Monday, May 04, 2020

School folly

If the Ruby Princess has been Australia’s single most avoidable slip-up on spreading coronavirus infections, the most unnecessary stuff-up in the societal and economic response has been the way students have been shunned from schools. Most students are yet to return to classrooms they never should have left.

We have known since the virus first arrived on our shores — and research and experience have only reinforced it since — that, unlike common colds and influenza, COVID-19 rarely infects children, their symptoms tend to be mild and they don’t seem to spread it. This serendipitous reality means schooling need not be disrupted beyond handwashing and distancing measures, special arrangements for vulnerable or older teachers, and efforts to limit interactions between parents, teachers and other adults.

There are plenty of test cases with infections detected among students and teachers in a handful of schools in various states where they have been controlled. In South Australia schools were never shut and there was only one case — a student infected by a teacher — and it was resolved with no further infections.

The clear and consistent advice from the chief medical officer has been to proceed with schooling but, under pressure from teachers’ unions, state governments have given students the Dusty Martin “don’t argue”. Fittingly, Victoria has been most delinquent, with NSW and Queensland not far behind. Students have suffered most, but the restrictions have seriously encumbered parents and added to our societal sclerosis. The states should admit their mistakes and resume schooling on Monday.

As we all struggled to come to grips with the vagaries of this pandemic, schools were wise to invest in online schooling plans in case we lost control. They deserved time at the end of the first term to make those preparations — but, having done that, you get the sense they feel obliged to put those plans into action.

Certainly, it would be unfair for teachers to run two streams, one for classrooms and the other online. It needs to be one or the other and, on the facts as we know them, it should be the classroom. Some political and media commentary has been deliberately or unforgivably ignorant; complaining about contradictions such as why it might be safe to go to school yet unsafe to go to a cinema.

Such smartarsery ignores the importance of schooling, the lower susceptibility of young people, the controlled environment of schools and the whole intent of the measures: they are not primarily about protecting people from life-threatening situations but are aimed at slowing the spread of a virus that mainly threatens the elderly.

Fatality rates for people aged under 50 are a fraction of 1 per cent, and deaths under 20 years of age are unheard of, except for rare instances with serious pre-existing conditions. So, arrangements for schools, workplaces, shopping, entertainment and sport have been about slowing the spread of a highly infectious disease, not hiding from a deadly threat.

Studies show anything up to 50 per cent of those infected may never know it, while more than 80 per cent of those who develop symptoms won’t even need to consider hospitalisation.

When he declared that playing golf was “not worth someone’s life” Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews became the epitome of this wrongheaded fearmongering.

Families should not be huddled at home as if to avoid a killer virus; they are doing no more than their civic duty to slow the spread of a virus that mainly threatens others. It is the elderly and the sick who have most to fear.

The more we control the situation, the better we protect the vulnerable and ensure our health system copes. Teaching schoolchildren should not be more dangerous than running a supermarket checkout or selling sandwiches.

If we tried to generate a list of people with the requisite experience in managing the medical, public health, economic, business, social, and law enforcement aspects of a coronavirus pandemic, we would come up with no one. We are making this up as we go along. Those who are certain that other nations have succeeded where we have been left wanting are having a lend. We just cannot be sure yet.

There is plenty of expertise to be drawn on; medicos, scientists, economists, bureaucrats, police and politicians used to multifaceted policy problems. But the global scale, rapidity of spread, closure of businesses, deliberate suppression of economic activity, and calculated imposition of social isolation are all unprecedented on their own merits, let alone as a clutch of simultaneous dilemmas.

Much of the media targets Don­ald Trump over the disaster that has unfolded in New York City and elsewhere. But, so far, the death rate per million people is worse than the US in Italy, Bel­gium, The Netherlands, Spain, France, Britain, Sweden and Ireland. We have yet to see this play out in the developing world. This pandemic is likely still in its early stages.

If we are forced to live the next year or longer without a vaccine, who is to say what strategy will be revealed as superior?

Countries with higher death rates will have developed broader exposure and community immunity that could stand them in good stead, so that countries such as ours might be left wondering how long we can afford to drag out the process.

Alternatively, if treatments and vaccines become available within months, other nations will have suffered health system crises, unnecessary deaths and economic pain in an excruciating trifecta that countries such as ours have avoided.

But, crucially, we have the choice — we have bought time and options to work out next steps. This is the true measure of Scott Morrison’s success.

After resisting the overeager shutdown merchants early on, the government now faces pressure from the other end. The supposed hardheads are urging the government to let it rip, suggesting the way we have avoided a crisis renders our preventive measures excessive, even though they see in Milan, New York and London what could befall us.

Risk mitigation is a devilishly difficult practice for public assessment. Think of Shane Fitzsimmons, who headed NSW’s Rural Fire Service for a decade. It was his job for more than a decade to minimise the bushfire risk and maximise the ability to protect lives and property.

Yet in the wake of the worst bushfire season his state has seen, where limited fuel reduction, bad planning and miscued control burns all played a role in the devastating and deadly outcome, he has been lauded as a hero.

In the pandemic fight, Morrison and the premiers faced media predictions just two months ago of hospitals being overwhelmed within days and a death toll of 150,000 or more.

With fatalities yet to reach 100, and daily national new infections sometimes not reaching double figures, the criticism is now about overreacting. Go figure.

Citing bolstered bed capacity not yet required as proof of over-reaction, you might as well argue that because most fire trucks extinguish only one blaze a fortnight, the fire department must be over-resourced. Perhaps if NSW had cleared wider fire breaks around national parks, forced property owners to clear around houses in bushfire-prone areas or thrown more resources into extinguishing blazes that burned for weeks in national parks, the state would have faced less trauma and tragedy, and Fitzsimmons would have been attacked for overdoing precautions.

Six weeks ago we were disturbed about where this would lead and I wrote: “This pandemic is a terrible dilemm­a for policymakers: at one end of the spectrum, they could be destroying small and large businesses (the life’s work of their owners) and tossing people into unemployment in an effort to stem a disease that might be best dealt with by protecting the elderly and the frail; at the other, they could allow a pandemic to smother our society, overwhelm our hospitals and lead to tens of thousands of premature deaths.”

We can see already that Morrison and his state and territory colleagues in the national cabinet have saved us from the latter scenario. Job well done.

Their challenge now is to remove restrictions as quickly as possible, to reactivate society and the economy behind secure national borders, without allowing the virus to run riot and destroy all that we have preserved. Every day of isolation exacerbates the economic and social pain.

The strong bias must be towards freeing up the economy, getting people back to work and protecting the vulnerable.

Getting back to school would be the best start.


How COVID-19 restrictions affected our health overall

Flu numbers are down. Less road fatalities have been reported. Emergency departments are quiet.

Social distancing and restrictions on public gatherings appear to be stopping the spread of COVID-19 in Australia, but these measures are also producing a range of other health outcomes – good and bad.


Influenza cases are dramatically lower this year, with 20,216 cases reported to the National Notifiable Disease Surveillance System compared to 43,108 cases for the same period in 2019.

"Influenza levels in the community are currently low due to social distancing measures and better hand hygiene," a NSW Health spokeswoman said.

However, a spokesman for the federal Health Department said the number of influenza cases in 2020 is 26 per cent higher than the average number of cases over the past five years.

There have also been significant declines in other communicable diseases such as Legionnaires' disease, whooping cough, sexually-transmitted diseases such as chlamydia and gonorrhea, dengue and Q fever – but an increase in Rotavirus.

Chance Pistoll, a GP and lecturer in primary care at Melbourne Medical School, said there had been a significant increase in people attending their GP for the influenza vaccine.

"This is a really great unintended outcome and it looks at this stage we might have dodged a bullet with respect to avoiding the worst of the flu season," he said.

Avoiding doctors

There is mounting evidence that people with chronic health problems are avoiding visits to the doctor, Dr Pistoll said. "Most GP practices have seen a 20-30 per cent reduction in patient's coming in during the pandemic."

Dr Pistoll said there had been a 75 per cent reduction in diabetes tests ordered by GPs in Victoria and NSW, while referrals for new cancer diagnoses had fallen by around a third.

"There is a real risk that we could see a significant upswing in mortality after the pandemic due to deaths from preventable illnesses," he said.

Emergency departments

Health authorities warned people in March to stay away from emergency departments unless they required urgent medical attention as hospitals braced for the impact of coronavirus.

However, St Vincent's Hospital in Darlinghurst has had fewer patients attending its emergency department. The ED's medical director Paul Preisz said "it is difficult to imagine that the current lockdown is not a major cause".

"We have some indirect evidence that social distancing, hand washing and other measures to combat COVID-19 have very likely decreased the transmission of other viruses including colds and flu," he said.

Dr Priesz said the closure of bars and clubs had affected the number of people attending the emergency department "although we do have other reports that domestic violence rates may have increased".

At Westmead Hospital, there had been a small increase in domestic accidents and injuries as a result of more people working from home or attempting DIY projects.

NSW recorded 24 less road fatalities in the year to March 31 compared with the previous 12 months – there were five less road deaths in March compared to the average monthly toll of 105 deaths.

Domestic violence

The United Nations Population Fund predicted last week that domestic violence would soar 20 per cent because of the global lockdown. But the number of domestic violence assaults recorded by police did not increase in March despite the implementation of social distancing.

The NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research said this could be due to victims being less able to report because of home confinement with their perpetrator.

Mental health

Maree Teeson, director of The Matilda Centre for Research in Mental Health and Substance Use at the University of Sydney, said there were reports from Australia and the UK showing a rise in poor mental health – especially among young adults and people with insecure jobs.

"Economic downturn, loss of employment and financial stressors are well recognised risk factors for poor mental health and suicide," she said.

Jennie Hudson, the director of the Centre for Emotional Health at Macquarie University, said increased anxiety and loneliness were to be expected, but the return to school and work posed a mental health risk for some people.

"Because of isolation and lockdown we have been avoiding situations that might typically make some people feel anxious like presentations at work, interacting with others, public transport," she said.

Dr Pistoll said there had been an increase in patients with mental health issues relating to COVID-19 and the social and economic fallout of the lockdown measures.

"I wouldn't be surprised if in hindsight a big upswing in the burden of mental health is one of the legacies of the pandemic in Australia," he said.

Healthy habits

A spokesman for the federal Health Department said more home cooking could lead people to control and reduce the amount of sugars, salt and saturated fats they consume.

"However, as families stay home there is also the potential for increased snacking and poor dietary behaviours associated with easy access to discretionary foods in the fridge and pantry," he said.

Many people were exercising less because of the closure of gyms and sporting clubs, which Professor Hudson said was a risk to physical and mental health.

"For those who have stayed at home and reduced their physical activity, it will be important for long-term health to gradually increase activity to a healthier level," she said.

But she said practices developed during the pandemic such as good hygiene, flexible working environments, access to telehealth and parents connecting with their child's education could have long-lasting health benefits.

Professor Hudson said the COVID-19 restrictions had produced "secretly-loved joys". "For me, I have loved playing more games with my kids, having lunch together, my weekly extended family Zoom calls, and lying in bed a little longer in the morning," she said.

Unhealthy habits

The closure of gambling venues and cancellation of most sports had affected access to gambling. But Sally Gainsbury, co-director of the Gambling Treatment and Research Centre at the University of Sydney, said social isolation and a decrease in available recreational activities created a risk of Australian's turning to internet gambling.

The National Alcohol and Drug Hotline has experienced almost double the caller demand for January through March compared with the same time last year, a spokesman for the federal Health Department said.

"Drug and alcohol treatment and advocacy services suggest this may be due to Australians becoming more aware of problematic alcohol and drug consumption for both themselves and their family members during the COVID-19 lockdown period."


'Let's get the campuses open': Minister wants uni students back for semester two

Almost 1.5 million university students should be back on campus by July after federal Education Minister Dan Tehan declared he wanted to see the sector return to face-to-face teaching for second semester.

Mr Tehan also warned the shock from COVID-19 had triggered an "urgent" look at the international education business model at universities. Vice-chancellors, joined by Labor, are calling for a major rethink of Australia's higher education funding system as a potentially sustained drop in full-fee-paying overseas student enrolments threatens to shrink the sector.

Universities were forced to close campuses and move to online learning upon the introduction of strict social distancing measures, adapting rapidly as they also weather the loss of billions in lost international student revenue. Onshore numbers of overseas students are down 30 per cent on last year's levels.

"The first step has to be our campuses reopened here for domestic students and those international students who are onshore. That's the first priority of the government," Mr Tehan told The Sun-Herald and The Sunday Age.

"My hope is that we will hear sooner rather than later about a move back to campuses being reopened, with adherence to the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee guidelines around social distancing. But campuses will be looking to reopen for semester two."

Asked about the prospect of border restrictions being eased for 2021 international student arrivals, he said: "Let's get the campuses open. I mean that's a pretty important first step ... then, obviously, things will flow from that."

As universities confront the ramifications of the pandemic, Mr Tehan said the sector had already been scrutinising its reliance on international education, especially the concentration of Chinese students, but "there is no doubt that COVID-19 has led to more urgent thinking about the sector’s reliance on international education" and how that model will look in the future.

The vice-chancellors of Western Sydney University, La Trobe University and University of Sydney warned a lasting impact on revenue would need to be confronted by government as enrolment numbers remain depressed by the ongoing global ramifications of the pandemic.

WSU vice-chancellor Barney Glover said it would be essential to look at the funding model, especially "the underfunding of research and how we can maintain our world class research capability in the face of several years of recovery in international education".

University of Sydney vice-chancellor Michael Spence said university researchers had proved their value through the unprecedented bushfire season and the COVID-19 crisis and their efforts needed to be funded.

"What is the government’s support for that research system going to be? And in particular what is it going to be if the international student market is not as robust as it has been so far? And I think that’s a major policy question for the country coming out of this crisis."

La Trobe vice-chancellor John Dewar said: "Working on the assumption that international numbers are not going to rebound for 2, 3, 4 maybe even 5 years, I think that will sharpen the focus on what government can and will do for the sector."

Labor education spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek said the nation needed to take "really serious look" at university financing.

"Putting international education on a stronger and more sustainable footing will be part of that. Making sure there is adequate funding for education and research is a really important part of that. There must be a greater role for public funding," she said.

Australia's spending on research and development fell to 1.8 per cent of GDP last year, below the OECD average of 2.4 per cent. University research spending has held up but it has been heavily subsidised by revenue from international students.

Mr Tehan said international education was a key driver of economic growth and employment and he wanted it to recover. "Rebounding strongly through going back to those areas which were enabling our economy to grow is going to be very important and international education was a key component of that," he said.

"Rather than look at them picture as glass half empty, I think we need to look at it glass half full and the bigger decisions have to be around how do ensure diversification? How do we deal with sustainable growth? And how do we make the case for why this is so important economically for the nation?"


Rents falling as dole rises to give low-income households relief

Doubling the dole has kept a portion of the rental market affordable for the unemployed for the first time in 11 years, while leading economists also expect rent prices in Sydney and Melbourne will drop significantly.

The federal government in March temporarily boosted the JobSeeker allowance by $550 a fortnight to help households through the coronavirus pandemic. The effectively doubling of the benefit is now coinciding with major disruption to the usually tight rental market giving low-income households their first major relief in over a decade.

At the same time, housing experts are seeing early signs of a glut of vacant homes due to Airbnbs becoming standard rentals, home sellers choosing to lease rather than sell and international students staying abroad.

In the past 30 days SQM Research's capital city rental price index has recorded a 3.1 per cent decline for houses and a 2.5 per cent drop for apartments.

"It's very likely to keep falling from here," managing director Louis Christopher said, adding there were 15,000 more rental listings compared to the same time in 2019.

He cited the closing of the international border "freezing up" both short and long-term arrivals as the main issue.

"Last year we had net migration of 240,000. This year could be close to zero but, no matter what, 170,000 dwellings are being completed this year."

CoreLogic recorded rents up 0.3 per cent nationally in March but this did not capture the full impact as most social distancing measures and restrictions began late in the month. The housing research business predicted "a large, temporary demand shock to the rental market over the June quarter".

Domain economist Trent Wiltshire said there had been a rapid rise in new rental listings in the past month and pointed to more younger workers affected by coronavirus either moving back home with their parents or joining sharehouses.

The sudden drop in international students, combined with temporary visa holders who lose work going back overseas, is also behind a rapid rise in listings.

Mr Wiltshire said the biggest rise in new rental listings is in Sydney's inner city, eastern suburbs and northern beaches, and Melbourne's inner city, Prahran and St Kilda.

About a third of rental listings had dropped their asking rent on the real estate sales website, he said, with apartments most affected.

"We will see rents fall quite significantly over the next six months."

These declines will be a further boost for those on JobSeeker with Anglicare Australia's Rental Affordability Snapshot released on Thursday recording 1040 of 70,000 listings analysed were now within the budget of someone on the raised JobSeeker allowance. This is the best outcome for low-income households in 11 years of the survey.

Without the welfare increase just nine rentals would be affordable for JobSeeker recipients.

Anglicare executive director Kasy Chambers has urged the government to keep the increase in JobSeeker in future. Senator Jacqui Lambie and the Australian Council of Social Services this week backed the call for a permanent rise in the dole.

"We must raise the rate of these payments for good. If they are halved in six months – and if pensioners and people with disability are left out – renters will be pushed even deeper into poverty and homelessness," Ms Chambers said. Anglicare is also urging the government to invest in affordable housing to help meet a shortfall of 500,000 homes.

However, Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Wednesday said the increase in JobSeeker did not represent "a change in the government's view about the broader role of the social safety net in Australia".

Property listings site REA Group chief economist Nerida Conisbee said Sydney's house rents were flat but unit rents were down 4 per cent on the property portal but this "moderate" impact may not reflect negotiations currently under way.

"It is likely that the rental market will continue to face challenging conditions, which will become more pronounced over the next month."


 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

No comments: