Opinion: Let’s handle COVID-19 like a 4×4 trip…

Virus management is like managing a 4×4 trip…now let me explain.

So you know how governments are saying we now have to wear a mask, but we didn’t before? And one minute you can have friends over but the next you can’t, and then you can but it’s only three people? Or you can go to Bunnings, but not to a pub?
It’s hard to understand but not if you’re into touring offroad in a 4×4.

Think of a 4X4 trip on tracks you haven’t recced and have no real idea what they’re like. Imagine there’s a group on their way to the tracks, first on a bitumen road. Then there’s a dirt road for about 30km, so the leader – let’s call him Dan – stops the group and drops tyre pressures to 30psi. The group arrives at the first track, turns off the road and find the track narrow and less smooth, but still a passably 2WD dirt road. 

Then after a few kilometers the track gets rougher, cross-axle sort of terrain. So Dan stops the group to drop pressures to 20psi and slot into low range.

But what if someone then says, “well, that’s stupid. Why are we doing this now, we could’ve done it way back at the turn off the bitumen and dropped pressures to 20 there instead of 30, and engaged low range”. Well, you know why. Could have done it. But, you’ve got to trade off speed of the group against roughness of the terrain. You don’t want to crawl 30km at speeds appropriate for 20psi.

And that’s exactly the trade-off the government makes with COVID-19 restrictions. For the first wave, they could have gone all-out and forced masks on people, gone to Stage 4. But, the response has to be proportional to the threat. It’s a really tough balancing act; the ideal from a virus-prevention perspective would be for nobody but the absolute essential people to move as the more people move, the more the virus moves. But a lockdown is terrible for the economy, and there’s a lot of negative side effects such as increased domestic violence, job losses, and effect on mental health which in turn leads to terrible things. 

But having no restrictions means the virus just infects almost everyone, then the health system is overwhelmed, lots of people die, and there’s evidence that even if you’re young and healthy, once recovered there are negative long-term effects.

So in the same way we as 4WDers react to changing terrain by raising and lowering tyre pressures, engaging and disengaging low range and lockers, clenching and unclenching our buttocks, so too does the government use a variety of tools at its disposal to vary restrictions according to the terrain of the threat. The varying restrictions are a sign of a responsive government, not people that don’t know what they’re doing. 

Right now in Victoria I’d say we’re in low range, in a mudbog, hard going for sure. But it could be much, much worse – just take a look at the per-capita deaths, we’re around 7 per million and the likes of Italy, the UK and Belgium are over 500. But we’ll make it, because lucky for us, we’re in an amazingly advanced region that has the equivalent of 12,000lb winch on the front of the car, and if that doesn’t work, the rest of Australia is standing by and that’s like a Unimog with PTO winches front and rear. Yes, lots of Aussies are doing it tough, but if you really want to see tough, I suggest a trip in and around some less fortunate countries in the world which is actually almost everywhere else – in 4WD terms, we’re driving the Birdsville Track in an modded LC200 with satphone to call in help if needed, and they’re on Alcorns or Rocky Track in a stock 1990 Pajero on roadies, in the wet, with a stuffed LSD….and there’s nobody to call.

Okay, back to our 4WD trip. There’s a steep dip, down then up, and right at the bottom one of the group has slid off the track sideways. It’s pretty serious, car’s at a decent angle, if it slides any further there’s a risk of a roll. Clearly not a simple hook-up-and-pull. What should the group do?

a) Everybody figure out their own solution and start doing it at the same time, one of them has to work, and all solutions are equally valid, right?

b) Listen to the guy with the loudest voice and simplest solution, but no qualifications or experience other than watching YouTube videos and being a Top Poster on a Facey group where he shames people for asking what tyres fit without a lift

c) Work as a team led by the best recovery expert in the group

Obviously c), right?  So, why aren’t we doing the same for the virus?  We have people who have literally dedicated their lives to understanding viruses, outbreaks, epidemics and pandemics…so why not listen to them, rather than Kevin Knucklehead the tabloid columnist who just googled himself some opinions and presents them as simplistic facts? Fact is, all Kevin wants to do is stoke outrage, as outrage means readers and readers mean money.

So there we are with our badly stuck 4WD. Dan the leader isn’t a recovery specialist, so even though he’s the guy in charge, he’s going to take advice from experts on this one. He calls over Brett, the most experienced recovery guy.  Brett in turn calls on Anna, who also has a lot of relevant experience. The rest of the group doesn’t have a lot of knowledge so they’re waiting to see what the plan is. Except Lizzie. This is Lizzie’s first 4WD trip, but she’s figured it out already. She grabs a snatch strap, connects it to the front of the car behind the stuck car, and loops the other end of the towball of the stuck car.

Brett is appalled. “Lizzie, no!  Please stop!”

Lizzie’s not having it.

“I’m sorry Brett, but I think my opinion is just as valid as yours. That is a towbar rated to 3500kg so it is plenty strong enough, we just use this car to snatch in reverse up the hill and I reckon it’ll come straight out, I saw it on YouTube, with O.M.G. 4WD Adventures!!! (LIKE AND SUBSCRIBE SO YOU DON’T MISS A THING)”.

We all know how that will end – with an unhappy insurance company, a happy panel beater and most probably a front diff with an oily soup of broken cog teeth.  But, now Brett has to spend time discussing Lizzie’s crazy ideas instead of getting on with the job of recovery, delaying the entire group. And, it’s not a great look for infighting or morale as Lizzie is now getting upset. Eventually she stomps off, uses her psychic powers to find a Tree of Healing and shelters under it from chemtrails while necking a detox juice.

To a true expert on viruses, that’s is what people look like when they spout opinions, about as smart as someone wanting to reverse-snatch up a slippery hill using a towball. It’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect – you don’t know how little you know and how dumb you sound. Now there’s something worth Googling.

So the group listened as Brett and Anna discussed options – where to dig to reduce the load, how to stabilise the vehicle, which of the four recovery points to use. Anna wasn’t challenging Brett’s authority, she was helping with the plan, and Brett had no problem with expert input. He knew enough to know he didn’t know it all (this is the other side of Dunning-Kruger). The group didn’t fully understand the bit about how winching forces using snatch blocks (because they hadn’t watched my video yet) but they trusted Brett, and the fact Anna was backing him up gave them an extra sense of comfort. Lizzie was still sooking under her tree, just glad she wasn’t in range of cancer-causing 5G hyper-waves.

So eventually a plan was formed – dig a ramp for the wheels, drop pressures on the high side, use a Hi-Lift jack to anchor the back of the car, use a system of winch redirects to pull from the front, winching using a car which had made it through and was now at the top of the hill. The group sprang into action, everybody doing their bit. Pretty soon all the preparation was done, and it was time for the winching to begin.

Brett asks everyone to move well clear, and the group moves out of the way as Anna makes the final touches to the winch rigging. Except for Pete, who is standing next to the winch rope, with his phone out, ready to record.

Brett calls out.

“Pete, mate, move out the way please, we’re about to winch”

Pete’s not having it.

“No, you’re not being fair. There is a driver in the stuck car, and one in the winching car…why are they special, why don’t they have to move back? Anna is here too, right in the way! Secondly, it’s my right to be here, and my personal choice. You can’t stop me. You’re talking to the Physical Body of Pete, and the Living Soul of Pete is just operating the body. I do not consent to having to move, I’m not disturbing the peace, I haven’t committed a crime, the Magna Carta of 1650 says I don’t have to….”

Pete is not given the chance to steal any more oxygen as Big Bazza, who has been on enough 4WD trips to know when to listen to others, has lumbered up with a look in his eye. Pete decides that, human rights notwithstanding, now might be a good time to shut up and runs off, but trips over the winch cable and knocks himself out, straight to the shadow realm where 10mm sockets go to hide. Bazza carries Pete’s unconscious Physical Body and dumps it, and presumably his Living Soul, next to Lizzie and her Tree of Healing.

It’s the same with the virus. How come some people can move around and not others? Because they’re essential to operations, like people in the supermarket food chain, doctors and so on, and even then as few of them as possible. Everyone else…stay back and stay out of the way. If you went and videoed like Pete and got hurt, you may say, oh well that’s my risk. But, the group would then have to take care of you, and use medical supplies of which there is a limited number. So it’s much smarter to just stay back out of harm’s way, and exercise your human right not to be a fuckwit.

This also explains why we can’t have people around our houses, but we can go out to a restaurant. Why? Because the restaurant will enforce strict rules about wiping surfaces, contact recording, masks, limits of people. Nobody’s going to do that at their home. Same way Brett and Anna are careful, taking precautions, not letting random people wander around what is a dangerous site. And, it’s important to help keep businesses open. It’s not important that you and your mates share beers over a barbie at your house.

Finally, the winching starts and it goes well, to begin with. The front of the stuck car comes round, and the back is stabilised. But then the front of the car slides forwards a bit. This changes the winch angle, so Brett calls a stop, and for the winch line to be backed off a fraction.

Brett and Anna get busy re-rigging with snatch blocks, shackles and straps. Brett calls out.

“Okay everyone, change of plan. We’ll now winch from the back, not the front.”

The group murmurs assent, and waits for instructions. Except Andrew.

“What!!!  Seriously guys, call yourselves experts? We had tyre pressures set for road running, then 30, then 20…always changing your mind. Then it was winch forwards, not it’s oh no sorry we were wrong, let’s winch backwards. What’s it going to be next, winch upwards? If you were actual experts with a clue you’d have one plan from the start and stick with it!  We should have winched backwards from the start!”

Now you and I know how stupid that is. Complex 4WD recovery is often trial and error. You try something, see if it works, try something else. Changing plans part-way through isn’t a sign of incompetence, it’s a sign of adapting to the recovery situation as it changes because it’s simply not possible to predict everything in advance. Instead, you monitor the situation closely, predict as best you can, take action soon as you see something changing, and make sure you’ve got all the tools and expertise needed to adapt and progress.

That’s no different to how the virus is being handled. Except the virus is way harder to manage than a stuck 4WD, not least because we haven’t had a pandemic or even an epidemic in the living memory of most people. In contrast, experienced offroaders have to pull out stuck Jeeps all the time. So yes, the authorities are absolutely feeling their way, but that doesn’t mean to say they have no clue or no plan – just like Brett and Anna have a plan, but they change it as needs be, using data and experience in real time. But that may seem to onlookers like no plan.

Now let’s get back to our recovery. Brett and Anna’s second plan worked, the car is back on track, Lizzie has finished her sook and her juice, Pete is awake with a sore but not wiser head and the group is moving.

There’s a rutted section ahead and Brett straddles the ruts, as do the next two cars. But the car after that slips in and bottoms out on its diffs. Stuck and going nowhere.  

Donald, the driver, calls out.

“Hey guys I’m stuck, need to be dug out”.

Dan stops the convoy, and heads back. He takes a quick look at Donald’s situation.

“No worries Donald, easy snatch out. The car ahead has a strap handy, we’ll use that.”

Donald wasn’t having it.

“Sorry Dan, but no. Just no.”

“Umm…why not?”

Brett arrives. “Yeah, Dan’s right. This is easy, quick little snatch, you’re barely bogged and we’ll be on our way.”

Donald dug his heels in harder than his car.

“Dan, Brett. You want to use a snatch strap, yes?”

Brett and Dan nodded.

“Do you agree that people have been killed using snatch straps?”

Brett and Dan had to agree.

“So, you want me to use a device that you agree is known to have killed people. You’re mad. Just mad. No, no and no. I’m not risking my life.”

How dumb is that? Obviously there’s a risk with every recovery, but it’s crazy to write off a tool because a tiny minority people were injured or killed and they were mostly people who made critical mistakes in its use. May as well not even drive in a car, or be vaccinated.

Fortunately, just then Donald was distracted by a Twitter stream on his phone and completely forgot his original opinion. So the snatch recovery was able to go ahead. Donald’s car was hooked up, and all was ready. Of course, no recovery these days is complete without hi-def video, and old mate Ian was there with his drone, recording the action.

Brett was coordinating the recovery.

“OK everyone stand back at least 20m perpendicular to Donald’s car please”.

But Ian wasn’t having it.

“So, 20m is okay, but 19m isn’t. What is it, some magic line in the ground?  I stand 19m away and I’m gonna die, but I take just one step back, and I’m going to live? I need to operate my drone from here, not there!”

Ian stood defiantly closer to the recovery than the rest of the group.

“Go ahead then, do the recovery, see if I die, look at me, I’m only 19m away, danger danger!”

Big Bazza lumbered up again.

He tapped Ian on the shoulder, startling Ian into jumping aside and landing on a sharp rock. Unfortunately he lost control of his drone in the process and it auto-returned at high speed to his face, knocking his Living Soul well past the lair of 10mm sockets into the twilight zone where tools go that you put down literally three seconds ago, turned your back and now can’t find.

This is like the 1.5m rule for the virus. Try and be further away if you can, consider it a minimum. Like any limit, there has to be a number, and 1.5m is what the research says is a good guide, so follow it. With 4X4 recovery and the virus restrictions you need to understand the intent behind the rule or guidance, and that’ll make it easier to do the right thing.

With the recovery done, the group continued. They make it out of their track, and hit a fast but very dusty dirt road. Dan’s up front, and he sees a road train approaching, so he calls on the radio.

“Guys, road train. Pull off the side of the road, stop, aircon and recirc on, windows up till the dust passes.”

Paul wasn’t having it.

“SHEEPLE!!!  It’s just dust, it can’t harm you, no need to stop! Think for yourselves, can’t you see the way is clear!”

Paul barreled past the rest of the convoy, not even slowing. As he passed the road train his car was enveloped by a thick cloud of dust – he couldn’t even see his bonnet. So he hit the soft verge, over corrected as he thought the way out of a skid was more power, his car rolled and because he wasn’t wearing a seatbelt he was thrown out of his open window and crushed by his own car. Only Lizzie could talk to his soul now. 

Back in the convoy, Mike had stopped his car. All the seats were full, four of his mates along. 

“Windows up guys” reminded Mike.

Eve objected. “No mine’s staying down! I won’t be able to breathe with the air on re-circ and the windows up!”

Mike had no time to lose.


“No Mike, I won’t be able to breathe. It’s my window anyway, I don’t trust Dan, this doesn’t affect….”

Eve was cut off by the roar of the roadtrain, and a mouthful of thick, chalky Aussie bulldust which was for a change going into not out of her mouth. Nobody could see a thing. Everybody was choking. Eyes were stinging. Eve couldn’t believe how bad it was. Could Dan have been right? Looks like he was, but some people can’t be told, they have to learn the hard way and, unfortunately, take others with them.

Just like non-mask wearers, who need “lived experience” to learn anything.  Problem is, they may not live to use the experience, and neither may others. Anyway, isn’t a mask just like a pre-cleaner or snorkel for your 4X4, you don’t worry about your engine not being able to breath.

Your googling over the last six months is not a match for the decades of research and experience from the actual virus experts, any more than six months of watching YouTube qualifies you to recover a car from a bog.

This pandemic is unprecedented. Things change. The authorities have the best possible people, better than you, with much, much more data than you, and plans change according to what’s happening. That doesn’t mean they have no clue, it means they’re adapting to circumstances, like changing tyre pressures from 20 to 10 as you unexpectedly discover softer sand.

We’re all in this together doesn’t just mean “we’re all suffering together”. It means, “let’s work as a team following the experts’ best advice”. Which is exactly what you’d do in any tough 4WD situation so you get through it as quickly as possible, and this virus situation is no different.

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Automotive technical journalist specialising in 4X4s, camping, racecars and towing. Has designed and run driving courses covering offroading driving, winching, track racing and towing. Enjoys most things involving wings, wheels or sails. Follow me on Facebook and YouTube if you want explanations you won't find anywhere else!