Mar 21, 2020

What people in other forums are saying about public policy

That virus

We don’t want to add to the din of analysis, informed opinion, speculation, uninformed opinion, fake news …  We focus on public policy issues to do with the epidemic. (For information and advice as sound and unbiassed as is available in such a dynamic situation it is hard to go past Norman Swan’s Coronacast covering news, research and FAQ’s on the virus.)

Policy choices: mitigate or suppress

A team of 32 researchers at the Imperial College London, modelling the possible effects of coronavirus on the UK and the USA, presents two fundamental paths for public policy: mitigation or suppression. Mitigation aims to slow but not necessarily stop the spread using approaches such as home isolation of suspect cases and social distancing of the elderly, while suppression uses stronger measures, with a view to reversing epidemic growth.

They model the effects of various policy interventions on demand for health services and deaths over time. They acknowledge the enormously disruptive consequences of suppression, which would probably have to be sustained for 18 months, but conclude

… that epidemic suppression is the only viable strategy at the current time. The social and economic effects of the measures which are needed to achieve this policy goal will be profound. Many countries have adopted such measures already, but even those countries at an earlier stage of their epidemic (such as the UK) will need to do so imminently.

Flattening the curve: Australia’s progress

The graph below, constructed from daily WHO situation reports, shows confirmed coronavirus cases in Australia and, for comparison, South Korea – another prosperous country in this region which, in view of the nature of its northern border, is essentially an island. Its population – 50 million – is about twice ours.

Note that the scale is logarithmic: Australia’s gentle slope would look very scary on a linear scale.  Note too that the WHO data is based on confirmed cases as provided by member countries, which is dependent on their testing regimes (influenced by the availability of test kits), and the trustworthiness of their government reporting (data for some countries is at Trumpian levels of incredulity.)

South Korea appears to have flattened the curve, for now at least. We will keep this graph updated so long as there is a flow of reliable data.

Are we doing enough to minimise the harm from coronavirus?

On Pearls and Irritations John Dwyer, immunologist and Emeritus Professor of Medicine at UNSW, explains what more could be done to slow the spread of the virus: There is still a lot more that needs to be done to minimise harm in Australia from COVID-19.  There site also has an explanation by medical specialists Kerry Breen and Kerry Goulston on possible reasons the Morrison Government is dragging its feet: their article An improved response to COVID-19 will not be achieved with the current approach lists five possible reasons.

Open Forum is one of the sites publishing an open letter to the Prime Minister, signed by thousands of medical practitioners, calling for stronger action on lockdown and social distancing and for preparation of the health system to deal with critically ill patients.

When it’s all over, how will daily life be different?

Writing in the Canberra TimesOur political institutions and lifestyles are about to be put to the test by coronavirus – John Warhurst speculates on how changes necessitated by the pandemic may alter our lives and institutions permanently. Our supposed commitment to egalitarianism is being put to the test; the winner-take-all Westminster system of government seems to be out of place; our federal system may have to adapt.  “The biggest question is whether our previously hectic life will ever be the same again after lengthy self-isolation”.

Plagued by Trumpism

On the Project Syndicate website – Plagued by Trumpism – Joseph Stiglitz writes:

For 40 years, Republicans have been insisting that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” But now that COVID-19, climate change, and other collective threats are bearing down on the US and the rest of the world, the bankruptcy of this nostrum has been laid bare.

It is hard to imagine that the world will emerge from this disruption with any serious policymaker suggesting that health care should be left to a US-style for-profit delivery system financed by a for-profit private insurance system.

We think we’ve got it tough

Spare a thought for refugees in detention – people with compromised immune systems living in crowded and unhygienic camps. Writing in Science Norway journalist Marte Dæhklen collates the perspectives of Professor Terje Andreas Eikemo and other Norwegian public health experts who had reported on the miserable conditions in the Greek refugee camps last year, well before the coronavirus emerged. Professor about the coronavirus: “I fear many children will die in refugee camps”.

Economic news and issues

Reserve Bank decision

On Thursday the Reserve Bank broke from its long-standing tradition of making its monetary policy decisions early each month. It dropped the cash rate to 0.25 per cent.

The Governor’s statement starts by stating “The coronavirus is first and foremost a public health issue, but it is also having a very major impact on the economy and the financial system”.

It is not about stimulating the economy with an expectation that the rate cut will get businesses and individual spending. Rather, it’s about helping them avoid corporate and personal business bankruptcy. It’s about defence, rather than stimulation. Besides the rate cut, the RBA will be purchasing government bonds to bring down the interest on corporate borrowing and will be helping banks support credit for small and medium-sized businesses. (The rate cut, itself, may be the least significant aspect of its intervention.)

The graph below shows that RBA rates have been falling for ten years, begging the question why has it had to go on dropping rates? The RBA dropped rates in June, July and October last year, well before there was a bushfire crisis, and while Australians were celebrating the return of the Dutton Morrison Government, saving us from the horrors of a Labor government that was going to do terrible things such as making housing and health care more affordable and making the tax system fairer.

The Australian and world economies in ten minutes

On the ABC Breakfast program ANU Professor of Economics and former Reserve Bank Board member Warwick McKibbin outlines what’s happening in Australian and world financial markets, drawing attention to how the present crisis differs from the 2008 crisis.  One difference (but far from the only one) is that in 2008 the US was willing and able to provide economic leadership: it is now isolationist.

When you get to the web page for the session ignore the summary which reads like a government press release: McKibbin’s analysis is much richer.

Don’t bank on Australian exceptionalism

Justin Wolfers is an Australian economist at the University of Michigan. His analysis of the economic situation, reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, is on the pessimistic side – we could be heading for a 1930s-scale depression if we mess this one up.  His strong message is that Australia has been slow to take the epidemic seriously: “The belief in Australian exceptionalism is absurd and is not being borne out by the experience of any other country.”

Don’t panic in the shops: leave that to stock market and currency speculators

Two more charts:


On ABC’s Saturday Extra last week Geraldine Doogue interviewed three experts from different fields – Chris Richardson of Deloitte, Ian Hickie of the Brain and Mind Centre, and Jillian Broadbent, now Chancellor of the University of Wollongong and previously Chair of the CEFC, about panic: Whatever you do now, just don’t panic. (23 minutes)

Their perspectives and prognostications are very different. Hickie points out the difference between “worry” and “panic” while Richardson points out the difference between “uncertainty” and “risk”: our corporations, institutions and governments are far better equipped to deal with risk than with uncertainty. Australians have a good record of coming together in times of crisis, most recently on display in the bushfires, but in this crisis we have to trust experts and governments.  The proliferation of fake news and the worsening tendency for governments to lie have added to that challenge. (In this regard it’s unsettling to hear Morrison urging Australians to be considerate to one another and not be possessed by greed, when less than a year ago he ran an election campaign based on fear and greed.)

Geraldine mentions the work of David Jones who has written a short article History in a crisis – Lessons for Covid-19 in the New England Journal of Medicine.  He finds two disheartening but familiar aspects in responses to epidemics: stigmatization of some group believed to be responsible for the misery, and loss of lives among health care providers.

Let’s not forget other health matters

The Australian Dental Association has released its 2020 Australia’s Oral Health Tracker, reporting on our progress in meeting WHO targets towards reducing the burden of non-communicable diseases.

On some indicators we are making progress: we have reached the WHO target on “adults with severe tooth loss” (still 10 percent).  But fewer of us are getting annual dental checkups and more of us are suffering untreated tooth decay.

On risk factors we’re making progress on access to fluoridated drinking water but are still short of the WHO 2025 target of 95 per cent. On reducing smoking and risky drinking we’re still some way off targets.  (For daily smoking the WHO target is 5 percent: we’re still at 12 per cent.)

The ADA website has two links – an infographic on the tracker and a technical paper with information on sources.  The ABC’s Stephanie Dalzell has an article with the descriptive title Australians spending millions of dollars on perfect selfie smiles, while others can’t even chew. She reports on inequities in access to dental care (those with private health insurance receive a rebate between 25 per cent and 33 per cent). She points out that Commonwealth funding for dental health is made under a Commonwealth-state agreement that expires in June this year.


Newspoll – both main parties up, Labor maintains small TPP lead

The Newspoll itself lies behind the Murdoch paywall, but William Bowe’s Poll Bludger gives a summary of its main findings.  For reasons to do with unavoidable sampling errors, reports on TPP results and of movements should be treated with caution. You can get some idea of movements and trends from Bowe’s Bludger Track, which shows Morrison’s fortunes improving from their post-bushfire low while Albanese’s are slipping a little.

The most reliable figure from such polling is the primary vote. The Coalition’s is 40 per cent (41 percent at last year’s election) and Labor’s is 36 per cent (33 per cent at the election).

Bowe also reports on the Newspoll’s findings about our attitudes to governments’ (plural) economic responses to the epidemic (by and large we’re not satisfied) and whether we’re worried about the economic impact of the outbreak (unsurprisingly 76 per cent of us are worried). The survey was taken between seven and eleven days ago, which in these circumstances is another era.

Pew Poll on religion and support for Trump

The Pew Research Center has conducted a poll about attitudes to Trump among those with various religious affiliations, subdivided, as is common in America, by “race”.

As in previous polls Trump enjoys strong support among “white evangelical Protestants”: they believe him to be “morally upstanding” and “honest”.   More generally, a growing share of “white” American Christians (including non-evangelical Protestants and Catholics) believe that “their side has been winning politically”, even though most Americans believe that Christianity’s influence is diminishing.

India: Echoes of Nazi Germany’s Kristallnacht

Ramesh Thakur was in India during the outbreak of rioting. He is interviewed on the ABC’s Nightlife program about Modi’s policies encouraging Hindu nationalism, as expressed in persecution of Muslims. Modi’s Government so far has seen Muslims “robbed of dignity”, and if Modi’s  citizenship laws are to be enforced, they could become stateless people in their own country, herded into concentration camps.  Thakur makes several references to the step-by-step process of Nazi Germany’s persecution of Jews in the 1930s; identifying the recent riots in which scores ofs Muslims were murdered as police stood by as analogous to Germany’s Kristallnacht. He reminds us, however, that Modi’s BJP was elected on the basis of its economic promises, not its extreme Hindu nationalism: the Hindu religion, after all, stresses tolerance.

Ramesh’s piece runs from 1:03.00 to 1:15:00.

Renewing democracy in the digital age

The Berggruen Institute has released a document Renewing democracy in the digital age.  Its authors report that “the populations of democratic societies seem dispirited and increasingly skeptical both of their institutions and their collective futures”. It shows that over the last 80 years the percentage of people living in traditional democracies (including Australia) who say it is essential to live in a democracy has fallen from around 75 per cent to around 30 per cent. It is critical of the present model in which democracy

… functions on a consumer level: individuals ‘purchase’ (i.e. vote) for candidates who, in turn, ‘sell’ them on a given set of policies, values, or symbols. Candidates are largely engaged in a branding and marketing exercise to increase their vote.

The authors see that digital technologies are opening up a “digital public square”, giving citizens more voice, more agency and more say in matters that affect them.

Lies and postmodernism

Hannah Arendt on lies

The New York Review of Books has re-published its 1971 article Lying in politics: Reflections on the Pentagon Papers by Hannah Arendt.  It’s a study of how the US Government lied, in the context of its pursuit of war in Vietnam.  She writes about “deception, self-deception, image making, ideologizing, and defactualization” all of which were involved in the ways successive administrations lied. The lies were for a meaningless end: even its most voracious supporters saw nothing in the Vietnam War more than a protection of America’s image. The rhetoric may have been about halting the march of communism but they never believed that: it was about saving face. She writes:

… lies are often much more plausible, more appealing to reason, than reality, since the liar has the great advantage of knowing beforehand what the audience wishes or expects to hear.

The lies revealed in the Pentagon Papers were not deeply-guarded secrets: they were about matters the public could have found out for themselves. But the government persisted, until eventually its own defences had to give way.

Postmodernism – another viewpoint

In response to last Saturday’s weekend roundup two readers were highly critical of the article Chomsky vs Foucault revisited. The essence of their criticisms (well worth reading) is that postmodernism should not be discredited just because the far right has appropriated it.  One of the commentators recommended John Quiggin’s recent short article Rightwing Postmodernism in Crooked Timber. Quiggin is no enthusiast for postmodernism, but his criticism is more nuanced than the criticism in the original Aero article. Quiggin’s article has stimulated a rich array of comments.

Australia’s immigration sources

One of the Animated Stats Youtube clips is a history of Australian immigration from 1851 to 2019, showing the number of immigrants living in Australia (not the number arriving in Australia) by country of birth. For example, the number of Australians born in Britain has remained at around 1.1 to 1.2 million since 1975 (while our population has risen by 80 per cent over the same period). (7 minutes)

John Menadue Oration postponed

The Centre for Policy Development has postponed the John Menadue Oration, previously scheduled for Monday March 30. They intend at some stage to re-schedule the event – Professor Megan Davis addressing the question “Can Australia deliver?”.

Corona in verse

It would be a terrible health crisis that didn’t inspire an outbreak of doggerel.

Saturday’s Good Reading and Listening is compiled by Ian McAuley

Watch out tomorrow, Sunday, for Peter Sainsbury’s Sunday environment round up.



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