Showing posts with label pandemic. Show all posts
Showing posts with label pandemic. Show all posts

Sunday, August 8, 2021

Blame the lockdown on business urgers trying to wish the virus away

I’ve yet to see any of the perpetrators – Liberal tribal mythmakers, industry lobby groups and business’ media cheer squad – admit to their part in the humbling of that “gold standard” virus fighter, NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian (a woman I quite like).

All those business people feeling the pain of NSW’s protracted lockdown – which seems not to be getting anywhere, with no end in sight – have no one to blame but the short-sighted, self-centred urgers on their own side.

The great “learning” from our earlier struggles to control the coronavirus – particularly Victorian premier Daniel Andrews’ struggles this time last year – was the wisdom of the medicos’ advice that the exponential nature of pandemics meant the best strategy was to go early, go hard.

The economic modelling Treasury did to accompany the Doherty Institute’s epidemiological modelling confirmed this wisdom. “Continuing to minimise the number of COVID-19 cases, by taking early and strong action in response to outbreaks of the Delta variant, is consistently more [economically] cost-effective than allowing higher levels of community transmission, which ultimately requires longer and more costly lockdowns,” Treasury concluded.

Another relevant “learning” – drawn by Treasury from economic studies overseas – is that, should governments not impose lockdowns, many anxious people will significantly curtail their economic activity of their own accord. The assumption that it’s the government’s lockdown, not the virus’s threat to people’s health, that does all the economic damage is fallacious.

Yet going early and strong is just what Berejiklian failed to do. Why? Because of all the pressure she was under from her own side to be a true Liberal and control the problem without resorting to lockdowns or border closures.

That pressure started at the top with Scott Morrison and his ministers, but was eagerly pursued by the business lobbies and business’ media cheer squad. In his efforts to score points off Andrews, no one worked harder than Treasurer Josh Frydenberg to propagate the mythology that only Labor premiers were so dictatorial and disregarding of business wellbeing as to lockdown and close state borders at the first sneeze, whereas Liberal premiers knew how to get results with superior testing and contact tracing.

To be fair, it’s clear Labor’s Mark McGowan in Western Australia and Annastacia Palaszczuk in Queensland, both with state elections coming up, were well aware of the votes to be reaped by gratifying their locals’ xenophobic tendencies towards possibly plague-ridden people from “over East” or “down South”.

But the fact remains that with Sydney and Melbourne being the country’s two main international gateways, it’s been eminently sensible for the other premiers to protect their states from infection by closing their borders. Yet they’ve been subject to continuing abuse from the national press.

And in view of the medical experts’ consistent advice, the pressure to which all the premiers have been subjected over lockdowns and borders amounts to trying to wish the virus away. “Don’t worry about contagion, just keep business open and making money.”

This is hardly enlightened self-interest. It’s short-termism at its worst. It’s wilfully disregarding the greater good. “Ignore the interests of other ‘stakeholders’ – even the consumers I hope will still be able to buy my product in the months ahead – I’m just gunna keep pushing my own self-interest.”

The nation’s business people don’t need me to tell them our politicians – including those purporting to represent the business side - can be trusted to favour their own survival at the next election over the prospects for businesses long beyond the election.

But I do wonder whether business people understand the potential for conflict between their interests and those of others anxious to take up the cudgels on their behalf – for the small fee.

The industry lobby groups work in the national capital representing the interests of member businesses around the country. No doubt much of what they do isn’t highly visible and doesn’t lead to spectacular results.

Much of their communication with members would be via the media, where they need to be seen as tireless champions of their members’ interests, shouting louder than rival interest groups. Just to be noticed by the media they’d need to be hardline.

An ability to see the other side’s viewpoint – or the government’s difficulty in balancing conflicting objectives - wouldn’t be career-enhancing. Like the pollies themselves, they’d worry more about appearances and impressions than about making all things work together for the ultimate good of their members.

The self-appointed media business cheer squad is operating on a business model that sees telling people what they want to hear as more rewarding than telling them what they need to know. Commercially, they may be right. But, as you may have gathered, it’s not the way I do business.

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Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Our leaders would do better if their followers were thinking harder

Much has been said about the failures of Scott Morrison, Daniel Andrews and Gladys Berejiklian in our never-ending struggle to keep on top of the coronavirus. But just this once, let’s shift the spotlight from our fallible leaders to the performance of those they lead. I think we ourselves could be doing a better job of it.

There is, after all, much truth in the saying that we get the politicians we deserve. When we think we’re entitled to have good government served up to us on a plate, we’ve lost sight of the truth that well-functioning democracies require diligent citizens, not just honest and smart politicians.

Perhaps our biggest complaint has been that our leaders and experts keep changing their tune. Why can’t we be told simply and clearly what’s required of us? Why can’t the pollies decide what they want and stick to it?

It’s as though they’re making it up as they go along, chopping and changing when they realise they’ve taken another wrong turn. Hopeless.

Let me tell you the shocking truth: they are making it up. But if you were thinking harder you’d realise that’s all they can do. As Morrison rightly says, a new virus doesn’t come with an instruction manual.

Our political leaders are relying heavily on epidemiologists and other medical experts because pollies have so little knowledge and experience of pandemics. The medicos know a lot about viruses, epidemics, vaccination and immunology, but at the start they knew little about the characteristics of this particular virus.

They were forced to make assumptions about those characteristics but, as they’ve realised those assumptions were wrong, they’ve changed them.

At the start they thought the virus was spread in big droplets landing on surfaces within one or two metres, whereas now they think it’s more like smoke. Without strong ventilation, it builds up in the air. This explains much of the early uncertainty about whether masks were a good idea.

The medicos have relied on the findings of the limited studies available, but when bigger and better studies have come along with different findings, they’ve updated their views.

As I don’t think Keynes actually said, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” Or, as he did say, “It is better to be roughly right than precisely wrong.”

Those people carrying on about how confusing it all is and how incompetent our leaders are reveal their own intellectual laziness: their reluctance to think through complex, nuanced, ever-changing problems when they’d prefer to be back watching carefully choreographed “reality” television. And their ignorance of how science works, slowly groping towards an ever-changing best guess at the truth.

The media’s new-found interest in public health means formerly obscure academics have become TV stars and any boffin who disagrees with what the government’s doing about X gets an op-ed article to air their dissent.

You could say this is adding to the confusion, but it’s science proceeding the way science does. It’s academics doing what academics do – eternally arguing among themselves.

It’s tempting to tell them “not in front of the children”, but when you remember how lacking our leaders are in competence, openness and accountability, the last thing our democracy needs is for experts to keep their critique of government policies to themselves.

You might have thought that a bunch of media-innocent scientists and a news media devoted to highlighting the exceptional over the typical, seeking out controversy and not always untempted by the sensational, would make an explosive combination.

But for the most part, the media have been on their best behaviour, favouring their audience’s need for accurate, trustworthy information. That brings us to the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, and its ever-changing recommendation on who should be receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine now it’s been found to carry a very rare risk of blood clotting.

The advice has changed partly because circumstances have changed, but mainly because the original advice led to considerable vaccine hesitancy at a time when the vaccine rollout is way behind, we have Greater Sydney in lockdown and loads of AstraZeneca is going begging while little of the alternative Pfizer vaccine is available.

The advisory group has been criticised, but I think it was a narrowly constituted group, which gave narrow advice when what the government needed – and should have sought from elsewhere – was advice taking account of a broader range of factors.

The public’s huge reaction against the vaccine is unwarranted and unfortunate at such a time. AstraZeneca is less risky than taking aspirin. But when the media gave such attention to the clotting risk, the overreaction wasn’t surprising.

Responsible reporters can say “very rare” as many times as they like but, as our science reporter Liam Mannix has explained, humans are notoriously bad at giving minuscule probabilities the weight they deserve.

The saver may be that, as highly social animals, when people see so many of their friends lining up to “bare their arms”, their hesitancy may evaporate. It’s a strange, messy world we live in.

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Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Don’t be surprised if the economy surprises on the downside

The economy has been on a roller-coaster since the virus arrived early last year, dipping one minute, soaring the next. Now, with the Delta variant putting Sydney and Melbourne back in lockdown, we’re in the middle of another dip. But as you hang on, remember this: what goes down must come up.

When governments order many businesses to close their doors, and us to leave our homes as little as possible, it’s hardly surprising that economic activity takes a dive. What did surprise us was the way the economy bounced back up the moment the lockdown was eased.

We rushed out of our houses and started spending like mad. Not that we weren’t spending whatever we could while locked down. Another surprise was the way the presence of the internet changed what would otherwise have happened.

Apart from allowing most people with desk jobs to work from home, and talk face to face to people in other cities without getting on a plane, it allowed us to keep spending: ordering groceries and takeaways online, consulting doctors over the phone – I thought receptionists were there to stop you getting through to the great personage – buying exercise equipment and stuff to get on with fixing up the back bedroom.

As I keep having to remind myself, only God knows what the future holds – and He’s not letting on. But it’s part of the human condition to be insatiably desperate to know what happens next. We keep searching the world for the one person who might be able to tell us.

Since even the experts can’t be sure what will happen, they base their predictions on the hope that what happens this time will be much the same as what usually happens. Experts are people who remember last time better than we do.

But that way of predicting the future hasn’t worked this time. The epidemiologists – and all the related -ologists we hardly knew existed – know a lot about viruses but, at the start, little about the particular characteristics of this one. Their predictions have kept changing as they’ve had more to go on.

Last year’s recession was the fifth of my career (counting the global financial crisis, which I do). I thought that knowledge put me so far ahead of the game I was an expert expert. Wrong.

Ordinary recessions happen because the people managing the economy stuff up. The economy takes well over a year to unravel, then three or four years to wind back up. But this recession was completely different, having been knowingly brought about by governments, for health reasons. When at last they let us go back to business, however, that’s just what we did.

The initial, nationwide lockdown caused the economy’s production of goods and services (gross domestic product) to dive by an unprecedented 7 per cent in just the three months to the end of June last year. But then the economy bounced back by 3.5 per cent in the September quarter and a further 3.2 per cent in the December quarter after Victoria’s delayed release from lockdown.

In the period before the Delta strain sent Sydney back into humbling lockdown, GDP was ahead of what it was at the end of 2019. Total employment was also ahead, while the rate of unemployment was actually a little lower.

Since the present September quarter has two months left to run, and Sydney’s lockdown rolls on even though Melbourne’s has ended, it’s too early to be confident by how much GDP will fall but, depending on how long Sydney’s drags on, it’s likely to be a fall of less than 1 per cent or somewhat more than 1 per cent. However bad, a lot less than last time.

As for the December quarter – and barring some new outbreak, say a new letter in the Greek alphabet – it’s likely to show expansion rather than contraction. Victoria will be growing, NSW will be in bounce-back mode as soon as the lockdown ends, and the rest of Australia will be doing its normal thing.

So all those silly people desperate for a chance to repeat the R-word aren’t likely to get the excuse they imagine they need.

Another major respect in which coronacessions differ from normal recessions is that politicians can’t consciously decide to stop the economy without at the same time providing generous assistance to all the workers and businesses this will harm. Normally, the assistance comes much later and is less generous.

Despite cries for the return of JobKeeper, the arrangements Scott Morrison has hammered out with Gladys Berejiklian and Dan Andrews are, by and large, a good substitute for the measures used the first time around.

The other thing to remember is that the economy is in much better shape now than at the end of 2019. Households have more money in the bank, the housing market is booming, profits are up and businesses are complaining about staff shortages.

Not such a bad time to cope with a setback. It won’t be the end of the world.

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