requires us all to do the right thing

Can I go to the beach? Can I go to the park? Can I go shopping? In pre-COVID-19 times, these were questions that would not trouble many, let alone spark heated debate on social media or a public reprimand. But these are far from normal times, and whether you can answer such simple questions will play a crucial part in determining how effectively Australia can limit the spread of the coronavirus.

It’s time to follow the social-distancing rules.Credit:Leigh Henningham

As the social-distancing rules (which should actually be called physical distancing) have tightened over the past few weeks, there has been some confusion in the messaging. There has been flouting of the rules and some have preferred denial when considering how seriously to take the pandemic.

On Sunday night, Prime Minister Scott Morrison spelt out the latest edicts on social distancing. They are very clear: stay at home unless you need to shop for essentials, are seeking medical care, need to be out for compassionate reasons, cannot work or study from home or need to exercise. And when you leave home, unless they are people you live with, don’t gather in groups of more than two.

While there are always going to be grey areas, exceptions and special needs, when you consider the social-distancing measures are meant to encompass the daily movements of every single Australian, the ground rules have been clearly set out. If taken with a liberal dose of common sense, they should offer most people a good idea of what to do.

For those still willing to skirt around the restrictions, the consequences are also clear. A possible fine may be the least of your concerns. If you are infected by the virus, besides your own health being at risk, you can infect others, with possibly deadly consequences. Australians should be grateful for the clarity.

Many nations have suffered from poor leadership. Even since finally taking the outbreak seriously, US President Donald Trump has been the master of the mixed message. It was only a few days ago that he was hoping to get America ‘‘back to work’’ by Easter. By yesterday he was extending the social distancing guidelines until the end of April. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson once boasted of continuing to shake hands with everyone, including those infected, only to be struck down by the virus himself.

Despite a couple of early stumbles, Mr Morrison’s national cabinet has been an effective means of thrashing out the issues and coming to a collective position. With the Prime Minister usually first up to publicly explain the cabinet’s deliberations, individual state and territorial leaders then nuance the message to their particular audience. Yesterday the same social-distancing message echoed around Australia.

It is now over to each person to make the right decisions. While the threat of a substantial fine and police enforcement may sound harsh, Australians should be grateful doors are not being welded shut and those with a fever are not being dragged from homes. These measures helped save lives in China, but such an authoritarian approach is not one Australians would accept. Thankfully so.

But that does put more responsibility on everyone to do the right thing. Australians are hardly known for their fondness of authority or complying with the rules.

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But when faced with imminent danger, as witnessed during the summer bushfires, the need to act in accordance with the collective good does kick in. It is that time again. The rules are clear, it is time to take them seriously.

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