Apr 4, 2020

What people in other forums are saying about public policy

That virus

Is a policy emerging?

It is probable that the policymakers are overwhelmed with conflicting and inconsistent evidence, having to change course as they go, but that provides no excuse for secrecy. Citizens in a democracy have a right to know how those they have entrusted to hold office are thinking – even if they are learning as they go.  Changing one’s mind in the light of new evidence is a virtue, not a sin.

Governments have been quick to announce new restrictions and rules – an understandable priority – but they have been less forthcoming about the policies underpinning those measures.

Although the Commonwealth and the states have still not released their models, some policy clarity is emerging, however. The Health Department has released a document Government response to the COVID-19 outbreak.  It’s worth reading because it has no suggestion that there is some trade-off between citizens’ health and “the economy”. It is about people’s health.

That represents a deliberate choice between three broad policy approaches:

(1) A let it rip move to rapid herd immunity. Both Trump and Johnson had some early thoughts in this direction, but as reported by Thomas Colson in Business Insider even they have backed off this idea.

(2) A slow path to herd immunity.  Such a policy, involving selected restrictions on social and commercial behaviour, would allow the virus to spread in a controlled way, so that health care services, with boosted capacity, are not overwhelmed. John Pinkser, writing in The Atlantic, describes four ways such an approach could play out.  The shortest (and most unlikely) is one to two months; the longest is twelve to eighteen months or more. This path is high-risk: because of time lags it is almost impossible to regulate the rate of spread of the virus.

(3) A national quarantine approach, keeping the country almost free of the virus, using whatever mix of interventions work – isolation, testing, tracing. This could be described as the East Asian approach. If government figures are to be believed, 99.99 per cent of Chinese people have not had the virus, and the government intends to keep it that way, presumably until a vaccine or a reasonably effective cure is developed. At 99.98 per cent the proportion of South Koreans who have not had the virus is a little lower: it’s the same as Australia’s at this point.  (Calculations based on WHO figures.) In South Korea and China the virus is not entirely eliminated, but the numbers are so low that outbreaks can be quickly suppressed.

It appears that Australia may be moving to this third option. The policy document referred to above states the first of four aims is to “minimise the number of people becoming infected or sick with COVID-19”. It does not say its aim is to maximise economic growth within the constraint of not overloading the health system. That is no guarantee the health system will not be overloaded, it’s early days, but if the document is to be taken at its word, rather than a piece of Coalition spin, it appears that, for now, Australia is following a quarantine path rather than a herd immunity path.

How such a policy might play out in Australia was explained in an interview with Jane Halton, former head of the Health Department and now Chair of Australia’s Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, on the ABC’s Breakfast program on Friday, when she was describing CSIRO’s early work on possible vaccines. The approach involves initial strong controls that can be eased, but not lifted, as infection rates are brought down to manageable numbers. It needs an end point, but as Halton says that is yet to be determined – perhaps when a vaccine is available.

The East Asian approach as applied


An ABC Foreign Correspondent program of 31 March – The Singapore Solution – describes how Singapore is pursuing a policy of containment, while keeping much of its economy and social life functioning. The 30-minute program includes a short speech by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Long, an articulate politician who has earned the trust of his people. Australian Professor Dale Fisher, Senior Consultant on infectious diseases at Singapore’s National University Hospital and chair of the WHO’s Global Outbreak and Response Network, has become the public face of Singapore’s campaign through his Covid-19 Chronicles.


Writing on the ABC Religion and Ethics site, Wanning Sun of the University of Technology Sydney describes China’s approach: How local government and civil society confronted COVID-19 in China. While many outside observers think only of China’s authoritarian controls, she stresses that China has also grounded its approach in ethics:

The administrative measures were coercive and hard, and included the deployment of strong state control tactics, such as the overt policing of infringements and digital monitoring. In addition to these tough restrictions, the persuasion techniques that were also deployed aimed to appeal to ethics and the emotions (including shame and fear), and drew on society-specific cultural and moral resources. In China, these administrative and psychological strategies worked in tandem to achieve the desired outcome of social distancing. (Emphasis in original.)

Her article goes on to describe the role played by local residents’ committees, who have been at the front line of encouraging compliance with messages such as “No social visit today so that you can still have family to visit later on”.

South Korea

The Economist has an article South Korea keeps covid-19 at bay without a total lockdown, explaining its measures – measures that allow for a fair degree of social interaction but which still keep places of mass assembly closed. Cafes and schools are open, sporting stadiums are closed.


OK, Germany isn’t in east Asia, but its approach, which has so far kept the rate of infection down, is based on values that have much in common with those underpinning approaches in east Asia. That may be why it’s doing better than its European neighbours. Speaking with Andrew West on the ABC’s Religion and Ethics ReportThe values of modern Germany help limit COVID-19 fatalities –  William Donahue of America’s Notre Dame University describes Germany’s strong ethic of communitarian solidarity. He mentions the German principle of Sozial Marktwirtschaft that sees the market as contained in society, rather than as somehow separate, as is the case in other countries. Hence no notion of a health-society trade-off. He mentions how Catholic and Lutheran moral values are embedded in German society. Don’t be fooled by Germany’s secularism and low church attendance: Donahue believes Germany is a more religious society than the USA. (10 minutes)

Donahue has an article on the same theme in Commonweal: A Democracy hunkers down.  “For this time of peril and mounting anxiety has in Germany become a moment not for scapegoating and exacerbating divisions, but rather one for strengthening democracy” he writes.


To Singapore’s Professor Fisher and to Notre Dame’s Donahue the key issue is trust in government, regardless of whether that government is authoritarian or democratic. Just as the people of China and Singapore trust their governments, the people of Taiwan, Germany and South Korea, all democracies, trust their governments not only to have the administrative competence to protect them in this crisis, but also to have a policy approach based on moral values.

Writing in The Conversation Ben Boyd, of the University of Kent, UK, reminds us that trust in political figures is at a low just as they need citizens to act on their advice.

In Australia a consistent message of prime ministers Howard, Abbott and Morrison has been that government is intrinsically incompetent and does nothing of value. All three men have valorised personal greed and have treated citizens with contempt and disregard for the truth. With that partisan and personal background it’s a hard task for Morrison to take moral leadership.

Hard data and trusted sources


Sources of reasonably objective data include:

The WHO daily situation report is based on governments’ reports on confirmed cases and deaths. The ABC’s Max Walden reminds us that because Taiwan is not a member of the UN and therefore not a member of the WHO, the WHO is not reporting on Taiwan’s successful program of quarantining.

Our Department of Health Coronavirus (COVID-19) current situation and case numbers is updated daily, with Australian data and links to other data and sources of advice. In the latest report, note the strong representation of young women (20 – 29 years old).

Our Department of Health Coronavirus (COVID-19) health alert has personal advice and links to carefully-drafted Commonwealth statements, some of which have the guarded language of government press releases.

The Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center is updated daily, with data by country and a choice of graphical displays, including the daily rate of new cases. Note the three patterns: a strong upward trajectory in Turkey and the USA, signs of stabilisation in Italy and Switzerland, and reduction down to small numbers in China and South Korea.  Most “developing” countries are yet to report.

The Economist has a Coronavirus hub – a paywall-free collection of its stories and analytical pieces about the virus and its consequences “analysing every aspect of the pandemic—from the science to its political, economic and social consequences—with rigour and a global perspective”.

Free of spin and any partisan agenda, and full of professional advice, is Norman Swan’s Coronacast covering news, research and FAQs on the virus, in daily ten-minute bites.  (Wash your hands, get your normal flu shot(s), stay at home, if you’re out jogging or cycling give space to others – more than normal if you’re puffing hard!)

Those curves

Politicians and journalists who should know better talk about “flattening the curve”, but as we and others point out, there are two curves commonly generated – an accumulation of cases and the daily rate of new cases. A flat accumulation curve, in itself, is meaningless: one way to “flatten the curve” would be to let the whole population become infected. Of more interest is the daily rate curve (mathematically the derivative of the accumulation curve). Has is peaked? Is it at manageable numbers?

Here are the accumulation curves for Australia, Italy and South Korea:

And South Korea’s daily rate of new cases:

Because it’s now a month since South Korea’s curve peaked it can be said, cautiously, that they may have the virus under containment while effectively quarantining the country.

If, like South Korea, we had two cases per million nationally, NSW would have fewer than twenty new cases daily, Tasmania about one. Assuming one in ten needs hospitalisation that would be a manageable case load. Italy’s daily rate of new cases is now around 80 per million and ours has been around 13 over the last week, but it will be at least two weeks before we could say Italy or Australia are on the way down, even though politicians who goofed off in their high school maths classes may make premature and misleading claims.  Note that we lack reliable data on the number of asymptomatic transmitters of the virus.

Economic indicators

Who is losing jobs and who loses and wins?

Bankwest Curtin Economics has published an assessment of the way different industries are adjusting to the government’s measures to deal with the virus and how the payments in the $130 billion “Job Keeper” package will be distributed. They estimate that there are almost a million casual workers who have been with their current employer for less than twelve months and are therefore ineligible. A disproportionate number of those are in accommodation, food services, and retail trade – industries where women are heavily represented.  By contrast many part-time workers may be financially better off under the program than they were when working.

(Spare a thought for public servants at the ABS who, in coming labour force surveys, have to interpret the meaning of “employed”, and be on the lookout for ways politicians may make use of those statistics.)

Polls and elections

Essential poll – we worry about coronavirus, but haven’t taken our minds off climate change

Essential Media has published a poll with a raft of questions almost entirely devoted to our attitudes to coronavirus. Not many surprises but among the more notable findings are:

  • all surveyed age groups now seem to express the same level of concern;
  • younger people and people living in capital cities think they are more likely to get the virus than older people and people living non-metropolitan regions;
  • people’s beliefs about how the virus is spread align reasonably well with expert opinion;
  • most people feel well-informed, but the survey reveals gaps, and they are not highly impressed by the government’s response (state or federal not specified);
  • a solid majority of us have improved our personal hygiene (or at least that’s what we told Essential);
  • only a third of us have changed our working patterns;
  • we’re pretty enthusiastic about border closures and the restrictions on our behaviour, and the older we are the greater is our enthusiasm;
  • only a third of us feel we have enough saved to deal with a short-term loss of income, with younger people feeling more financially secure than older people;
  • we are still concerned with climate change and still feel the government has not done enough.

Poll bludger on other polls

William Bowe on his Poll Bludger site has published a piece by Adrian Beaumont covering politicians’ approval ratings in various countries – USA, Germany, France, UK.  All governments have enjoyed a “rally round the flag” bounce. As we reported last week Trump’s approval has risen strongly, but Beaumont, drawing on polling around the 2011 Queensland floods, asks if it is sustainable.

Bowe also reports on a survey in Western Australia, which found 71 per cent of people support a full lockdown and that half of respondents are worried about losing their job by September.

Bowe is on a donation drive. Most media provide superficial and even misleading reports on polls, usually behind paywalls. Bowe’s work is professional, and his BludgerTrack is the nation’s only frequently-updated time series on Australian political trends.


There were two state by-elections in Queensland last weekend, and about 60-70 per cent of votes are counted. (There was a higher-than-normal postal vote because of the coronavirus, and William Bowe suggests that perhaps 30 per cent of electors didn’t vote).

According to Antony Green’s analysis, the LNP has held the seat of Currumbin (on the Gold Coast with the NSW border as its southern border), but with a small swing to Labor on both primary and TPP vote.

Labor has held what once was the ultra-safe seat of Bundamba (a suburban area between Ipswich and Brisbane), but suffered a twelve per cent swing which seems to have gone mainly to One Nation, who won almost thirty per cent of the vote (they did not contest the seat in 2017). The Greens have also done well, while the LNP has enjoyed only a one per cent  swing, bringing their vote up to seventeen per cent.

Green also reports on the Brisbane City Council results. There will probably be no change in seats: the LNP will hold its majority – but both the LNP and Labor have lost support to the benefit of the Greens, who have won eighteen per cent of the vote.

International issues

The Multilateral System Still Cannot Get Its Act Together on COVID-19

That’s the title of an article on the Council of Foreign Relations site by Stewart Patrick. In the absence of international relations, countries have gone their own ways. Trump, he says, “has been more preoccupied with countering Chinese propaganda than exercising global leadership”. The G7 was prepared to issue a joint statement, but Trump derailed the process when he petulantly insisted that the document refer to the “Wuhan virus”.

As the global economy comes apart, societies may too

Writing in Foreign Affairs Branko Milanovic writes about what happens when individuals and their governments no longer respond to the economic laws of supply and demand but rather to their need for safety. His article The real pandemic danger is social collapse draws on the decline of the Roman Empire as an analogy. He writes:

… if the crisis continues, globalization could unravel. The longer the crisis lasts, and the longer obstacles to the free flow of people, goods, and capital are in place, the more that state of affairs will come to seem normal. Special interests will form to sustain it, and the continuing fear of another epidemic may motivate calls for national self-sufficiency.

Established economic maxims about the benefits of specialising and exploiting comparative advantage may be negated, as communities and nations turn to autarky and self-sufficiency. “Everything that used to be an advantage in a heavily specialized economy now becomes a disadvantage, and the reverse.”

Does the virus give license to right-wing authoritarians?

The ABC European correspondent Linton Besser writes that the Coronavirus might be giving some European governments an excuse to tighten grip on power.  He refers to the extraordinary way Slovenia’s former prime minister and defence minister Janez Janša, a politician of the far-right with a history of extra-judicial bad conduct and corruption, has seized power, sacked officials and hunted down supposed enemies, under the excuse of taking action on the coronavirus. In Hungary Prime Minister Orbán has further consolidated his executive powers, creating a new law essentially making it an offence to criticise the government’s approach to the virus.

Deutsche Welle reports on the concerns of human rights organisations and of other members of the EU that Orbán has become a “Covid-dictator”.

Three regions, three policies

On last Saturday’s Saturday Extra Geraldine Doogue, in her regular Foreign Affair session interviewed three experts on how different countries are coping:

James Kynge, China Editor Financial Times, on China’s experience – why the virus took off, effects on the country’s economy (they’re huge), and how, compared with earlier economic shocks, the world lacks the economic leadership that China and the US should be able to provide. This time the US isn’t stepping up.

Rohan Venkat, Associate Editor Scroll India – emphasising the suddenness of the country’s lockdown, and the already high stress on the country’s hospital system.

Rachel Mason Nunn, Manager Equity Economics and Development Partners – on what’s happening in the Pacific. It’s early days, but tourist destinations are likely to find the virus has invaded and they will lose revenue.

(Each segment is around 10 minutes).

Where does that leave Australia?

We seem to have forgotten that Australia’s economic growth has been strongly supported by immigration. Writing in the Lowy Institute’s The Interpreter, Anna Boucher of the University of Sydney reminds us that Covid-19 is not only a health crisis, it’s a migration crisis. Her article focuses on the plight of temporary immigrants, on whom we have become so dependent, but whom we now leave unsupported while they are living here stranded.

While some commentators are predicting the death of capitalism, John Edwards, former economic adviser to Paul Keating, is reasonably sanguine about the post-crisis prospects for  the Australian economy: After coronavirus: Where the world economy will stand, published on the Lowy Institute’s site The Interpreter. The recovery will be slow, there will be a huge accumulation of public and private debt, and the Reserve Bank will have no remaining capacity to stimulate the economy, but we are fortunate in having close economic relations with a rapidly recovering east Asia.

On the ABC’s Late Light Live Phillip Adams interviews economist  Satyajit Das on the Financial toll of COVID-19. It should not have taken us by surprise: Bill Gates warned us about a virus outbreak on a Ted Talks session in 2015.  We have been trying to live in a world without economic buffers: just-in-time systems in the private sector, public services – most notably health services – starved by misguided policies of austerity, households heavily in debt and without any reserves of savings. If our economies are to develop the resilience to deal with economic shocks our governments will have to take back more control, including ownership of essential services.

One issue, so far ignored by both the government and the mainstream media, is where Australia stands in relation to its East Asian neighbours if their national quarantine measures continue to hold, while Europe and the USA, through design or maladministration, let the virus spread. Does the world break up into two zones, reminiscent of the Cold War era, until a vaccine is found or the virus peters out?

North Korea has no coronavirus, but it does have rockets

We cannot verify the first statement, but last Sunday North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles off its east coast. Choe Sang-Hun of the New York Times writes as much as is known about the tests based on South Korean reports. Germany’s Stern, drawing on the official North Korean newsagency, reports that there were four rockets fired in March, launched from a “supergroßen Mehrfach-Raketenwerfer”, which formally translates as “a bloody big multiple launch pad”.

Another deadly trend

So far the coronavirus has claimed around 60 000 lives. Janette Sadik-Khan and Seth Solomonow remind us that that’s about as many as motor vehicle accidents claim globally in fifteen days: Mean streets, the global traffic death crisis published in Foreign Affairs. As far as we know the only adverse effect of coronavirus is death, but for every death involving motor vehicles there are many more injuries, a large proportion of which are permanently disabling, and these deaths and injuries are suffered by people of all ages. While prosperous countries have done much to reduce traffic accidents, in poorer countries, where car ownership is growing rapidly, the roads are much less safe. As the world is urbanising the authors recommend solutions that make urban streets safer and more useable by pedestrians and cyclists.

Coronavirus is not the only troublesome contagion

The mathematics of modelling

There is no doubt that early low caseloads of the coronavirus and even lower apparent death rates led to complacency among the public and their elected governments. It’s hard for people who have structured their lives around avoiding ever having to encounter mathematics to understand concepts such as exponential growth (no, it does not always mean “fast”) or the dynamics of systems with time lags. Our policy failures in relation to coronavirus and climate change may be attributable, in part, to decades of neglect of STEM subjects in our school curriculae.

Writing in Inside Story Daniel Reeders comments on a situation in which people do not understand the basics of modelling – its uses and its limitations – as applied to coronavirus or, for that matter, to climate change. Filling in the missing rationale for Australia’s Covid-19 response.

It is questionable whether policymakers understand that model outputs are artefacts of a process of construction, and not empirical findings about the actual epidemic. Models generate predictions that are subject to significant uncertainty, as seen in confidence intervals calculated on the basis of choices made when the model was put together.

On the ABC’s Science Friction mathematician and epidemiologist Adam Kucharski discusses with Natasha Mitchell the general principles of contagion – viruses, stock market sentiment, fake news. Modelling is always difficult because the data that flows in is scrappy, noisy, and generally delayed. He explains the power of the R factor – the reproduction factor — and the importance of getting it down, but warns that too many “obvious” solutions present themselves, and there is often pressure for aggressive but ineffective interventions. (31 minutes)

With exquisite timing his book The rules of contagion: Why things spread – and why they stop is about to be published.

Lessons from 1918

Anyone who still believes that there is some trade-off between “jobs” or “the economy” and fighting the virus might turn to an article published by The Federal Reserve Bank of New York: Fight the pandemic, save the economy: lessons from the 1918 flu. Those cities that went in earlier and longer with interventions such as “closures of schools, theaters, and churches, bans on public gatherings and funerals, quarantines of suspected cases, and restrictions on business hours” came out of the pandemic with far better employment outcomes than those who were more half-hearted and had shorter interventions.

Lessons for Australian health care

Jennifer Doggett, writing in Inside Story, lists Covid-19’s six lessons for Australian healthcare.  They are mainly about strengthening primary health care, public health and community cooperation. We may already have learned that the private insurance/private hospital sector isn’t up to the task. The public health system will always bear the burden. “Despite the government’s (and the media’s) obsession with private health insurance, this crisis has made clear that it is the public health system we rely on when serious health risks emerge.”

What we can learn from epidemics

On Last Saturday’s Saturday Extra Geraldine Doogue interviewed historian Richard Evans of Cambridge University – What we can learn from epidemics.  He takes us back in history from the Black Death through to more recent scourges, such as tuberculosis. There are general patterns of political behaviour – initial hush-ups, suppression of information, and a presentation of choices between health and the economy. There are almost always significant economic consequences (for example the Black Death, through reducing the supply of labour, struck a blow at feudalism), and people often throw out their governments when the plague is over (we can live in hope). His lectures The great plagues: Epidemics in history from the middle ages to the present day are on line. (20 minutes).

He and Geraldine listed a number of books that may provide reading for those in house arrest:

Pictures to pass the time

If you’re missing the crush and smell of crowds, The Shovel has provided a set of crowd pictures, while Deutsche Welle has pictures of how people are coping around the world.

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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