Mar 28, 2020

What people in other forums are saying about public policy

That virus

We hope, in the din of facts, analysis, informed opinion, conveniently selected facts, political spin, uninformed opinion and fake news, that we can provide some basic findings from the WHO and some explanation of possible policy paths through the pandemic.  Again we give a plug for Norman Swan’s Coronacast covering news, research and FAQs on the virus, which gives advice as sound and unbiassed as is available in such a dynamic situation.

Comparative curves

We have updated the graph of cases in Australia compared with South Korea, and we have now added Italy. One reader pointed out that because those countries have different populations (Australia 25 million, South Korea 52 million, Italy 61 million) we should normalise for population, which we have done, expressing cases per million population.

Otherwise the qualifications are the same as we expressed last week. The graph is constructed from daily WHO situation reports, which are based on confirmed cases as provided by member countries, which are dependent in turn on their testing regimes (influenced by the availability of test kits), and the trustworthiness of their government reporting.

Note that the scale is logarithmic: Australia’s gentle slope would look very scary on a linear scale. 

 There are two curves: flatten one, bend the other

There are two curves showing the progress of coronavirus. The first is the accumulated number of cases; the second is the daily number of new cases.  A stock and a flow.  On the ABC’s Breakfast program, Dr Pankaj Jain of the University of New South Wales explains the difference.  Both China and South Korea seem to have successfully bent the curve – China by strong lockdown and restriction of movement, South Korea by extensive testing and tracing contacts.  The South Korean accumulation curve is in the diagram above while its flow curve is below: it’s lumpy because only small numbers are involved.  Also, because the numbers are small, the Y axis is linear. (Those who are mathematically minded will realise that it’s the first derivative of the accumulation curve.)

Other information sources

A group of volunteers, drawing on official data, has a site Coronavirus (COVID-19) in Australia, updated daily, with Australian data on confirmed cases broken down by state.  It seems that they have gone to great lengths to ensure its accuracy.

Similarly a group of ABC journalists has developed a site – charting the COVID-19 spread in Australia showing state counts.  Their chart for 27 March suggests that Victoria may be having some success in keeping the number of new cases down, but not too much should be read into early data. It also shows how different states are adopting different rules for testing, revealing significant differences in the rates of positive tests.

Panic – but do it with purpose

It’s dumb and dangerous to panic over toilet paper and Ventolin, but it’s quite functional to panic over the need for social distancing.  That’s one message in Nick Gruen’s article in The Mandarin, Panic is our friend.

His main message is about a piece of simple mathematics we probably learned at high school. That is the nature of compounding. We probably learned that from little things big things grow, but we may not have realised that compounding can be negative as well as positive.  To quote from Gruen, including his link to Joe Walker’s Jolly Swagman podcast:

Extreme social distancing is effective … in massively reducing the rate of spread and getting the rate at which one person infects others [RO] … from around 2.5 to below 1. And, as complexity scientist Yaneer Bar-Yam concluded on Joseph Walker’s excellent podcast two weeks ago now, once R0 falls below 1, exponential growth goes from being your enemy to being your friend. The virus runs out of business halving, then halving again, and so on to oblivion.

The implication is that with testing, strong social distancing, and tracking, much of normal life could be restored.

How the virus progresses and what to do about it

Nick Gruen in his article linked above assumes we can recall those high school sessions on compound growth. For those who want to go back to basics a group of ABC journalists have developed a website –  What we can learn from the countries winning the coronavirus fight – assuming no prior mathematical knowledge. It shows both the scary and benign power of compounding; it explains how these dynamics are playing out in Singapore, South Korea, Italy, the US, and China; and it concludes with what learning Australia can (and should) apply.  Even if it’s all familiar it’s worthwhile getting down to the final diagram reproduced below.  This is not a freehand image based on speculation: it’s almost certainly based on conventional and time-tested mathematical models.

Is Trump really serious about getting America back to normal by Easter?

Yes he is serious, and among parts of the libertarian right of the Republican Party his idea that “the cure is worse than the disease” has a great deal of support: it’s not just Trump idiocy. According to the FiveThirtyEight poll (a consolidation of polls), over the last week Trump’s approval, while still lower than his disapproval, has risen to the highest it’s been for almost his entire time in office.

Phillip Adams’ regular interview with Bruce Shapiro, Executive Director of the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University, is about the way Trump is tapping into a tradition of small government libertarianism. That is not to forget survivalists stocking up with ammunition and ration packs.

Will Trump’s approval hold? Infection and death rates in the US are about where Italy’s were two weeks ago, and infections are growing faster than they have been in Italy. Trump, like Morrison, seems to believe that there is a simple tradeoff between “health” and “the economy”, but the economy does not sit alongside society as some separate entity: when people are fearful and distressed, when systems of social support and protection fail, economic life spirals downward.

If China is seen to be managing the crisis much more responsibly than America, will Trump be seen as the president who helps make China great again while the US emulates Britain’s postwar decline into “little England”?

The endgame

John Daly of the Grattan Institute has an article: The endgame, and how to get there, outlining three possible policy paths:

Endgame A is to “flatten the curve”, essentially spreading out the virus to run its course over time – probably a long time.

Endgame B is “trace and track” (essentially the South Korean, Singapore and Taiwan approaches so far). It’s possible with a small flow of cases, plenty of test kits, and well-sealed borders.

Endgame C is ”stop then restart” – “minimising activity and interactions, and sealing the borders to passenger traffic including citizens (although not trade), until infections are driven down to zero”, staying there for a couple of weeks, and then carefully opening up again. (This is what the UK now seems to be doing, while China is tentatively at the “restart” phase.)

He mounts a strong case for Endgame C. Although not feasible for all countries, we can do it because we’re an island with a major trading partner (China) that is already adopting it. In the short term it’s the most drastic of the approaches, but it’s the approach most likely to allow us to come through with our human and physical capital in good shape, avoiding “deskilling and demoralising workers and destroying businesses that will not be reborn easily”.

Asia’s approaches explained

Last Saturday Geraldine Doogue interviewed Dale Fisher of the University of Singapore and Taiwan-based journalist Chris Horton on Covid-19 lessons from Singapore and Taiwan, two countries that have very impressive results in containing the virus. (Note that because of diplomatic isolation we don’t get WHO data from Taiwan.) Taiwan has been able to keep life more-or-less normal through strong measures of social isolation, testing and tracing.  For example, schools are kept open. Taiwan, in particular, has been well-prepared by applying what it learned from dealing with the 2003 SARS outbreak. Geraldine’s guests also dispel the notion that only authoritarian governments such as China’s and Singapore’s can institute strong controls: Taiwan and South Korea are strong democracies.

Refugees and coronavirus

The Norwegian Refugee Council has a webpage 10 things you should know about coronavirus and refugees. Eighty-four per cent of the world’s 29 million refugees are hosted by low or middle-income nations which have weak health, water and sanitation systems, and many of which have porous borders.

Writing in The Guardian Rebekah Holt and Saba Vasefi point out the condition of refugees in our own detention centres, such as Villawood, where social isolation is not possible.

WHO figures reveal that Papua New Guinea has only one recorded case of coronavirus, which suggests that ex Manus Island asylum seekers should be safe for now, but the country has a long land border with Indonesia where the virus seems to be spreading rapidly.  Those 200 or so refugees and asylum-seekers on Nauru may be safer, but the country has declared a state of emergency.

Workforce impacts

We’re reluctant to separate health issues from economic issues. Such separation, implying a tradeoff between social and economic policies, lies behind much of the poor policy decisions of successive Coalition governments, and behind Morrison’s attempt to “balance” economic and health outcomes. But it is useful to start thinking about what will happen to those in paid employment as we lock down.

It is evident that the virus itself, people’s behavioural reactions, and government regulations, will have very different effects on different people’s employment and financial security. So it’s informative to see where and how we work, or at least were working in November.

Also, in terms of health risks, we can guess that it’s easier for a financial analyst than a plumber to work from the safety of home.

In the event of a UK-style lockdown just what constitutes “essential” employment would be based on some more rational criterion than Morrison’s inane statement “An essential worker is a worker with a job” – a criterion that ranks an advertising executive, a hairdresser and a corporate lawyer just as essential as an emergency care doctor risking his or her own life.

First, let’s look at employment by industry:

Second, by occupation – although occupation statistics, being based on self-description, are not quite so rigorous. Are there really 1.5 million Australians with the work-title “manager”?

ABS special survey – already dated? 

The ABS has released a special report Business Impacts of COVID-19, based on a survey taken in mid-March.  Even then, which seems like an age go, 49 per cent of businesses had already experienced an adverse impact economic impact. Unsurprisingly the accommodation and food service industry was most heavily affected. Many businesses were experiencing, or expected to experience, staff shortages.

After Covid-19

A world view

Foreign Policy has asked an impressive who’s who of international relations experts How the world will look after the coronavirus pandemic.  It would be amazing if these twelve experts were to reach strong agreement, but a general theme is that there will be a retreat from globalisation. Some of this retreat will be practical, recognising the benefit of domestic sources of supply. Some will be in the form of beggar-thy-neighbour nationalism and a reduced capacity to deal with global problems such as climate change.

Sino-American relations are seen as particularly important: as Kishore Mahbubani points out ideally there should be cooperation between the two powers, but conflict is more likely. Richard Haass sees “state weakness and failed states becoming an even more prevalent feature of the world”. John Ikenberry is pessimistic for the immediate future, but just as happened in the postwar order, he asks if democracies might “come out of their shells to find a new type of pragmatic and protective internationalism”.

(Foreign Policy generally has an impervious paywall, but it appears to have lifted it for some articles about Covid-19.)

A US view

Politico has asked 35 “smart, macro thinkers” about the possibilities for the post-virus world – Coronavirus will change the world permanently. Here’s how.

“Plagues drive change” as Jonathan Rauch writes, and there is some consensus on the direction of that change. Many see a period of political de-stabilisation, generally to the benefit of the commonweal and possibly towards a new form of federalism. There is a general consensus that Americans will come to accept the value of good government: as Margaret O’Mara puts it “we will need big, and wise, government more than ever”. Many express the hope that science and evidence will once again take their place in the making of public policy.

There is also consensus that forms of electronic communication, adopted as a necessity during periods of social distancing, will become more entrenched: working from home may become more common, for example. But views differ on whether that will result in more or less individualism or isolation. Views also differ on whether a fairer and more community-minded society or a more selfish and unequal society will emerge.

Back to capitalism’s exponential growth?

Writing in Counterpunch Priti Gulati Cox and Stan Cox note that both the coronavirus and capitalism grow exponentially – the coronavirus at 30 per cent a day, capitalism at a more modest 3 per cent a year: Climbing the deadly curves of Covid-19 and capitalism.  They ask if, once the crisis is over, capitalism will continue on its trajectory of exponential growth, or will Americans have the will to redirect the nation’s productive capacity (it’s capital) “away from wasteful and superfluous production toward ensuring economic security and good quality of life for the nation’s non-affluent majority”?



The Essential poll this week is all about the coronavirus.

Unsurprisingly we are becoming more concerned about the threat of coronavirus.  Earlier polls had shown that younger people were more aware of coronavirus than older people (possibly reflecting better connection with contemporary media), but by now there is very little difference between concern felt by younger and older people.  Some other findings:

  • when asked “how likely do you think it is, that you will develop Covid-19?” there was very little difference across age groups;
  • we were split three ways between believing there has been an over-reaction, an under-reaction an “about right” reaction;
  • younger people, however, are more likely to believe that there has been an over-reaction;
  • about 70 per cent rated the government’s (without specifying state or federal) response as good or “neither good nor poor”, with older people generally giving the government better marks;
  • in regard to information about coronavirus most people felt that they were well-informed, and trusted the government more than the media, but there was still a significant deficit in understanding and trust;
  • most people had increased personal hygiene measures, limited their social contacts and stopped physical greetings such as shaking hands (contrary to politicians’ accusations, there wasn’t much difference between the young and the old);
  • about a third bought additional groceries to stock up (polling does not necessarily elicit honest answers on this one);
  • only about a quarter, and even fewer older people, reduced their use of cash;
  • about half of respondents believed the Federal Opposition “should accept the Government recommendations to ensure decisions are made quickly”, with predictable differences by respondents’ party affiliations;

Essential also asked people about changes in their employment conditions and expected personal financial impact, revealing significant but not high changes and concerns. Because Essential polling is carried out over Wednesday and Sunday, in this round finishing on Sunday March 22. Hardly any respondents would have been aware of governments’ strong moves late on that same Sunday.

International comparisons

There is an IPSOS poll conducted between March 12 and March 14, asking people in twelve countries about their perceptions of personal and national impacts. Some of the findings:

  • about half of respondents (including Australians) believe the media is exaggerating, but not in China or Italy where that belief is much lower;
  • self-quarantining has strong support in all countries;
  • people in Vietnam, China and Italy are much more aware of the personal risk associated with the virus than people in other countries (Italy 94 per cent);
  • in those same countries a significant majority of people believe “things will return to normal by June”.

What is this thing called a “national cabinet”?

Writing in the Canberra Times, John Warhurst questions the term “national cabinet”: Grappling with the realities of a national cabinet. He reminds us that “the term is a misnomer, as it is not actually a cabinet but more like a special purpose Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting – what some have called a rolling COAG – known previously as the Premiers’ Conference”.  Nor is it like a “war cabinet” because it does not include the Opposition.

It is acting as if it has strong executive authority, but its lines of accountability are actually quite long: each member – prime minister, premier, chief minister – is responsible to his or her cabinet, who, in turn, are responsible to their parliaments. In deferring Parliament until August the Commonwealth has taken the lead (followed by the states) in pushing parliaments aside.

Morrison wants us to forget the sports rorts but we shouldn’t

We tend to think of the sports rorts as a particular case of corruption associated with a government breaking all the rules in order to win last year’s election.  Writing in Michael West Media, Jommy Tee points out that budgetary forward estimates for community development grants show a rising trend out to 2022-23: Future Rorts: Why buy one election when you can buy three?  (It’s almost certain that Morrison sees the next parliamentary sitting in August as a mere inconvenience to allow passage of the budget.)

No Josh, the mining sector isn’t being strangled by red or green tape

In August last year Treasurer Frydenberg sent a reference to the Productivity Commission, asserting that “regulations may pose unnecessary burdens or impediments on resource companies operating, or seeking to operate and invest, in Australia”.

The Commission has now issued its draft report. If the government was seeking a finding that environmental concerns are stifling our mining sector, it may be disappointed. The Commission does find that “processes remain unduly complex, duplicative, lengthy and uncertain” and it recommends process improvements, while noting that “resources regulation has been an active reform area”. (Why then the reference?)

The government is less likely to be enthusiastic about the Commission’s finding that “Governments should assess whether regulators are appropriately funded, and consider opportunities for enhanced cost recovery”, or those which find that mining companies should provide financial assurances to cover the cost of rehabilitation, rather than leaving the task to governments.

The report’s overview includes an informative picture of mining investment and reserves.

Learning while we’re under house arrest

Perhaps if we all understood a little more about economics we wouldn’t be taken in by the Liberal Party’s claims about their economic competence.

The Institute for New Economics Thinking has a website Learn economics at home  for those  “stuck at home and already bored of Netflix”. It’s an assembly of short on-line courses for non-economists that prominent academics have developed over the last couple of years.  Some of the offerings:

Robert Skidelsky has a course “How not to do economics” in eleven short lectures (15 – 30 minutes), starting with the basics and concluding with economic history and ethics.

Branko Milanovic and Arjun Jayadev have a course “Inequality 101” in five sessions of 40 minutes each.

Michael Sandel has what may be best described as a semester of six tutorials “What money can’t buy”, with a group of students from around the world. The students and viewers are challenged to the ideas of leading economists on the left and right on questions such as “should you be allowed to sell your kidney?”.

There are stand-alone lectures on specific topics including: Mariana Mazzucato “The government as entrepreneur” and Joseph Stiglitz “How to re-write the rules of globalization”.

An empty world

Sara Oscar, Lecturer in Photography at the University of Technology in Sydney, has a photo essay of empty places around the world published on the Open Forum website – empty classrooms, cathedrals, freeways, subways …  “Pictorial urban life emptied of its citizens produces an assortment of emotional responses: estrangement, social alienation, melancholy.”

Eighteen joyous Dutch musicians cope with social isolation

A regular reader of Pearls and Irritations, living in isolation in Sydney, has sent this link to Rotterdams Philharmonisch Orkest playing Beethoven’s Ode an die Freude.

Locked down on a small European offshore island

Dan Ariely of Duke University, founder of the research institution “The Center for Advanced Hindsight”, draws our attention to the way John Cleese sees the British coping in the lockdown.  Just as long as they have tea and can feel superior to the French and Germans they will cope.

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

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

Share and Enjoy !

Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter
Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter


Thank you for subscribing!