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How ‘Dictator Dan’ Defied a Dangerous Murdoch Media and Led Australia to COVID Victory

CJ Werleman charts the success of the state of Victoria in getting a grip on the Coronavirus – despite the efforts of the right-wing media to discredit its popular left-wing Premier Dan Andrews

Australia is on the verge of eliminating the Coronavirus now that the epicentre of its second wave – Melbourne – has recorded its twenty-eighth consecutive day of no new cases. It is a milestone epidemiologists say signals the elimination of COVID-19 in the community, leaving the city of five million residents now without a single active case.

The land of Down Under has become the world’s benchmark for managing the pandemic: following the science, placing faith in bona fide public health experts and rejecting the kind of unthinking, know-nothing, right-wing populism pushed by Rupert Murdoch-employed pundits in the media and members of the country’s right-wing Government, the Liberal Party.

Through the months of July, August and September – when Melbournians were living under an enforced lockdown and denied visits by family members and access to retail, gyms, cafes, pubs and restaurants – the right-wing punditry class worked overtime to undermine the state of Victoria’s COVID-19 strategy and the city’s social cohesion by essentially rooting for the virus in the hope of scoring cheap political points against the overwhelmingly popular left-wing Premier of Victoria, Dan Andrews.

Posting 28 consecutive days of zero COVID-19 cases is undoubtedly a stellar achievement, given that it comes more or less at the same time as the United States recorded 200,000 new daily cases; the UK 20,000; Italy 35,000; and France 40,000; and as early success stories such as South Korea and Japan battle respective second waves of infection and death.

After crushing its first wave, which peaked at 430 new cases on 28 March, Australia recorded single-digit cases throughout much of May and June, before the crest of a second wave formed in the first days of July, with new cases spiking upwards from 45 on 28 June to 254 on 3 July, before hitting a peak of 721 on 30 July.

The outbreak caused by hotel quarantine violations from returning overseas travellers and problems in Victoria’s contact tracing regime, left Premier Andrews rightfully shouldering much of the responsibility and blame.

Had Andrews not implemented a hard lockdown, however – as he did on 7 July when new daily cases hit 169 – and enforced mandatory mask -wearing – as he did on 19 July when new cases hit 361 – then the state would have hit 20,000 new daily cases by the first week of August, according to modelling by Monash University. This would have resulted in an infection rate that translates to roughly 400 deaths a day.

Instead, a total of only 900 Australians have died from COVI-19, with the rate of infection falling to 400 a day in early August and to 150 by the end of that month, before returning to low single-digits by the start of October.

Newspapers all over the world celebrated Andrew’s remarkable success, with most praising him and the country for being the world’s first and only to successfully crush a second wave of COVID-19 infection. But the part they left unsaid was the pressure, vitriol and personal attacks the Premier had to endure from a right-wing media ecosystem that was determined to undermine his science-based COVID-19 strategy and the health of his fellow Victorians.


‘COVID Gulag’

From the moment, he imposed a lockdown on Melbourne, the Murdoch-dominated media landscape ceased referring to the Premier as Dan Andrews. He was now “Dictator Dan”, waging a war against “freedom” and “liberty”, while ushering in a form of “Coronavirus Totalitarianism”.

“Dictator Dan… is literally trying to build a Covid gulag here,” read an excerpt from an article published on the Murdoch-owned Sky News, while other commentators on the right accused Andrews’ supporters of being of “weaker minds” and “locked in the grip of Stockholm Syndrome”.

For months, the hashtags “#DanMustGo”, “#GiveDanTheBoot” and “#DictatorDan” trended across social media platforms, with Murdoch columnists at The Australian echoing calls for the Premier to resign, despite his high approval numbers and tireless work in the middle of a pandemic – an effort that saw him exhaustively answer reporters’ questions at daily press conferences, held each and every day for more than 120 consecutive days.

Even as the rate of daily infections fell through September and October, right-wing media outlets continued to lambast the Premier’s strategy, arguing that “lockdowns don’t work”, that “face masks don’t work”, that the “14-day average will never fall below 5” and that “elimination is impossible”.

When Murdoch pundits and right-wing politicians weren’t calling for Andrew’s resignation or smearing him with authoritarian tropes, they spread deliberate misinformation, including false claims that the lockdown had resulted in an increased suicide rate and that Black Lives Matter protests caused the outbreak. Despite both claims being demonstratively false, both remain uncorrected in articles published in The Australian and the Herald Sun.

Much of the online mobilisation against Andrews came from a Conservative Party-linked right-wing populist think tank known as the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA).

“In line with their international counterparts, Australia’s far-right advocacy groups have condemned Victoria’s lockdown measures in the most sweeping and dramatic terms,” observes Zachias Szumer in Jacobin magazine. “Untroubled by the epidemiological or economic arguments for lockdown, and with no interest in articulating grounded criticisms of the Victorian Government’s strategy, their message from the get-go was: ‘open up, now!’.”

At no point did the right’s critique of Andrews include an alternative path for handling the second wave than the one taken, albeit for the occasional urge for Victoria to adopt Sweden’s model, which has produced a horrific second wave and a death rate and a rate of infection nearly 10 times greater than its neighbouring countries.

Last week – Sweden, a country with a population of 10 million – recorded 6,000 infections and a record number of hospitalisations. Australia – with a population of 25 million – recorded none.

Dr Denis Muller, a senior research fellow at the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne, told The Feed that the Murdoch media’s characterisation of Andrews not only threatened to sabotage the country’s pandemic response but was also “dangerous for democracy”.

“It’s obvious that he’s a Labour Premier and News Corp has been campaigning against the Labour Party in Australia at the state and federal levels for decades,” he said. “I think they have seen an opportunity to damage a Labour Premier. And they’re doing all that they can to do it.”

With Australia now the toast of the world for its pandemic response and subsequent success, the country can be thankful that the leader of its second-largest state ignored the right-wing disinformation bubble and stuck hard to facts and science.


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