You will catch it.

You are going to catch it.

Not everyone who reads this article will contract COVID-19, the novel coronavirus originating in Hubei province, China. On the current rates of transmission and expected trajectory, however, the chances are better than even that if you are reading these words, in the near future you will catch this virus.

Harvard epidemiology professor Marc Lipsitch believes that the virus has moved beyond any attempts to contain it. Whilst governments around the world, Australia included, continue to talk about containing the virus and preventing its spread, they are also mobilising their plans for responding to a global pandemic. Dr Nancy Messonnier, head of the US government’s Centre for Disease Control, said on Tuesday that COVID-19 could not be stopped and that public policy would have to switch from containment to mitigation.

“Pandemic” has a formal definition. Professor Brendan Murphy, Australia’s Chief Medical Officer, explains: “A pandemic is a label that simply says that there’s sustained community transmission in several countries. We are already preparing for the eventuality that we have further outbreaks in Australia should they happen. So that’s what the preparation is about. So, declaring a pandemic doesn’t change what we do.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison today announced that the government is preparing its full response plan for management of the crisis. Current plans include securing the supply chains for required medical supplies and personnel, and as reported elsewhere, the repurposing of sports stadiums and other infrastructure as temporary medical facilities.

The truth is, it is likely this virus already qualifies for “pandemic” status. Whilst the majority of cases have so far been detected in China, the disease is spreading rapidly and largely uncontrolled throughout Asia. The United States has seen its first case of an apparently disconnected diagnosis – a confirmed case of coronavirus in a patient with no known contact to people from affected areas. There have been reports of people becoming symptomatic up to 28 days after exposure, which is well outside the accepted quarantine measures. In all likelihood, in several countries or many, the disease is spreading unchecked and unseen throughout populations.

They won’t know about it for some time yet. The disease is often mild, or even for some asymptomatic. This virus appears to be more contagious than influenza, and every individual affected may on average infect four others (reducing, as the virus becomes more endemic in the population). In combination, a highly contagious virus with mild effects is likely to be impossible to control. Once it gets out of control in any one place, in practical terms our globalised economic system ensures it will spread everywhere.

The most important direct response anyone can take towards this sobering thought is: Don’t panic!

The moments of greatest disruption from this virus are right now. There is much that is yet unknown, but from the cases we have so far seen, we can draw some conclusions.

COVID-19 is far more virulent than the common cold, it’s true. It’s more severe than normal strains of influenza. Typical influenza hospitalises a small percentage of sufferers, with complications and severe outcomes including death for between 0.1% and 0.5% of all infected. COVID-19 has a mortality rate between 1.5% and 4%. The wide range reflects that the severity of virus outcomes depends largely on the quality of medical care sufferers receive. Untreated, obviously more people die than those in countries with advanced medical systems, such as Australia. COVID-19 appears also to be particularly severe in the elderly and those with co-morbid conditions (pre-existing conditions such as Diabetes or Asthma). This is no different to the regular strains of annual influenza and related cold and flu viruses.

COVID-19 is not a devastating new epidemic to kill vast swathes of Australians. It’s far more akin to a particularly severe flu strain. The more pernicious effect of the virus is measured in how societies are responding to its threat.

Governments have already closed borders, and even after a few short weeks the global economy is shuddering under the strain. Australia’s universities are suffering a loss of international students, many of whom will not return. Global trade markets are at a standstill, as are many major industrial facilities in China. (As a result, China’s CO2 emissions for the quarter are hugely reduced, although if COVID-19 is contained and restrictions are lifted there is an expectation that China’s factories will roar back into life, seeking to make up for lost time.) There have been reports already of panic buying of medical and infection prevention materials in various cities. Japan is terrified about the possibility of the Olympic Games not going ahead, or (worse) being run without an influx of tourists. International art, fashion and music festivals have been postponed or cancelled for fear of spreading the virus amongst attendees. Forget making people sick, COVID-19 is having a devastating impact on modern society, in much the same way terror of terrorism used to.

Our modern economy cannot operate if people are reluctant to go out in public, if they avoid sporting events and art galleries, beaches and rock concerts, if they avoid Chinatown and restaurants and shopping centres, the whole edifice that is our carefully constructed and tended economy may crumble.

Already stock markets are tottering, and the worst effects have not yet begun to bite. Investors have been so far reluctant to admit the worst possibilities of this pandemic, assuming that the effects of the virus will be to depress the stock market for a short while – perhaps one fiscal quarter – before the inevitable rebound. It seems hugely optimistic to assume that COVID-19 will be under control in a single quarter. This crisis has, almost certainly, a lot longer yet to run. Some analysts fear that the results of COVID-19 will be worse than the GFC. Compared to the damage this could do to modern societies and nations, the physical effects of this virus seem positively benign.

In reality COVID-19 is not too dissimilar, in many ways, to the existing strains of flu. If it becomes endemic in world populations, to the extent that governments cease attempting to contain and eliminate it, we will treat it much as any other flu-like illness: with symptomatic treatment. It is important to note also that there are vaccines currently being developed for this disease. Contrary to some breathless reporting elsewhere, such efforts will not be providing an immunisation against COVID-19 any time soon. The best-case scenario is for a working, mass-produced vaccine to be available 22-24 months from now. This timeline is unprecedentedly swift: most vaccines take up to a decade to bring to market. Two years from now, COVID-19 will either be eliminated in practical terms, or it will be everywhere, sweeping across the globe in annual waves with the weather.

So what would a world with COVID-19 look like? Largely this depends on a couple of factors, which are currently not known.

One of the most important questions is whether COVID-19 might, like existing influenza strains, be highly mutable, changing form every year such that the touted vaccine for this year will be less effective next year. If this proves the case, COVID-19 might be here to stay. The good news is that the severity of COVID-19 might be due in part to its novelty – it is a new virus not previously found in human populations, so it’s feasible to suppose that this virus is proving harder for the human immune system to beat. Unlike the flu, nobody has immunity to COVID-19 from either immunisation or having experienced an earlier strain. After we’ve all experienced COVID-19 once, the likelihood is that many will resist any future strains, should they come. Once you’ve recovered from this year’s strain, your body might more easily fight off the next iteration.

Our most probable future is one where COVID-19 has swept through most global populations and most, at least in western, advanced societies, are now either immune or vaccinated against it. Perhaps the virus will be mutable, each year seeing a new strain, with the medical fraternity encouraging us all to get our Flu-and-COVID shots as each flu season rolls around. Or it will be a one-and-done. In either case, we will no longer be afraid to step outside our doors, to interact with our fellow humans, to socialise and share company and food and experiences. In truth, we shouldn’t be afraid of these things now. Either the authorities will prevail, against the odds, and COVID-19 will go the way of Polio and Ebola, eliminated in most human populations with only a rare outbreak occurring from time to time. Under this scenario the chances of a typical Australian contracting the virus are slim. We are protected by our strong biosecurity and the tyranny of distance. If any country can retain control of such a disease it is Australia. Or else the virus will slip past our defenses anyway and run amok through our cities. Your chances of avoiding the disease then, due to your own vigilance, become unfeasibly small. You are likely to catch it. And that shouldn’t bother you. Most of us will catch it, and for the vast majority of us the result will be a case of coughs-and-sniffles.

At 2% morbidity, COVID-19 would be a substantial killer of the old, the sick, the vulnerable, but as always this cost will be borne most heavily in third world countries, rural areas or those with undeveloped medical systems. Here in affluent Australia it will be a mere sub-component of the list of diseases which can kill us, and we will give no more thought to it than we do to Measles. So, don’t panic. If COVID-19 becomes a pandemic, the likelihood is we’ll just have to live with it. So we shouldn’t let it stop us living now.

Co-posted on The AIMN

Rorts Sports

The “sports rorts” saga that has lately claimed the privileged position of Bridget McKenzie has consumed many newspaper front pages and exercised many peoples’ outrage – and not just those of us on the left. McKenzie is gone, relegated to the back bench for a token period of contrition.

(If there’s one thing the last week and Barnaby Joyce’s resurgence should have taught us, it’s that no matter how egregious the sin, the redemption is only a few news cycles away. After all, McKenzie knows first-hand how deeply embroiled the office of the PM – and conceivably, the PM himself along with Cabinet – were with this and other electoral misuses of public funds. It seems entirely likely that McKenzie’s demotion is a handshake deal with the understanding that her star will once again rise, given enough water under the bridge.)

Many in the ranks of the Liberal and National government may be relieved that the erstwhile Sports minister fell on her sword. McKenzie’s elevation to cabinet and the deputy leadership was unexpected and (some argue) unwarranted. McKenzie herself perhaps never expected to receive such a prominent role. Upon reaching the big chair she and her department have been the subject of many a scandal and rort. She seems to have capitalised on the perks of the job for all they’re worth, notching up the government’s largest travel bill in 2019.

McKenzie was not a high-performing minister in her other roles. In her capacity as Minister for Agriculture, arguably one of the Nationals’ core constituencies, McKenzie earned the ire of her colleagues for her poor communication skills, lack of visibility and poor organisation.  Nationals were furious that McKenzie capitulated quickly to demands from Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, allowing PHON to claim credit for something the Nationals themselves had been agitating for over many months, something McKenzie had argued could not be achieved so quickly.

Most importantly, of course, the finding from Phil Gaetjens that McKenzie breached ministerial guidelines by not declaring the gift of a membership to a shooting club (which had, quite coincidentally, been given a grant under McKenzie’s funding program) allows the Liberal/National coalition government to safely demote the Minister for Sports without copping to the much more substantial claim that said funding program had been systematically rorted.

Because of course, that rorting was entirely according to Coalition policy and methods. McKenzie was not an outlier running a private little game. She was doing exactly what she had been told and what was expected of her.

We know this, even if the government won’t come out and admit it. The government knows this, and they know we know it. We know it, because they’re effectively admitting to it.

On ABC radio this week, Nationals MP Damian Drum admitted, on air, that “Every jurisdiction does it… “.

It’s hardly a new observation. Just after the 2013 federal election Sophie Mirabella, smarting from defeat in the battle for the seat of Indi against Cathy McGowan, claimed that “I had a commitment for a $10 million allocation for the Wangaratta Hospital that, if elected, I was going to announce a week after the election. That is $10 million that Wangaratta hasn’t had because [independent] Cathy [McGowan] was elected.”

The Coalition has a long tradition of paying back its benefactors. After all, this is why the Coalition is so hell-bent on sending the planet to hell, supporting the coal/oil/gas/fossil fuels industry against all scientific advice, despite world opprobrium and against the economic and environmental interests of the Australian public. Not because coal and fossil fuels are essentially good for us. Not even because the sums add up. If making plans to ditch coal would really send Australia’s economy into freefall you could understand the government’s position, but any rudimentary analysis shows that the market for coal and gas is a very short road indeed, and if we have not made significant inroads into renewable energy and associated industries by the time nobody else wants to buy our coal, we will be deep in it.

No, the reason the Coalition won’t ditch coal is that they owe their benefactors. The Liberals, like the Lannisters, always pay their debts.

So the idea that a voter needs to vote for the Coalition to secure any love from a Coalition government feels right at home. The thought of granting, or withholding, funds for a needy project not on the basis of need but because of the political party in control of that seat, is just and right in their eyes. Or if not “just and right”, it’s a case of “Every jurisdiction does it.”

Which raises two questions. Do they? And should they?

To be clear, we’re not talking about the time-honoured Australian method of “pork-barrelling” here. It’s true that both Labor and the Coalition talk the talk when it comes time for an election. An election is a battle of purses, each contender seeking to out-promise the other without ever stepping over the tenuous line beyond which the electorate wonders how the debt will be paid. We understand this. We accept it. To some extent, we reward it – politicians wouldn’t commit themselves to spending promises if it didn’t work at least some of the time.

The sports rorts is a deeper issue. Rather than promises to spend money in your electorate should you vote the correct way (and the promiser be in the position to grant their beneficence), these grants are intended to be retrospective. It’s not “Vote for us and we’ll do something for you”. It’s “See what we’ve done for you? Vote for us and you’ll get more.”

The corollary being, “Vote for somebody else and you won’t get a dime from us.” Or, in the case of Indi, a hospital.

We’re talking about a government, which actually has its hands on the levers of government, being partisan in the distribution of its funds. We’re not talking about fulfilling election promises.

So is Labor just as bad – or, as Damian Drum avers, worse? It’s hard to tell. I am not sure if the required analysis has been done. There certainly have not been as many scandals under Labor governments than Liberal ones, but perhaps Labor is better at keeping the lid on it. They appear to be better than the Liberals at many things, winning elections being the notable exception.

If it’s hard to tell whether it’s true that “every jurisdiction does it” – and let’s assume, for the sake of convenience, that they do – then, should they?

After all, MPs are expected to advocate for their electorates. They bring the needs and desires of their voters to those Ministers with the wherewithal to provide government support. Some would argue that Coalition MPs have better access to Coalition Ministers and receive a friendlier ear.

But this means that projects of merit can only receive funding if it suits the government of the day. It means that some electorates suffer in neglect due to being safe seats for either party, while marginal seats are showered in largess. It means that public funds – money coming from Australian taxpayers – is overtly funneled for political purposes, and only secondarily for public gain. I would argue that this should not happen. But how to avoid it, in a democratic two-party system where only the government of the day can call the shots?

If only there were an independent body, something like an overarching Sports Australia body, which could give advice as to the merits of any applicants to a funding scheme. A body with appropriate expertise – for the sake of imagination, let’s call it Infrastructure Victoria, and let it rule on the cost/benefits of something like the East/West Link. If only governments would commit to evidence-based policy.

But what kind of a political party would ever countenance such a thing? Certainly not the one we have now.

(Co-published on The AIMN.)

Doing it for ourselves

I’ve previously written about conservative politics being unconvinced about the very purpose of government. It is becoming clearer, through repeated example, that the Australian people are unconvinced about the very purpose of government.

The recent bushfires and the ongoing drought are just two of the more recent examples that show how Australians will step up to the challenge, dig deep, give generously and demonstrate just how all-round spiffy they are.

The point that gets forgotten in this ongoing round of self-congratulations is that they shouldn’t have to.

We maintain a government not because we desperately want somebody to rule over us, but because there are things in a modern society we should not have to do for ourselves.

At least some of us recognise this. If we look just a little below the surface of all the many examples of altruism, we can see an undercurrent of dissatisfaction.

When Australians are able to make statements such as “They are facing catastrophic conditions. The town has been left to fend for itself”, when we read articles that “Volunteers are keeping Australians safe, not the Government”.  When we can seriously suggest that “We have reached a point where the long-running downgrading of our institutional apparatus of government means that the most efficient way of getting money out to people in desperate circumstances is via non-government organisations like Vinnies and the Red Cross” we need to ask if our government is doing the job we pay it for.

The bushfire crisis has been on the front page for a month or two. The ongoing drought crisis has been going much longer, and here also we see individuals stepping in where the government has not.

“I feel f—ing sick because I am taking honest people’s money and they shouldn’t be helping me. But 100 per cent, the government is where the money should be coming from.”

All this is just the latest symptom of a long-standing ideological disagreement about what government is for. Conservative governments have an ideological opposition to providing assistance.

The idea that governments should provide services such as healthcare and hospitals, education and schools, social security and welfare, is relatively recent in historical times. Prior to the 1700s all these services would be provided by the churches or not at all. Government’s role was to maintain law and order and support the armed forces, and that was about it.

If you look at modern-day Coalition budgets, you’d be forgiven for thinking that’s what we’ve returned to. In any area you name the Coalition has, since its election in 2013, slashed and burned, cut and where possible dismantled. Government bodies have been merged, defunded or decommissioned. Public benefit projects like the NBN have been hollowed out and repurposed to avoid them becoming useful to the undeserving poor. Public benefits have been taxed, indexed and regulated into submission.

Coalition governments are welded onto the idea of privatising profits and socialising losses. That’s how they approach energy generation, mining, any provision of services where they can get away with it. And allowing the public to pay out of their own pockets what they should instead expect from the apparatus of State is the ultimate outcome of this ethic.

As I previously wrote:

Money to pay for education, fire services, health, broadband, has to come from somewhere. The social structures – primarily church – which previously might have supported these things no longer have the resources or the popular support to be able to take up the slack. Charities around the country are crying out for support and berating the government for not providing enough basic resources/support; something has to give. In this environment, the idea of “small government” doesn’t make sense.

The government has to be big enough to do the things that the monasteries aren’t around to do anymore.

Of course, the budget cuts that cut deepest are not the ones to frontline funding. The government has learned its lesson from Tony Abbott’s 2014 shocker budget: the Australian people do not like to see cuts to the bottom line of the ABC, of healthcare and social security and roads.

Instead the government makes budget cuts that are relatively invisible: slashing and burning a path through the public service. This allows them to crow that they are “increasing funds” to education, healthcare or other services, while concealing the fact that there’s nobody left in the responsible Departments to process the paperwork. So waiting lists blow out, but also, money is left unspent at the end of the financial year. Not because services don’t need it, but because those who needed it could not access it. Thus we have money left in the NDIS allocation that can be re-allocated to drought relief. Does anybody want to make a wager that this funding will be effectively used in a timely manner?

The Australian people want these services. They have come to expect them. But Coalition politicians just want to win elections, and they’ve convinced themselves (with some justification) that the way to win elections is to cut taxes. When they cut taxes, they can’t afford to pay for these services.

That’s when the beneficent Australian public – the battlers, the Quiet Australians – rise to the challenge. This is when we see crowdfunding campaigns to pay for playgrounds, to enable life-saving operations not covered by the PBS, to support art bodies that have lost their funding or to provide hoses and trucks and face masks to firefighters. And we give. Australians want these services and we’ve shown that we’re happy to pay for them.

This is evidence of a disconnect in the electorate. The same people who donate generously to charitable causes are often the same people who will cheerfully vote in a Coalition government and cheer on the hollowing-out of any ability or willingness Government might have to do its part.

Of course no politician ever saw a way of raising money they didn’t like.

Now we have political aspirants crowdfunding their election campaigns.

We have government bodies, starved of public funds, reduced to fundraising to be able to achieve the things their constituents want.

When we accept the thought of crowdfunding to pay for services that should come out of our taxes, we let governments off the hook. We allow the argument to be framed in terms of what we can afford. When we allow politicians to sway our votes on the basis of promised tax cuts, we should remember that in doing so we are contributing to a worldview in which governments don’t pay for firefighting, individuals do. Where governments don’t pay for healthcare, societal infrastructure: instead the market will provide.

But there are certain things only Government can do. Nobody can crowdfund a closure of coal power stations, or the building of solar farms. We can’t crowdfund an ETS into existence. How, practically, can we the people contribute to the things our Government ought to be doing for us?

Every time we see an article about What you can do to save the planet or confront a blog comment challenging you about how often you fly and whether you use light bulbs, this is contributing to the distraction campaign. Individuals, acting alone, cannot save us from global environmental collapse. Not while governments continue to support coal mining, gas exports, coal-fired power and the infrastructure that supports them.

So don’t let the government get away with claiming that it can’t afford to pay for these services. Don’t allow it to laud the efforts of well-meaning, altruistic Australians without demanding an explanation of why the private altruism was necessary. We have a government for the purposes of providing healthcare, emergency management, social welfare and a host of other social provisions that we can’t do on our own. We expect our government to provide these services without fear or favour, to the needy regardless of how loud or visible they are.

If our government is not doing these things, it is not fit for purpose. So why exactly does it exist?

(Co-posted on The AIMN)