Tuesday, April 21, 2020

ABC ‘saw’ the future — but it still hasn’t arrived

Extraordinarily false prophecies

Computer modellers, like the ABC’s Dr Norman Swan, have been found wanting by the coronavirus pandemic

To be fair to Norman Swan, he wasn’t the only one to caution that unless we sat motionless in a corner and wrapped ourselves in Glad Wrap we’d be heading down the Italian route before we knew it.

Computer modellers, like the ABC, have been found wanting in this pandemic. The reasons are not dissimilar; both are prone to selection bias, both are inclined towards omniscience and neither is afraid to go where Albert Einstein feared to tread.

Einstein once wrote that some things “were beyond the reach of exact prediction because of the variety of factors in operation”. That was in 1930, however, before the invention of the Excel spreadsheet, a tool that allows us to forecast with unwarranted certainty on subjects we barely understand.

Swan was right to encourage his Twitter followers to “believe in maths not magic”. The difficulty with computer modelling, however, is that it’s hard say which it is.

Four weeks ago the Grattan Institute fuelled the rising anxiety about the spread of the coronavirus with a forecast that the pandemic would be out of control in Australia by mid-April. Grattan’s modelling was widely reported on the ABC and in Nine’s newspapers where no number is too scary to warrant a headline.

“Australia prepares for 50,000 to 150,000 coronavirus deaths,” reported the Sydney Morning Herald on March 16.

Eight days later it gave prominence to Grattan’s claim that the rate of new confirmed cases would overwhelm the capacity of intensive care units by mid-April.

Not for the first time, the apocalypse was less earth-shattering than forecast.

Last weekend there were 55 COVID-19 patients in acute care hospital beds, about 2 per cent of ICU capacity at the start of the crisis and less than 1 per cent of its expanded capacity.

The national death toll stood at 68, which is tragic enough, but considerably short of the SMH’s expectations. Exaggerated claims matter a lot when dealing with threats like pandemics or climate change. They can lead to expensive mistakes.

Australia was on the verge of one of these four weekends ago when the number of confirmed cases was a sixth of today’s figure, but rising too fast for comfort.

State premiers felt the pressure of public opinion, animated by excitable headlines, that was pushing them to take draconian steps towards closing down the economy. Fortunately, calm heads prevailed. Calls from the business community, a voice largely absent from the debate at that point, warned of the consequences of the hard lockdown for which some were calling.

The mining, construction and manufacturing sectors felt the threat. Hardware stores feared being classified as a “non-essential” part of the economy.

The closure of cafes, restaurants and bars under social-distancing rules has been serious enough. So has the closure of our borders.

In the light of what has happened since, however, these were not unreasonable steps to stop the exponential growth in infection. Neither should they be lightly abandoned so long as the threat of a second wave remains.

Yet the disproportionate measures Grattan and others were demanding, many of which have been adopted in New Zealand, would have been a catastrophic error of judgment.

We must remind ourselves that the public policy aim was not human immortality, nor the protection of the population from contagious disease. It was to maintain the integrity of our health system, a goal the federal government has achieved by taking practical steps to increase the supply of acute-care beds and reduce demand, without tightening the noose around the economy.

The role of Health Minister Greg Hunt, rightly praised in the memoirs of a former prime minister for calm management of his portfolio, will one day be recognised as critical to our ability to rise to the challenge.

One might have hoped that the calls for Australia to commit economic self-harm would have subsided by now. Sadly they have not. Last week the Grattan Institute was at it again, urging that the present restrictions remain in place for at least three more months.

It would, Grattan admitted, carry big short-term economic costs, shaving six percentage points off Australia’s annual GDP. But that’s OK, two of the centre’s researchers wrote last Thursday, because businesses and individuals could be kept afloat with the government support.

Modelling our economic future is no less difficult than modelling the spread of the virus. No offence to the OECD, which came up with the much-quoted figure of a 2 per cent hit to GDP for every month of restrictions, but it amounts to little more than an educated guess.

The atomised supply chains in today’s globalised economy make its interdependencies far harder to map than they were in 1958, when Leonard E. Read wrote his famous essay tracking how pieces of cedar wood, zinc, copper and graphite miraculously combined to produce a pencil.

What we do know, thanks to modelling somewhat more robust than that others have relied upon, is that the path out of the anticipated recession grows steeper and longer every day the restrictions stay in place. We know that $150bn in government support will not be enough to save every business, let alone every job.

Few of those who argue that normal business activity can resume only when COVID-19 infections have been eliminated altogether are dependent on the productive economy, the part that must survive on its wits rather than handouts. That distance encourages the heedless attitude to economic outcomes with which we have become familiar in the climate debate, where dire predictions, each one more catastrophic than the last, are used to silence dissenting voices.

Fortunately, the immediacy of the COVID-19 pandemic allows us to apply the truth test to alarmism even as it is occurring. The experience will not be wasted if we emerge from this crisis appreciating the virtues of a proportionate and incremental response.


More insane Coronavirus policy

On 31 March, Australians in New South Wales awoke to the discovery that, overnight, they had been put under house arrest. For some at least, the shock could not have been greater if, like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, they had found themselves transformed into an enormous insect. For the last fortnight, Australians have discovered that almost everything other than sitting at home has been criminalised, with neighbourhood snitches just waiting to dob them in.

It reached a nadir at Easter when Tasmanian premier Peter Gutwein announced that police would use helicopters to spot ‘unnecessary’ travel. ‘Today the gloves come off’, he snarled. ‘We are going to police this. The period of education is over.’ Tasmanian police questioned the occupants of 89 vehicles about why they had the temerity to be on the road. It brought to mind Captain Yossarian in Catch-22. ‘Morale was deteriorating, and it was all Yossarian’s fault. The country was in peril and here he was jeopardising his traditional rights of freedom and independence by daring to exercise them.’

Meanwhile, an ‘explosion’, at least by Tasmanian standards, of 66 new coronavirus infections was traced not to people reading books on park benches, or jogging on the beach, or even driving their cars, but to two hospitals in northwest Tasmania, which inexplicably proved to be incapable of undertaking basic infection control while treating a passenger from the ill-fated Ruby Princess, and may or may not have had an ‘illegal’ dinner party.

General Gutwein is only the latest officer in the army of clowns running Australia to come a cropper. His woes directly stem from the mess made by his mess mate, the NSW minister for health, the aptly named Mr Hazzard, who, if he were a packet of cigarettes, would have a sign across his forehead warning: ‘This minister is a health hazard.’ Alas, Australia’s medical authorities match the minister when it comes to incompetence.

Hazzard and his hapless officials learned nothing from the fiasco of the Diamond Princess, in which 712 of 3,711 passengers and crew were infected by Covid-19 during a month-long onboard quarantine and 12 people died, including our first virus victim. When the passengers and crew finally disembarked, US health officials allowed their nationals to fly back even though it was clear that many were probably infected, jeopardising the health of everyone on the plane.

When its sister, the Ruby Princess, sailed into Circular Quay, NSW health officials made exactly the same mistake, allowing the ship’s 2,647 passengers to disembark because they assessed them as ‘low risk’, even though the ship’s physician had requested an ambulance for two patients and said that 15 others were sick and had tested negative for influenza. Was Hazzard apologetic? Of course not. He angrily defended his advisers who consulted ‘to the WHO in communicable diseases,’ no less. Someone needs to tell him Taiwan are the experts.

If that weren’t bad enough, on 14 April it was revealed that the company overseeing the management of the Ruby Princess had allowed meals for its 1,000 crew members to be prepared in the ship’s galley until last weekend, despite warning signs it was the epicentre of the vessel’s infections just as had happened on the Diamond Princess a month earlier.

It’s as if The Three Stooges were running the country, and it might be funny if people weren’t dying as a result. Three-quarters of all deaths in Australia are linked to just three sources of infection – the Ruby Princess and three other returning cruise ships in NSW, NSW aged-care facilities, and the cancer treatment ward of a major public hospital in Melbourne.

Instead of putting the entire population of Australia under house arrest, state health departments should be putting in place stringent measures to protect vulnerable people – older Australians, particularly those in aged-care facilities, and Australians with underlying health problems. The government did warn Australians not to take cruises on 10 March, but it did nothing to assist elderly people trying to self-isolate at home.

One of the saddest coronavirus deaths was that of Labor MP Ged Kearney’s father-in-law, an 82-year-old who caught the disease just shopping for groceries. That shouldn’t have happened. When supermarkets stopped providing online shopping, the government should have funded shopping services. Likewise, staff in aged-care facilities should all be regularly tested for the virus, as should anyone else providing services to the vulnerable.

The state governments locked down the country, justifying their actions by referring to headlines that warned, ‘We’re going to run out of ICU beds’. On 18 March it was claimed Australia would need 650,000 ICU beds over the course of a year. On 31 March, the day NSW went into lockdown, there were 2,378 beds in 191 ICUs across the country and there was the capacity to surge to 4,261 if necessary. Even that was deemed insufficient, with a government taskforce ‘working around the clock’ to procure ventilators to increase capacity to 7,500.

Did the tidal wave of deaths arrive? At the time of writing there are 79 people in ICU beds around the country and there have been only 63 deaths – two deaths per million. Even so, this week we were urged by the Grattan Institute to join New Zealand and shoot for zero infections before unlocking the economy. This is absurd. We don’t aim for zero road or flu deaths. The cost is not just economic; as unemployment rises so do suicides.

Rather than relying on rubbery figures, our model should be the real-world success of Taiwan. They had no lockdown, like Wuhan. Caf├ęs, restaurants, businesses, museums and schools have to put in place social distancing, people use face masks, there is quarantine for overseas arrivals, and testing, treating and isolating for the infected while tracing their contacts. The result? Only 395 cases and six deaths. Yet the Australian PM Scott Morrison shows no signs of doing this.

On Wednesday, GetUp!’s national director sent an email to his troops praising the PM delivering beyond their wildest dreams, spending $320 billion in a few weeks. It makes the Rudd Labor government look almost modest in comparison. While some businesses go broke, others can’t find workers, who’d rather get the JobKeeper subsidy. More than 80,000 businesses have registered for the $130 billion payment, which is so poorly designed that everyone from barristers to baristas is in on the lurk, attempting to qualify.

Tenants, too, have been incentivised to stop paying their rent to the chagrin of mum and dad investors. When one reads on the front page of the Australian that the PM has won plaudits from the Australia Institute, a progressive think-tank, one thinks not of Kafka but the sci-fi horror flick, The Fly, and its memorable tagline: ‘Be afraid. Be very afraid.’


Digital giants Google and Facebook will be forced to pay for news content generated by the Australian media in historic move

Digital giants Google and Facebook will be forced to pay for news content generated by the Australian media in a lifeline for the struggling industry.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Communications Minister Paul Fletcher will on Monday announce a mandatory code on digital platforms to be finalised by July, bringing forward a November deadline.

The decision to fast track the code follows a collapse in advertising revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to many newsrooms, especially in regional areas, closing or scaling back their operations.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission last December handed down its report following an inquiry into Facebook, Google and the impact other internet giants are having on the media industry.

The ACCC was negotiating with big tech and media companies on a voluntary code of conduct that would have been made mandatory in November if no agreement was made before then.

The new code will include enforcement, penalties and ways to deal with disagreements between the global platforms and local media companies.

'The groundbreaking report prepared by the ACCC into digital platforms was world-leading and now paves the way for a mandatory code of conduct requiring payment for content,' Mr Frydenberg said. 'This will help to create a level playing field.'

Prices for content or the nature of commercial agreements would need to be negotiated but remedies would be put in place to force tech companies to accede.

Facebook and Google have a stranglehold over the digital advertising market and benefit greatly from the content of news publishers on their platforms, social media, search queries and digital video.

News Corp Australia executive chairman Michael Miller said Google and Facebook had built trillion-dollar businesses by using other people's content and refusing to pay for it.

'The decisive move by the government to go directly to a mandatory code of conduct between the international tech giants and Australian news media companies is a vital step that can help secure the future of Australian journalism,' he told News Corp.

Nine chief executive Hugh Marks also welcomed the move.

News Corp and Nine have cited the impact of digital platforms on their bottom lines as part of their move to close down AAP, the national newswire.


Green Snouts Sniff Around For A Pandemic Windfall

The Pope, deprived of the counsel of Cardinal Pell, the Church’s most astute voice, foolishly called coronavirus “nature’s response” for failures to act on climate change.

It was, therefore, hardly surprising that coronavirus would be recruited to push for additional renewable energy subsidies to reinforce those that have already created today’s high cost, low quality electricity.

Coal Wire, an anti-fossil fuel publication, was quick to swoop on a Harvard study that said the pollutant PM2.5 exacerbated coronavirus and that coal power stations were an important source of the pollutant.

Actually less than 5 percent of PM2.5 particulate emissions come from energy production.

Also, fast out of the blocks was the anti-fossil fuel head of the Paris based International Energy Agency (IEA), Fatih Birol.

In the ‘never-let-a-crisis-go-to-waste’ style, Birol argued that boosting “clean energy technologies, such as solar, wind, hydrogen, batteries and carbon capture should be a central part of governments’ (stimulus) plans”.

This is echoed by a petition signed by 180 EU politicians and activists. The IEA expects new renewable energy installations to fall this year, largely because of supply disruptions.

The Australian branch of global network Climateworks followed this with a revised Decarbonisation Futures Report and its head, Anna Skarbek, explained to The Guardian’s Adam Morton how the virus could be used to accelerate the subsidized renewables push.

Given the high cost and low reliability of wind/solar, that would be a huge call even if enforced demand reductions had not brought a halving of last year’s $90 per MWh spot price.

Sure enough, the market response differs from that hoped for by the subsidy-seekers and alarmists. Coal use remains on an upward trajectory.

According to GlobalData, “Over the next four years, the production of thermal coal is expected to grow at a compound annual rate of 1.9 percent to reach 7.6 billion tonnes by 2023, due to increasing demand from India and China.”

Goldman Sachs has halved its EU carbon price forecast, and Bloomberg notes a collapse of demand for rooftop installations.

Matthew Warren, a former lobbyist for the renewable industry, now calls for a managed “deceleration” in its support by governments.

But, taking its cue from the IEA, Australia continues to pursue the mirage of renewable energy cost innovations.

Captured by his bureaucrats, Energy Minister Angus Taylor is not only allocating $70 million in search of a fanciful breakthrough in converting hydrogen to energy but he is insisting – wait for it! – on grant applicants using renewable energy to power the trials.

I have a piece in the Spectator reviewing the disaster wrought by governments bending to green alarmism and subsidy-seekers.

Subsidies and regulations requiring the use of wind/solar for electricity generation currently cost Australian households and businesses over $4 billion a year.

Moreover, this has caused the closure of low-cost reliable coal plants and, as a result, brought a $55 per MWh increase in the wholesale electricity price between 2015 and 2019.

With a market of 230,000 GWh, the 2015-19 price increase has brought a cost of almost $13 billion per year.

Hence, we are paying $17 billion a year to harm ourselves! Abandoning the electricity subsidies and regulations offers us a benefit of $170 billion – that alone would recoup over half the $320 billion spent on coronavirus-driven stimuli/consumption support.

Regulations like those on energy have for decades led Australia to forfeit what should have been the world’s highest living standards.

Unraveling them offers an opportunity to minimize the impact of the coronavirus measures.  But have we got the caliber of politician that understands this and can push through the necessary reforms?



 Posted by John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.).    For a daily critique of Leftist activities,  see DISSECTING LEFTISM.  To keep up with attacks on free speech see Tongue Tied. Also, don't forget your daily roundup  of pro-environment but anti-Greenie  news and commentary at GREENIE WATCH .  Email me  here

1 comment:

Paul said...

Its gone public now so I can mention it. Cluster in Pathology at Cairns Hospital. Was brought in by a tech from Brisbane doing maintenance. A staff member soon after went to her Doctor feeling unwell and for testing, but appears to have returned to work rather than await results because Easter penalty rates. Now at least five staff down and the possibility of widespread infection through contact with orderlies, who would by the nature of their work, deliver it further to all points of the hospital. Could be disastrous.

A diversity hire of course.