How a random sampling regime could help detect COVID and highlight infection hotspots


Hannah Peters/Getty Images

Stephen John Haslett, Massey University and Richard Arnold, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of WellingtonFor the detection of community transmission of COVID-19, New Zealand currently relies on contact tracing, testing of self-selected people with symptoms and those with permission to travel between different alert levels, and surveillance testing of staff at businesses permitted to operate in higher alert levels.

Surveillance testing has picked up cases before they knew they were contacts of another infected person. But people who are only tested after they feel unwell may have already passed the virus on to several others. Others who have COVID-19 may not display symptoms.

As a supplement to current testing, we suggest a sound, properly designed random sampling regime of certain areas or workplaces to provide a cost-effective way to determine, with known probability, if there is any COVID-19 in a specified area or group.

The critical point is that such COVID Clearance Check surveys must be random.

Continued wastewater testing, contact tracing and community testing stations remain critically important. But they don’t provide any measures of accuracy because currently they don’t incorporate formal sampling designs.

Probability theory behind random sampling

A statistically designed random sampling scheme, based on as few as 100 people or households from key sub-populations, would give a very high probability of detecting if there are any COVID-19 cases. However, to determine this probability, it is critical the sampling is random.

Geographical locations could include certain neighbourhoods and wastewater catchment areas. Workplace sampling could focus on large businesses, rest homes, hospitals and prisons.

COVID Clearance Checks based on random sampling could shorten lockdowns, lessen social impact, save money and support businesses. Once Aotearoa’s borders reopen, they would provide critical information of known accuracy about infection hotspots.




Read more:
COVID will likely shift from pandemic to endemic — but what does that mean?


The formal sampling scheme is based on probability theory, which provides the mathematical connection between COVID prevalence (p₀), sample size (n) and the probability of detecting the virus in the subpopulation (p).

Unless a subpopulation is very small, its size has little effect on the sample size required. For a simple random sample, which selects people or households essentially independently and with equal probability, the probability of detecting COVID is:

p = 1-(1-p₀)ⁿ

For example, for a 3% prevalence of COVID and a random sample of 100, the chance of detecting the virus is over 95%. A larger sample would be required to detect COVID at lower prevalence, for clustered random sampling schemes, or for higher levels of detection probability.

Instead of simple random sampling of households, systematic sampling (which selects households at a fixed interval in a list or along a route) could be used to simplify fieldwork without loss of accuracy.

Survey design and structured fieldwork would provide the mechanism for implementing the random selection of people and safe work conditions for the sampling team. For random sampling, this is now feasible because saliva tests have recently been approved by the Ministry of Health.

Using self-administered saliva tests would reduce close contact between field staff and household members, minimising the risk of spread.

A rapid antigen testing kit
New Zealand has approved the use of rapid antigen testing as a screening tool to protect critical worksites.
Phil Walter/Getty Images

How it would work

Examples where a COVID Clearance Check survey would be useful include towns or city suburbs, and households in catchment areas with positive wastewater results. Sampling areas around MIQ facilities, but not including them, would provide information on possible community transmission.

As a first step, the Ministry of Health would identify particular areas or groups of interest, and then randomly select a sample within it, using statistically sound methods, to ensure every person had a known non-zero chance of being included.

For area sampling, having pre-notified residents, field staff would drop off saliva tests at each sampled household. Household tests would then be collected, either for separate individuals or combined, using set safety protocols.




Read more:
Antigen tests for COVID-19 are fast and easy – and could solve the coronavirus testing problem despite being somewhat inaccurate


Any selected households which do not return test results would be contacted again to reduce non-response bias. Any detected cases would bring other current control mechanisms into play.

Detecting all cases in an area is different and more difficult than detecting whether there are any cases. Cases detected by COVID Clearance Check sampling provide a searchlight rather than fully illuminating the situation. Finding all cases would require much larger sample sizes, which is why such checks supplement rather than replace current surveillance methods.

Using well-designed and implemented random sampling schemes can be an effective, rapid and low-cost way of assessing whether there are any community cases, without testing thousands of people who are not necessarily those of greatest interest. When useful, such surveys can be repeated, using another sample from the same area or group.

As we are now all realising, keeping COVID-19 out of Aotearoa cannot be a long-term plan. Once vaccination rates are high and borders begin to reopen, COVID Clearance Checks using random sampling to monitor possible hotspots will become increasingly useful, even necessary, for surveillance.


Alistair Gray, at Statistics Research Associates, is also a member of the Ministry of Health COVID-19 Expert Advisory Network and has collaborated with us on this article.The Conversation

Stephen John Haslett, Emeritus Professor of Statistics, Massey University and Richard Arnold, Professor of Statistics and Data Science, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Flattening the COVID curve: 3 weeks of tougher lockdowns in Sydney’s hotspots halved expected case numbers


Allan Saul, Burnet Institute; Brendan Crabb, Burnet Institute, and Mark Stoové, Burnet InstituteIn a pandemic, you expect that as new public health measures are introduced, there’s an observable impact on the spread of the disease.

But while that might have been the case in Melbourne’s second wave last year, the highly contagious Delta variant is different. In Sydney’s current second wave, none of the increased restrictions seemed to directly decrease the spread of COVID-19. Until now.

Our modelling shows the curfew with the other restrictions introduced on the August 23 in the 12 local government areas (LGAs) of concern has worked to halt the rise in cases.

And this wasn’t due to the level of vaccinations achieved so far. It suggests other LGAs with rising case numbers should not rely solely on vaccination to cut case numbers in the short to medium term. They may need to tighten restrictions to get outbreaks under control.

What are the tighter restrictions?

Restrictions across Sydney have been in place in various forms since June 23. But daily case numbers only plateaued in the 12 LGAs after the latest round of restrictions were introduced on August 23.

These included:

  • a curfew from 9pm to 5am, to reduce the movement of young people
  • restricting public access to hardware, garden supplies, office supplies and pet stores to click-and-collect only
  • closure of face-to-face teaching and assessment in most educational institutes that remained open
  • limiting outdoor exercise to one hour a day.

These came on top of the existing restrictions in these 12 LGAs: only four reasons for leaving home (work/education, care/compassion, shopping for essential supplies, and exercise), 5km travel restrictions and the closure of non-essential shops.




Read more:
A tougher 4-week lockdown could save Sydney months of stay-at-home orders, our modelling shows


What impact did these restrictions have?

There was a marked and significant decrease in the growth of the outbreak in the 12 LGAs of concern, starting a week after restrictions were introduced.

The expected growth rate of the Delta variant, in the absence of any controls, has a R0 between 5 and 9. This means one infected person would be expected to pass the virus on to five to nine others.

In the 12 LGAs, the Reff — which takes into account how many others one infected person will transmit the virus to with public health measures in place — reduced from 1.35 to 1.0. That means one case currently infects just one other person.

Cases numbers went from doubling every 11 days to case numbers being constant.

Without the additional restrictions introduced on August 23, the outbreak would have continued with close to an exponential increase (see the dashed orange line in Figure 1 below).


Burnet Institute

Without these stricter measures we expect about 2,000 cases per day by now and about 4,000 per day by the end of the month instead of the 1,000 per day currently in these 12 LGAs.

It’s not possible to assign which specific part or parts of the restrictions package were important, or how they functioned. Nevertheless, it’s encouraging to see a direct association of restrictions and impact on COVID-19 cases.

Vaccination rates have risen, but that’s not the reason

Vaccination rates have steadily risen in the 12 LGAs of concern. Currently, 74-86% of those aged 16 and over have had least one dose, and 34-42% have had both doses.

These vaccination levels have increased substantially in the past month from about 45% with at least one dose and only 22% fully vaccinated.




Read more:
Pfizer vaccinations for 16 to 39-year-olds is welcome news. But AstraZeneca remains a good option


However, taking into account that it takes about two weeks for vaccination to be fully effective, we calculate that from August 23 to September 9, the increased vaccination rates will have only reduced the transmission of COVID by about 9% in the these LGAs. This is nowhere near enough to account for the dramatic change in the case numbers.

Interestingly, outside these 12 LGAs, there was a gradual slowing of the growth rate that very closely matched the decrease in growth expected from increased vaccine coverage – but no sign of the abrupt change seen in the 12 LGAs of concern.


Burnet Institute

What does this mean for other parts of Sydney?

The gains associated with the more stringent restrictions are readily reversible. If they are lifted before vaccination can permanently reduce growth, COVID-19 cases could rapidly increase again in these 12 LGAs.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 cases outside the 12 LGAs of concern continue to grow strongly. With the current restrictions in place, cases in the rest of Sydney will soon overtake the cases within these 12 LGAs.

Having slowed the growth in the 12 LGAs of concern, it would be devastating if the strong growth in the rest of the state resulted in hospitals being further overloaded and a substantial increase in severe disease and deaths.

It may be necessary to impose greater restrictions — such as curfews and restricting retail outlets such as hardware stores to click-and-collect only — in at least in some of the LGAs with higher growth rates to curb this growth.

Why we need a vaccine-plus strategy

Increased levels of vaccination remains both crucial and urgent to prevent death and severe disease from COVID-19. But we are some way from vaccination levels that can allow us to relax.

While the national plan aims for 70% and 80% initial vaccination coverage it’s not yet clear how vaccination levels will impact on case numbers, given we still don’t know how well vaccines reduce transmission of the Delta variant.

Our ability to keep case numbers in check will be highly dependent on the efficiency of ongoing public health measures such as the contact tracing.




Read more:
What is life going to look like once we hit 70% vaccination?


As low case numbers remain a crucial component of a safe exit, “lockdown” restrictions will be important for some time yet to maintain these lower levels in NSW and Victoria.

States and regions that have no community transmission should fiercely protect that status until vaccine levels reach very high levels or else they may also face stringent restrictions.

But lockdowns are clearly not sustainable in the long term. At best, they give health services a temporary breathing space until we get high levels of vaccine coverage.The Conversation

Allan Saul, Senior Principal Research Fellow (Honorary), Burnet Institute; Brendan Crabb, Director and CEO, Burnet Institute, and Mark Stoové, Head of HIV/STI research, Burnet Institute

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Overcrowding and affordability stress: Melbourne’s COVID-19 hotspots are also housing crisis hotspots



Shutterstock

Rebecca Bentley, University of Melbourne and Erika Martino, University of Melbourne

Melbourne is once again grappling with increasing COVID-19 rates. Ten suburbs in Melbourne have been designated COVID-19 outbreak hotspots: Broadmeadows, Keilor Downs, Maidstone, Albanvale, Sunshine West, Hallam, Brunswick West, Fawkner, Reservoir and Pakenham.

The outbreaks have sparked discussions about lockdowns and travel restrictions for people living in these parts of Melbourne and generated intensive suburb-specific testing.

The outbreaks have been attributed to family gatherings in homes and people failing to self-isolate, even after positive test results. This has occurred alongside possible breaches of infection control protocols in hotels accommodating people in quarantine – with security guards from major hotels having contracted the virus.




Read more:
The housing boom propelled inequality, but a coronavirus housing bust will skyrocket it


Socio-spatial clues

While chance and circumstances converge to create outbreaks there are also some obvious factors related to where and how people live that impact their capacity to isolate.

As we potentially face a two year-long wait for vaccines (16 are in clinical evaluation internationally (with one being developed in Australia), we need to acknowledge the spatial concentration of these sites of vulnerability is not random. There are socio-spatial clues as to why we have had outbreaks in these locations.

Four measures: overcrowding, homelessness, housing affordability stress and financial hardship often occur in the same areas.
Shutterstock

First, the hotspots have some of the highest rates of housing precarity and financial hardship across Melbourne. People in overcrowded or unaffordable or insecure housing may have less control over their immediate environment and less capacity to isolate themselves than other community members.




Read more:
Homelessness and overcrowding expose us all to coronavirus. Here’s what we can do to stop the spread


The recent Melbourne outbreaks have occurred largely in areas with:

  • high housing affordability stress: where those in the lowest 40% of income spend more than 30% of their household income on housing,

  • overcrowding: measured in terms of the number of people in a household, their age and gender in relation to the number of bedrooms in a dwelling, and/or

  • homelessness: where a person does not have suitable accommodation alternatives and their current living arrangement is in a dwelling that is inadequate, has no tenure, or if their initial tenure is short and not extendable or does not allow them to have control of, and access to space for social relations.

While housing security seems like an obvious problem to fix, it remains a long-standing, difficult issue for governments to tackle. Going into the COVID-19 pandemic, Australia exhibited high rates of homelessness and spiralling housing costs.

Many people in Melbourne and Sydney live in overcrowded or inadequate forms of housing as a result of what has become known as our “housing affordability crisis”. Alongside this, the numbers of people who require emergency accommodation far outstrip our cities’ capacity to house them on a medium- to long-term basis.

Second, people without savings may be compelled to go to work despite feeling unwell. They need to meet their weekly housing costs and don’t have savings enough to go two weeks (or longer) without income. This can occur even if people have negotiated reduced rent with their landlords.

Where housing and COVID-19 collide

When one considers these housing and financial factors from the perspective of COVID-19 suppression, their geographical clustering should not be disregarded. The areas in Melbourne with high rates of household overcrowding, homelessness, housing affordability stress and (related to this) financial hardship (often measured using people’s self-reported capacity to access funds in an emergency) map closely to areas where there are now high numbers of COVID-19 cases.




Read more:
If Australia really wants to tackle mental health after coronavirus, we must take action on homelessness


Using publicly available data, we created a simple index describing capacity isolate based on the above four characteristics. We created maps of Greater Melbourne to examine the relationship between current COVID-19 cases and these housing and financial vulnerability factors. Our index shows Hallam, Sunshine West, Albanvale, Broadmeadows, Falkner, Reservoir and Maidstone are all in the top two quintiles.

Housing Vulnerability Index for Greater Melbourne.
NATSEM – Social and Economic Indicators – Synthetic Estimates SA2 2016; ABS – Data by Region – Family & Community (SA2) 2011-2016; and UNSW CFRC – Overcrowded Households Australia (SA2) 2016. Data were accessed on 26 June 2020 from AURIN Portal (https://portal.aurin.org.au/), Author provided

Over the last decade, Melbourne has seen itself become more spatially segregated. And household overcrowding and precarity are geographically clustered.

Acknowledging correlation is not causation, these findings suggest solving some of Melbourne’s housing problems might reduce the spread of COVID-19 now and in future outbreaks as we await a vaccine.

Taking this further, when assessing where in cities we are likely to see a spike in cases in the future, we should take housing-related vulnerabilities into account alongside other factors.

While steps have been taken by the Victorian government to address some of the issues we have flagged, such as the one-off payment of up to A$2,000 for eligible renters who are unable to afford rent, and the A$1,500 payment to people who test positive and have no leave cover, more could be done in the medium to long term to reduce the risk of overcrowding, housing related financial stress and precarious forms of housing (that lead to homelessness) across the city.




Read more:
Coronavirus shows housing costs leave many insecure. Tackling that can help solve an even bigger crisis


The past months of COVID-19 restrictions have highlighted how critical housing and financial security are to our health and well-being at both an individual and population level. The Victorian Council of Social Service has noted disasters can be “profoundly discriminatory” in where they occur, and in their impacts.

Successful COVID-19 suppression requires safe and equitable cities and addressing housing vulnerability is one of the many challenges we must take up.The Conversation

Rebecca Bentley, Professor of Social Epidemiology, Centre for Health Equity, Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne and Erika Martino, Research Fellow, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Victoria’s coronavirus hotspots: not quite a second wave, but still cause for concern



Shutterstock

Adrian Esterman, University of South Australia

On Sunday, Victoria recorded 19 new COVID-19 cases for the preceding day. Only New South Wales (5) and Western Australia (1) also had new cases.

Reports indicate in the 24 hours since, Victoria can count another 16 infections.

This continues a spike that has now spanned several days. Victoria accounted for 83% of new cases across the country over the past week (up to June 21).

Of the 116 new cases recorded in Victoria over this period, 29 (25%) were returned overseas travellers whose infections were detected while in quarantine. The remaining 87 cases were primarily acquired in the community.




Read more:
Coronavirus: what causes a ‘second wave’ of disease outbreak, and could we see this in Australia?


As a result of the increase in community-acquired infections, the Victorian government at the weekend announced a tightening of restrictions — including reducing the number of visitors allowed in homes to five.

While the easing of some restrictions planned for today, such as the reopening of gyms, have gone ahead, others, like increasing the number of people allowed to dine in restaurants, are on hold.

What’s behind this spike?

Cases among returned overseas travellers are expected, and with quarantines in place, they’re not a major threat. However, there’s still a 1% chance someone could be infectious beyond the mandated 14 days of quarantine.

But it’s the community-acquired cases that are of greatest concern to public health officials. They indicate there are sources of infection in the community that health authorities don’t know about, making it difficult to control the epidemic.

According to the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services, most of these community-acquired infections have occurred during family gatherings. They suggest some people have not followed the advice to limit the number of people invited to a home, nor physical distancing or appropriate hygiene within this setting.

Even if this is correct, why aren’t we seeing a similar problem in other states? Could Victorians have more or larger family gatherings, or be less likely to maintain social distancing and hygiene than residents of other states? We don’t have answers to these questions, and probably never will.




Read more:
Planning a snow holiday? How to reduce your coronavirus risk at Thredbo, Perisher or Mount Buller


Is this the start of a second wave in Victoria?

If we regard this level of cases as a wave, Victoria now appears to be on its fourth wave. The second and third occurred in early May and early June, respectively.

The current wave is about at the same level as the one in early May, but could well grow rapidly. It’s causing significant concern because the epidemic appears to be dying out in all other jurisdictions.

It’s unclear why Victoria is getting these repeated waves, unlike the other states, which, apart from a few minor blips, have only had one major peak.

Victoria’s situation is a threat to other states and territories

The Northern Territory, ACT, South Australia and Tasmania have just about eliminated COVID-19.

The remaining states are on the same path, although New South Wales is still recording a few community-acquired cases.

Any state that allows travel to and from Victoria, particularly without quarantine, runs the risk of restarting the epidemic.

Queensland chief health officer Jeannette Young has declared all 31 local government areas (LGAs) in Greater Melbourne, as well as five bordering LGAs, to be COVID-19 hotspots.

This means anyone who has spent time in one of these hotspots within the last 14 days must self-quarantine for 14 days upon entering Queensland (unless the travel to Queensland is for a limited number of essential purposes).




Read more:
Heading back to the gym? Here’s how you can protect yourself and others from coronavirus infection


What can Victoria do?

Victoria is already doing the right things to try and flatten this new outbreak. The reimposing of restrictions on family gatherings should work, provided people stick to them.

Victoria currently has the highest rate of testing of all states and territories, with roughly 10% of the population tested so far. Testing, especially in hotspot communities, is one of the best ways to locate and control community-acquired infections.

Six Melbourne local government areas have been identified as coronavirus hotspots. These are Hume, Casey, Brimbank, Moreland, Cardinia and Darebin.

The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) has advised against travel to and from these areas until community transmission is under control.

Even if the Victorian government elects to impose stay-at-home restrictions in these areas, it will be impossible to seal them off completely from the rest of the state.

But it’s clear the Victorian health department needs to focus testing in these areas, and conduct an information campaign explaining to residents why adhering to restrictions is so important.

How worried should we be?

Is it likely to get worse? Potentially, yes. If it does, the Victorian government will need to rapidly expand its contact tracing and testing. South Australia is already sending contact tracers to help.

There’s still a good chance the Victorian government can gain control of the situation before it gets out of hand — but it will have to move fast.

Other states and territories should insist all visitors from Victoria undertake mandatory quarantine.

Finally, we must all realise further outbreaks could occur anywhere in Australia, and it’s up to all of us to continue to follow social distancing rules.




Read more:
4 ways Australia’s coronavirus response was a triumph, and 4 ways it fell short


The Conversation


Adrian Esterman, Professor of Biostatistics, University of South Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Where will the global political hotspots be in 2018? (Spoiler alert: it’s not all about Donald Trump)



File 20180115 101489 1ffdjrp.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
With so many global flashpoints, and so little diplomacy, 2018 could be a turbulent year.
AAP/The Conversation

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

Writing for Foreign Policy, Robert Malley, the newly appointed head of the International Crisis Group, makes a good point when discussing global challenges in 2018:

It is not all about Donald Trump.

To be sure, an erratic American presidency contributes to unsteadiness around the globe. American global leadership is now contested as never before since the Allies triumphed in the second world war.

Even in the depths of a Cold War marked by various crises – including the Berlin Blockade, an ill-starred military adventure in Vietnam, and the Cuban Missile Crisis – American leadership would still assert itself.

Let’s not forget American post-second-world-war diplomacy spawned international institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the United Nations and NATO. In Australia’s case, it also gave birth to the ANZUS Treaty, initialled in 1951.

… although it is a little bit about Donald Trump.
Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

There was hardly any component of post-war global architecture that did not involve Washington in a leading role.

ANZUS, and with it the American alliance, remains the cornerstone of Australia’s security arrangements – notwithstanding a frequent misinterpretation of the treaty as a security guarantee as opposed to an agreement to consult in the event of either party’s security being threatened.

In essence, America is godfather of post-war multilateralism. An American-led consensus on how best to manage its global responsibilities is now in danger of unravelling, buffeted by domestic “America First” disagreements at home and a contested security environment abroad.

Australia’s place in the world

From an Australian perspective, it is all about a shifting power balance in the Indo-Pacific.

This might be described as the pre-eminent challenge in the year(s) ahead, as Australia navigates between the idiosyncracies of a Trump White House and its successors. Then there is the relentless Chinese push to spread its power and influence.

Above all in the foreign policy sphere, Australian policymakers are faced with the task of expanding Canberra’s foreign and security policy room for manoeuvre between its security guarantor and principal trading partner, without endangering the alliance relationship itself.

China, led by Xi Jinping, will continue to push to spread its power and influence.
Reuters

This will require a sophistication that has not always been apparent among policymakers. Their instinct has been to cling to the alliance like a life raft and, on occasions, discreditably, use it as a wedge issue against political opponents.

China’s rise is encouraging a more realistic view of Australia’s geopolitical circumstances, and none too soon.

The following extracts from Australia’s Foreign Policy White Paper, released in November, provide a flavour of that greater realism:

Navigating the decade ahead will be hard because as China’s power grows our region is changing in ways without precedent in Australia’s modern history.

And:

Powerful drivers are converging in a way that is reshaping the international order and challenging Australia’s interests. The United States has been the dominant power in our region throughout Australia’s post-second-world-war history. Today, China is challenging America’s position.

And:

The government recognises there is great debate and uncertainty in the United States about the costs and benefits of its leadership of the international system.

And:

In the decades ahead we expect further contestation [between the US and China] over ideas and influence, directly affecting Australia. It is imperative that Australia prepare for the long term.

All of this exposes Australia’s biggest challenge in the next several decades. Simply put, this is to build its own self-reliance, including smart investments in defence capabilities, along with nurturing security relationships in its own region.

Most desirable in all of this would be to involve – not exclude – China in building a regional security architecture. This could possibly be along the lines of the Helsinki Accords, which helped stabilise Europe during a long stand-off with the former Soviet Union.

Australian officials might want to expand a quadrilateral Indo-Pacific security partnership – involving the US, Japan, Australia and India – envisaged as a hedge against China to others, including China itself.

Creative regional diplomacy of the sort that brought about the establishment of the Australia Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) forum would seem to be required.

Closer to home

This is the big global challenge for Australia in 2018 and beyond. Now to what might be described as “localised” challenges.

We’ll restrict that number to five, including:

  • North Korea’s nuclear ambitions;

  • the Middle East more generally, and potential conflict with Iran in particular;

  • the Rohingya crisis and pressures that is exerting on Myanmar and surrounding countries. Alongside this is the “identity politics” across Asia, in which minorities (like the Rohingya) are threatened;

  • Afghanistan, in which Australian forces are still involved in a training capacity; and

  • threats of cyber-terrorism: what Ian Bremmer and Cliff Kupchan of the Eurasia Group describe as a “global tech cold war”.

At the top of the regional challenges is North Korea, led by Kim Jong-un.
Reuters/KCNA

Top of this list is North Korea, where the risk of overreach and accident with terrible consequences is real. As Malley puts it in his Foreign Policy paper:

Without a viable diplomatic offramp, Washington risks cornering itself into military action. Even a precisely targeted attack would likely provoke a North Korean response.

From Australia’s perspective, and given that the bulk of its trade goes to the countries of North Asia (China, Japan and South Korea), conflict on the Korean Peninsula would be crippling.

Second on my list, as it is on Malley’s, involves the risks of open conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, egged on by the US and Israel. Such disruption could not be contained. It would spread, risking oil shipments from the region and wider conflict between Sunni and Shia.

As Malley puts it:

With so many flashpoints, and so little diplomacy, the risk of an escalatory cycle is great.

From an Australian perspective, an escalation would be alarming, given the deployment of our forces in a training capacity in Iraq.

Third is Afghanistan, where the tempo of US-led strikes against the Taliban is set to increase, along with pressure on Pakistan to desist in its covert support for the insurgency.

Malley recommends:

US allies in Afghanistan should push for a greater diplomatic political component to the US strategy. As it stands, that strategy sets the stage for more violence while closing avenues for de-escalation.

With troops in the field in a training capacity, the Australian government should be pushing for a regional settlement, involving Afghanistan’s neighbours and the insurgents.

Rohingya refugees continue to flee from Myanmar to neighbouring Bangladesh.
Reuters/Tyrone Siu

Fourth on my list is the issue of identity policy in southern Asia, including the displacement of the Rohingya to neighbouring Bangladesh.

As Bremmer and Kupchan put it:

Identity politics in southern Asia comes in several forms: Islamism, anti-China and anti-other minority sentiment, and intensifying nationalism in India.

From Australia’s perspective, displacement and persecution of minorities in its neighbourhood is a particularly worrying development, along with Islamic State-inspired eruptions in countries like the Philippines.

Finally, looms the issue of cyber conflict.

The biggest fight over economic power centres on the development of new information technologies. Competition for dominance in the areas of artificial intelligence and super-computing between the US and China has serious implications for Australia’s national security.

The cyber issue, which potentially includes the weaponisation of AI, is becoming the new contested space.

And that’s not all …

Now, to a less concerning issue, for the moment: the global economy.

In its latest overview, the World Bank expects global growth to edge up to 3.1% “after a much stronger-than-expected 2017, as the recovery in investment, manufacturing and trade continues, and as commodity-exporting developing economies benefit from firming commodity prices”.

As one of the world’s biggest commodity exporters, this is good news for Australia. The World Bank says:

2018 is on track to be the first year since the financial crisis that the global economy will be operating at or near full capacity.

However, it also warns of a slowdown in potential growth as stimulatory fiscal and monetary policies run their course.

The ConversationWelcome to 2018.

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.