Australia’s former prime minister, Tony Abbott, sparked controversy on Tuesday night when he claimed the country was suffering from ‘virus hysteria’ and suggested that some elderly COVID patients should be left to die naturally.
In his comments, delivered in a speech to the Policy Exchange thinktank in London, he said that in his time as health minister in the Howard government he would never have contemplated ordering people to stay at home.
Mr Abbott told the think tank that the economic cost of lockdowns meant that families should be allowed to consider letting elderly relatives with the coronavirus die by letting nature take its course.
He delivered the speech on the eve of the national accounts in Australia being released, which showed that Australia was officially in its first recession since 1991, with the economy contracting by 7 per cent.
The 7 per cent contraction is the biggest Australia has ever experienced, eclipsing the previous biggest fall on record of 2 per cent in June 1974.
While the contraction in Australia was extreme, for the same quarter in Sweden, which did not have a strict lockdown more in line with the argument Mr Abbott was proposing, their economy contracted by 8.3 per cent.
“Six months into the pandemic, the aim in most countries is still to preserve almost every life at almost any cost,” Mr Abbott said.
“When new cases peaked at about 700 a day, the Victorian government put five-and-half million Melburnians into virtual house arrest, under night-time curfew, and banned at other times from leaving home for more than an hour a day, or from travelling more than five kilometres.”
Mr Abbott referred to the situation in Victoria as a ‘health dictatorship’ and said it was costing the government as much as $200,000 to give an elderly person an extra year of life, which is substantially more than what they would pay for life-saving drugs.
“Lockdowns can reduce disease but hardly eliminate it, the result is not just a stop-start economy, but a stop-start life,” Mr Abbott said.
“In this climate of fear, it was hard for governments to ask how much is a life worth, because every life is precious and every death is sad; but that’s never stopped families sometimes electing to make elderly relatives as comfortable as possible while nature takes its course. Likewise, people anticipating serious health problems sometimes elect not to be resuscitated.
“When a trauma victim comes into an emergency department, almost no effort is spared to keep that person alive. But when a cancer patient wants access to very expensive new drugs, governments normally ask tough questions about how much good life will be gained before making it available; and what the alternative might be.
“Governments have approached the pandemic like trauma doctors; instead of thinking like health economists, trained to pose uncomfortable questions about a level of deaths we might have to live with.”
Mr Abbott said that if mandatory shutdowns had avoided the initially predicted 150,000 deaths in Australia, the $300 billion the government had committed to soften the economic impacts of the shutdown meant that it would have cost $2 million per life saved.
“If the average age of those who would have died is 80, even with roughly 10 years of expected life left, that’s still $200,000 per quality life year – or substantially beyond what governments are usually prepared to pay for life-saving drugs,” Mr Abbott said.
“Now that each one of us has had six months to consider this pandemic and to make our own judgements about it, surely it’s time to relax the rules, so that individuals can take more personal responsibility and make more of their own decisions about the risks they’re prepared to run.”
Addressing Australia’s recession figures Deloitte Access Economics economist Sheraan Underwood said Australia had performed much better than most other nations primarily because of its superior performance addressing the pandemic.
“Only a handful of nations have seen less damage to their economies amid the coronavirus crisis,” Mr Underwood said.
“The underlying equation is simple. The greater the success against the virus, the greater the success in protecting economies against the pandemic.
“The defence of Australian lives and livelihoods has seen us thread the needle. Australia has seen both less economic damage and relatively fewer lives lost than most nations, including the US, the UK and most of Europe, including Sweden, which has taken a different path than many others.”
Mr Abbott’s comments were also roundly criticised by Australian politicians.
Opposition leader Anthony Albanese said the comments marked a new low for the former prime minister.
“The fact is, there are over 450 Australian families who are grieving lost ones, who have lost their lives while being residents of aged care to COVID-19,” Mr Albanese said.
“Tony Abbott was never known for his compassion. This is a new low.
“This is someone who was a member of the Morrison government and had the privilege of being the prime minister of our country. And to make the comments that he did, I think, will cause a great deal of hurt for Australians who read those comments, particularly the families of those who have been impacted by COVID-19.”
Finance minister Mathias Cormann told ABC News Breakfast that sacrificing the lives of the elderly for the good of the economy was not an approach the government would be taking.
“The Australian government, working with states and territory governments, has been totally committed to suppressing the spread of this virus, to protect people’s health as well as to protect people’s livelihoods,” Mr Cormann said.
“It is true that we’ve got to find a way into the new normal and into the strongest recovery as soon as possible, but we have got to do so in a way that is COVID-safe.
“We cannot do it sacrificing the health and the lives of any of our fellow Australians.”
In the Senate, Labor’s Kristina Keneally used Mr Abbott’s comments to attack the under pressure aged care minister Richard Colbeck for his performance during the crisis.
“Tony Abbott is calling for Australian families to take a decision to just make their relatives as comfortable as possible while nature – coronavirus – takes its course. That’s appalling,” Ms Keneally said.
“By Tony Abbott’s standards Richard Colbeck’s doing a fine job, because Richard Colbeck is just letting old people die. He’s just letting old people die in residential aged care.”
Watch Tony Abbott’s speech in full:
What do you think of Tony Abbott’s comments? Are they lacking in compassion for older Australians? Are they disrespectful of the people who have already lost their lives to the virus?
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