Photography by Dean Sewell.

There in that frightened time, Old Alex had believed he was putting his best foot forward, almost as a military instruction, a belief that reason could survive, that democracy, despite all its deformities, was worth saving, that the authoritarian if not totalitarian instincts being allowed to run amok could not be shared by the military minded spooks who had watched his every move since he wrote a book called Terror in Australia: Workers’ Paradise Lost, that the sledging of the population in that frightened and frightening world would not be allowed to continue.

It was the same blank and uncomprehending look that ultranationalists give police, because they could not believe the authorities would support the destruction of their own culture in the name of progressive ideologies; the same gap in the traffic you got when seeking sense in the top tiers of family law systems; the same space when you tried to get accountability and rationality out of half the nation’s bureaucracies. As we wheeled further and further into societal dysfunction; and the entire breakdown of the country.

Back then, when history was on the turn, Old Alex felt that he, and in some instances those who helped him, could make a difference. Not just serve a master, but alter the trajectory of the stream.

Well, it didn’t work that way, in the vast flood called history.

Surveillance creates its own story lines. The mind fills in the gaps, puts names to voices, interprets their hostility, or even comradeship; their ribald jokes, their boredom, even sometimes their tolerance or affection. While from past experience he had absolutely no reason to trust them, for a brief moment he thought the wheels had turned: “We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness.”

That old Orwell line meaning; we shall meet in middle of the torture chamber. 


In those early weeks, fresh back from Asia, Alex was bewildered, even frightened, like much of the rest of the population. And like most everybody else, he wanted to do the right thing, by family, friends, neighbours, the people he had got to know on the South Coast.

In retirement he had set up an online publication, A Sense of Place Magazine, and was still experimenting with it, coming to understand what was possible, how powerful a tool the new publishing technologies placed in our hands. He dreamed of staff, of empire, to march to a different drummer, to find at last his place in the swarm of life.

Hard to make headway in a blizzard of any kind; and this was a snowstorm of falsity beyond comprehension.

The first piece he published on Covid, way back in Mid-March of 2020, was right on message, well the government’s message, from an emergency doctor who had contracted Covid.

An impassioned Cathy Hull recorded: “Health workers understand quarantine and take its restrictions very seriously. We did not go out to shop. We did not get close to others. But this was only possible once we knew!

“Isolation after exposure is scary because there is time to consider the risks. I packed a bag ready for hospital. We should close schools, universities and many businesses to reduce new cases, enable preparations, ramp up arrangements for protective and supportive equipment, increase capacity in hospitals, free and create ICU beds for life support.“

The disinformation feedback loop between government and mainstream media was only just beginning to form. In other words, politicians were yet to wake up to the fact that a confused, anxious, frightened and yes, panicked population would believe almost anything, even the groundless claim that the government was keeping them safe. The bigger the scare, the better their polling numbers.

The Australian population became prisoners of the electoral ambitions of both their state and federal politicians.  

And thoughtful alarm on the part of perfectly decent health professionals rapidly turned to madness. You can always find an academic or a bureaucrat to agree with your agenda. They know where their job security lies. They’re not that noble.

But for a brief turning of the sundial all was plausible. And to raise doubt about the conduct, or misconduct, of political leaders and their attendant bureaucrats was akin to disloyalty or sedition, a betrayal of the nation; a similar trick used to extinguish opposition to Australia’s involvement in America’s endless wars.

Fear spread. 

Table 1: Date of first reported case and first death related to COVID-19 for each state and territory

State/territory First case Source First death Source
Victoria 25 January 2020 G Hunt (Minister for Health) and B Murphy (Australian Government Chief Medical Officer), First confirmed case of novel coronavirus in Australia, media release, 25 January 2020. 26 March 2020 Victorian Department of Health and Human Services, Coronavirus update for Victoria—26 March 2020, media release, 26 March 2020.
New South Wales (NSW) 25 January 2020 NSW Government, Coronavirus cases confirmed in NSW, news, 25 January 2020. 3 March 2020 NSW Government, Nurse and resident diagnosed with COVID-19, media release, 4 March 2020.
Queensland 29 January 2020 J Young (Queensland Chief Health Officer), Queensland coronavirus update,media release, 29 January 2020. 25 March 2020 Queensland Health, Queensland novel coronavirus (COVID-19) update, media release, 25 March 2020.
South Australia (SA) 1 February 2020 S Marshall
(SA Premier), Premier’s statement on coronavirus, media release, 1 February 2020.
7 April 2020 SA Health, COVID-19 update, media release, 7 April 2020.
Western Australia (WA) 21 February 2020* A Robertson
(WA Chief Health Officer), Chief Medical Officer statement COVID-19 update #6, media release, 21 February 2020.
1 March 2020 WA Health, WA confirms first novel coronavirus death, media release, 1 March 2020.
Tasmania 2 March 2020 M Veitch (Tasmanian Director of Public Health), Coronavirus case confirmed in Tasmania, news, 2 March 2020. 30 March 2020 P Gutwein (Tasmanian Premier), Press Conference, media release, 30 March 2020.
Northern Territory (NT) 4 March 2020 Northern Territory Department of Health, First confirmed COVID-19 case in Northern Territory, news, 4 March 2020. N/A**  
Australian Capital Territory (ACT) 12 March 2020 ACT Health Directorate, COVID-19 case confirmed in the ACT, media release, 12March 2020. 30 March 2020 ACT Government, COVID 19 update—first death in the ACT, news, 30 March 2020.


Panic set in early. 

On 13 February, 2020, the normally sober Economist said “the pandemic threatened to take more than 150 million lives.”

It gave no source or explanation for this Spanish Flu-like estimate.

“Pandemic Projections Signal Profound Societal Disruption Over Many Months”, declared the headline for editor Melissa Sweet’s front running piece in Australia’s leading health policy journal Croakey. Old Alex had worked with her back in his days on The Sydney Morning Herald. She was an accomplished and absolutely sincere person. 

She wrote: “Immense disruption to societies, and people’s lives and work will be necessary over many months if there is to be any hope of preventing large numbers of deaths from Covid-19.

“That is the suggestion from modeling by researchers at Imperial College in London whose report, published on 16 March, examined a range of scenarios for Great Britain and the United States. They said their findings ‘are equally applicable to most high-income countries’.

“The researchers concluded that suppression is ‘the only viable strategy at the current time’, but warned that ‘the social and economic effects of the measures which are needed to achieve this policy goal will be profound’.

“They also stressed that it is not certain suppression will succeed long-term, and said ‘no public health intervention with such disruptive effects on society has been previously attempted for such a long duration of time. How populations and societies will respond remains unclear’.”


Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London, the Lockdown Czar or Master of Disaster as he was sometimes called, had a notorious track record of catastrophic predictions out by orders of magnitude on foot and mouth disease, mad cow disease, bird flu, and swine flu.

Ferguson was behind the disputed research that sparked the mass culling of eleven million sheep and cattle during the 2001 foot and mouth disease outbreak.

In 2005 he predicted that 150 million people would be killed from bird flu. In the end, 282 people died worldwide.

In 2009 estimates based on his research showed 65,000 British would die from swine flu. In the end the figure was 457. 

His projections on Covid were equally wrong. The Imperial College model of 16 March 2020 on COVID-19 and others copying its methodology also proved wildly inaccurate on both worst and best case estimates of Covid-19 deaths with respect to the UK, US, Sweden, and Australia.

Nobody called out the lie at the heart of the hysteria.

Ferguson’s modeling was adopted with alacrity, amplified by thousands of news reports while politicians, with every word they spoke, generated fear and confusion into their populations. Why would anyone believe him now?

Perhaps because it suited them.

Australian authorities must have known within weeks that the hysteria being visited upon the country was being done under either false or highly disputed premises; that both the Imperial College London and World Health Organisation projections were wrong.

It was obvious from very early on that the projected death tolls, the excuse for Scott Morrison placing himself front and centre of the Covid scare, the rationale behind the destruction of traditional Australian life, was false.

Why did no one call him out? Not his political comrades in arms. Not his wealthy political donors. Not the Premiers now shutting down their entire states while masquerading as heroic saviours. Not the senior bureaucrats peddling a message of alarmism; and only very, very few in the nation’s media.

Politicians ignored all the warnings, seized the advice that suited them and absolutely destroyed the country. Goodbye democracy. Goodbye decency. Masked and heavily armed groups of police patrolling empty streets became one of the symbols of a national derangement. 

No government should ever again have the power to shut down lives, businesses, culture, and liberties with a wanton disregard for the citizens’ welfare.

But now they have grasped the power, they can do it at their will. 

Dean Sewell was awarded Australian Press Photographer of the Year in 1994 and 1998.

Sewell is represented by Charles Hewitt Gallery, and has work regularly exhibited in leading Australian and International galleries. He is a founding member of professional photographers collective Oculi.

John Stapleton is one of Australia’s most experienced general news reporters. Unfolding Catastrophe: Australia will be available in July of 2021. A collection of his journalism is being constructed here.