Saturday, December 12, 2020

UN warns that 2021 could be catastrophic due to COVID-19 fallout and famine

Everybody -- at least in the "West" -- has continued to be fed DURING the virus period, so why should they suffer famine when the problem recedes? It is a nonsense

And it is mainly the lockdowns, not the virus itself, that have done the economic damage. So as lockdowns slowly fall out of favour, we can expect an economic revival, not some kind of "emergency"

The article below is just a beatup. The "emergency" is just a fiction designed to raise money for the authors of the fiction

The world has always had disaster areas and that will continue. Neither COVID nor global warming are needed to produce more of them

Misery loves company. In the case of COVID-19, that company includes unemployment, economic turmoil – and famine. And they’re about to come knocking.

“2021 is literally going to be catastrophic based on what we’re seeing at this stage of the game,” said World Food Programme (WFP) chief David Beasley at the United Nations General Assembly on Friday.

And if you think Australia won’t be affected by all this, think again. The warning signs are already there.

Notice how scarce out-of-season foods have become on supermarket shelves? Many vegetables and fruits must come from overseas. International trade has been disrupted and Australia’s ability to exploit cheap international labour has also been choked. This leaves many of our crops at risk of rotting in the fields.

The situation, however, is much more dire in Africa and South America. And that could trigger a global shortages and economic shockwaves.

Beasley says 2021 would likely be “the worst humanitarian crisis year since the beginning of the United Nations ... As I say, the icebergs in front of the Titanic.”

Beasley was supporting an appeal for $US35 billion in aid funding to meet a 40 per cent spike in the number of people needing humanitarian assistance. “We’re not going to be able to fund everything ... so we have to prioritise,” he said.

The impending “carnage” was “almost entirely from COVID-19,” UN emergency relief chief Mark Lowcock added.

It was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back for people already reeling from conflict, social upheaval and climate change shocks. As a result, he said, “multiple” famines are looming.

“The picture we are presenting is the bleakest and darkest perspective on humanitarian needs in the period ahead that we have ever set out. That is a reflection of the fact that the COVID pandemic has wreaked carnage across the whole of the most fragile and vulnerable countries on the planet,” Lowcock said.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs predicts a record 235 million people will need humanitarian assistance and protection next year. This year, that figure was 170 million.

Lowcock warns that the “obscene” chance of global famine in 2021 would inevitably lead to war and civil unrest.

UN Secretary-General Ant√≥nio Guterres urged the world to “stand with people in their darkest hour of need”.

COVID had produced “new spikes of conflict in places that were previously more peaceful. We’ve seen that obviously recently in Nagorno-Karabakh, we’ve seen it in northern Mozambique, we’ve seen it in the Western Sahara and at the moment obviously, tragically, we’re seeing in northern Ethiopia,” he said. “We’re overwhelmed with problems.”

Roll out the literacy test that stops children failing at the first hurdle

Little is more fundamental to the success of an individual than literacy. If our children do not develop the abilities to read, write, speak and listen properly, almost everything else in life is denied them.

Which makes it a great shame that too many young Australians have fallen through the cracks with their English skills poorly developed. The proportion of Year 4 students who are poor readers compares badly with almost all other English-speaking nations and so they go on to fail at senior school.

However, there are grounds for optimism. Last week NSW became the second state after South Australia to introduce compulsory phonics screening for Year 1 students. The Tasmanian government conducted a trial this year. The Year 1 Phonics Check was developed by the British government and has been mandatory in all English schools since 2012.

Phonics, for those untutored in the intricacies of early school-policy debates, is the time-honoured approach of teaching the sounds of the alphabet, spelling them and blending these sounds into words; for example, c-a-t cat.

Until recently, this was considered old-fashioned, and that, left to their own devices, children would somehow absorb the art of reading. This is what is known as the “whole word” or “whole language” method.

The logic went like this: if we jettisoned those boring phonic drills, children could work out words in context or by guessing them from pictures. The more they encountered frequently used words, the more likely they would recognise them automatically. Who cared, for instance, if they read the word “dog” instead of “dragon”, as long it made sense in the sentence? Reading and writing would become easier and fun, thus students would learn more quickly.

However, this approach had shown especially poor results for children experiencing reading difficulties. Students, especially from poor backgrounds, misused grammar and could not punctuate. They just found reading difficult and unrewarding and stopped trying.

Not surprisingly, there has been overwhelming evidence not just about the urgency of the problem but also about the measures needed to turn the intellectual tide. No longer is the use of phonics regarded as educationally and ideologically unsound.

Now, at last, there is a general agreement, including among a clear majority of NSW teachers who participated in a training blitz, that systematic, synthetic phonics is an essential part of the teaching of reading. A strong foundation of phonics helps with comprehension and writing.

There are several policy heroes in this story.

Credit must go to the federal Coalition government for being an early champion of the Phonics Check. Under education ministers Simon Birmingham and Dan Tehan, and the veteran policy wonk Scott Prasser, Canberra has been determined to push ahead with ensuring that phonics was at the heart of teaching children to read. They have made an online version of the Phonics Check available to all schools.

In South Australia, Labor took on the establishment and ran a trial of the phonics screening check with the support of the opposition. The success of the trial led to a statewide roll out in 2018 and the results speak for themselves.

Whereas in 2018, just 43 per cent of Year 1 students met the expected achievement level in the Festival State, this year 63 per cent of SA state school students demonstrated phonics skills at the benchmark level or higher.

The results are a vindication of the SA Education Minister John Gardner’s boldness in pursuing sound, evidence-based policy. They are also a tribute to the hard work of SA’s primary school teachers, who have improved the way children are taught to read in South Australia.

In NSW, Education Minister Sarah Mitchell has persevered, despite strong opposition from the teacher unions who ignored the empirical evidence. The battle between reading by phonics and the whole language method is over, she says, and phonics offers the only realistic chance of remedying the scandal of mass illiteracy.

Finally, the think tank that I head, the Centre for Independent Studies (previously led by Greg Lindsay from 1976 to 2017), deserves recognition. For years, CIS pointed to the importance of using evidence-based teaching methods, including learning the sounds of letters as building blocks, to master reading and to reduce preventable achievement gaps.

The ultimate aim was for students to read widely with understanding, but learning to decode the words on the page was the necessary first step. If this sounded like common sense, it was. CIS’s philanthropically funded Five from Five project, led by my colleague Jennifer Buckingham (now MultiLit’s director of strategy), worked with a coalition of researchers, teachers, principals, parent advocacy groups, reading specialists and government allies to hammer home the message.

The lesson here is that the most important of school subjects remains English, the foundation of future learning. All children, regardless of their background or intelligence, are capable of being taught to read. The Phonics Check is the best way to detect quickly children who are failing at the first hurdle at school.

If other states followed SA and NSW, and if there were a general recognition across the nation that phonics is at the heart of the teaching of reading, then every Australian child would be afforded the best start in life.

Workers know a job is better than no job

In the early 1980s, I worked in the central office of the commonwealth government department responsible for securing the implementation of awards determined by the (then) Conciliation and Arbitration Commission, now termed the Fair Work Commission. During the 1982-83 recession, unemployment rose to more than 10 per cent. This was at a time when Australia’s industrial relations was more centralised.

At the time, it came to the department’s attention that, in some hard-hit areas of Australia, workers had petitioned their employers to work fewer hours, and thereby receive less weekly pay than that prescribed under existing awards. Often employees agreed with each other on this so that the employer did not need to lay off staff.

Such agreements made sense. However, if they were not sanctioned by the commission they were illegal. And many employers did not wish to apply for a legal exemption since this could become public knowledge and let competitors know of their economic plight. Unfortunately, such flexibility was not possible at the time and some workers joined the unemployment queues while some businesses closed.

Following the economic reforms of the Labor governments led by Bob Hawke and later Paul Keating, the inflexible system was made more flexible in the early 90s by the introduction of enterprise bargaining agreements negotiated between employers and employees. When the Coalition came to office in 1996, John Howard attempted to introduce more flexibility into the system, with some success. The combined impact of the recessions of the mid-70s, early 80s and early 90s led to the economic reforms of the 80s, 90s and early 2000s. The long-term effects of this reform process brought about a situation whereby, at the start of the pandemic recession, the Australian economy was among the best performing in the Western world.

In the wake of the Howard government defeat in 2007 and, with it, the demise of his Work Choices legislation, the Labor governments led by Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard set about increasing the level of regulation in the IR system. The Coalition governments led by Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison have done little to undo the Rudd-Gillard legislation — primarily because none had an automatic majority in the Senate.

Economic reform in Australia usually takes place following an economic shock of some kind. That made Work Choices difficult to sustain, since the economy was in good shape during the Howard years. The Morrison government, following discussion with trade union leaders and employer groups, now has set itself on a course of moderate IR reform to deal with the consequences of the 2020 recession.

On Wednesday, Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter delivered the second reading speech of the Fair Work Amendment Bill 2020. As Porter said, this is not an “ideologically based” legislation. Rather “it is founded on a series of practical, incremental solutions to key issues that are known barriers to creating jobs”.

In the 1982-83 recession, Australia’s highly regulated IR system was an impediment to economic recovery in general and the reduction in unemployment in particular. The current bill is designed to facilitate economic recovery and employment growth. A crucial part of the proposed legislation is aimed at hospitality and retail industries, which have been hit especially hard by the pandemic recession.

For a limited period of two years, the government wants to make it possible for the FWC to approve revised agreements previously negotiated between employers and employees with respect to wages and conditions under the better-off-overall test.

Currently, for the most part, agreements between employers and employees will not be approved if the latter are not judged to be better off overall.

The government wants to make it possible for the FWC to approve an agreement to which the BOOT standard does not apply, but only after assessing the circumstances of the employees, employers and employer organisations covered by the agreement and the impact of COVID-19 on the business in question plus the overall public interest.

In other words, it might be possible for an employee to not be better off as a result of the revised agreement — but only for two years, by which time it is anticipated that the economic recovery would have taken place throughout the whole economy, including the hospitality and retail industries.

So far, Australia’s economic recovery appears to be going well. But next year will bring its difficulties as JobKeeper and JobSeeker payments will be abolished or reduced. Some businesses forced to close down during the lockdowns — especially in Greater Melbourne, where the lockdowns were most extensive — are not likely to reopen.

On the basis that a job is infinitely better than no job, it makes sense for the industrial relations system to be more flexible than is currently the case. Yet early indications are that both the Labor Party and the trade union movement, through the ACTU, is opposed to the Morrison govern­ment’s non-ideological reform proposals.

And here’s the problem. Since early in the 20th century, the trade union movement has had the right to negotiate the pay and conditions of those entitled to be trade union members — even if they are not union members. Currently only 9 per cent of private sector workers are trade union members.

Yet ACTU leaders Sally McManus and Michele O’Neil proclaim the right to negotiate for hospitality and retail workers in, say, Launceston and Townsville irrespective of their wishes. That is akin to the situation that prevailed in the early 80s with deleterious effects on employment.

Workers better understand the economic circumstances of the businesses that employ them than trade unions executives in Melbourne or Sydney.

How COVID-19 has changed the domestic paradigm

How fortunate are we Australians? And don’t we know it.

Instead of the doom and gloom we expected from the time of COVID, a recent survey has shown that the pandemic caused a positive evaluation of our priorities. More than 80 per cent have a positive outlook.

The time of pandemic has pointed to the future, especially the future of the way we will work. It has allowed many families to recalibrate the work-life balance that until now has eluded us.

Previously, it was seen solely through the narrow prism of full-time work and institutional child care. But the push for the dual-income family with full-time working mother eluded the ideological script writers; instead, Australian women preferred working part-time — more than any other country in the OECD.

This suits women with children, and childcare is expensive. But among feminist groups and professional associations, still focused on the work side of the balance, the pandemic was an opportunity to push for even more childcare and, indeed, a continuation of free institutional care, good for single parents and poorer families.

However, the main reason it won’t be universal is not just the budget-breaking expense but the recalibration of family life in intact families caused by the work-from-home phenomenon.

Take the example of Kate and Josh, a young Sydney couple with two children. Kate is a public servant, Josh an industrial designer. Until the pandemic their work routine dictated family life. She had gradually transitioned to full-time work as the children went to school, and he was working full time, commuting to an inner-Sydney office. Commuting added to their long working day, with the children at after-school care.

However, working from home has completely changed their lives. They spend more time with one another and their children. But what is most interesting, and instructive for the future, is that their productivity has not fallen. In fact, it has increased.

Josh’s role as a technical designer may seem more difficult to translate to WFH, but the difficulties have been overcome by technology that was not available five years ago. “If this had happened even two years ago it might have been difficult. Now it is easy.” He emphasises that this is not just his view. His colleagues all feel the same. Many of them have been lobbying for working from home for years, but oversight within the office by various managers was deemed too important.

However, now staff members have proved those demands can be met. Josh has not been in his office for months. When he does go, he says, it is usually just to check something. However, working from home allows much more concentration, for even longer periods, hence higher productivity.

“You don’t realise how much time you spend at the office simply chatting!” he says.

For Josh and his colleagues, the hardest part of WFH in the pandemic was not being able to go to China to oversee production. But to general astonishment, one imaginative colleague set up his garage to experiment with bits of equipment.

What the ACTU would make of this type of innovation is uncertain. Unions are justified in examining the challenges of WFH conditions, but applying conditions to an essentially flexible WFH scenario is questionable. For example, Josh’s company has provided a whole range of technical support, but not all industries offer this. Security is another issue. However, the notion of fixed hours has gone out the window with WFH.

For Josh and Kate, the benefits far outweigh any increase in the hours of work. Recently, after taking the children to school, Josh and Kate went for a swim before putting in several hours in the little sun room-office. Josh later took a meeting sitting in his car while Kate was doing her regular mothers’ reading group. He has rearranged his life so that work and family are more seamlessly integrated, and this full-time working father can be much more involved with his family.

The feminist quest has always been for more paternal involvement, and the breakdown of the classic male-female domestic paradigm. The ideologues saw more women working and more institutional childcare as the way to do this. But this was an imposition of something that average mums and dads chafed against.

For mums, more involvement in the “outside” workforce did not mean less at home — if anything it meant more running around.

However, ironically, working from home has, to some extent, succeeded in the breakdown of that paradigm in many families — and they are happier for it.




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