Monday, August 17, 2020

Paying for an epidemic of stupidity

Daily No. of "cases" tells us little and creates a false sense of urgency

Steve Waterson

Back in the good old days, the average person used to take pride in having a robust grasp of basic maths: enough mental arithmetic not to be overcharged at the shops, enough skill with pen and paper to make more complex calculations.

Not any more, it seems. Many of our finest minds are infected with a new innumeracy that, in today’s fevered environment, distorts our understanding of, and response to, the coronavirus threat.

In early April, as the disease was just beginning to bite, the team manning the ABC’s coronavirus news website promised to answer questions about the pandemic.

When a reader asked for help in interpreting some infection-rate statistics, it provoked a cheerful response, broadcast to the world: “This just sparked a heated newsroom discussion in which we all outed ourselves as being terrible at maths.” You don’t say.

They’re only — some might say barely — journalists, however. They don’t need the mastery of figures that our leaders display so magnificently. So for a moment of light relief, let’s examine the numbers that currently unnerve them. If we cancelled Victoria’s lockdown immediately, and its cases were permitted to grow at 1000 a day, the whole state would be infected in no time. By “no time”, of course, I mean 18 years.

No wonder they’re frightened: at that rate it could sweep through the entire country in little more than 70 years. Luckily, in recent times we have been adding 1000 people to our population every day. Phew. Dodged a bullet there.

Worldwide, excess deaths from COVID-19 (generously assuming every victim died from, rather than just with, the virus) are around 700,000. Given the roughly 60 million deaths the world records each year, it’s as though 2020 had 369 days in it, rather than 366.

If that thought chills you, congratulations! A lavishly pensioned, undemanding and unaccountable career in politics beckons.

The ultimate showcase of political innumeracy is the quasi-religious ritual of The Reading of the Cases. Witnessed and recorded by the faithful in the media (who love to have their work handed to them on a plate), it has become a farce within this bigger farce.

The sombre, priestly arch-buffoon blesses reporters with fodder for their blog updates, sprinkling them with numbers that look like information but withstand no scrutiny.

Cases, as a moment’s reflection reveals, do not equal sickness, much less hospitalisations. Until we are entrusted with the knowledge of how many are the results of tests on people who show no symptoms, they serve only to strike terror into the innumerate.

Indeed, why do we need to hear these figures at all? We don’t get daily updates for any other diseases. They serve no useful purpose, as we are not given sufficient detail to make our own assessment of their significance, decide on the level of risk they represent and tailor our activities accordingly.

Their primary purpose seems to be to post-rationalise our leaders’ devastating, simple-minded lockdowns and border closures, and to panic people into sporting their masks of obedience should they be sufficiently reckless as to leave their homes.

Perhaps the announcements, if they must continue, could give us real information: “There have been 637 new cases today, but happily 480 were young people who had no symptoms and didn’t know they’d been infected. Oh, and only two of today’s cases were serious enough to need to go to hospital.”

Maybe for context they could dilute their irresponsible scaremongering by including details of the other 450 people who die in Australia each day, including the victims of lockdown: the suicides and those who, too frightened to visit a doctor or hospital, are dying avoidable deaths through lack of screening and treatment (Britain anticipates as many as 35,000 extra deaths in the next year from cancer sufferers presenting late with correspondingly advanced tumours); and the people tumbling into despair, depression and other mental and physical illnesses.

Perhaps the premier could hand over to the state’s treasurer, who would read out the number added daily to the jobless lists, the businesses forced into bankruptcy, the mortgages foreclosed.

Then someone from social services could talk about the growth in homelessness, the “huge increase” in domestic violence reported by victim support groups, the marriage breakdowns.

But they won’t because of a mathematical and behavioural curiosity we’re all familiar with, if not by name: the sunk costs fallacy.

Imagine that last month you bought a ticket for a concert tonight. You’re tired, it’s pouring with rain, and you dread dragging yourself into town. The money’s gone whatever you decide, so logic says you should cut your losses and stay in, but instead you pull on your raincoat and call a taxi. The urge is irrational, but almost irresistible. The whole vile pokies industry is built on it.

Now imagine how much harder to alter course if your investment was enormous and everyone was watching, poised to ridicule you for changing your mind.

Here’s where our politicians find themselves, unable to admit their response to the virus — the ultimate blunt instrument of lockdown, brutally enforced — hasn’t worked, and will never work.

They can’t do so because it would mean all they have done up to this point has been in vain. How could anyone who had wreaked damage on this cataclysmic scale ever admit to themselves, let alone to the nation, that it was all for nothing? Instead, like the pokie addict, they have doubled down to unleash a runaway epidemic of stupidity. They’ve destroyed our economy and put thousands out of work; they’ve refashioned many of our famously easygoing population into masked informers; and we’ve handed control of our lives to a clown car packed with idiots.

If there is a clearer demonstration of the insidious overreach of the nanny state, infantilising and sinister, and the shameful acquiescence of its legions of time-serving bureaucrats, I’m not aware of it.

What’s more insulting, each day we are chastised for “disappointing” our leaders, as though they are our superiors and it is the citizens’ duty to please them. The infected are singled out, vilified and shamed as sinners, their scandalous movements — three pubs on a Saturday night! — tracked and condemned. It recalls the attitude towards AIDS victims in the 1980s, a divine judgment visited on wicked libertines.

But attempt to argue that the cost of our response has in any way outweighed the impact of the virus and expect to be labelled a virus denier. Then expect to be asked, accusingly, how many deaths you would find acceptable. No matter how often or how emphatically you declare “We should protect the vulnerable”, some will hear those words as “Let’s throw the old people to the wolves”.

On April 4 in these pages I wondered when life moved from being precious to priceless. An exaggeration, but more than four months on we’ve set the opening bid pretty high. Turn the question around and ask what we are prepared to pay to protect the elderly with comorbidities. Let’s assume we’d let the disease run its course, as Sweden did, and had suffered the same death rate. We might have lost 10,000 of the old and sick earlier than in a normal year. We’ve kept that figure down, but at what cost?

On this week’s numbers our governments have spent more than $220bn and put 750,000 people out of work; some of that burden would have been incurred whatever path we had followed, but most of it is self-imposed.

Is it callous to suggest that’s too high a price to prolong what in some cases were lives of no great joy? What good might we have done with just a fraction of that $220bn, artfully applied? Would it not have been far better to spend a smaller, but still significant, sum on protecting and caring for the vulnerable and elderly to the very best of our abilities, and then, crucially, offering them the choice whether to accept that care?

We could allow them, like sentient adults, to make a simple calculation: do I live a little longer in safe but miserable isolation, or do I spend my remaining days at some risk but embraced by the warmth of family and friends?

That’s not a decision for any politician, even a wise one, to make. It’s a matter of choice for the individual, or, if incapacitated, for those responsible for them.

Governments don’t exist to tell us how or when we can die; but if life is measured only by length, not quality, this is where we end up: imprisoned, supposedly for our own good, on the basis of flawed statistical modelling and even worse interpretations of that modelling.

Undismayed by the models’ failure to predict the future when the virus first appeared, self-styled experts have now contorted their fears into absurd, illogical predictions of a parallel present: if we hadn’t acted as we did, they say, then tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands more would have died. How can anyone possibly know?

As the statistics, and yes, bodies, pile up around the world, we are getting a clearer picture of the virus’s course and virulence, and the more data we have, the more similar the curves appear. If we accept Australians are not exceptional in their resistance to disease, then it appears we have some heartbreak ahead of us, no matter how hard we try to avoid it.

New Zealand is lauded as the perfect example of how to crush the virus, but would anyone be surprised if it too has to pay the price somewhere down the line? Four new cases locked down the 1.6 million inhabitants of Auckland this week in a monstrously excessive overreaction that would be comical were it not so destructive.

Meanwhile, the rest of New Zealand has shut down so completely it has effectively removed itself as a nation from the international community. It’s as though the country had never existed. Soon it will be reduced to a fading Cheshire Cat image of its Prime Minister’s saintly sad face.

Let’s hope for the Kiwis’, and everyone else’s, sake a vaccine is found soon, although the World Health Organisation now warns we may never have one. It’s a tired line to repeat, but even after 40-odd years of searching we don’t have one for HIV-AIDS.

Which, if anyone needs reminding, still kills 2600 people a day.


‘Very real prospect’ Qld will enforce hard border closure again

Four people have been caught trying to sail from Byron Bay to Cairns as fears of a hard Queensland border closure grow in border communities.

Maritime Safety Queensland intercepted the boat near the Gold Coast Seaway about midday on Friday.

Those on board had no exemptions or border declarations and were fined $4000 each, sent into mandatory hotel quarantine and their sail boat was impounded.

On land 129 people were refused entry at the Gold Coast border, with 125 people turned back at five checkpoints.

It comes as cross-border workers endure chaos and confusion over the state’s latest lockout, police are preparing for the ‘very real prospect’ that the border could again be closed completely as it was in March near the start of the pandemic.

Sources say Chief Health Officer Dr Jeannette Young’s warning this week that border residents should be making contingency plans in case Queensland shuts out all of NSW is a sign that a hard closure is “definitely on the cards”.

“Dr Young is very measured in what she says – her style is not to panic people,” a police source said. “This (her border warning) may be the first punch that’s coming from either a short distance or a longer distance.”

The Palaszczuk government closed the border to NSW and the ACT last weekend, just four weeks after reopening Queensland to all states except COVID-ravaged Victoria.

A special “border zone” was created, allowing Tweed and Gold Coast locals to freely crisscross the state line for any purpose. But travel is restricted to within the “bubble”, meaning Tweed residents cannot venture further north than the Gold Coast and vice versa.

It has prevented workers including doctors, nurses and tradies from working outside the border zone, such as in Brisbane.

Gold Coast civic and business leaders, who met with senior police this week, are increasingly worried that the border could be shut “hard” as early as next week.

Meanwhile, Stradbroke Island’s leading camping operator is not accepting bookings and will cancel or postpone existing bookings from visitors from eight southside postcodes – including inner-city suburbs like West End and South Brisbane.

CEO of the Quandamooka Yoolooburrabee Aboriginal Corporation Cameron Costello told The Courier-Mail the decision was made to protect the vulnerable local community.

Economic modelling by peak business group, Chamber of Commerce and Industry Queensland, revealed the hard border closure fromMarch to July cost the tourism industry alone almost $17m a day. “Everyone is very nervous,” southern Gold Coast City councillor Gail O’Neill said.

Southern Gold Coast Chamber of Commerce president Hilary Jacobs said the prospect of a hard border closure was a “massive concern” for the business community. She said she also did not believe that COVID-19 case numbers in Queensland or NSW justified it.


Unemployed youth should be conscripted

For many older Australians, conscription is a dirty word as young Aussie men were forced to go to war – many never returning – reviving painful and heartbreaking memories.

In 1939, at the start of World War II, all unmarried men aged over 21 were called up for three months of military training. Conscription was then introduced in mid-1942, when all men aged 18-35 and single men aged 35-45 were required to join a citizens military force. Many fought against the Japanese in Papua New Guinea.

It’s against that backdrop of sending young Australian men off to war that we face our greatest challenge in 80 years – the health and economic threat of a coronavirus pandemic. Like war, it kills indiscriminately. It is our very own 21st century unseen enemy.

During such challenging times, it is important that our decision-makers think outside the box.

As Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said repeatedly, these are uncharted waters and we must throw the rule book out to meet the challenge.

Right now, on fruit and vegetable farms around Australia, farmers are struggling to get people to pick their produce.

Normally, 130,000 backpackers would swarm on to the farms, earning money to keep their holiday dream alive.

With COVID-19, those numbers have dropped by 50,000. There are fears some fruit may rot.

The sad reality is that just 8 per cent of those who pick fruit and vegetables in this country are Australians.

Now, the unions are muscling their way into the debate about seasonal fruit pickers.

An alliance of unions is calling for the end of the working holiday visa. The Australian Workers Union, the Shop and Allied Distributors Union and the Transport Workers Union want the visa removed, effectively stopping backpackers from picking fruit.

The horticulture sector estimates removing backpackers from the fresh food sector will cost the industry about $13bn.

The unions claim the backpacker program is rife with exploitation. They argue that the wages are so low that Australians won’t work. What bulldust.

The bottom line is that if farmers can’t use backpackers to pick their fruit, much of it will rot. Those who know these things say a good fruit picker can earn $1500 a week in the right conditions.

The sad reality is that many young, pampered Australians have an aversion to hard work. Nestled snugly into the comforts of home, their meals and washing is sorted.

They are happy to cop the $1500 JobKeeper payment until it runs out. It has now been extended until at least March next year.

Until we get young Australians working for a living, agricultural producers will continue to rely on backpackers.

So here’s the solution. Young, healthy Australians who live with their parents and receive a taxpayer-funded JobSeeker allowance should be conscripted to work on farms.

They should be tested for COVID-19 and, once cleared, pack their bags and be sent via bus to fruit and vegetable picking areas for three months.

They would learn new skills, earn good money and be a benefit to the country, rather than a drain on welfare. They may even make some new friends. Imagine that.

As for the unions, they need to butt out of this debate. They’ve done enough damage helping people like Daniel Andrews get into power.


Qld.: Calls for Crime and Corruption Commission inquiry into police evidence disclosure

Des Houghton

Civil libertarian Terry O’Gorman wants a far-reaching inquiry into police evidence disclosure after a second case where previously suppressed evidence led to an acquittal, writes Des Houghton.

The council’s vice-president Terry O’Gorman also criticised the Crime and Corruption Commission’s inaction in a case where the crime watchdog referred complaints against police back to police to investigate.

Controversy erupted when I revealed concerns throughout the legal community that police, including those assigned to the CCC, were cherry-picking evidence to help gain convictions while omitting other evidence that may cast doubt on the guilt of a suspect.

O’Gorman has written to Attorney-General Yvette D’Ath and Police Minister Mark Ryan after the Queensland Court of Appeal found a “gross investigative failure of disclosure which constituted a serious breach of the presumption of a fair trial” in a historic sex case.

O’Gorman said civil libertarians were asking for a high-level inquiry by an eminent retired judge.

The inquiry should delve into the inadequacies of the evidence disclosure regime in Queensland, he said.

O’Gorman raised more worrying allegations in a separate case where evidence presented to court in a rape trial was inconsistent with the evidence a complainant gave on a police tape recording.

He said: “My law firm made a complaint to the CCC in October last year about a rape case where a tape recording of the complainant containing a version inconsistent with her statement and evidence before the jury was disclosed to the prosecution by the investigating officers only after the complainant had given her evidence before the jury.

“After hearing this formerly suppressed evidence, the jury acquitted the accused.”

O’Gorman was critical of the CCC.

Nine months later, the CCC “handed the complaint back to police themselves, and the matter remains outstanding and unresolved”.

O’Gorman raised other serious concerns about police practices, including “the very late disclosure, sometimes the last-minute disclosure at the door of the court, or even partway through a trial”.

This happened all too often in Queensland “because police know they will not suffer any consequences or penalty for failure to disclose all relevant evidence”.

O’Gorman said there was no proper system in place within the police force to ensure prosecutors were handed all the relevant evidence.

The controversy was blown open when Appeal Court president Walter Sofronoff, sitting with fellow Supreme Court judges Debra Mullins and Peter Davis, set aside guilty verdicts against Kenneth Ralph Ernst and ordered a retrial.

Sofronoff, Mullins and Davis agreed with Brisbane barrister Tony Glynn QC that there had been a miscarriage of justice in the Ernst case because an investigating officer did not disclose information given to police by a friend of the alleged victim to the prosecutor.

That information would have weakened the prosecution case and would have been passed on by the prosecutor to the defence.

Now there is speculation within the legal fraternity and police of more possible miscarriages of justice with police sent back to gather fresh evidence after a person had been charged, because the initial evidence was found to be unreliable or insubstantial.

O’Gorman told me he was drafting a submission to send to Queensland’s new Director of Public Prosecutions Carl Heaton QC, Police Commissioner Katarina Carroll and CCC chief Alan MacSporran QC calling for an overhaul of the disclosure laws “in view of growing evidence that too many police are routinely ignoring their obligations”.

“In the case of my firm’s complaint about the failure to disclose in a timely manner our submission that the police concerned should be charged with an offence under Section 202 of the Criminal Code, namely disobedience to statute law, remains outstanding nine months after the complaint has been made,” he said.

A person found guilty of this breach of the code faces up to a year in jail.


Australia  on the verge of vaccine deal

The Sunday Telegraph reports the federal government is in final negotiations with a major vaccine manufacturer, believed to be AstraZeneca, to produce doses in Australia.

The vaccine, being developed in partnership with Oxford University, could be on the market within months. Researchers are due to report on clinical trials in September.

Meanwhile, Russia claims to have produced the first batch of its coronavirus vaccine. The announcement was met with caution from the global scientific community.

It comes after Victoria yesterday reported another fall in case numbers, suggesting the state’s harsh stage four lockdown measures are working.


Adelaide universities to fly in international students in Australian-first coronavirus-busting trial

South Australian universities are poised to fly in 300 students from Singapore in a national-first pilot program aimed at reviving the $2bn education economy.

In a coup for the state’s tertiary sector, SA has trumped interstate bids to spearhead the return of foreign students stranded when Australia’s borders closed in March because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The flight from Singapore for South-East Asian students is expected to arrive in Adelaide in early September, in a test run for a larger-scale return nationally.

It is understood the final-year students will follow a strict hotel quarantine regime, paid for by universities and mirroring that in place for repatriated Australians.

Premier Steven Marshall said SA’s proposal had met the Federal Government’s stringent health and safety requirements and logistics were being finalised.

“We are looking forward to welcoming back students from overseas through this much-needed pilot program. International students are an important part of our community, adding to our state’s vibrancy and multiculturalism,” he told the Sunday Mail.

“South Australia’s handling of COVID-19 has put us in the ideal position to be a first-mover in bringing back international students.”

Plans to bring up to 2400 international students back to SA were revealed in early July but then swiftly derailed by Victoria’s disastrous COVID-19 outbreak that exploded that month. The NT and ACT also had proposals for pilot student entry.

Trade, Tourism and Investment Minister Simon Birmingham said the pilot was an important first step in rebuilding Australia’s crucial $39bn education sector.

“International education is a huge export earner for Australia, supports thousands of jobs right here in SA and getting the sector going again will be vital to our ultimate economic recovery,” Senator Birmingham said.

The SA pilot is considered a major first step to demonstrate universities can safely manage the reintroduction of overseas students without igniting a coronavirus outbreak, giving them an advantage in fierce international competition.

Extensive quarantine measures are expected to include ensuring the arriving students are channelled through a separate area at Adelaide Airport so they do not interact with the general public.

Hotel quarantine also was used for the 94 close contacts of the now-contained COVID-19 cluster linked to Thebarton Senior College.

Before the Victorian second wave, authorities were planning to return to SA more than a third of the 6757 students stranded overseas after borders closed in March. They were to have arrived in three groups, depending on the success of the pilot program to return 800 students.

SA’s public universities, which support 8500 direct jobs, are facing a financial hole of hundreds of millions of dollars because of the coronavirus pandemic and loss of foreign student revenue.

Adelaide hosted more than 44,000 students from 130 countries and the sector was worth $2bn annually.

Opposition Leader Peter Malinauskas said borders were the first line of defence against COVID-19 while the pandemic raged overseas and interstate, “so any decision to allow international students to come to Adelaide must be based on the expert health advice and a careful risk assessment”.

Fewer than 10 people arriving in SA in June travelled on an international student visa, according to Australian Bureau of Statistics figures released on Friday, compared with 1740 in the same month last year – a decrease of almost 100 per cent.


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1 comment:

Paul said...

Our Oncology Unit is now run off its feat because of people spooked into not presenting for investigation when they could have still been treated comparatively easily. They have brought forward their deaths from cancer in order to cheat death by viral inflammatory disease. The bitter irony is that, laid low now from chemo and radio that they may not have otherwise needed, they are more vulnerable to a poor COVID outcome than they would have been had they presented six months ago.