Monday, July 20, 2020

Australian leaders insist coronavirus elimination is an unrealistic goal

Some public health experts want us to strive for eradication of COVID-19 but political leaders say calls for this country to emulate the New Zealand strategy are unrealistic.

The COVID-19 outbreak in Victoria and lockdown of Australia's second-largest city for the second time in three months has got people wondering: are we on the right track?

Experts are mulling whether Australia should stick to its plan to control or suppress the disease to a level of cases we can live with, while acknowledging community transmission can still occur.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison insists the suppression strategy is broadly working as intended. It's kept the virus at bay in seven of the eight states and territories while allowing the economy to gradually reopen and jobs to return.

Morrison emphasised this week his preferred strategy has not changed. He wants to go right down the middle of the road, favouring neither a hard lockdown of business nor a let-it-rip approach.

The national spoiler – and dead weight on the economy – is of course Victoria. The hundreds of cases of community transmission now being detected every day in that state suggest we are going to have live with coronavirus for a long time. How we choose to do that and how well we execute on that plan will affect lives and livelihoods across the country.

Right now the pointy end of the debate is whether we stick with suppression or switch tack to elimination, which is what they are regarded to have done across the ditch. This means to eradicate community transmission by following New Zealand's example, where the motto is " keep it out, find it and stamp it out".

Victoria's Chief Health Officer, Brett Sutton, says Australia should consider pursuing elimination once the current outbreak is brought under control.

Daniel Andrews, the state's Premier, says Victoria is a long way from being able to contemplate elimination. So far no political leaders are publicly advocating for this. In recent days, however, an increasing number of public health experts have come out in favour of a harder, and more prolonged lockdown to, in the words of Melbourne University epidemiologist Professor Tony Blakely, "knock the bugger on the head".

The attractions are obvious: fewer virus cases, fewer deaths and, if successful, potentially allowing the domestic economy to open up more freely.

New Zealand's economy shrank about twice as much as Australia's in March, April and May. But on June 8, after no new cases were recorded for two weeks, all domestic restrictions were lifted. The country is not COVID-19 free – in the week to Thursday eight new cases were reported – but there has been no community transmission for two-and-a-half months. Most Kiwis have returned to work, bars are jumping, and the crowds are back at the football. The New Zealand economy may rebound faster than Australia's.

One fan of this approach, former federal Department of Health boss Stephen Duckett says achieving elimination would stop the "the yo-yoing" between partial freedom and hard lockdowns dictated by the present suppression strategy.

Morrison, however, says eradication would be a "very risky strategy" and the goal can be "very illusory".

There is a litany of problems with a total elimination strategy – not just the severe economic damage from a more prolonged shutdown of the economy for months to try to get active cases to zero.

The federal government's Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Nick Coatsworth, says eliminating COVID-19 is a "false hope" and would be a realistic national strategy only if a vaccine becomes available – and that's a big if.

If there was a guarantee – or even good grounds to hope – that there will a vaccine available in coming months, there would be a much stronger case to shutter the economy, close the borders and wait it out. But we are not in that territory; there has never been a vaccine for a coronavirus and even the most optimistic experts suggest this won't change for at least a year.

As Coatsworth points out, the World Health Organisation has recently confirmed its view that elimination or eradication are not realistic goals.

"In Australia, we will continue to strive for local elimination wherever possible. We remain one of the world's most successful nations in the fight against COVID-19.

"We have achieved this, not by pursuing the false hope of elimination, but by realistic, pragmatic and proportionate action when it is most necessary."

Proponents of the federal government's "steady as she goes" approach say the spiralling numbers in Victoria are a failure of execution. It was not the suppression strategy that was at fault but the way it was carried out. Lax hotel quarantining by private security guards and suboptimal testing and tracing compared with other states are the prime reasons why Victoria has suffered an outbreak. Assuming an elimination strategy had been in place, if these weaknesses were still present, the outcome would have been no different.

Morrison hinted this week that Victoria's tracing capacity was not as good as that of NSW, which has now lent resources to its southern neighbour. He suggested Victoria's coronavirus outbreak had been exacerbated by contact tracing delays blowing out beyond the recommended 24 hours, enabling infected people to unwittingly spread the virus in the community.

NSW was getting on top of its problems more quickly due to better procedures, Morrison said.

Katie Allen, the federal Liberal MP for the inner Melbourne seat of Higgins –and a qualified doctor – says a review of Victoria's testing and contact tracing is needed, in addition to the announced review of hotel quarantining.

Health Minister Greg Hunt wants to stick to the three major methods – physical distancing and hygiene, testing and tracing, and quarantine. Hunt donned a face mask in public for the first time this week – a measure that international evidence shows is effective in slowing the spread of the virus.

Federal Labor's health spokesman, Chris Bowen, says an elimination strategy would have implications for the economy and mental health.

Employment figures this week showed the reopening of the economy restored 210,000 jobs in June, before Victoria's renewed shutdown. All the gains were in part-time jobs as employers began to rehire.

The headline unemployment rate edged up to 7.4 per cent, the highest since 1998. But the real underlying jobless rate is about 12 per cent if two other groups – those working zero hours on JobKeeper and those who have given up looking for work so are no longer counted as being in the labor force – are included.

Melbourne-based ANZ senior economist Catherine Birch says the rise in employment was "solid", but a "second wave" of job losses looms from the lockdown of Victoria.

"Metropolitan Melbourne and Mitchell Shire together account for an estimated 21 per cent of national employment, so the new lockdown will set the labour market recovery back," she says.

"While Melbourne workers will feel the worst of it, regional Victoria will also be affected, and the nationwide recovery is likely to be slower, as consumer and business confidence is undermined, demand is more fragile and businesses more cautious about hiring."

While the outbreak in Victoria has shocked the nation, in an international context, our infection rates are comparatively low, as are the 111 COVID-19 fatalities recorded to date. These equate to less than 2 per cent of the 15,330 people who died of respiratory system diseases in Australia last year, according to doctor-certified deaths recorded by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Some 56 per cent of those who have died in Australia from COVID-19 complications were aged in their 80s or 90s, 29 per cent were in their 70s and 12 per cent were in their 60s. Almost 70 per cent of people had pre-existing chronic conditions including hypertension, dementia, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and cancer.

The deaths are a massive undershoot of the government's overly pessimistic preliminary epidemiological modelling in early March, The initial modelling based on limited available international data suggested 50,000 to 150,000 people could die of the virus.

If Australia had suffered the same per capita COVID-19 death rates of the much maligned United States, about 10,500 Australians would have died to date.

The modelling also showed daily demand at its peak for intensive care beds could hit almost 5000, 17,000 or 35,000, depending on how hard governments locked down.

The projections by epidemiologists at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity swamped the 2200 ICU beds available at hospitals. So far, the ICU daily occupancy for COVID-19 patients peaked at below 100 in early April, although the numbers are increasing in Victoria with 32 COVID-19 patients in ICU by Friday.

The original justification for the national business lockdowns that began in late March was to build capacity in the health system to prevent hospitals being overwhelmed by the virus.

ICU beds have more than tripled to 7000. We are ready.

The smaller and more isolated states such as Western Australia and South Australia have been able to virtually achieve elimination of community transmission in recent months.

Yet the large states of NSW and Victoria have had to carry the load of accepting the majority of returning international travellers, who have a much higher rate of COVID-19.

From March 21, 2020, to June 30, 2020, more than 212,000 travellers arrived via air into Australia – about 72 per cent of the returned travellers going to the two main states. More than 96,000 arrived in Sydney, followed by more than 56,000 in Victoria.

Hence, the federal government has slashed the number of returning international travellers to 4000 a week, from about 7000.

New Zealand's population is one-fifth the size of Australia's and has far fewer returning international passengers – making quarantine and elimination an easier task.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian's management of the pandemic has been widely praised. In comments this week, she sounded reluctant but firm. Elimination is not a realistic goal. "I think suppression is our only option," Berejiklian says.

"Whilst we would all love to adopt a policy of elimination, it's, I think, unrealistic to assume we would get there – in fact, very unrealistic. Suppression is definitely the right strategy for a population the size of ours."


Mark Leibler, his ‘lobby’ and their legacy

In the morning of a warm late summer’s day last year, Mark Leibler is getting­ ready to travel to Israel. We are sitting at a small table in his office, but he is oblivious to the sweeping views of the city that shimmers in the sunlight.

He has made these visits for 25 years, ever since he was elected to the two major inter­national Jewish organisa­tions that help determine how the substantial sums of money raised in diaspora communities will be spent on projects in Israel and, increasingl­y, in diaspora Jewish communities, especially the six-million-strong US community.

Even when he is in Israel, when his days are packed with meetings, he will be in constant touch with his office at Arnold Bloch Leibler, where he has been a partner for almost 50 years. He will take and make calls at any time of the day and night, talking to Jewish­ community leaders and Indigenous leaders who regularly seek him out for advice. Leibler is a man of many parts and he has learnt to move across these parts — from lawyer to Jewish leader to activist on behalf of Indigenous causes — so that each part enriches the others.

He is not well known to most Australians. His name does not appear in the newspapers often, though he has become, over the years, the go-to tax lawyer for financ­ial journalists. Yet his influence far exceeds his public profile. Of the 200 people and families on the 2019 Rich List, nearly one in five are clients of Arnold Bloch Leibler. Partly as a result of this client base, Leibler is widely recog­nised as one of Australia’s most influential tax lawyers. He has given advice and put the case for changes to tax laws to every Australian treasurer since John Howard had the job in the 1970s.

Since the late 1990s, when his older brother, Isi, pre-eminent leader of Jews in Australia and a major figure in world Jewry, settled­ in Israel, Mark Leibler has been recognised as Australia’s most influential and powerful Jewish leader, and has become increasin­gly influential in international Jewry. The Jerusalem Post has described him as one of the world’s 50 most influential Jews. He has had, and still has, relationshi­ps with Israeli politic­ians, including prime ministers.

Anyone who has lived such a public life, and has been involved in so many different and seemingly unconnected areas, is bound to have critics and even enemies. Leibler has both. Former senior Australian Taxation Office offic­ials who have had dealings with him have said he has a reputation as a bully who intimidates junior staffers conducting audits of his clients. Within the Jewish community, he has a reputation for being arrogant and a formidable and difficult opponent. Academic and writer Mark Baker, a lifelong Zionist, believes that Leibler has tried and has largely succeeded in shutting down any criticism of Israe­l in the Jewish community.

Over 40 or more years of public life, Leibler has developed and sustained close relationships — he calls them friendships — with senior Australian politicians, from Bill Hayden when he was foreign minister in the Hawke government to prime ministers John Howard, Paul Keating and Julia Gillard. Keating calls Leibler a friend. Gillard says that in her most difficult days as prime minister, she felt from him “a care and concern about me as a human being”. Indigenous leader Noel Pearson considers Leibler to be not just a mentor who taught him about the workings of power, but a father figure.

Others, such as Kevin Rudd when he was prime minister and foreign minister, and Bob Carr when he replaced Rudd as foreign minister, do not share such warm assessments of him. Both Rudd and Carr came to believe that Leibler and the “Israel lobby”, as they called it and which Leibler led, was a malign force in Australian politics, one that distorted Australia’s policies on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and turned many politicians and journalists into the lobby’s puppets, or, to use Carr’s word, “poodles”. Rudd came to believe that the lobby and Leibler in particular helped organise the coup that saw him replaced as prime minister by Gillard.

It was the so-called passports affair that solidified Rudd’s conviction that the Israel lobby was out to get him. On May 16, 2010, Australia expelled an Israeli diplomat who was also a senior agent of Israeli security service Mossad, after Mossad agents had used fake Australian passports to enter Dubai. There they had assassinated one of the top arms dealers of Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist organisation that since 2007 has been the de facto governing ­authority in the Gaza Strip.

Rudd declared that the relationship with Israel had been affect­ed by this “outrageous” use of fake Australian passports. He said this was especially so, given that Mossad had used Australian passports for another operation in 2003, the details of which neither Israeli nor Australian security officia­ls have ever disclosed. After the 2003 incident, according to Rudd, Mossad had given ASIO a secret undertaking never to use Australian passports for any Israeli­ security exercise again.

Leibler, the chairman of the Australia Israel and Jewish Affairs Council, the powerful and priv­ately funded lobbying organisation for Israel, took extensive notes about the passports fiasco. These notes show the extent to which this crisis challenged and consumed him. They also show that he could reach out to cabinet ministers and senior public servants­, who invariably took his calls or agreed to see him. The passports incident was especially difficult, because it was impossible to defend what the Israelis had done.

Leibler has notes of conversations with foreign minister Stephen­ Smith and with other members of the Rudd government, as well as with senior Foreign­ Affairs officials, including Dennis Richardson, then head of the Department of Foreign Affairs­ and Trade. His notes record­ a meeting on May 27, 2010, with Richardson, who had been head of ASIO when Israeli agents had used fake Australian passports in 2003. At the meeting, Richardson said that a memorandum of understanding had been drawn up after the 2003 incid­ent, which spelled out that Mossad would not use Australian passports again.

Leibler told ­Richardson that on his next visit to Israel he would arrange a meeting with the head of Mossad to convey his concerns, and Richardson’s, about the further use of Australian passports. Leibler’s notes also reveal he told Richardson that Rudd had overreacted by expelling the Israeli diplomat, but that Leibler knew Israel did not have a strong case to argue over the expulsion. He wanted to settle this issue and for things to “move on”. He wanted to make it clear to Richardson that he, Leibler, could convey to Israeli leaders, including the head of Mossad, Richardson’s concerns.

Rudd gave his version of these events in the second volume of his memoirs, The PM Years, published in late 2018. Rudd writes in his book that what he called the Israel lobby had tried to “menace­” him for his strong response­ to the passports affair.

On June 1, 2010, Mark Dreyfus, later Gillard’s attorney-general, called Leibler, who he had known for many years. Dreyfus told ­Leibler that Rudd wanted to have a dinner with Leibler and a few other Jewish community leaders at the prime minister’s Canberra residence on June 3 to discuss the passports issue. The dinner was intended to begin the process of repairing the strained relationship between Rudd and the ­Jewish community, at least with its leaders, such as Leibler. Jewish MP Michael Danby was present, as was Dreyfus.

What happened at that dinner is contested. Rudd writes in his book that he agreed to host the dinner out of respect for Danby and Dreyfus, who had lobbied him to put on a dinner for the Jewish­ leaders. According to Rudd, he sat politely at the table while Leibler berated him for committing the “hostile act” of ­expelling the Israeli diplomat.

Rudd writes that he told Leibler­ that it had been the second time that Israel had used fake passports but that Leibler had responded­: “I don’t believe you.” When he offered Leibler a briefing with Richardson, Leibler turned angry and made a “menacing threat”. Rudd records Leibler as saying: “Julia is looking very good in the public eye these days, Prime Minister. She’s performing very strongly. She’s a great friend of Israel­. But you shouldn’t be anxiou­s about her, should you, Prime Minister.”

None of these incidents that Rudd recalls so vividly are in the nine pages of notes, dated June 7, that Leibler typed after the dinner. Leibler had made handwritten notes in his hotel room immed­iately after the dinner, before he flew back to Melbourne the next morning. None of the other guests at the dinner supported Rudd’s accusation that Leibler had ­menaced and threatened him at the dinner.

Leibler writes that when he was leaving he took Rudd aside and assured him that he was going to raise Rudd’s concerns over the passports issue with both the head of Mossad and with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The conflicting versions of what happened at that dinner, less than two weeks before Gillard deposed­ Rudd as prime minister, are revealing. Rudd’s version looks back, after everything that had happened to him. It seems that Gillard’s “betrayal” of him and the way she became close to Leibler when she was prime ­minister came together for Rudd, in retrospect. He had decided that the Israel lobby, Leibler in particular, had supported Gillard’s challenge to him and indeed, had spent a year organising the Gillard­ coup. On any reading, this was an extraordinary explanation for what had happened to him.


Australian rooftop photovoltaic installations may face grid constraints

Australian households have adopted rooftop PV with unprecedented relish, with families and small businesses both contributing towards the transition away from polluting fossil fuels while reducing energy costs. While a downturn is expected on the back of Covid-19, installation rates are still exceeding most forecasts.

However, the right to install a rooftop system is not a given and people looking to install small-scale solar systems as soon as this decade could face significant limitations to grid exports of their PV power and even their ability to connect a system curtailed by grid operators. The outcome could be rooftop PV assets that are not able to push all of the power they generate into the grid – pushing out assumed payback periods.

“It would be detrimental for the industry and for consumers,” explains Ben Cerini, a consultant with Cornwall Insight Australia. “Households may find themselves with stranded assets, which is a bigger issue for them than institutional investors because they are not as sophisticated [investors].”

The warning comes on the back of recent analysis from Cornwall Insight Australia, which found that 24.5 GW of sub-100kWp solar is set to be added to Australian rooftops through to 2030 – if, that is, such constraints are not put in place.

Some electrical network operators, or DSNPs, have intensified their efforts in communicating that the ability of a household to export power a rooftop PV system is far from being a given “right.” Victorian DNSP Powercor, which services the western suburbs of Melbourne and the west of the state, is advising households in the regions it serves to check into whether PV export is allowed.

“If no action is taken by 2026, customers serviced by almost half of our zone substations will experience difficulties when they try to export energy to the grid,” said Steven Neave, Powercor GM of Electricity Networks said in a statement, issued in late May. In the same press release, Powercor noted that the number of rooftop PV systems on its network increased from 142,200 at the start of 2020, to 150,500 by April – indicating the solar installation rate was likely to increase by 18% in 2020, up from 14% in 2019.

DNSPs clearly have an interest in highlighting the challenges caused by rooftop solar in operating their networks. At the same time, so do solar installers, who wish to highlight the quick investment paybacks delivered by rooftop solar. However the equations used by solar salespeople may be based on the ability to feed solar energy into the grid – something that is not given.


How to cancel ‘cancel culture’

If we were to rework the famous lament by German pastor and theologian Martin Niemoller, it might go something like this:

“First, they came for the ­authors, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t an author.

“Then they came for the comedians, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a comedian.

“Then they came for the scientists, the economists, the academics, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t one of them.

“Then they came for the journalists, and I didn’t speak up because I was not a journalist.

“Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.”

Each week brings more episodes of what, rightly or wrongly, we call “cancel culture”. This week, writer and editor Bari Weiss resigned from The New York Times citing the paper’s “illiberal environment”. Weiss wasn’t cancelled, but she is leaving because intolerance at the heart of cancel culture has settled into the NYT.

The New York Times hired Weiss after admitting that its one-eyed coverage of the 2016 presidential election failed readers. With another presidential election looming, Weiss fired off a powerful letter to NYT publisher AG Sulzberger lamenting that “intellectual curiosity” had become “a liability at The Times”.

“Twitter is not on the masthead of The New York Times. But Twitter has become its ultimate editor,” she wrote in reference to the narrow range of views favoured by the newspaper, and the ousting of NYT opinion editor James Bennet for running an opinion column that upset the sensibilities of some NYT staff.

Diversity of opinion took another hit this week when influential writer, editor and author of The Conservative Soul, Andrew Sullivan, announced his resignation from New York magazine. Posting on Twitter, Sullivan said that it was “pretty self-evident” why he was leaving, and he would discuss the “broader questions involved” in his final column due out on Friday in the US.

We can throw our arms up in dismay, frustration, even outrage at the daily loss of intellectual ­diversity. But it will be much more productive if, for the sake of democracy, we stand up against the blatant intolerance of cancel culture that has been repackaged by social justice activists as “the reckoning”.

Our modern liberal democratic project is just that. It’s recent. And it’s not writ in stone that it will succeed. It is a wholly human project that needs more people to defend it than not against those trying to replace it with something less liberal and less democratic.

And the heavy lifting will come down to each of us because elites can’t be relied on. University leaders rarely defend intellectual freedom. Business leaders promote faux diversity that doesn’t include differing opinions. The Morrison government has an economic crisis on its hands. And we are paying for a human rights commissioner who remains a mystery to most Australians because he hasn’t uttered a peep about the dangers of rising intolerance towards freedom of expression. Keeping your head down is no way to defend our most fundamental human right.

The sad truth is that cancel culture has been happening in different ways for many decades. Salman Rushdie copped a fatwa from Islamist extremists for writing a book called Satanic Verses. And now fatwas of a different kind come from within the West, our own mob culture hunting down dissidents and wrecking careers over differences of opinion.

The rot set in when we attached legal consequences to offence. It was an invitation for people to take offence and then impose their own version of justice without heading to a court or a human rights commission. We have a marketplace of outrage that routinely dismantles a marketplace of ideas and social media platforms that provide the perfect breeding ground for more short-form outrage and mob rule, rather than nuance, thoughtful ­argument and debate.

While we might disagree on whether any particular episode is cancel culture or not, we can surely recognise a growing intolerance towards people expressing a ­diverse range of views. That intolerance delivers a triple whammy. First, it hinders our ability to sift the good ideas from the bad ones. Second, by shutting down robust debates, cancel culture will create unhinged, self-professed martyrs who thrive in online echo chambers, nurturing their hatred and bigotry far away from logical argument. And finally, the practitioners of cancel culture will stoke deep resentments that can easily be exploited by leaders who may not be defenders of a truly liberal democracy.

Earlier this week, long-time art curator Gary Garrels resigned from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art after a staff petition sought his removal for “his toxic white supremacist beliefs regarding race and equity” when curating art collections. At a recent meeting over Zoom, staff confronted him with an earlier comment he made following a presentation about new acquisitions by artists of colour. Garrels is reported to have said, “Don’t worry, we will definitely still continue to collect white artists.” During the meeting last week, Garrels, who is one of America’s most prominent curators, said that not collecting the work of white men would amount to “reverse discrimination”.

Museum staff sought and succeeded in getting rid of the curator. And next up is the banishment of art by white people. This is nothing short of cultural apartheid.

When mobs tear down statues, that is a form of cancel culture familiar to the Taliban. In a vibrant democracy we should have robust, passionate debates about these matters and then decide whether a statue remains, is removed or needs better explanation.

When staff at publishing house Hachette threatened to stop working on a new children’s book by JK Rowling last month, that is cancel culture too. To its credit, Hachette defended free speech as a cornerstone of publishing, saying: “We will never make our employees work on a book whose content they find upsetting for personal reasons, but we draw a distinction between that and refusing to work on a book ­because they disagree with an ­author’s views outside their writing, which runs contrary to our ­belief in free speech.”

Cancel culture is killing comedy. Comedian Ricky Gervais says his mockumentary series The ­Office couldn’t be made today. The BBC cancelled an episode of Fawlty Towers last month because it might offend some people. True, the broadcaster corrected the mistake after a public furore, but note that the default setting was to cancel a comedy because they didn’t think we could be trusted to watch something from a different era.

If comedy stops being confronting for fear of being cancelled by a new generation of self-­appointed cultural dietitians, we will lose more than our sense of humour. We will lose our ability to explore difficult subjects in myriad ways.

Over the last fortnight, the “Letter on Justice and Open Debate” published in Harper’s magazine and signed by 150 artists, authors, academics and other public intellectuals has attracted both kudos and criticism. Slamming it as “late, limp, and self-serving,” Gerard Baker in The Wall Street Journal pointed out that “only a handful of them spoke up when the mob was trying to cancel conservative thinkers”.

Sure, it’s a shame that some public intellectuals took so long to stand up for intellectual diversity. But, it’s also a case of better late than never. This is also how good ideas come to the fore when they are defended. Slowly, more and more people come to realise which ideas are better, why they matter, and why they need defending over and over again from bad ideas that have a habit of re-emerging.

Cancel culture is one of those really bad ideas. When illiberalism spreads, it’s only a matter of time before the cancellers come for you.


 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...

Good patriotic Australians, those Jews. Totally not disloyal and so not working to subvert our political institutions to their own totally not one-true loyalty's ends. So lucky are we that Subsection 44 on foreign loyalties was twisted to not apply to just them.