Apr 11, 2020

What people in other forums are saying about public policy

That virus

The virus doesn’t take a holiday

You’ve probably heard that warning in Commonwealth Health Minister Greg Hunt’s Easter message. Its full context is in an interview on Tuesday with Waleed Aly and Carrie Bickmore on the commercial TV program The Project. His office has provided a transcript, which includes a statement of policy:

Our number one goal – and this is what the Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy said today –  is to find the cases of community transmission and to eradicate them.

Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald – “Explosive resurgence” of COVID-19 if social controls are relaxed –  David Crowe and Eryk Bagshaw reinforce Minister Hunt’s warning. So far Australia is doing well with a falling rate of identified new infections. But because there may be undetected asymptomatic cases, and because even for those who go on to develop symptoms there is a period when they are passing on the virus, we need to allow time for any such cases to be revealed. The results we see now relate to what we were doing a few weeks back, and whatever we do now, over Easter, may not be manifest for some weeks. A short run of good results does not justify relaxation of restrictions. Crowe and Bagshaw cite  the simulations in the models prepared for the government  (see below) to show the risk of easing up on restrictions too early.

The models prepared for the government – robust but dated

The Government has released the two models of the possible spread of the virus, prepared by the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity. One is about Australia, the other about the Asia-Pacific region as a whole. “It’s important to note the modelling is based on preparedness scenarios to inform planning, they are not predictions”.

The Australian model is based on data from other countries. Its main value is in showing how an unmitigated COVID-19 epidemic might play out and in providing estimates of how measures to contain the spread (without being specific about the chosen measures) could affect demand for and pressure on health care resources. The results aren’t pretty.

On Page 14 of that document are its assumptions of doubling time, incubation period, and infectious period, as well as the proportion of cases needing hospitalisation and ICU by age groups. It must be stressed that these assumptions are based on early data. The models’ outputs are highly sensitive to small variations in the value of these input variables.

Why can’t Morrison stop himself from fibbing?

In a week when the government could rightly claim that it is making early progress on reining in the coronavirus, it’s strange that Morrison is undermining his own and the Commonwealth’s credibility by making misleading statements.

In a press conference he said “we’re pretty confident that our testing has been probably the best in the world”.  That seems to be far from the truth, however: 26 countries have tested a greater percentage of their population than we have. He could have honestly said that we have a high testing rate that compares well with the USA and most European countries, but he chose to make an extravagant claim.

More seriously, writing in the Canberra Times Nicholas Stuart finds that Morrison states that there is no health risk in allowing children to go to school and to child care centres, because according to a reputable (yet to be reviewed) study, children are unlikely to have been the primary source of household SARS-CoV2 [coronavirus] infections.  The study’s actual finding is that only 9.7 per cent of transmission clusters originate from children, who often have asymptomatic cases of coronavirus. As Stuart points out, children may not be at much risk, but adults who interact with them are, and more basically, it takes only a small proportion of risk-takers to overwhelm the efforts of the majority who do take precautions. Stuart’s article Morrison’s childcare decision points to a larger strategy suggests that Morrison is attracted to the idea of letting the virus spread so as to achieve “herd immunity”, sacrificing the lives of the vulnerable and of health care workers in order to spur an imagined return to a level of economic activity as it was before the virus.

Herd immunity – a dangerous idea

The main trouble with “herd immunity” theory is that, drawing on the experience of Spain and Italy, the rate of new infection has to be held well below 100 new cases a day per million people in order to avoid overwhelming the health care system. That means it would take at least 10 000 days, or 27 years, to achieve 100 percent immunity – or perhaps a mere 19 years if herd immunity can be achieved once 70 per cent of the population has been infected.

Herd immunity  proponents claim that it would steadily release people back into the workforce, but even if the infection rate were pushed up to a high-risk speed limit of 100 new cases per day per million, after 15 months (a time when a vaccine may become available) only 6 per cent of the population would have immunity, and because it is almost impossible to control the rate of infection closely, there would be the risk of a devastating outbreak.

It’s a ridiculous proposition, initially considered by Britain’s Boris Johnston until scientists explained the figures, but the idea has some adherents in Australia, including among some NSW Government MPs and health officials.  And as UNSW immunologist John Dwyer points out in Pearls and Irritations – Exploring COVID-19 controversies. Part 1 – there is no guarantee that those who have been infected by the virus are protected from future infection. It will be many months before we can run tests on continuing immunity.

Writing in the Canberra Times, ANU academics Quentin Grafton and Tom Kompass demolish the herd immunity idea, which they describe as “involuntary euthanasia” on three grounds. The hospitalisation and death rates would be unnecessarily and unacceptably high, immunity after infection is not assured, and those who recover from severe cases (a significant proportion) could suffer enduring effects. Their article is evocatively titled Is Australia’s coronavirus strategy the Hammer or the Scythe?.

On Club TroppoThe master, his emissary and the balance of risk – Nick Gruen looks at the way some policymakers, impervious to the influence of evidence, and unable to question their own gut feelings, have become hooked on the idea that we have no alternative but to let this virus run:

There was one monster assumption in the UK, raised to the level of potential national catastrophe, but it’s also been present in Australia and a huge issue I think. That’s the idea that there’s nothing we can do to prevent the virus spreading even after we get the number of cases down, so we should avoid full lockdown and try to get through. Perhaps this assumption is right. It certainly wasn’t with SARS or ebola. But it’s critical. And yet we’ve seen whole press conferences in which our PM and his trusty Chief and Deputy Chief Medical Officers asserted as a simple fact. It’s not a simple fact – it’s the most crucial assumption of our time. If it’s right the government’s strategy is a pretty good one. If it’s wrong it’s probably terrible and certainly the wrong one with foresight – who knows what will turn up in hindsight.

Information sources

Last week we provided a list of information sources.  We re-present that list here, but without repeating the comments and qualifications (which can be read in last Saturday’s roundup.)

The WHO daily situation report;

Our Department of Health Coronavirus (COVID-19) current situation and case numbers;

Our Department of Health Coronavirus (COVID-19) health alert;

The Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center;

The Economist paywall-free Coronavirus hub;

Norman Swan’s Coronacast.

Another that has been brought to our attention is the modestly-titled site Coronavirus (COVID-19) in Australia, a rich source of data, updated daily and maintained by a group of volunteers. It includes data on testing and on transmission sources – particularly important as overseas sources give way to known and unknown local sources.

The ABC digital story innovation team has a daily-updated website Charting the COVID-19 spread in Australia.  One chart and set of statistics that seems to be unique to this source covers hospitalisation. Nationally 8 per cent of current cases are receiving hospital care. That 8 per cent breaks down into 3 per cent in ICU and 1 per cent ventilated. (It should be remembered, as Boris Johnson found, that hospitalisation can lag diagnosis by many days.)

Those curves

We have been presenting the accumulation curves for Italy, South Korea and Australia.  Another week’s data shows a continuation in the trend – flattening in South Korea and Australia, still rising in Italy.

Of more policy interest are the curves of new cases, shown below for six countries – all “developed” countries. WHO data for Africa, South Asia, South America, where quarantine measures are difficult, where testing rates are low and where health services are severely stretched, is patchy so far.

Note that Australia’s data is a little more lumpy in this graph than in the graphs provided by the government. The figures reconcile, but the WHO and our government may assign cases to different days: the planet is round and has different time zones.

It appears that Italy and Spain may at least be holding back the growth of new cases, but at very high levels. The UK and the USA still seem to be on an upward trend: the US curve looks  similar to the Italian curve three weeks ago. South Korea’s curve is so low as to be barely discernible: it’s that orange line running just above the axis. Over the week to April 9 South Korea has averaged 1.4 new cases per million people. Our new case rate over that same week has been 7.6 new cases per million people, and falling.

The New York Times has an article How South Korea has flattened the curve, written by Max Fisher and Choe Sang-Hun. Intervene fast; test early, often and safely; trace contacts; isolate; bring the public on side.

Why are different countries reporting such different death rates?

As yet, no one knows why reported death rates vary so widely between countries. Even after eliminating timing effects (because the disease takes time to develop rates always start low), reported rates vary between two per cent (South Korea) and thirteen per cent (Italy). Some experts suggest the rates may be one per cent or even lower, because there could be many undetected cases in the population, particularly in countries that have prioritised testing those with manifest conditions.  On the other hand death rates may be under-stated if care has not been taken to determine the cause of death.

The Economist has one article drawing on US data, suggesting there may be a very large number of undetected cases and therefore a very low death rate.  A story that has received a fair deal of publicity relates to the Italian town of Nembro in the middle of Italy’s worst-hit areas, where two physicists try to make sense of the figures and conclude that the virus has a lethality rate of around one per cent.  (To follow their arithmetic you need to know that Nembro’s population is 11 300.) Other experts, however, point out that if there are undetected cases spreading the virus, this effect would show up in a short time in areas where authorities thought they had the virus under control. See, for example, Jemima Kelly’s article Let’s flatten the coronavirus confusion curve in the Financial Times, which draws on the well-respected Imperial College study. (Free but registration required.)

We don’t know the virus’s death rate, and won’t be able to learn much until there are tests that can detect the presence of coronavirus antibodies. Such tests are under development. Because there are so many uncertainties about both the denominator (the number of cases) and the numerator (deaths), great scepticism should be exercised in assessing claims about the lethality of the virus and in assessing arguments that we can easily move to herd immunity.

A disaster unfolding just to our north

The next few weeks will almost certainly see huge outbreaks of coronavirus in “developing” countries.  On the ABC’S Late Night Live Jonathan Green interviews Tim Lindsay, Professor of Asian Law and Director of the Centre for Indonesian Law, Islam and Society at the University of Melbourne: Coronavirus challenge for Indonesia. Until early March, in the interest of “looking after the economy”, the Indonesian Government denied the existence of coronavirus in their country, even going to the extent of offering incentives to foreign tourists to visit. The outbreak coincides with the Indonesian ceremony of Mudik, when people traditionally travel to their home villages, thus spreading the virus. WHO figures (April 9) show only 2956 cases and 240 coronavirus deaths among the country’s 270 million people, but these figures are certainly understated, and there are already deaths among the country’s stretched health workforce. (12 minutes)

Looking after #1

There are three million foreigners in Australia “unfortunate enough to be trapped in our midst through no fault of their own – on working holidays, travelling, and even long-term resident non-citizens, as well as migrants, refugees and international students”.  So writes John Warhurst in the Canberra Times: COVID-19: Australians first, foreigners second?  He compares our treatment of non-resident foreigners – telling them to go home when there are no flights and denying them income support – with the way we treated German and Italian Australians during last century’s wars.

What it has taken to eliminate urban gridlock

Inga Ting, Alex Palmer and Stephen Hutcheon, members of the ABC’s digital story innovation team, have produced maps and charts of peak hour traffic flows – vehicular and pedestrian – in our biggest capital cities, before and after the lockdowns. (A proportion of the remaining trickle would be people undertaking essential travel who wisely substitute their cars for public transport.)

Their charts also show how traffic in Singapore, Seoul and Hong Kong has fallen, compared with falls in other countries. Falls in these east Asian countries have been comparatively mild, no doubt reflecting the fact that in these countries governments have pursued policies of containment, allowing a reasonable level of normal activity to continue.  (Singapore is presently in a temporary strong lockdown, the effect of which is not revealed on these graphs.)

Is your work essential? It depends on where you live

In Australia hairdressers are among the ranks of “essential workers”, but not in the UK. In New Zealand travel to look after animals is permitted, and locksmiths are considered as “essential”. In California “vegetation management crews” are “essential”, but it is not clear if this category covers marijuana growers. These gems can be found on official websites categorising essential workers in California, New Zealand, and the UK.

The short-term economy – “a crisis like no other”

IMF Managing Director, Kristalina Georgieva, has delivered a speech Confronting the Crisis: Priorities for the Global Economy. Globally, the IMF is expecting the worst economic outlook since the Great Depression. They expect 170 countries, “advanced” and “developing”, will experience negative per-capita economic growth next year.  Countries’ first priority should be to continue with containment measures and support for health systems. Georgieva says:

Some say there is a trade-off between saving lives and saving livelihoods. I say it is a false dilemma. Given this is a pandemic crisis, defeating the virus and defending people’s health are necessary for economic recovery.

(Yet there are politicians, such as Liberal Party senator Jim Molan, who believe there is a trade-off between “health” and “the economy”,  just as he believes there is a trade-off between dealing with climate change and “the economy”.)

The IMF will produce a special updated World Economic Outlook on Tuesday April 14.

The post-virus economy – mixed views

Perhaps the virus will be with us for a long time, perhaps we will beat it. Some people are writing a requiem for capitalism, while some, such as our prime minister, say that there is no need for structural change and we can “get back to what it was like before”. Many more- considered views lie between these extremes.

No, we can’t get back to what it was like before

Laura Tingle, writing on the ABC website, asks whether “snap back” policies are even possible: After coronavirus passes, nothing will be the same — and that might not be a bad thing. Our response to the virus has brought forward some changes, such as working from home and telehealth, that have languished in the “too hard” basket for many years.  The scale of the fiscal intervention is such that some combination of higher taxes and money printing are inevitable. (Dare we say “Modern monetary theory”?) Effects on the property market, which has been propped up by unsustainable debt, could be profound. The relationships between unions and employers may never be the same again. She concludes: “We are heading somewhere different as a result of this crisis. It may not necessarily be somewhere worse”.

Will it be better or worse than what has gone before?

Writing in The Guardian Chicago journalist Peter Baker takes a world view: ’We can’t go back to normal’: how will coronavirus change the world?. He lists some of the policy moves that would have been unthinkable a couple of months ago – social distancing, huge fiscal rescue packages, controls on landlords …

It’s not just the size and speed of what is happening that’s dizzying. It’s the fact that we have grown accustomed to hearing that democracies are incapable of making big moves like this quickly, or at all.

Crises re-write history, they “rip open the fabric of normality”.  Citing historical and contemporary cases Baker describes some of the negative consequences of crises – they can “inflame xenophobia and racial scapegoating”, and the current crisis may entrench the surveillance state.  But crises can also make it easy for us to shake off some bad old ways and to pay more attention to the public good.

Fault lines revealed

Writing in Inside StoryRebuilding the economy after Covid-19 –  Adrian Triggs of ANU’s Crawford School points out the crisis has revealed several fault lines in Australia’s economic structure. These include high private and public debt, an over-reliance on a casualised workforce, poor support for the unemployed, and a low level of trust in government and other institutions. But we should not abandon one of our prime economic stabilisers, a floating exchange rate.

Will our government be more inclined to listen to sound advice?

“Right now Australian lives and livelihoods depend on the plans and delivery skills of Australia’s public servants” was how Geraldine Doogue introduced the topic The role of public servants during the Covid-19 crisis in last week’s Saturday Extra. She interviewed Andrew Podger, Professor of Public Policy at ANU, former head of the Health Department (and frequent Pearls and Irritations contributor), and former public servant Allan McConnell of the Department of Government and International Relations, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Sydney.

Podger suggests that the public service, in spite of cutbacks, is very good at providing coordinating policies and providing a quick response when necessary. But he also points out that it has suffered a loss of capability, and has been operating in an environment where evidence-based policy has given way to justification of political decisions.

How healthy is capitalism?

“In the space of a few months, as a health pandemic has gripped the world, all our preconceived notions of economic management are being questioned”.  That’s a quote from the ABC’S business editor, Ian Verrender: Is capitalism dying or just in isolation during the coronavirus pandemic? The Liberal Party once had a commitment to market capitalism (even if it has been drifting into crony capitalism in recent years), but in its response to the virus it is violating capitalism’s economic rules.

In fact the virus is just the latest shock to capitalism:

For several years now, Macquarie Group managing director and the group head of Asia Pacific, Viktor Shvets, has been warning clients that conventional capitalism is dead and that it will be replaced by some form of communism.

That threat to capitalism is not a bunch of Bolsheviks storming the New York Stock Exchange or the Melbourne Club. It’s $US 260 000 000 000 000 of global debt.

Polls and surveys

Newspoll – we all love Scotty from Marketing, but we aren’t so sure about the Coalition

William Bowe’s Poll Bludger reports on last Monday’s Newspoll.

Morrison’s approval rating is up a huge 20 per cent to 61 per cent, while his disapproval rating is down 18 per cent to 35 per cent. Albanese’s approval rating has also improved, but not by so much. Morrison has enjoyed a surge in his approval as preferred prime minister.  The results are displayed graphically on Bowe’s BludgerTrack.

The  poll reveals the Coalition’s primary vote to be 42 per cent, while Labor’s is 34 per cent. Within errors of estimate, these results are the same as last year’s election outcome (41.4 percent, 33.3 per cent). The 2PP figure has just been nudged in the Coalition’s favour (51:49), but because of sampling errors nothing should be read into small movements between polls.

(The rise in Morrison’s personal support, contrasting with the essentially unchanged position for the Coalition, probably reflects his style as a one-man show. As he did in last year’s election he has not allowed the more troublesome children to get out of the car.)

People strongly approve of the “jobkeeper” scheme, and generally think the $130 billion expenditure is about right. (But how many people really have a grasp of these numbers?)

The Newspoll also asks people a number of questions about coronavirus: 77 per cent of people are worried about catching the virus; 36 per cent are concerned about job loss, and 35 per cent are concerned about their superannuation balance.

Essential – much the same as Newspoll, but more detailed

The Essential Report of April 6 surveys respondents on their attitude to Morrison and Albanese and on their beliefs and behaviours about coronavirus.  Both are updates of previous surveys.

The two graphs below summarise Morrison’s and Albanese’s ratings.  Both have enjoyed a rise in approval, but Morrison’s surge is bigger, and he has increased his lead as preferred prime minister.

On questions relating to the coronavirus, people feel somewhat better informed and more approving of the government’s response (still no Commonwealth-state breakdown) than in the March survey. Otherwise they don’t report much change from their responses. Men are still more likely than women to think there has been an over-reaction, but overall 83 per cent of respondents think that the threat estimation is “about right” (46 per cent) or that the threat has been under-estimated (37 per cent).

Trump excels

Washington Post columnist and historian Max Boot has struggled with a comparison between James Buchanan and Donald Trump for ranking as the worst president ever. Buchanan’s act is a hard one to beat: his dithering led the US into the Civil War with a cost of 600 000 lives (America’s population in 1861 was about the same as Australia’s is now). But Trump’s performance in response to the coronavirus has won him the title. The worst president. Ever. His dithering and dismissal of expert advice has projected the US to the top of the league of confirmed coronavirus cases (it will probably soon top the league of deaths) while allowing unemployment to rise to around 13 per cent (illustrating the fallacy of assuming some trade-off between “health” and “the economy”) – while sheeting the blame to others.

Trump slips

In late March Trump’s approval rating surged to its highest level since his short post-inauguration honeymoon of approval. The FiveThirtyEight poll shows he has started to come down from that high, particularly with likely or registered voters. (Normally one should disregard short-term movements in polls – the margins of error are too high. But because FiveThirtyEight collects a huge amount of data from a multitude of polls its revealed movements would be reasonably robust.)

A small win for democracy

Many people, observing Morrison’s dominating presence as the face of government, are dismayed at the Government’s decision to shut down Parliament until August. One small move against his elected dictatorship model has been the establishment of a cross-party Senate Committee, chaired by Labor’s Katy Gallagher, and comprising members from the Liberal, National, and Green Parties, as well as Independent Jacqui Lambie, with the task of reviewing the Government’s response to the crisis. Details are in The Mandarin Senate Select Committee established to review government’s COVID-19 response.

On the same topic of prime ministerial power, The Economist reports that Boris Johnson’s illness has darkened Britain’s mood. His illness demonstrates that even a 55-year old with the energy of an untrained Labrador puppy can be struck by a serious form of the virus. But it has also demonstrated the extent to which that country’s government is dependent on one person, the prime minister. It’s a long way from the model of a collegiate cabinet, accountable to parliament.

Pell’s acquittal

No winners

On the morning after Pell’s acquittal, on ABC Breakfast Fran Kelly interviewed Francis Sullivan about how the decision would be received in the Catholic Church: Francis Sullivan on Pell acquittal and the Catholic Church in Australia. Sullivan is the former Chief Executive of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council, the body the Church set up in response to the commission on child abuse. In relation to the decision itself, there are “no winners”. In the Catholic community there is a spectrum of responses ranging from relief through to anger, because Pell had become a lightning rod for people’s discontent and disgust with the Church’s handling of child abuse – a situation that may have coloured the jury’s judgement.  On the need to improve its response to child abuse, the Church is still dragging the chain. (13 minutes)

Don’t lose trust in juries

Writing in the Canberra Times, Steve Evans, while not disputing the High Court’s legal right to overturn the jury’s verdict, warns that that right is “rarely and reluctantly exercised”: George Pell and the fading glory of a jury of your peers.  He takes us into a history of juries and their importance in our legal system. Juries are not infallible, “but it would be sad, indeed, if a habit of overruling juries by judges took hold”.

Gillian Triggs to grandmothers: maintain your rage!

The grandmothers of today – typically women aged between 70 and 80 –  are a group with a life experience very different from their grandmothers. Many were in the first large wave of women to enjoy a free, or heavily supported, university education. Many were political activists, protesting against our involvement in the Vietnam War and protesting in favour of women’s rights. Regrettably since that period, Australia’s Gender Index published by the World Economic Forum has slipped – from 15th place in 2006 to 44th place in 2020.

Former President of the Australian Human Rights Commission Gillian Triggs, now about to take up a UN role as Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, has contributed her insights and personal experiences to the  book Grandmothers: Essays by 21st century grandmothers. (Helen Elliot ed).  Her essay is published in the ConversationFriday essay: today’s grandmothers grew up protesting. Now they have nothing to lose.  She urges today’s grandmothers, fit and active women, to maintain their enthusiasm and commitment to justice:

As grandmothers, what do we have to lose? We are not looking for advancement in our careers. We are strong, healthy and independent. Bravo to Grandmothers for Refugees, the Older Women’s Network and the scores of other women’s advocacy and networking groups. Let us work together to harness the power of today’s generation of grandmothers, who can and will speak up for social justice. Let us work together to achieve the vision of gender equality that we and our political leaders had in the 60s and 70s.

The destructive power of postmodernism

Helen Pluckrose, writing in New discoveries, doesn’t hold back on her judgement of postmodernism – How French “Intellectuals” ruined the West: Postmodernism & its impact.

[Postmodernism] reacted against the liberal humanism of the modernist artistic and intellectual movements, which its proponents saw as naïvely universalizing a western, middle-class and male experience. …

If we see modernity as the tearing down of structures of power including feudalism, the Church, patriarchy, and Empire, postmodernists are attempting to continue it, but their targets are now science, reason, humanism and liberalism.

Pointing to the proliferation of fake news, alternative facts and wacky ideas such as anti-vaccination campaigns she sees postmodernism as an existential threat to society. She cites the way postmodernism has given respectability to climate-change deniers as an instance. (Had she written a few weeks later she might have added ideas such as “herd immunity” and the wonderful curative effects of hydroxychloroquine.)

She criticises the Left for not standing up against postmodernism:

The Left is not responsible for the far-Right or the religious-Right or secular nationalism, but it is responsible for not engaging with reasonable concerns reasonably and thereby making itself harder for reasonable people to support. It is responsible for its own fragmentation, purity demands and divisiveness which make even the far-Right appear comparatively coherent and cohesive.

Ravel by stages

You may have seen a rather mediocre film “10” featuring Ravel’s Boléro and a long-drawn-out strip tease. A far more engaging  rendition is by l’Orchestre national de France.

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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