Notes from a Prison Colony

As I write this, my city is now in the eighth year of nearly continuous “lockdown” to “eliminate” the dread virus Covid. It has mutated more or less quarterly, and we are now on the ultra-contagious super-deadly variant “Chet” (ח). After the Greek letters were exhausted, Hebrew letters were used to name ever more virulent virus variants. Adjectives have also been exhausted.

It has become unclear how the virus still enters the city, since airplanes and ships were banned after the 4th year in an effort to attain the elusive objective of elimination. But apparently, like the tardigrade, the virus can survive extreme conditions. It withstands transmission through the air and the ocean. Some scientists have started asserting that Chet is now waterborne, and the Pacific has been described as a viral soup, though surely that is an exaggeration. The virus is merely added flavouring to the main ingredient: waste plastic and spilled oil. Others claim the virus is airborne and delivered by angels and feeds on CO2.

The police and military and Girl Guides have been engaged to keep the populace suppressed, but of course their numbers had to be augmented to fully suppress the population, so there is now about one officer for every non-officer. Enforcement officers are now the major vector of transmission, as they move about freely.

Everyone, police and policed populace alike, walks around in Hazmat suits when they are allowed outside, if only to collect food delivered by unmanned aerial drones, which are now ubiquitous. But the new mutations can get through even the protective equipment, so overly conscientious and germophobic people stay away from others when possible, staying in the climate control indoors, in the optimal virus breeding ground. The only saving grace is that none of the buildings are insulated, and all the windows are drafty.

These days the death rate remains pretty low, as most people have been vaccinated and had some version of the virus at some point in the past decade, and so have some immune response when exposed again, while the most vulnerable have already mostly died.

How did we get here? Well there were a few missteps.

The government promised life would return more or less to normal when vaccination rates hit 80%. But this only encouraged people who didn’t want life to return to normal to avoid getting vaccinated. The xenophobic thread was strong.

There was an inability among the governing and chattering classes to have a mature discussion about the tradeoff of quality of life vs. death. Every life is sacred became the mantra. While the government has a duty to protect its citizens, it also sacrifices some for the many in wartime on quite flimsy rationales. Yet, when they are this far in, the sunk cost myth set in, how could we have made all these sacrifices for nought?

Second the idea that it would just be a few more weeks keeps lurking. “Only a few more weeks in lockdown, and it will be eliminated.” People believed that at first. At this point, no one believes anything from officials in charge, and strangely, the opposition party just parrots the incumbents, and elections keep being delayed because of the pandemic.

Third, perfectly good vaccines kept being eliminated early on, which had the possibility of suppressing the virus before it mutated. Nominal causes and real causes are of course different, so whether the stated reasons for this were the real reasons remains unclear. But a worry about false positives for a third (rare) disease which has alternative tests, or a rare side-effect (which was somehow worse than the disease it hoped to prevent, despite the disease being so severe the city had to be locked down) derailed the vaccination process and allowed the virus to carry-on, and create opportunities for further mutations. Factories kept making vaccines, but they were never distributed, despite other areas of the world seeing even worse outbreaks.

Perhaps the most salient mistake was quarantining new arrivals at hotels inside the city’s central business district, requiring transport from the airport. Certainly this helped bail out the hoteliers, but was it wise? The alternative of not allowing people to come was periodically tried. The other alternative, quarantining people in the vast interior of the continent was never seriously considered, and proposals were routinely rejected by the national government, despite all the evidence that proximity facilitates transmission, and all the cases (logically) were imported internationally and escaped the quarantine process. The government even held offshore facilities, but those were restricted to people who arrived by boat, which is how the city was first settled by Europeans to begin with.

The effects of the semi-permanent lockdowns are varied.

With the near-permanent shut down of barber shops and beauty salons, if you could see them under their protective gear, all the men would look like members of ZZ Top, and the women would be more attractive.

All of the other small retail businesses have also surrendered. Aside from the police, army, and Girl Guides, almost no one is permitted to travel for work. All that remains are things that are largely automated and roboticised, and office-like work that can be done on computer from home. The government has taken to just printing money and distributing it to people. This Universal Basic Income is widely supported, but it would take 100 years of UBI to buy a house, whose average value has now reached $10 million. So young adults are living with their parents until their 30s, and almost no children have been born in five years. Everyone has come to realise nothing matters.

The reason the government can do this is the selling off of rocks of various precious minerals to foreign countries. The mining processes are automated, as are shipping, so this is done seamlessly. Money is transferred back to Australian companies and taxed. But the main source of money is simply inventing it. It turns out nothing about underlying value of money matters so long as people believe it will hold its value. And people will believe until they believe other people don’t. It’s an economy, if a bit of a strange one.

This lockdown has been made easier since the entire agricultural and food supply chain has also been completely automated, so no human touches food from when a robot first plants it, though harvest, shipping to a processing plant, transformation into Slurm or Soylent, and then distribution by truck and drone to people’s front doors. Slurm, by Coles, is widely considered tastier than Soylent, by Woolies, and I have to agree, but it is also a bit pricier and contains a lower protein content (though more amphetimenes). The most recent nutritionists recommend a balanced diet of 30% Slurm and 28% Soylent. These nutritionists have also had difficulties with math since all of their education for the past 8 years has been on Zoom.

Suffice it to say, the lockdowns have made us stronger as a society and civilisation, better able to deal with fear and surprise and address our foes head-on. I hope they continue until the virus is defeated, and the tables are turned, and millions of humans invade each virus cell. I am only sorry we didn’t begin lockdowns before the virus arrived. I will be sad to see them removed.