The Locked-Up Country by Tom Chodor and Shahar Hameiri

Reviewed by Norrie Sanders

COVID, it seems, is back on the political agenda. The Australian government in September 2023 announced an “independent” and ”eminent” panel to review the Commonwealth’s handling of the recent pandemic. Hot on those heels is the release of a book which assesses in depth the totality of Australia’s COVID response. The Locked-Up Country sees border closures and lock downs as examples of governance failures. Unfortunately, the authors may not be entirely pleased with the scope of the inquiry – which excludes any unilateral actions by state and territory governments.

A book conceived during yet another lock down might have an axe to grind. Particularly when both authors are employed in academia – a sector that was particularly hard hit by border closures and received much less than its fair share of government support. They pull no punches from the outset: “It is a story of lacklustre political leaders and of companies underperforming……..[and] how the Australian State…lost its capacity to govern in the decades before the pandemic, letting Australians down in their hour of greatest need” [p1].

However, their analysis explores the pandemic years without obvious subjectivity. All sides of politics are criticised and they suggest that glibly blaming Prime Ministers and Premiers misses the point. Chodor and Hameiri argue that our leaders operate in a system of flawed governance and service delivery, over which they have insufficient control.

The COVID related chapters examine several spectacular failures – unwillingness of governments to take responsibility; pandemic planning; hotel quarantine; lockdowns, border controls and vaccination programs. The overarching theme is that the seeds of these failures were sown decades ago as economic rationalism/neo-liberalism came to dominate the political mindset.

Much of the content is familiar – particularly since many of us were hungry for every titbit of the latest news during the COVID years.  But there are some interesting facts. For instance, despite the evident failure of hotel-based quarantining, It took 16 months of blameshifting and haggling over the costs for the Commonwealth to agree to fund the construction of facilities in Melbourne Perth and Brisbane. By the time they were opened in 2022, they were no longer needed [p93]. It is ironic that the very early quarantine stations set up in colonial days are now museums, and we had to re-learn how to quarantine effectively. Another real eye opener, given recent events about big-name consultancies, is the amount of money paid to consultants and the wastage on procurement and other programs, without a real expansion of our available hospital services.

A couple of areas of contention are the relationship of science to political decisions – particularly since Chodor and Hameiri contend that border closures and lockdowns were political decisions that went beyond any previous pandemic planning and the main sources of medical/scientific advice. Yet most Australians – according to surveys and state election results – were happier with the overall COVID response than this book suggests they should have been. It is probably fair to say that the fear associated with a potentially fatal virus affecting most of the world, made us receptive to extreme rules that, at times, all but eliminated local transmission.

The authors’ criticisms of lock downs and border closures may be valid, but the evidence that other policies would have led to better outcomes is limited. Given that both authors specialise in politics and international relations, more analysis of other countries’ responses would have been a bonus. There is some mention, but stopping short of detailed comparisons and explanations of cultural and other differences.

The most telling argument is that blanket closures did not form part pre-COVID communicable diseases planning and that politicians continued to act in authoritarian ways throughout the pandemic, despite progress in the medical science that gave us other options. Whatever early advantages were gained in 2020 from geographical isolation and pure luck were squandered, as the pathologies of Australia’s regulatory state impeded the development of more effective ways of managing a changing pandemic [p164]. They further argue that other disaster responses  – using the 2022 floods in northern NSW as an example – will continue to be inadequate until we tackle more systemic problems about government authority and accountability.

A thought-provoking book that will help any reader to understand the successes and failures of Australia’s COVID response. Useful as a reference during the upcoming inquiry, but even more useful in coming to grips with the dramatic changes needed to our culture of governance as many more disasters unfold in the future.

 Tom Chodor is Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the School of Social Sciences, Monash University. His research focuses on the global governance of the global economy.

Shahar Hameiri is Professor of International Politics at the University of Queensland. ….Shahar has also written extensively on the politics of global health security.

 The Locked-Up Country

(October 2023)

by Tom Chodor and Shahar Hameiri


ISBN: 978 070226 637 9

$32.99 (RRP Paperback); 240pp

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