Sunday, October 11, 2020

Australia is sailing into the eye of an unimaginable storm

We will not know whether we have blown the pandemic response — economically, medically and socially — until the worst of it is over. Yet 10 months in, early fears that we have opted for expensive and damaging temporary measures to stave off a permanent pest have only grown.

After a year of jobs axed, industries shut, schools closed, families separated, events cancelled, travel prevented and communities crushed, this week we saw the fiscal side of the equation; it broke our budget deficit record, smashing Wayne Swan’s 2009 and 2010 efforts four times over, and notched up our first trillion dollar debt forecast.

On budget day, the health crisis all this was aimed at tackling had fewer than 50 people in hospital and less than a handful in critical care. Measuring risks, costs, benefits and proportionate responses has never been more difficult. Obviously, the reason our medical toll has been so modest so far is, in large part, because of the intense response.

But with state borders closed, Melburnians chained to within 5km of their homes and many businesses and families stuck in financial cryogenics, we must strenuously interrogate the effectiveness of every measure. Melbourne’s curfew provides an exemplar of what to avoid — now scrapped, we know it was imposed without medical or law ­enforcement advice and that it had no beneficial impact on public health.

The people of our second-largest city were confined by law to their homes for more than 50 nights for no good reason. Avoiding or dismantling this sort of government overreach has obvious social and economic benefits, and carries no health costs. If only politicians took a Hippocratic oath to “first do no harm”.

We might never know what else was unnecessary. Should pubs and restaurants have stayed open with social distancing and customer registration (much as they operate in most of the country now)? The nation’s best medical advice said schools should have remained open all along.

How many extra jobs would have been saved, how many more outbreaks and deaths would have occurred, and how much less social dislocation would have been triggered with more modest restrictions? What we do know is that, with the notable exceptions of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, our politicians are more interested in competing for space under the doona than emerging, however tentatively, to confront the day.

Opposition politicians have toyed with pushing for greater freedoms and debating alternative approaches, but it is easier for them to seize on every infection or death as a gotcha government failure. The way we are responding is both a symptom and a cause of our long march down the bigger government road.

Given mindless faith in ever-expanding government has people blaming politicians for the weather, it is hardly surprising that they expect governments can control invisible and highly infectious viruses. (Not the ­Chinese government, mind you, they are the one government immune from COVID criticism — go figure.)

Elevated expectations of ­government drive the sort of responses we have seen; the draconian lockdowns and border belligerence of the states, and the eye-watering largesse from Canberra. After working hard in its early budgets to pull federal spending below 25 per cent of GDP, the Coalition blew it out to 29 per cent in the financial year just finished, even though the virus only arrived on our shores in January.

This year, federal spending will top 34 per cent of GDP. Government has gone viral. We are now talking about a two-year plan, with all this pain, aimed at protecting us from the worst of the pandemic until an effective vaccine is widely available late next year. We were told back in March that a vaccine might rescue us within six months. Morrison has been as frank as possible in changing circumstances. “I really want Australians to understand that we need to be in this for that haul,” the Prime Minister said in April. “It will be months. We need to make changes that we can live with and that we can implement day after day, week after week, month after month.”

Yet the states and the federal government are running policies that cannot be sustained month after month or year after year. Too much is predicated on a game-changing vaccine that might never arrive.

Those who happily cheer for this lockdown approach — this idea of getting to “the other side” — should think about how silly Donald Trump sounds every time he heralds another drug as the “game-changer” or announces how a “fantastic” vaccine is imminent. Many world leaders hold out the same false hope, with more prosaic language, basing policy settings on it.

We need to consider what we would be doing if we knew there was no hope of finding a vaccine. Policies that presume no vaccine would protect vulnerable communities while we prevent the virus running amok and get on with our lives to the greatest extent possible. A vaccine, if and when it comes, would be a bonus.

This would be prudent. It is why Sweden’s experience is so compelling and why we should not scoff at nations with higher mortality rates — we can’t remain closed off forever so, without a vaccine, our most difficult times might be ahead.

Something like the current NSW model should be our starting point. Those able to work from home do so, large outdoor crowds and smaller indoor crowds are banned, social distancing measures are in place in pubs and restaurants, along with customer registration. There will be cases and clusters for the foreseeable future, but they are quickly identified, publicised and, so far, touch wood, contained.

Other states are being far less sensible. Victoria has been an ­incompetent and authoritarian shambles, while the others are obsessively determined to keep the virus out — even if it kills them.

Given this virus does not harm most people, especially the young, and that we know who is vulnerable, the NSW measures are proportionate. As a nation, we set out to flatten the infection curve and ensure our health system was not overwhelmed, and the only significant breakout was in Melbourne — even then, less than 2 per cent of the nation’s critical care beds were required.

It is instructive to realise the COVID-19 restrictions have virtually killed our flu season. “This is virtually a non-­season,” is how Melbourne University professor of microbiology and immunology Ian Barr described it to CNN. “We have never seen numbers like this before.”

This means our coronavirus shutdowns have prevented anything up to 900 flu deaths — and many of them would have been children. If you truly cannot put a price on any life, why don’t we shut down like this every year?

We need to ease up and gain perspective. Whether you are frightened by a trillion dollars in debt, women arrested for going to the beach or young people losing their employment and educational opportunities, the need for proportionality is clear.

Our response needs to be ­sustainable for a year, or five. Whether or not the coronavirus would leave a historic imprint on our nation, we know the response will.

The budget papers told us “Australia’s population growth is expected to slow to its lowest rate in over one hundred years.” Over coming years, net annual migration will be negative for the first time since World War II (we saw more people leave than arrive during The Great Depression and World War I as well, so this COVID-19 era is in ignominious company).

The budget also assumes lower birthrates because of economic uncertainty, and lower internal migration because of the constricted economy and hard state borders. The very basis of our federation — free trade and movement between the states — and the central ingredient of our post-settlement prosperity — positive net migration — are being squandered.

Unlike the Great Depression or the two world wars, this ­trauma is one where we are in control. It is our own decisions about how to deal with the virus that are determining the balance between health, economic and social damage.

There will be decisions that save lives and protect livelihoods, and mistakes that harm people and burden generations with unnecessary debt. But we need a broader debate about the policy alternatives.

With these heady questions and vital discussions to be had, Labor’s main criticism of the budget was that it did not mention women enough. The bigger the governments, the smaller the minds.


The Black Summer bushfires that killed a billion animals and destroyed a fifth of the continent’s forests last summer were a normal outcome of fluctuating weather patterns, a new book has claimed

‘Climate Change: The Facts 2020’, written by biologists, atmospheric physicists and meteorologists, rejected the claim that climate change could be linked to the devastating fires between October 2019 and March 2020.

A number of scientists have blamed the changing weather patterns and drought for the fires but the book says there is ‘nothing unusual about the current rate or magnitude of climate change’.

Its authors state the earth regularly goes through cycles of dry and wet weather and that the fires were not unprecedented.

It claims the naturally occurring cycle was combined with poor hazard reduction burns and fire management which set the grounds for a catastrophic blaze.

Editor and Institute of Public Affairs senior research fellow Jennifer Marohasy said Australia had a history of bushfires that burned up large parts of the country as early as 1851.

Thirty-three people died directly from the fire while more than 400 are estimated to have lost their lives because of the smoke pollution.

More than 2,000 homes were burned almost 20 million hectares destroyed.

‘A similarly vast area of 21 million hectares was lost to unplanned fires as recently as 2012-13,’ Dr Marohasy told Daily Telegraph.

‘However, this is not the largest area burned by uncontrolled fires. In 1974–75, 117 million hectares burned.’

Dr Marohasy went on to dismantle a number of studies that showed a string of unseasonably dry years had contributed to the ferocity of the fires.

She noted that Australia had recorded its wettest summer since 1990 as early as 2010.

‘If anything, these official statistics suggest it is getting wetter, rainfall statistics for the entire Australian continent, available for download from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, also indicate that more recent years have been wetter, especially the past 50 years,’ she said.

University of Melbourne’s Andrew King conducted a study that looked at a phenomenon known as the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD), which has a direct effect on rainfall levels in Australia and elsewhere.

Since 2017 much of Australia has experienced widespread drought, something the study attributed to a relative lack of negative IOD events.

This sees warmer than normal sea surface temperatures in the east Indian Ocean with cooler waters in the west.

These events tend to shift weather patterns and typically bring greater rainfall to southeast Australia, and are made less frequent as global sea temperatures warm.

Dr King and the team examined rainfall statistics and found that the winter of 2016 saw extremely heavy precipitation and a corresponding negative IOD event.

Since then, the Murray-Darling Basin has experienced 12 consecutive seasons with below-average rainfall, the longest period on record since 1900.

‘With climate change there have been projections that there will be more positive IOD events and fewer negative IOD events,’ King said.

‘This would mean that we’d expect more dry seasons in Australia and possibly worse droughts.’

A comment piece from two researchers, from the CERFACS in France, claim the fires are unequivocally related to climate change.

‘Mean warming levels are now sufficiently large that many high temperature extreme events would be impossible without anthropogenic influence,’ Dr Benjamin Sanderson and Dr Rosie Fisher wrote.

‘In the case of recent events in Australia, there is no doubt that the record temperatures of the past year would not be possible without anthropogenic influence, and that under a scenario where emissions continue to grow, such a year would be average by 2040 and exceptionally cool by 2060.’

Climate Change: The Facts 2020′ is now available for sale.


Parents say children’s education should be put first, not assessment ban

Queensland’s peak body for state school parents has hit out at the NAPLAN boycott, saying they’re disappointed the dispute over the controversial test has led to the ban and children’s education should be put first.

The Courier-Mail yesterday revealed that the Queensland Teachers’ Union would boycott any work associated with preparing for and administering NAPLAN in 2021.

P&Cs Qld chief executive Scott Wiseman said the organisation was disappointed the dispute over NAPLAN had reached this loggerhead, and hopes that all parties continue to put the children’s interests first.

“Every child deserves every chance at the best education possible and we hope the matter can be worked through and resolved constructively,” he said.

Mr Wiseman said P&Cs Qld held the view that NAPLAN provides useful information to parents about how their child performs in line with other students on a broader measure.

“P&Cs Qld feel parents should have as much information made available to them as possible to actively participate in their child’s education,” Mr Wiseman said.

“Our position is that parents must continue to have the ultimate say in their child’s involvement in the NAPLAN or not, and that it needs to be used as intended and not as a school versus school score sheet.”

The National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy program has been subject to numerous reviews and has been contentious since it was first introduced in 2008.

Queensland Teachers’ Union President Kevin Bates said the industrial action followed reviews which had shown “NAPLAN was broken” so governments needed to introduce an alternative replacement.

“We have a national review by four jurisdictions, the state review from the Queensland government, all saying the same thing, we now have widespread acceptance that the NAPLAN test is broken,” he said.

“You can’t keep having reviews that say it’s bad and then keep doing it.”

It comes as the Catholic sector and Independent schools continue to prepare for the testing to resume next year, ramping-up its online delivery.

Queensland Catholic Education Commission executive director Dr Lee-Anne Perry said NAPLAN provided teachers with important information for planning and to discuss each student’s progress with families.

“NAPLAN is an important part of a large array of data gathered by teachers to determine how students are learning,” she said.

“No one test can provide all the data needed to form a comprehensive picture of each student but what NAPLAN provides is a national benchmark in the key areas of literacy and numeracy with a test that’s based on the curriculum.”


You’ll be shocked at surgery wait times due to COVID-19 Hospital waiting lists were at record levels before the COVID surgery ban but now most Australians will have to wait years for their operations, experts warn

Inflexible public healthcare

Hospital waiting lists have skyrocketed by up to 40 per cent as a result of the COVID-19 surgery ban.

A News Corp investigation has found there were more than 260,000 people waiting for elective surgery in Australia’s public hospitals at the height of the pandemic in June.

And those needing cataract surgery, hip and knee replacements and tonsillectomies face some of the longest waits.

A further 280,000 surgeries were deferred in the private sector due to COVID, according to industry analyst Andrew Goodsall.

And he predicts it will take almost two years to address the pre-pandemic backlog.

The crisis comes as a Breast Cancer Network of Australia (BCNA) survey has found one in eight women had their breast cancer surgery delayed by the pandemic and four in 10 can’t get a breast reconstruction.

A further one in eight have missed out on being able to take part in a clinical trial of potentially life saving new treatments as a result of COVID-19.

BCNA CEO Kirsten Pilatti said she feared that because breast reconstruction is an eight-hour surgery it was being given less priority than other surgeries that use operating theatres for only an hour or so.

State and territory governments need to make more funding available for elective surgery to deal with the surgical backlog and consider contracting work to private hospitals, she said.

Adding further pressure to public hospital waiting lists is the fact that tens of thousands of people dumped their private health cover.

Cancer specialists are warning there is a backlog of undiagnosed cancer cases about to hit the health system, given people put off going to the doctor during COVID.

There was a 37 per cent drop in the number of breast cancer diagnoses and 145,000 fewer screening mammograms conducted in the first six months of this year.


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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