Every nation cherishes an image of itself. In Australia, we are often told that ours was formed on the beaches of Gallipoli, but it’s older and more complex than that. Long before the Australian union, the people of each of the Australian colonies developed self-images of their own, in great variety. Few directly referred to the “convict stain” (South Australians boasted that they didn’t have any), but almost all stressed our independent spirit, our impudent mockery of authority, our strength and toughness in the face of adversity.

Henry Lawson, writing in 1888, asked: when Andy’s gone with cattle, who will cheek the squatter? That lovely little poem nicely sums up the spirit of an age when a substantial chunk of the population tended to barrack for the underdog, including for bushrangers.

Banjo Paterson met “Breaker” Morant (and didn’t like him very much) but being shot by a British court martial made Morant a hero in the eyes of many. Squatters of course had their own self-image as rural toffs and bunyip aristocrats, but such pretensions probably cut little ice with ordinary working people.

Few understand nowadays that Australia didn’t “begin” in 1900. Six sovereign States maintained their own governments and services, even their own armed services. British policy had always been to devolve as much authority as possible as soon as possible. When some State parliaments decided to send troops to the Sudan it was not because Whitehall demanded it, but because they wanted to as proud citizens of the Empire.

When the States finally agreed to surrender some of their prerogatives and form a federation they drew many of their constitutional ideas from the United States and interestingly chose to call their new union a Commonwealth, which is actually a very respectable English translation of the Latin term res publica. That choice reveals that there was a tension there, as there still is, between our nation as a monarchy and as a republic. I can’t recall who first coined the expression “crowned republic”, but it’s an apt term to describe the unique Australian political compromise. To paraphrase Frank Sinatra, we did it our way!

Covid seems to have done what no other calamity succeeded in doing. It has affected the psyche of the nation. Clive James reportedly claimed that Australia’s problem is not that there are too many descendants of convicts, but too many of the offspring of their gaolers and prison officers. That may not always have been fair comment, but it looks truer now, when the platitudinous PC nostrums of our bosses and betters dominate our lives.

Rules, not recommendations are the order of the day. Absurd, unscientific rules too. If one nation prescribes two metres of social distancing and another, four, or if one State insists that five should be the maximum gathering and another, six, where is the science in that? But the awful thing is that we’re taking it like lambs. Or the rabbits in Watership Down. And most of us seem to be kissing the hands of our bosses.

I hate that expression “we’re all in this together“. Actually we’re not. If you have a government job, or a job sustained by government contracts (think sign writers — haven’t they done well!), you probably feel fairly comfortable. But if your work was in hospitality or retail you may already have lost your job or business. Or else you’ll be nervous for your future. A blind man on a galloping horse could have seen hard times coming as early as February or March, but on day of reckoning will we ask ourselves why we sacrificed so much for so little?

So little? Sorry, but yes. The Spanish Flu pandemic 100 years ago killed 50 million at a time when the world’s population was a quarter of its present total. It affected all age groups, not just the elderly. If Victoria declares a “state of disaster” now, how far would we have to dig down into our reserves of vocabulary to describe something as seriously nasty as the 1919-20 outbreak, or (heaven forbid) another major war?

The mass media and so-called celebrities have given poor leadership. Some journalists and public figures have urged restraint, but not the ones who catch the headlines. A kind of passive and subservient “wokeness” dominates discussion. Not only are we advised to wear masks, but we are told that it is ill-mannered or disrespectful not to do so. Here is the nanny-State in full flower.

Not only is there no science in requiring people to wear masks when on their own in public, but it is declared polite to do so and — a big bonus for government — it makes policing easier! What an appalling decline in standards: ordinary people are no longer to be trusted to manage their own lives and justice has been subverted.

In failing to report death rates and in focusing only on total numbers the mass media have skewed public opinion and heightened fear. Raw numbers alone are terrifying unless seen in context. But let’s try to look at the big picture. Total numbers of those “testing positive” tell us nothing, apart from being evidence of the efficiency or zeal of the health system in which they are diagnosed. Quoting the number of “recoveries” is also valueless, but since it’s always much lower than the number of positive testings it can sound frightening.

What about deaths? How many people actually die of Covid? Is that the same as dying with Covid, and if one has one or more comorbidities, which of the them is the actual cause of death? There are good grounds for suspecting some woolliness in posting these numbers. In Victoria in October last year 4,058 people died before the Covid outbreak, and September this year has seen just 3,825 deaths. What’s going on here? Is Covid killing more, and other diseases fewer?

What about suicides? There are indications not only in Australia but elsewhere (very well documented in Japan) that suicide rates and other “deaths of despair” (drug overdosing for example) have spiked during the Covid pandemic.

Those who prize liberty and would limit the powers of government often point to Sweden as an example of a country that successfully steered its course through Covid without abusing the freedoms of its citizens. Those on the other side of the debate will point out, however, that Sweden has had more Covid deaths than any other Scandinavian country (which is true) and has suffered almost as high a Covid death rate as other European countries such as Spain and France. This is their argument for strong governmental intervention.

But the argument is reversible: despite all that the governments of great nations like Britain, France and Spain have done to suppress their people’s freedoms, they have not succeeded in pushing their fatalities down to the level of Sweden’s! Could it be that enforced quarantining and such measures actually do more harm than good?

During the past 10 years there have been about 90,000 deaths in Sweden annually. The peak was 92,185 in 2018. As at 5 October there had been 71,647. It seems likely that by 31 December the total might have reached or even slightly exceeded the 2018 record. But without I hope sounding heartless, so what? For Sweden and the Australian States Covid deaths will be at most a blip on the stats.

For some countries rather more than that, perhaps, but there are questions to be asked about the accuracy of death certification. There are also questions to be asked about the amount of “collateral damage” — not just suicides, the worst tragedy of all, but drug abuse, breakdowns, bankruptcies, diseases untreated because of limited availability of therapies, curtailment of education (most worrying among the very young), and of course un- or underemployment.

Petronella Wyatt, ex-partner of Boris Johnson, claims that one of the British PM’s favourite quotes was this one, which he ascribed to Benjamin Franklin: “those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety”.

I’m not denying the seriousness of Covid for many, particularly the elderly. But when the final score is worked out, and weighed against the cost in stunted or ruined lives and livelihoods, and the degradation of human rights and liberties, will it all seem worthwhile?

David Daintree is Director of the Christopher Dawson Centre for Cultural Studies, in Hobart, Tasmania.