In early March 2020 with the COVID-19 pandemic evolving around the world, I consciously accepted a task to assist a team in Mexico with their safety and decision making.
As flights around the world were being cancelled and the Australian government was advising people against international travel, I departed Australia in a very uncertain and difficult environment. Difficult not just from the health risk presented from contracting the current Coronavirus but also a political, economic, social and health perspective. Studying the operating environment, I saw a multitude of risks.
While the threat of contracting COVID-19 was very real in Mexico, this situation was compounded by political stigma, with its leader denying the virus was a real problem.
Then there was the healthcare system. If we did contract the virus or become unwell for any reason, there were very limited quality medical facilities, let alone during the COVID-19 pandemic when all medical aid would be stretched.
Logistically, the longer we stayed in location the more limited our movement options became. The unknown duration of the border closures around the world, cancellation of flights departing from South America and USA’s strict border crossing and visa policies all impacted our ability to return to Australia.
As the situation worsened in Mexico, with job losses and sickness in the local population becoming more common, the potential of civil unrest became a real possibility. With security forces being stretched to capacity to protect vital assets (hospitals, water & power infrastructure, food distribution) this would translate to limited security assistance in an emergency. Criminal groups and drug cartels could assess the situation as an opportunity to expand their influence and power, increasing conflict with government forces. With the evacuation of non-Mexicans from the country; the threat of targeted attach (kidnap and ransom) grew as fewer and fewer targets remained for desperate criminals to focus on.
The same theme continued to become more and more obvious. There was too much unknown, and the situation had too many uncontrollable factors. Security and safety is all about understanding the physical reality on the ground and your environment pre an event or attack. Not only did we struggle to understand the environment but the locals were struggling to understand it also. Personal safety measures such as good situational awareness, self-awareness, knowing how the bad guy thinks, back up plans, problem detection, problem comprehension, and knowing when to act were not enough. It was impossible to detect abnormality in local behaviour because everything was abnormal.
In the end, we assessed our aims and desired end state as not being worth the risk. I found the enormity of the challenging global environment and threat to personal safety to dwarf the goal. This new bio-threat compounded traditional threat situations and changed the operating environment irrevocably.
Post task I have now returned to Australia and as a result, I have been placed in forced government quarantine in Sydney for 14 days.
With first-hand experience of Australia, Mexico and the USA's management of the virus, it is interesting how differently each country has responded to the same threat. Having been in Australia from mid-February until mid-March and then in Mexico from mid-March to mid-April; I was in a unique position to see the two countries at approximately the same time in their evolution regarding COVID-19 and how their approach to the problem differed.
Up until this point, Australia is doing well compared to the rest of the world, with only 61 deaths as of the morning of the 14th April since the first cases were documented in mid-January. This is due to many factors, some being environmental and some being due to the decision making of our leaders.
It’s important to stress that every death is a tragedy but now is exactly when the hard conversations need to start.
How much isolation is too much for the country?
We all know that the coronavirus is not going away. Every week we keep people at home, every dollar we spend fighting it and every stimulus we offer makes it harder and longer for the country to recover. Assuming that the damage done doesn’t make it impossible to recover to our pre COVID-19 prosperity as a nation.
I have seen video after video on social media from both those infected with COVID-19 and those who remain in good health, scared and fearful for their lives. And while I feel that their fear is real, I do ask, is it justified?
Official figures show Australia’s road toll in 2019 was 1182 deaths. Why do you not see people making online videos because they fear they are going to die on their commute home from Christmas holidays? Is it because they feel they are in control when they are driving and can’t control if they contract the virus; or is it because they feel they understand one but not the other. We all agree that knowledge dispels fear.
This fear is a real issue for the country.
In terms of decision making in threating complex and chaotic environments, fear can distort your perception and change your reality. It is an area combat veterans are well versed in, having to accept the possibility of death to operate effectively. While this is something most Australians cannot and should not have to accept, it is vital that we as a nation understand the fear and believe in, and play our part, in the collective response.
Fortunately Australia, unlike Mexico doesn’t yet need armed soldiers patrolling the streets ready to combat insurrections. We all believe in supporting those who lose their jobs with food, housing, and health care which in turn helps prevent civil unrest.
But where we are still on the back foot as a nation, is our ability to overcome fear and endure hardship for the collective good.
Those returning to Australia after the 28th March are a great example. These are people assessed by experts as the highest risk of carrying the virus and therefore subjected to 14 days of compulsory isolation. While not all complain, we hear many examples from that group stating “they treat us like criminals, the food is appalling the rooms are small and we get no exercise or sunlight.” The constant stream of articles coming out about how hard the compulsory isolation is for international travellers is upsetting. Upsetting because the statements are selfish and don't present any solutions to the problem. There are always improvements that can be made in the handling of any crisis but public outcry about being confined to a hotel room when you could be carrying a contagious virus is not helpful. Would we rather be traversing the same course as New York, Jakarta, Mexico City, Italy or Spain. These places possibly made poor decisions early.
When you think about the sacrifices our emergency services, essential workers and volunteers are making, being housed and feed for two weeks fades into insignificance. For their love of their community, these people graciously accept risk and suffering.
We could all ask ourselves to do the same during this national and global crisis.
Comparatively to the rest of the world and our history, as a country we are still doing well. For the overwhelming majority, we still have shelter, food on the table, water, power, schooling, entertainment and in most cases family around us. We have it good. I would almost say in this time of crisis we have it too good. At some point, we are going to have to accept a certain amount of suffering for the good of the country. That sliding scale between saving life and sacrificing for the country we love is a real balancing act and a responsibly on our leaders and decision-makers that must weigh heavily.
I suggest that we as team members of Australia should be starting to think, in our own small way, like a warrior or soldier. Where can we help for the common good? In this time of crisis that might be an extra shift at the hospital, continuing to work to help keep the economy moving, staying at home to navigate your children’s remote education or simply staying in your hotel and slowing the spread.
Regardless of where you are needed, it’s time to come together.
To show gratitude.
To share the responsibility.
To accept a little hardship.
Top photo is an empty flight from Mexico to the USA. Bottom Photo are the homeless sleeping on the streets of Houston, Texas. A city with an estimate of over 5000 homeless.