Sunday, May 10, 2020

Coronavirus: Australia is fortunate Abbott took action years ago

“No one could have foreseen five or 10 years ago the situation we face,” Emmanuel Macron declared in early March, as he sought to explain the shortages of personal protective equipment and respirators that had plunged France into a devastating crisis.

“When you are living through unprecedented events, one cannot blame people for not having expected them.”

Yet few surprises were more predictable. Indeed, beginning with the H5N1 avian influenza in 1997, France’s public health planners had started preparing for pandemics whose severity would test the country’s health system to its limits. As a prescient government report explained in 2005, it was almost certain France would, at least once in the two subsequent decades, be struck by a highly infectious virus for which there was neither a cure nor a vaccine.

Faced with an escalating contagion it could not contain, the country’s health system would be paralysed by scarcities of staff and materials, forcing the government to trigger a prolonged economic and social shutdown whose costs would stymie growth and shred an already tattered social fabric.

Given those risks, the only sensible option was to increase surge capacity at every bottleneck point, making it possible to rapidly scale up the system’s ability to identify, isolate and treat victims.

At the same time, despite the disruption they could cause, large scale war-gaming exercises needed to be carried out regularly to ­ensure that seemingly watertight plans for dealing with a pandemic were operationally effective.

Those warnings echoed when the H1N1 swine flu influenza appeared in April 2009. With many of the report’s recommendations still being implemented, Nicolas Sarkozy’s new health minister, Roselyne Bachelot, drastically escalated the country’s preparedness, including by ensuring its stockpiles of vital supplies could sustain a pandemic lasting a year or more.

As things turned out, the crisis didn’t eventuate. But rarely has a country paid a higher price for dodging a bullet.

A pharmacist who was not a graduate of France’s elite training institutions, Bachelot was pilloried for having overreacted, and narrowly missed formal censure for misusing public funds.

After she was shuffled aside, her successors did everything they could to avoid ending as she had. Adopting a just-in-time approach to preparedness, the stockpile was run down, and then dispersed. “Live fire” tests of system resilience were abandoned.

Yes, ­elaborate plans were put in place, as were bureaucracies tasked with their implementation; but like TS Eliot’s “hollow men”, they were a “Paralysed force”, trapped “sightless, between the motion and the act”.

The consequences, once COVID-19 struck, were sudden, concentrated and dramatically visible. The failings, however, had been ongoing, diffuse and hard to detect. Nor were they France’s alone. Belgium, whose COVID-19 death rate is by far Europe’s highest, was even more poorly prepared, having destroyed its decaying national stockpile of protective equipment in 2017 and 2018.

Italy should, in theory, have been well placed. In practice, its pandemic plans were mainly ­ignored and, in any event, like France’s, the UK’s and Spain’s, didn’t adequately cover the aged-care homes that the disease decimated.

Even the Scandinavian countries were far from ready, as reforms that shifted stockpiling responsibility to local health ­authorities weakened national co-ordination.

Just how satisfactorily our own system has performed, history will judge. But if we entered the crisis on a stronger footing than most, much of the credit must go to Tony Abbott. No health minister in Australian history has put greater emphasis on increasing the country’s ability to cope with a pandemic.

It is true that by the time he became health minister in 2003, the initial steps had been taken, beginning with the formation of the National Influenza Pandemic Action Committee in 1999. We were, however, starting from an extraordinarily low base.

Although the need to contain infectious diseases had underpinned the decision to establish the commonwealth Department of Health in 1921, successive governments had convinced themselves that quarantine and vaccination sufficed to protect Australians from viruses originating overseas.

By 1977, a review could confidently assert that despite sustained growth in international trade and travel, “the disease threat to people has reduced to almost insignificant proportions”.

HIV-AIDS, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and the H5N1 virus shattered that illusion. However, it was only under Abbott that a viable ­national system was developed, encompassing a greatly expanded stockpile of medical supplies, the first systematic testing of national pandemic preparedness and an enhanced capacity to procure vaccines and antivirals.

Convinced that “responsible governments have no option but to take reasonable, practical and proportionate precautions against all credible threats, even at the risk, in hindsight, of seeming to have overreacted”, Abbott stared down criticism from all sides of politics.

But, while the legacy of those ­initiatives persisted, the commitment to preparedness waned as the threat of pandemics seemed to recede.

The last serious national “war-gaming” of our health system’s preparedness occurred in 2008. Yes, the H1N1 pandemic, which was ably managed by Nicola Roxon, acted as a test ground; but by 2020, many of the critical weaknesses it highlighted — such as the dangers posed by cruise ships, the difficulties involved in deciding on school closures and the need to have clear processes for de-escalating the public health response as the risks diminished — had faded out of sight and mind.

That, as GK Chesterton suggested, may be in the nature of human affairs: we forget, and forget that we have forgotten. But ­viruses won’t stop emerging, nor will the tendency of authoritarian regimes to suppress news of outbreaks. And more often than not, the adequate forewarning we crave will not arrive.

Meanwhile, burdened by fiscal deficits, Australian governments will always choose the urgent over the important. Sooner or later, confident that we can manage the contingencies we know, and having dismissed as improbable those that are unfamiliar, we will sleepwalk into the next devastating surprise.

But before that is allowed to occur, Tony Abbott’s words of 15 years ago should be seared into the nation’s collective memory.

“If it happens,” he wrote, “a serious pandemic will test Australians’ character in ways unknown for half a century. Keeping troubles in perspective, acknowledging that much won’t work out as planned, facing the prospect of untimely death, have not normally been ­required of modern Australians. Under such circumstances, to maintain the optimism and generosity of spirit that characterises Australians at their best would be a formidable challenge. Perhaps we will be spared this cup of suffering. Perhaps the contemplation of epic disasters might help Australians deal better with everyday problems. Almost certainly, preparing thoroughly for disasters which don’t eventuate will help prepare for those which do.”


Coronavirus: Universities in turmoil as dirty little secrets come out

These are tumultuous times for Australian universities. This week alone, at the University of Adelaide, the vice-chancellor has taken “indefinite leave” and the chancellor has resigned. In unrelated moves, other VCs signalled their intent to move on even before the COVID-19 crisis hit. Michael Spence is leaving the top job at the University of Sydney at the end of the year. There are departures by other university leaders, including at the University of Queensland.

Is it foolish to hope for different, improved leadership at our major universities? Certainly, if incoming VCs are smart, they will turn their attention to domestic students who have long been ignored in favour of cash cows in China. But to understand what stands in the way of providing Australian students with an excellent university education, one needs to first understand the entrenched problems at our biggest tertiary institutions.

This week, Inquirer spoke to someone who knows first-hand how universities are run, what their motivations are and what has gone wrong in the past 15 years. This insider, a high-flying professor of media and communications, says Australia’s major universities essentially are run by two people. Their names are Joe Stalin and John Elliott.

The communist dictator needs no introduction. But Elliott might; the rambunctious Australian businessman became famous in the 1970s and 80s for his aggressive pursuit of money and for not giving a “pig’s arse” about his critics.

The professor is speaking only slightly tongue in cheek when she says universities are beholden to the worst forms of authoritarianism and laissez-faire economics.

Before unravelling that, first understand that this prominent professor says she would normally put her name to what she tells Inquirer “in a heartbeat”. Except for one thing: “I would get sacked,” she says. “My contract says that I cannot bring my university into disrepute so if I put my name to this, my job would be in jeopardy. And I have a mortgage to pay.”

Put another way, these are escape clauses for poorly run universities to avoid scrutiny by people in the know.

But back to Stalin and Elliott. Stalin’s authoritarian fist was particularly evident in a tutorial room at the University of Technology Sydney for first-year communications students. A few weeks ago, a young student — we will call him David, as he doesn’t want to get blackballed by university administrators — decided to quit his communications degree. He sent a thoughtful and honest email to his lecturer and tutor explaining why. He said he hoped the feedback would be used in a constructive way so future students might discover intellectual curiosity rather than authoritarian censorship.

David wrote that he “found the course and tutor extremely prescriptive in opinion, presenting very niche ideological standpoints as absolute objective fact, (and) this was reinforced by a proactive effort by you to shut down any opposing point of view. Anytime I suggested anything that went against the consensus, I was shut down and even laughed at.” The young law student says he enrolled in communications expecting respectful, philosophical discussions about our political systems. It didn’t turn out that way.

Going by David’s experience, tutorials should be renamed dictatorials about identity politics, victimhood and shame. Instead of encouraging students to think, listen, learn and discuss issues, the tutorial room in David’s communications degree became a place where his different views were mocked and ignored as “inherent ignorance (from) a white male”.

Speaking to Inquirer this week, he said even putting aside the silly politics of the course, what are students going to do with guff about the whole world being a battleground where every smaller group is oppressed by a “dominant group”? Maybe get a job at the ABC?

“Never in my entire life did I expect to be alienated from class discussion because of my skin colour or my gender, especially in a class supposedly attempting to break down such barriers. I cannot believe that in this day and age my identity was held paramount in deciding if I was correct, not what I had to say. I wonder what the response would have been had I suggested a fellow student’s opinion was inherently invalid purely because she was female,” David wrote to his lecturer. The lecturer wrote a cursory response, saying she was pleased that he was able to withdraw without incurring course costs.

Monolithic thinking is dangerous, particularly at universities. If tutorials cannot accommodate a genuine diversity of views, including those of David, then universities don’t deserve a dime from taxpayers.

Alas, it’s not just little Stalins running dictatorials who are dumbing down a university education for Australian students.

As the professor of media and communications tells Inquirer, the greedy corporatist agenda of university administrators, relying on a gravy train of international students, mostly from mainland China, is also lowering standards at universities that crow about their rankings.

She says chasing fees from international students has been under way for 15 years, with foreign agents acting for our universities to arrange “huge parties and junkets” for potential overseas students and also the “doctoring” of English language tests. The professor says she has seen hundreds of foreign students arrive with band 6 scores — meaning competent — on the standardised speech, reading and writing tests known as the International English Language Testing System. She would give them no more than a band 3, which is “extremely limited” according to IELTS.

These results have big ramifications for foreign students who are out of their depth, struggling in a foreign country away from families, without the skills to learn properly. And the consequences for local students are equally poor.

“Masters and postgraduate students’ programs, which are the money-spinners to attract foreign students, have been dumbed down often to a point where the standards expected are below that of what we expect of undergraduate students,” she says.

While her heart goes out to struggling foreign students, she says students with insufficient English language skills mean “domestic students are frequently irritated, particularly with group assignments. They are paying a lot of money for a postgraduate course and many definitely feel they are not challenged enough.”

These dirty little secrets about foreign cash cows and dumbed-down courses, previously whispered about among lecturers and students, deserve to be exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic as the tap of money from international students dries up.

“Without in anyway being xenophobic, reliance on international students is the wrong answer. It’s an add-on, that’s all. We should be really focusing on how we educate Australians, and thinking about what we need to build a strong economy and society,” says the professor.

Our best universities could start the post-COVID reform process by treating domestic students better. One young man recently reapplied to enrol in a full-fee masters program at one of Australia’s grandest sandstone universities. His marks were a tiny fraction away from the entry mark for the course. Within minutes of sending a thoughtful and polite email seeking admission, explaining special circumstances that would have lifted his score over the threshold, he was effectively told to rack off.

Smart businesses wouldn’t be so brazenly rude and dismissive about new full-fee paying customers when they are running under capacity because of the economic lockdown. Our small businesses are eagerly trying to attract customers in new ways, adapting wherever they can. But our cashed-up major universities run by overpaid VCs have grown arrogant and complacent. They would rather go cap in hand to the federal government pleading for more taxpayer money after they have raked in Chinese money to fund research papers to bump up their rankings to attract more foreign students. All the while they have dumbed-down standards, leaving local students without a quality education. It’s a disgrace.

Having worked in Australian universities for 20 years, at very senior levels, the professor says “the level of bureaucracy is insane, the systems are not serving … the students. It’s a plague on our house.”

Perhaps when our politicians, who collect taxes and spend our money on our behalf, understand what has gone wrong at our major universities, VCs of taxpayer-funded universities will feel a moral imperative to step up with better leadership, improve standards and ensure that Australian students are getting the very best education.


Coronavirus: Unlike Labor, unions, Scott Morrison is for the workers

It’s only a few months ago that green-left types, including quite a few journalists, took delight in sneering at Scott Morrison as “Scotty from marketing”. Now, however, a more appropriate term would be “ScoMo for the workers”.

It was around the turn of the 20th century that the Australian Labor Party was created out of the trade union movement. For many decades Labor presented itself as the friend of the working class, as did the trade unions.

But that’s quite some time ago, as the labour movement’s response to the coronavirus pandemic demonstrates.

No person or organisation is responsible for Australia’s economic plight. The Morrison government acted in accordance with medical advice that COVID-19 was a pandemic and chose to close Australia’s border with China.

The first decision was taken ahead of the World Health Organisation; the latter against the WHO’s advice at the time. Both initiatives were correct — and timely.

Australia’s last crisis took place when World War II began in September 1939 during the time political conservative Robert Menzies was prime minister.

Labor, under the leadership of John Curtin, refused to take part in a war cabinet. When Curtin became prime minister in October 1941, he did not invite the opposition into a national government.

Consequently, Morrison’s decision to announce what he termed a national cabinet in late February — comprising the heads of federal, state and territory governments — was very much a first for Australia.

Despite the coexistence of Coali­tion and Labor heads of government, the new entity has worked well. Its first apparent significant disagreement turns on the reopening of schools. This illustrates the new divide in Australian politics.

Unlike some other nations, Australia took a middle-road response at the onset of COVID-19. Senior Coalition ministers convinced the national cabinet to adopt a whitelist rather than a blacklist with respect to the lockdown. In other words, instead of listing businesses that could remain open, the national cabinet listed only those that were required to close. This limited the extent of the economic shutdown.

Like Australia, New Zealand benefits from being isolated at a time of pandemic.

Under Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand went for a near total lockdown. Australia, on the other hand, kept open as many industries as possible. Since, per capita, the impact of the virus on each nation is about the same, it appears that the Australian approach is sound.

But the problem remains. An unintended consequence of the lockdown has seen elected officials and their advisers close down large sections of the private sector with the restrictions implemented by police, local government rangers and the like. In the process, entrepreneurial Australians running big, medium and small businesses have suffered a significant hit that, in some cases at least, will prove fatal.

Then there are the personal and medical impacts of social distancing. Some Australians live in large, comfortable homes or apartments. Others live in small homes with few amenities. Some Australians live with partners and/or children. Others live alone. Some have access to outdoor areas. Not so some others. It’s much the same as schooling. The wealthier and better educated a household is, the better equipped it is to deal with home schooling. It’s the children of the poor and less well-off who suffer most from school closures. Plus parents of children with disabilities.

In days of old when Labor Party and trade union leaders focused on the needs of lower-income earners and those in genuine need of welfare, it would be expected that both organisations would be in the vanguard of getting children back to the classroom.

Yet today it is the Labor governments of Victoria (Premier Daniel Andrews) and the ACT (Chief Minister Andrew Barr) that have been most reluctant to support the Prime Minister’s attempts to open the schools as soon as possible. They have the backing of the teachers’ unions, in particular the Australian Education Union.

As The Australian reported on Wednesday, a recent Treasury analysis reveals that classroom closures have contributed to more than 300,000 job losses and a 3 per cent hit to economic activity. Put simply, parents who have to mind children cannot get to work, even if employment is available.

The reluctance of some Labor leaders to reopen schools, with the broad support of the teachers’ unions, is in defiance of the advice from the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee that it is safe to do so. And so a situation has developed whereby teachers in government schools on full pay oppose reopening schools to the disadvantage of private and public sector employees alike, including parents of special-needs children.

The public-private sector divide on the impact of COVID-19 is evident in the media coverage.

Asked about what her listeners were saying about school closures on ABC television’s Insiders program on April 26, ABC Radio Melbourne presenter Virginia Trioli said teachers were terrified about going back to school. She seemed unaware that listeners of commercial radio stations in cities and towns might have had a different response to reopening of schools.

On the same program on Sunday, another panel discussed whether schools should open. Right at the end of the program, presenter David Speers announced the “breaking news” that a government school in Victoria “will have to shut because of a coronavirus case”. Whereupon panellist Patricia Karvelas, another ABC presenter, stated “that changes everything doesn’t it”.

It didn’t. It turned out that the teacher who contracted COVID-19 did so outside the school and had no contact with students.

Meanwhile the Andrews government in Victoria appears to have mishandled a serious breakout of COVID-19 at a Melbourne abattoir.

The Morrison government is focused on the rights of all employees, including those who are not professionals and who work in the private sector. Its aim is to have as many people who want to work at work. That was the priority of the Labor Party and the trade union movement at the time of the last pandemic. But, alas, not today.


Coronavirus: Science is clear on climate and the pandemic

Climate activists seldom waste a crisis, whether it is a drought, a bushfire or a viral pandemic. Having failed to come up with a way to blame the pandemic on climate change (yet), the green left is ­begging for more renewable ­energy funding to boost the post-pandemic economy.

They also reckon the corona­virus response offers a template for global warming policy. “Above all,” The Sydney Morning Herald editorialised this week, “Australia should take the same evidence-based scientifically led approach to climate change as we took to COVID-19.”

This is the same newspaper that editorialised last September about how the Prime Minister should have attended a climate speech in New York, not by a scientist but by a teenage activist. “Scott Morrison should have gone to hear Greta Thunberg,” counselled the Herald.

Presumably, the pandemic has turned the paper’s focus away from teenage slacktivism and back to science. It makes sense given that Earth Hour in March couldn’t make much of a mark when everything was ­already shut down, and school strikes don’t real­ly cut it when the kids aren’t in their classrooms to start with.

So, science it is. Let’s take up the Herald’s challenge and compare a science-based pandemic response to the climate policy debate.

The COVID-19 pandemic, like rising global greenhouse gas emissions, is a global problem emanating largely from China. The big difference is that by banning overseas arrivals and enforcing strict quarantine rules, Australia has been able to isolate itself and deal with the virus within our borders.

This has been Australia’s single greatest scientific advantage: isolation. It has meant that all the other actions we have taken — from hospital treatments to social distancing, from testing to infection tracing — have delivered ­material benefits for this country, regardless of what happens in the rest of the world.

By contrast, the atmosphere knows no borders; we all share the same air and experience whatever climatic variations occur globally, regardless of the policies of individual countries. On climate action Australia is beholden to what the rest of the world does or does not do; we could cut our emissions to zero and our climate would still be hostage to rapidly rising greenhouse gas emissions elsewhere.

The science is clear. If global emissions growth delivers a warming planet and dire climate changes for Australia, our own emissions reductions effort will do little more than reduce the economic resilience we need to deal with the consequences.

The appropriate analogy ­between climate and COVID-19 is to imagine how effective it would have been for this country to impose social-distancing measures but still allow tens of thousands of international visitors to arrive every day. Our anti-infection measures would have been rendered almost as futile as our emissions reduction schemes.

The fundamental evidence-based point the green left continues to ignore is that the minuscule reductions in our nation’s greenhouse gas emissions have been eclipsed many times over by ­increases elsewhere. According to the National Greenhouse Gas ­Inventory, annual emissions to September last year were 531 million tonnes, 69 million tonnes (or 11 per cent) less than the corresponding period in 1990. Across those same three decades, annual emissions in China alone rose from 3265 million tonnes to 13,405 million tonnes — from more than five times our total emissions to more than 25 times.

You don’t need to be a Nobel laureate to look at those facts and work out the likely impact of Australia’s renewable energy target on global atmospheric conditions and climate patterns. Those who pretend our policies make any difference globally are indulging in a giant deceit or a grand delusion. Our efforts are mere gestures, and science tells us that gestures will not save a planet.

The economic pain Australians have inflicted on themselves has produced no environmental gain. The cost-benefit analysis is stark: the cost in the energy sector alone tops something like $100bn, while there is no gain or, to be generous, the negligible benefit that we might have marginally reduced global emissions increases. The only plausible argument for deepening our emissions reduction ­effort is to suggest that where we go, others will follow. But like our early settlers who believed the rains would follow their ploughs, this theory is bound to end in heartache.

Malcolm Turnbull’s secret gift to our political debate, Guardian Australia, had a treatise this week from an unlikely triumvirate pushing the pandemic-climate coupling. “If we have learned anything from what we have already endured in 2020 it is that stopping an emergency is far better than responding to one,” said Australian Council of Social Service chief Cassandra Goldie, Australian ­Industry Group chief Innes Willox and Investor Group on Climate Change chief Emma Herd.

This stuff is trite and superficial. It is a level of political advocacy that demeans their case.

The coronavirus pandemic was and is a real and present danger. We know it is highly infectious and kills people, mainly those who are elderly or already ill. Even then, there is widespread and ongoing scientific research and debate trying to ascertain precisely how virulent and contagious it is. We can see the damage that is done when the virus runs rampant.

The science on stopping the spread of a virus is simple. We need to avoid direct human contact and be careful with indirect contact.

There has been no scientific ­debate about how to deal with the problem. The dilemma has been in deciding what is practical — we could all self-isolate in our bathrooms for a month, which would stop the virus but destroy our society — so we have had ongoing debates and adjustments to balance the battle to slow the spread of the virus against the sustenance of our community and economy.

Our domestic response is being sullied by political science. Buoyed by their successful suppression of the pandemic, some premiers have fallen into egotistical mission-creep; forgetting that their aim was to restrict infections to a level our health system could handle, they now see every new case as a personal and political blemish.

We need to prize our society, its economic viability and its self­-reliance above a zero-tolerance policy on COVID-19 that we would never apply to influenza, cancer or syphilis. To fight HIV-AIDS in the 1980s the left took ­delight in promoting condom-protected promiscuity; to battle the coronavirus Daniel Andrews demanded that lovers who did not live together should not even visit each other. This viral puritanism could have flattened more than the curve. Thankfully, Andrews was sweet-talked out of it.

“Our success in flattening the curve,” that Herald editorial continued, “has been because the ­advice and science have been believed and clearly communicated.”

This is a very unscientific ­simplification of what the nation is enduring. The whole conundrum of the pandemic response has been balancing the scientific objective of minimising human contact against the economic imperative for human engagement. If it were science alone, we would all be wasting away in our bathrooms.

Likewise, notwithstanding the futility of Australia reducing carbon emissions while they rise globally, any attempt to reduce emissions here is far more complicated than merely following the science. It is scientifically accurate to declare that burning fossil fuels generates CO2 emissions, therefore if we stop doing it emissions will reduce. But what would we do for affordable and reliable energy? How would our civilisation function without this crucial input? And if science reigns supreme, why would we not embrace scientifically proven, emissions-free nuclear energy?

The wrongheadedness of the Herald’s sloganeering was laid bare when it declared: “We have also learned in the past couple of months that working together as a nation we can actually beat global threats and climate change should be no different.” This is utter tripe.

We have banded together to solve a national problem. Look outside our borders and you can see COVID-19 chaos in the US, Britain, Europe, Asia, Africa and South America. Australia cannot solve the global pandemic unless we come up with a vaccine (which would solve our export diversification issues, too). Science suggests we cannot come up with a vaccine for global warming.

This all underscores the scientific absurdity that anything the Australian federation can agree to do on emissions reduction policies can make the slightest difference to global atmospheric conditions or improve the climate in Australia or anywhere else. Any rational scientific analysis of national climate policy can only conclude that it will have an infinitely greater impact on our economy than our environment — yet that is precisely the aspect the green left ignores.


 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

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