What’s the new coronavirus variant in India and how should it change their COVID response?


Prafulla Shriyan, Indian Institute of Public Health, Gandhinagar and Giridhara R Babu, Indian Institute of Public Health, GandhinagarAfter genome sequencing of over 10,000 COVID-19 cases in India, researchers have discovered a new variant with two new mutations which may be better at evading the immune system.

In 15-20% of samples from the Indian state of Maharashtra (the state accounting for 62% of cases in the country) a new, double mutation in key areas of the virus has been detected. These are now known as the E484Q and L452R mutations.

What makes the variant different?

Both these mutations are concerning because they are located in a key portion of the virus – the spike protein – that it uses to penetrate human cells. Spike proteins attach via a “receptor binding domain”, meaning the virus can attach to receptors in our cells.

These new mutations include changes to the spike protein that make it a “better fit” for human cells. This means the virus can gain entry more easily and multiply faster. Given what we have seen with other similar mutations, it might also make it harder for our immune system to recognise the virus due to its slightly different shape. This means our immune system may not be able to recognise the virus as something it has to produce antibodies against.

The emergence of these new variants has only been possible because of the continued viral replication in areas with high circulation.

Though the Indian government has said the data on the variants circulating in India (including this new Indian variant and others including the UK strain) are not sufficient to link them to the rapid increase in the number of cases in the country, we think it’s the most likely explanation. The country had managed to bring down the rate in February, but a sudden increase in the number of reported cases is now being reported.




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What’s the difference between mutations, variants and strains? A guide to COVID terminology


Implications

The implications of these developments are greatly concerning – not just for India, but for the rest of the world. Mutations can result in 20% more in-hospital deaths, as we witnessed during the second wave in South Africa. This is because some mutant variants have the ability to spread faster, resulting in sudden surges and, therefore, an overburdened health system.

But there’s hope. Places around the world with higher vaccination coverage such as the UK and Israel are witnessing a steady decrease in cases.

Most of the currently approved vaccines around the world have been found to evoke an immune response to some extent against multiple variants. But no trials have yet been undertaken on the effectiveness of vaccines against these new Indian mutations.

To make it difficult for the mutant strains to develop vaccine resistance, we have to ensure wider and faster vaccine coverage across the world.

What has to happen now?

Apart from vaccine manufacturers’ efforts to update the composition of vaccines to better deal with new strains, it is important to contain transmission across the world. Countries can use the World Health Organisation’s SARS-CoV-2 Risk Monitoring and Evaluation Framework to help identify, monitor and assess variants of concern, swiftly.




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To establish a direct link between a variant and a steep rise in cases in a short time, it is important to use genomic sequencing to link clusters together. But unless contact tracing is done meticulously, it isn’t easy to do so.

It is also important to understand the mechanisms involved in the infectiousness and virulence of the newer variants. For this, lab models are needed to mimic spread and virulence mechanisms efficiently.

To combat the consequences of mutations in India, its pandemic response will have to incorporate several measures. Genomic surveillance will have to be proactive and coincide with the epidemiological investigation of the cluster of cases for early identification and swift action.

As some variants can escape naturally induced immunity, vaccine manufacturers in India will need to develop better vaccines to cover these new variants. Ongoing surveillance and containment measures need to be strengthened to prevent the emergence of new variants by minimising viral replication.

And finally, swift and rapid vaccine coverage is not only necessary but essential for ensuring any modest levels of success in tackling this pandemic.




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The Conversation


Prafulla Shriyan, Research Fellow, Public Health Foundation of India, Indian Institute of Public Health, Gandhinagar., Indian Institute of Public Health, Gandhinagar and Giridhara R Babu, Professor, Head-Lifecourse Epidemiology, Indian Institute of Public Health, Indian Institute of Public Health, Gandhinagar

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

Could the Morrison government’s response to sexual assault claims cost it the next election?



Jeremy Piper/AAP

Sarah Cameron, University of Sydney

Today, thousands of Australians are expected to march around the country, angry and fed up at the treatment of women. In Canberra they will form a ring of protest around Parliament House.

This comes after Melbourne academic and entrepreneur Janine Hendry wondered how many “extremely disgruntled” women it would take to link arms around parliament to tell the government “we’ve had enough” (the answer is about 4,000).

It follows Brittany Higgins’ allegation of rape in a minister’s office in 2019 and an allegation Attorney-General Christian Porter raped a 16-year-old in 1988 (which he denies). It also comes amid multiple claims of a toxic work culture at Parliament House.

While Higgins’ case has sparked numerous inquiries, she claims she was not supported in the aftermath of her alleged assault. Regarding Porter, the government is resisting calls for an independent inquiry, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison declaring him an “innocent man under our law”.

As Australia heads into another pre-election season, questions have been raised about the potential impact of recent events.

Women are obviously a significant demographic, and data shows they are already drifting away from the Liberal Party.

So, what’s at stake when it comes to women voters and the Liberals at the next election?

Gender and voting behaviour

The Australian Election Study is a nationally representative survey of voter behaviour that has run after all federal elections since 1987.

In 2019, it showed that although the Liberal-National Coalition won the federal election, the Liberal Party attracted the lowest proportion of women’s votes since 1987.



While 45% of men gave their first preference to the Liberal Party, just 35% of women did so. Parties on the political left also had an advantage among women, with 6% more women than men voting for the Greens, and a smaller margin of 3% more women voting for Labor.

Looking at the gender gap over time, we see it has actually reversed over the past 30 years. Back in the 1990s, women were slightly more likely to vote for the Liberal party, and men were more likely to vote Labor.

This has gradually switched, so men now prefer the Liberal Party and women prefer Labor. The gender gap in voting Liberal is now at its greatest point on record.



This reversal of the gender gap in voting behaviour isn’t unique to Australia, it has also been observed in other democracies including in Europe and North America.

Why are we seeing a gender gap?

There are a number of factors underpinning this transformation of gender and voting in Australia.

This includes tremendous social change, such as women’s increased participation in higher education. Higher education is associated with political ideology that is further to the left.

Women’s increased participation in the labour force is also a factor. The election study shows in 1990, 41% of union members were women, by 2019, that figure had increased to 55%.




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But womens’ voting behaviour can also be attributed to major changes in Australia’s major political parties. Back in the early 1990s, women were similarly underrepresented in both the major parties — just 13% of parliamentarians in 1990 were women.

Since then, Labor has dramatically increased its proportion of women in parliament, reaching 47% through party quotas as of the last election. The Liberal Party on the other hand, has made slower progress, reaching just 23% at the most recent election.

New research published in the journal Electoral Studies shows left-leaning women are more likely to support female candidates.

The Liberal Party’s ‘women problem’

So, even before the current crisis, the Liberal party was losing the electoral support of women.

The Liberal Party’s “women problem” has become a common criticism, not just by political opponents but also prominent Liberal Party figures including former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.



The current crisis has the potential to exacerbate the gender gap in voting behaviour.

That said, election results are often influenced by the most important issues at the time of the election. The salience of different issues — shaped to a large degree by media coverage — can change considerably over time.

Approval ratings of Morrison from the Essential Poll show he lost a lot of support during the bushfires in late 2019 and early 2020, which he was perceived as handling poorly.

Since then, Morrison has benefited from Australia’s relative success in managing the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result of a phenomenon known as “rallying ‘round the flag,” voters have supported him and the government during this time of crisis.



The next election

The election can be held anytime from August this year, although political observers currently expect it to be next year.

The electoral impact of current events will depend not only on the government’s response to the sexual assault allegations (and voter satisfaction with those responses), but also which issues are salient at election time. A historical sexual assault allegation against former Labor leader Bill Shorten was not a major factor in the lead up to the last election (he denies the claims and in 2014, police said they would not proceed with charges).




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Interestingly, the Australian Election Study shows trust in government reached its lowest point on record in 2019 with just one in four voters believing that people in government could be trusted. In contrast, three quarters thought those in government were more interested in looking after themselves.

On the issue of sexual assault, recent polling data also suggests the government is similarly perceived as putting itself first. Of those polled, 65% agreed “the government has been more interested in protecting itself than the interests of those who have been assaulted”. This includes half of Coalition voters, and a similar proportion of men and women.

Woman marching for women's safety in 2019.
Polls suggest voters don’t like they way the government has handled the Porter and Higgins cases.
Jeremy Piper/AAP

Elections are decided on many issues and factors, including what is making headlines closer to election day, and the performance of leaders and parties.

But the growing gender gap in voting will be on the radar of both major parties. The Liberal Party ignores it at its peril.The Conversation

Sarah Cameron, Lecturer in Politics, University of Sydney

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

Vital Signs: 4 things Australia’s COVID response got right


Richard Holden, UNSW

2020 began simply, if dramatically enough in some sense.

We spent the first months preoccupied with bushfires that blackened both our natural environment and our international reputation for taking climate change seriously. Who would have thought that would have been the easy part?

Then came a global pandemic, the largest public health emergency and greatest economic contraction in a century.

Australia has emerged as the nation that may have dealt with these twin crises the best. But it was not obvious we would do so — certainly not in February 2020.

It is important to scrutinise the reasons for our success. In particular, what parts are due to good policy, and what parts to luck?

Tentative beginnings

Australia’s initial response to COVID-19 was less certain than, for example, New Zealand’s. In debates about shutting schools, for example there was always a pull to the policy with the least economic impact.

While most economists have supported putting public health policy first, not all in academia, government or the media have agreed. There has been much talk about “the Swedish model”, achieving “herd immunity” naturally, and that the costs of lockdowns far outweigh their benefits.

On March 10, I declared the opposite, in article published by the Australian Financial Review. Rather, I wrote, “the economic costs of being reactive are likely to be much larger than the costs of being decisive”.




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At the time the article was published there were 93 cases of COVID-19 in Australia and three deaths. It was the week Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared he would attend a rugby league match just moments after outlining the government’s advice to ban large crowd gatherings. Our borders were still gapingly open.

I said in that piece “one doesn’t need to be an epidemiologist to understand the logic of exponential growth”.

We got our dose of exponential growth, with cases and deaths, respectively, growing quickly. Our leaders got the message and acted decisively. Morrison even gave up on his beloved Sharks games.




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4 keys to Australia’s COVID success

With relatively swift action, we got four crucial things in place:

  • we lowered the base rate of infections

  • we got a serious testing regimen in place

  • we developed effective contact tracing

  • we built hospital capacity if things went awry.

These are the facts of the case, and they are undisputed.

The places that didn’t do these things used Olympic ice rings as morgues (Spain) and dug temporary graves in parks (New York). We did better. We would not have done better had we listened to the naysayers.

Bodies of people who died with COVID-19 are buried in a trench on Hart Island, in the Bronx borough of New York, on April 9 2020.
Bodies of people who died with COVID-19 are buried in a trench on Hart Island, in the Bronx borough of New York, on April 9 2020.
John Minchillo/AP

The year evolved. And so did we. And so did our national debate.

Victoria made a colossal mistake, for which there still needs to be a proper accounting. But if we have learned nothing else from 2020, it is that expertise and informed public debate are essential for good policy.




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Top marks for a work in progress

Australia’s economic response has been world-class.

Fiscal support measures such as JobSeeker and JobKeeper were crucial to a public health recovery leading to economic recovery.

But the job is not done.

Sure, the JobSeeker benefits need to taper down over time. But the questions are how much and how fast.

Wage subsidies can’t go on forever, but when to end them without destroying businesses small and large, and jobs along with them?

These will be be the hard questions for Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and the rest of the Morrison government in 2021.

In 2020, nonetheless, it has – through a great measure of skill and some measure of luck – helped avoid a COVID catastrophe in Australia.

Let us hope Scott Morrison deals with the everyday as well as he has dealt with the exceptional.The Conversation

Richard Holden, Professor of Economics, UNSW

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

China wants to be a friend to the Pacific, but so far, it has failed to match Australia’s COVID-19 response



FLORENCE LO / REUTERS POOL

Ian Kemish, The University of Queensland

The photo of the Chinese ambassador to Kiribati walking on the backs of schoolboys caused a storm on social media earlier this month. Some saw it as a symbol of China’s sinister intentions in the Pacific and others argued it reflected local customs which should be respected.

The Chinese foreign ministry said in its defence,

We fully respect local customs and culture when interacting with the Pacific countries. When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

Let’s set aside the argument over the incident itself. I’d just note in passing there were several occasions when, as a senior Australian representative in the region, I had to quietly back away from ceremonies where my involvement could have sent the wrong signal.

The foreign ministry’s statement raises a more important point. As a genuine regional partner, it’s not enough for China to “do as the Romans do”. Those who aspire to a meaningful partnership with the Pacific also need to be clear about what they stand for themselves.

What then, does China stand for in the Pacific? Does it really have what it takes to be a constructive, long-term partner for the region?

What does China want from the Pacific?

There’s been no clear answer to the first question from Beijing, apart from broad statements about “mutual respect and common development”.

China maintains it does not have strategic interests in the region, and that its engagement there is simply a function of its growth.

Many observers point to its hunger for resources, however, and believe its growing military engagement in the Pacific betrays a long-term objective to establish a naval base there — an unthinkable outcome for Australia.

Others say China’s financial aid is essentially “debt-trap diplomacy”, with unsustainable loans providing a pathway for China to control the strategic assets of Pacific states.




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The Lowy Institute has shown that China has not been a major driver behind rising debt in the Pacific, but it nevertheless has a responsibility to help prevent future debt risks. The scale of its lending patterns — and the absence of mechanisms to protect recipients from debt — present substantial hazards for some countries.

There’s been no sign yet that Beijing is prepared to collaborate with western donors as they engage with regional countries to mitigate these risks. This would signal China cares about the region’s sustainability — an important qualification for a genuine partner.

A development site for a Chinese Investment bank in Nuku’alofa, Tonga.
Mark Baker/AP

A top-down approach isn’t going to be effective

Chinese representatives sometimes struggle to understand that centralised control is not the Pacific way. In the commercial sphere, effective partnerships require patient management of multiple stakeholder relationships — with landowners, local authorities and environmentalists.

In Papua New Guinea, however, Chinese firms like Shenzen Energy and Ramu Nickel have been disappointed that agreements they have signed with the country’s prime minister haven’t guaranteed smooth project implementation.




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China also showed great frustration in the Solomon Islands when provincial leaders thanked Taiwan for coronavirus-related aid, which was delivered after the national government had switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing.

Success also requires conscious support for national development aspirations and a willingness to lean in at difficult moments.

Australia and New Zealand don’t always escape criticism from the region; climate change and labour market access continue to be sore points.

But over time, these traditional partners have shown their commitment to the region’s development through the investment of billions of dollars. They have helped run elections, repeatedly deliver disaster relief and mount stabilisation missions in regional hot spots.

This kind of comprehensive partnership, recently reaffirmed in a new economic and strategic development agreement signed between Australia and PNG, is outside Beijing’s traditional comfort zone.

Australian humanitarian aid sent to Vanuatu earlier this year after Cyclone Harold.
Andrew Eddie/Department of Defence

China hasn’t stepped up with real coronavirus support

The current pandemic poses very serious risks to the fragile economies of the Pacific. It’s an important moment for regional partners to show their commitment.

Beijing has highlighted its Pacific Conference on COVID-19, a video link-up in May between the Chinese vice foreign minister and senior Pacific representatives, as a sign of its support for the region.

But there were no substantive outcomes, and despite multiple press releases, China appears to have announced only A$3.5 million in virus-related regional support.




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This contribution by the world’s second-largest economy is about half what one Australian mid-sized company has committed in COVID-19 support to PNG alone.

It also pales in comparison to the A$100 million that Australia announced in March would be redirected from existing aid programs to mitigate the regional effects of the virus.

Australia has also stepped up in other practical ways, for instance, by processing some coronvirus tests from the Pacific, sending rapid diagnostic testing equipment to the region and deploying Australian Medical Assistance Teams to support PNG’s response to rising cases there.

And perhaps most notably, Australia announced recently it will deliver a future coronavirus vaccine to the people of the Pacific, once it’s approved.

China might actually have some things to offer the region, including lessons from its highly successful development model.

But it will need to be more thoughtful about the region’s actual needs and aspirations if it wants to build a substantial and effective partnership with the Pacific in the wake of this pandemic.The Conversation

Ian Kemish, Former Ambassador and Adjunct Professor, School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry, The University of Queensland

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

Lockdown, relax, repeat: how cities across the globe are going back to coronavirus restrictions


Maximilian de Courten, Victoria University; Bo Klepac Pogrmilovic, Victoria University, and Rosemary V Calder, Victoria University

The World Health Organisation reported more than 230,000 new COVID-19 cases on Sunday — the world’s largest daily increase during the pandemic. The surge has forced governments in many places across the world to order new lockdowns.

This includes Melbourne, which is back in a six-week lockdown after a second wave of new cases exceeded the city’s first peak in late March.

But Melbourne’s not the only city to suffer a second wave of the pandemic. Cities including Beijing and Leicester had lifted COVID-19 restrictions, only to re-enforce them when new outbreaks occurred.

So how have other cities gone about their second lockdown, and have the measures been effective in tackling the COVID-19 resurgence? Let’s take a look at a few examples.

Lockdowns return

Though there’s no strict definition of a lockdown, it describes the controls imposed by governments to restrict the movement of people in their communities. It’s often achieved through a combination of police presence and applying public health regulations.

It can be implemented partially, progressively or fully. The latter is called “hard lockdown” when the freedom of entry to, and exit from, either an entire building or geographic area is prohibited or limited.

The Segrià region in Catalonia, Spain re-entered an indefinite partial lockdown on July 4 following a significant spike in cases and COVID-19 hospitalisations.

The Catalan government, in the north east of Spain, re-imposed lockdown for the Segrià county after recording 816 new COVID-19 cases on July 12.
Ramon Gabriel/EPA/AAP

The city of Leicester in the United Kingdom has gone into a second lockdown after it accounted for 10% of all positive COVID-19 cases in the country at the end of June. The city has been in lockdown for the past two weeks and despite this, the latest data show an increase in the numbers of cases.

A second wave in Beijing was tackled by increasing degrees of lockdowns. The strictest measures were limited to a few high-risk neighbourhoods, accompanied by a ring of looser lockdown measures around them.




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Alongside this was extensive and widespread testing, with a peak capacity of 300,000 tests per day. This approach proved successful – the city reported zero new COVID-19 cases on July 7.

While there are increasing examples of a return to some lockdown measures, there are no examples demonstrating the success of a second lockdown — other than in Beijing — because it’s too early to tell.

Clear public health messaging is key

When entering a second lockdown, it’s useful to consider the lessons learnt from the first. Initial lockdowns in both Italy and India provide cautionary tales on what happens when public messaging and enforcement is flawed.

Italian media published information about internal movement restrictions a day before the Italian prime minister officially announced it and signed the decree. At the time, only northern Italy was heavily affected by COVID-19.

After the news spread, workers and students, many of whom carried the virus, rushed back home across the country, flooding the train stations. Even though the goal was to reduce the spread of the virus, the effects were the opposite. Soon after, it was discovered that new COVID-19 cases in southern Italy were families from students who came home from the north.

Similar panic among migrant workers occurred in India when the prime minister gave the public only a few hours notice before the start of the lockdown. This is just one reason why India’s lockdown has been labelled as “a spectacular failure”.

Lockdown, relax, lockdown, relax

After a lockdown, the majority of the population remains at risk of infection without a vaccine. So as restrictions ease, cases are likely to increase again, leading to a pattern of lockdowns, relaxation and renewed lockdowns

So why can’t governments just aim to eliminate the virus? An elimination strategy requires strict, intensive lockdowns and closing external and internal borders to eradicate local transmission and prevent the virus being imported.

Elimination strategies have worked in only a few countries and regions, such as New Zealand which imposed an early and strict lockdown.




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The effectiveness of lockdowns can be diminished by increasing population fatigue in response to reimposed restrictions.

Lockdowns also have many serious repercussions, including a severe impact on mental health and the economy. French Prime Minister Jean Castex has ruled out another total lockdown arguing that its economic and human consequences are disastrous.

Locking down a given country can cost up to 3% of GDP per month, according to UBS Global Wealth Management.

Lockdowns can work if we use masks

It’s clear that lockdowns cannot be maintained indefinitely. That’s why the rapid development of a vaccine to achieve herd immunity, without extensive infection, is critical – along with the development of drugs to relieve the symptoms of COVID-19.

So how long should Melbourne’s lockdown last? The Grattan Institute has argued it should continue until there are no more active COVID-19 cases in the community to eliminate the virus – and after that, should remain in place for another two weeks.

We argue that the duration of the lockdown could be halved if paired with mandatory universal use of face masks. Wearing masks lowers the risk of spreading and contracting the disease.




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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.The Conversation

Maximilian de Courten, Health Policy Lead and Professor in Global Public Health at the Mitchell Institute, Victoria University; Bo Klepac Pogrmilovic, Research Fellow in Health Policy at the Mitchell Institute for Education and Health Policy, Victoria University, and Rosemary V Calder, Professor, Health Policy, Victoria University

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

Cutting taxes for the wealthy is the worst possible response to this economic crisis


John Quiggin, The University of Queensland

Australia’s response to the health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic is rightly considered one of the world’s best. At their best, our federal and state politicians have put aside the sterile games dominating politics for decades.

It seemed possible these efforts might last, as politicians sought to find common ground and make real progress on issues such as climate change, industrial relations and inequality as part of the coronavirus recovery.

But as soon as the virus seemed to be receding, politics returned to the old “normal”. Policies are again being put forward on the basis of ideological reflexes rather than an analysis of the required response to our new situation.

There is no more striking example than the federal government’s reported plan to bring forward income tax cuts legislated for 2024-25. The idea apparently has backbench support.

Those cuts will benefit high-income earners the most. They include replacing the 32.5% marginal tax rate on incomes between A$45,000 and A$120,000, and the 37% rate on incomes between AA$180,000, with a single 30% rate up to A$200,000.

This is being proposed while the government begins to wind back income-support measures, such as free child care, with much more serious “cliffs” fast approaching.

This economic crisis is different

One of the most striking features of Australia’s initial response to COVID-19 was the speed at which the Morrison government abandoned a decade of rhetoric denouncing the Rudd Labor government’s response to the Global Financial Crisis.

In mid-March the government was floating the idea of a tightly limited response with a budget of A$5 billion. By the end of the month this had been abandoned in favour of the JobSeeker and JobKeeper schemes, estimated to cost A$14 billion and A$70 billion respectively. Other schemes brought the total to A$133 billion.

Despite the close resemblance to the Rudd stimulus packages, there was one crucial difference.

The GFC caused a collapse in the availability of credit, potentially choking off consumer demand and private investment. This was the classic case needing demand stimulus.

By contrast, the COVID-19 pandemic caused a shock to the production side of the economy, which flowed through to incomes. Millions of workers in industries such as tourism, hospitality and the arts were no longer able to work because of the virus.

The crucial problem was to support the incomes of those thrown out of work, and keep the businesses employing them afloat until some kind of normality returned. There were problems with the details of eligibility and implementation of the JobSeeker and JobKeeper programs, but the response was essentially right.

Have cash, will buy luxury car

The primary rationale for early tax cuts is that they will stimulate demand. But the economy’s real problem is not inadequate demand – particularly not on the part of high-income earners.

On the contrary, the problem for high-income earners is having a steady income even as many of the things they usually spend on (high-end restaurant meals, interstate and overseas holidays) have become unobtainable.

Among the results has been a splurge on luxury cars. Compared to June 2019, sales of Mazdas, Hyundais, Mitsubishis, Kias, Nissans and Hondas last month were all down. But Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi and Lexus were all up.

As Jason Murphy notes, this rush to buy fancy cars isn’t definitive proof the wealthy are looking to ways to spend all the money they’re saving. “But it is suggestive. Eventually the money has to go somewhere.”

The worst possible course of action

The continuing problem with the pandemic is the loss of income faced by millions of workers. By definition, anyone in a position to benefit from a high-end tax cut doesn’t have this problem. Equity would suggest that, far from receiving more income, they should be sharing more of the burden, if not now then in the recovery period.




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When the federal government legislated its tax-cut schedule in advance, critics including Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe and Access Economics partner Chris Richardson pointed out the danger of promising future tax cuts based on projected growth. The same policy had failed ignominiously in the 1990s when the Keating government legislated tax cuts to be introduced after the 1993 election. After declaring the cuts “L-A-W”, Paul Keating was forced to withdraw half of the tax cuts when the budget deteriorated.

These criticisms have now been vindicated.

The decade of strong economic growth, starting this year, that was supposed to make big tax cuts affordable has disappeared. We will be lucky if per capita GDP is back to its 2019 levels by 2024-25, when the tax cuts are slated to kick in regardless of circumstances.

Once that happens, we will need all the tax revenue we can get to bring the budget back into balance and deal with the continuing expenditure needs the pandemic has created.

The government now seems to be headed for the worst possible course of action – cutting support for those hit hardest by the pandemic while pouring money into the bank accounts of the well-off.




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The inevitable result of such a policy will be a surge of personal and business bankruptcies, mortgage defaults and evictions. That will bring about the kind of demand-deficiency recession the tax cuts are supposed to prevent, superimposed on the continuing constraints created by the pandemic.

So far we have all been in this together. For high-income earners that means forgoing tax cuts promised in happier times and contributing more to the relief of those who need it most.The Conversation

John Quiggin, Professor, School of Economics, The University of Queensland

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

Morrison’s $1.3 billion for more ‘cyber spies’ is an incremental response to a radical problem



Mick Tsikas/AAP

Greg Austin, UNSW

The federal government has announced it will spend more than a billion dollars over the next ten years to boost Australia’s cyber defences.

This comes barely a week after Prime Minister Scott Morrison warned the country was in the grip of a “sophisticated” cyber attack by a “state-based” actor, widely reported to be China.




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The announcement can be seen as a mix of the right stuff and political window dressing – deflecting attention away from Australia’s underlying weaknesses when it comes to cyber security.

What is the funding for?

Morrison’s cyber announcement includes a package of measures totalling $1.35 billion over ten years.

This includes funding to disrupt offshore cyber crime, intelligence sharing between government and industry, new research labs and more than 500 “cyber spy” jobs.

As Morrison explained

This … will mean that we can identify more cyber threats, disrupt more foreign cyber criminals, build more partnerships with industry and government and protect more Australians.

They key aim is to help the country’s cyber intelligence agency, the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), to know as soon as possible who is attacking Australia, with what, and how the attack can best be stopped.

Australia’s cyber deficiencies

Australia certainly needs to do more to defend itself against cyber attacks.

Intelligence specialists like top public servant Nick Warner have been advocating for more attention for cyber threats for years.

Concerns about Australia’s cyber defences have been raised for years.
http://www.shutterstock.com

The government is also acknowledging publicly that the threats are increasing.

Earlier this month, Morrison held an unusual press conference to announce that Australia was under cyber attack.

While he did not specify who by, government statements made plain it was the same malicious actor (a foreign government) using the same tools as an attack reported in May this year.

Related attacks on Australia using similar malware were also identified in May 2019.

This type of threat is called an “advanced persistent threat” because it is hard to get it out of a system, even if you know it is there.




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Australia is under sustained cyber attack, warns the government. What’s going on, and what should businesses do?


All countries face enormous difficulties in cyber defence, and Australia is arguably among the top states in cyber security world-wide. Yet after a decade of incremental reforms, the government has been unable to organise all of its own departments to implement more than basic mitigation strategies.

New jobs in cyber security

The biggest slice of the $1.35 billion is a “$470 million investment to expand our cyber security workforce”.

This is by any measure an essential underpinning and is to be applauded.

The Morrison government wants to recruit more than 500 new ASD employees.
http://www.shutterstock.com

But it is not yet clear how “new” these new jobs are.

The 2016 Defence White Paper announced a ten year workforce expansion of 1,700 jobs in intelligence and cyber security. This included a 900-person joint cyber unit in the Australian Defence Force, announced in 2017.

The newly mooted expansion for ASD will also need to be undertaken gradually. It will be impossible to find hundreds of additional staff with the right skills straight away.

The skills needed cut across many sub-disciplines of cyber operations, and must be fine-tuned across various roles. ASD has identified four career streams (analysis, systems architecture, operations and testing) but these do not reflect the diversity of talents needed.

It’s clear Australian universities do not currently train people at the advanced levels needed by ASD, so advanced on-the-job training is essential.

Political window dressing

The government is promoting its announcement as the “nation’s largest ever investment in cyber security”. But the seemingly generous $1.35 billion cyber initiative does not involve new money.

The package is also a pre-announcement of part of the government’s upcoming 2020 Cyber Security Strategy, expected within weeks.

This will update the 2016 strategy released under former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and cyber elements of the 2016 Defence White Paper.




Read more:
Australia is facing a looming cyber emergency, and we don’t have the high-tech workforce to counter it


The new cyber strategy has been the subject of country-wide consultations through 2019, but few observers expect significant new funding injections.

The main exceptions which may receive a funding boost compared with 2016 are likely to be in education funding (as opposed to research), and community awareness.

With the release of the new cyber strategy understood to be imminent, it is unclear why the government chose this particular week to make the pre-announcement. It obviously will have kept some big news for the strategy release when it happens.

The federal government is expected to release a new cyber security strategy within weeks.
http://www.shutterstock.com

The government’s claim that an additional $135 million per year is the “largest ever investment in cyber security” is true in a sense. But this is the case in many areas of government expenditure.

The government has obviously cut pre-planned expenses in some unrevealed areas of Defence.

Meanwhile, the issues this funding is supposed to address are so complex, that $1.35 billion over ten years can best be seen as an incremental response to a radical threat.

Australia needs to do much more

According to authoritative sources, including the federal government-funded AustCyber in 2019, there are a number of underlying deficiencies in Australia’s industrial and economic response to cyber security.

These can only be improved if federal government departments adopt stricter approaches, if state governments follow suit, and if the private sector makes appropriate adjustments.

Above all, the leading players need to shift their planning to better accommodate the organisational and management aspects of cyber security delivery.




Read more:
Australia is vulnerable to a catastrophic cyber attack, but the Coalition has a poor cyber security track record


Yes, we need to up our technical game, but our social response is also essential.

CEOs and departmental secretaries should be legally obliged to attest every year that they have sound cyber security practices and their entire organisations are properly trained.

Without better corporate management, Australia’s cyber defences will remain fragmented and inadequate.The Conversation

Greg Austin, Professor UNSW Canberra Cyber, UNSW

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

Coronavirus responses highlight how humans are hardwired to dismiss facts that don’t fit their worldview



The more politicized an issue, the harder it is for people to absorb contradictory evidence.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images News via Getty Images

Adrian Bardon, Wake Forest University

Bemoaning uneven individual and state compliance with public health recommendations, top U.S. COVID-19 adviser Anthony Fauci recently blamed the country’s ineffective pandemic response on an American “anti-science bias.” He called this bias “inconceivable,” because “science is truth.” Fauci compared those discounting the importance of masks and social distancing to “anti-vaxxers” in their “amazing” refusal to listen to science.

It is Fauci’s profession of amazement that amazes me. As well-versed as he is in the science of the coronavirus, he’s overlooking the well-established science of “anti-science bias,” or science denial.

Americans increasingly exist in highly polarized, informationally insulated ideological communities occupying their own information universes.

Within segments of the political blogosphere, global warming is dismissed as either a hoax or so uncertain as to be unworthy of response. Within other geographic or online communities, the science of vaccine safety, fluoridated drinking water and genetically modified foods is distorted or ignored. There is a marked gap in expressed concern over the coronavirus depending on political party affiliation, apparently based in part on partisan disagreements over factual issues like the effectiveness of social distancing or the actual COVID-19 death rate.

In theory, resolving factual disputes should be relatively easy: Just present strong evidence, or evidence of a strong expert consensus. This approach succeeds most of the time, when the issue is, say, the atomic weight of hydrogen.

But things don’t work that way when scientific advice presents a picture that threatens someone’s perceived interests or ideological worldview. In practice, it turns out that one’s political, religious or ethnic identity quite effectively predicts one’s willingness to accept expertise on any given politicized issue.

Motivated reasoning” is what social scientists call the process of deciding what evidence to accept based on the conclusion one prefers. As I explain in my book, “The Truth About Denial,” this very human tendency applies to all kinds of facts about the physical world, economic history and current events.

The same facts will sound different to people depending on what they already believe.
AP Photo/John Raoux

Denial doesn’t stem from ignorance

The interdisciplinary study of this phenomenon has made one thing clear: The failure of various groups to acknowledge the truth about, say, climate change, is not explained by a lack of information about the scientific consensus on the subject.

Instead, what strongly predicts denial of expertise on many controversial topics is simply one’s political persuasion.

A 2015 metastudy showed that ideological polarization over the reality of climate change actually increases with respondents’ knowledge of politics, science and/or energy policy. The chances that a conservative is a climate science denier is significantly higher if he or she is college educated. Conservatives scoring highest on tests for cognitive sophistication or quantitative reasoning skills are most susceptible to motivated reasoning about climate science.

Denialism is not just a problem for conservatives. Studies have found liberals are less likely to accept a hypothetical expert consensus on the possibility of safe storage of nuclear waste, or on the effects of concealed-carry gun laws.

Denial is natural

The human talent for rationalization is a product of many hundreds of thousands of years of adaptation. Our ancestors evolved in small groups, where cooperation and persuasion had at least as much to do with reproductive success as holding accurate factual beliefs about the world. Assimilation into one’s tribe required assimilation into the group’s ideological belief system – regardless of whether it was grounded in science or superstition. An instinctive bias in favor of one’s “in-group” and its worldview is deeply ingrained in human psychology.

A human being’s very sense of self is intimately tied up with his or her identity group’s status and beliefs. Unsurprisingly, then, people respond automatically and defensively to information that threatens the worldview of groups with which they identify. We respond with rationalization and selective assessment of evidence – that is, we engage in “confirmation bias,” giving credit to expert testimony we like while finding reasons to reject the rest.

Unwelcome information can also threaten in other ways. “System justification” theorists like psychologist John Jost have shown how situations that represent a perceived threat to established systems trigger inflexible thinking. For example, populations experiencing economic distress or an external threat have often turned to authoritarian leaders who promise security and stability.

In ideologically charged situations, one’s prejudices end up affecting one’s factual beliefs. Insofar as you define yourself in terms of your cultural affiliations, your attachment to the social or economic status quo, or a combination, information that threatens your belief system – say, about the negative effects of industrial production on the environment – can threaten your sense of identity itself. If trusted political leaders or partisan media are telling you that the COVID-19 crisis is overblown, factual information about a scientific consensus to the contrary can feel like a personal attack.

Everyone sees the world through one partisan lens or another, based on their identity and beliefs.
Vladyslav Starozhylov/Shutterstock.com

Denial is everywhere

This kind of affect-laden, motivated thinking explains a wide range of examples of an extreme, evidence-resistant rejection of historical fact and scientific consensus.

Have tax cuts been shown to pay for themselves in terms of economic growth? Do communities with high numbers of immigrants have higher rates of violent crime? Did Russia interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election? Predictably, expert opinion regarding such matters is treated by partisan media as though evidence is itself inherently partisan.

Denialist phenomena are many and varied, but the story behind them is, ultimately, quite simple. Human cognition is inseparable from the unconscious emotional responses that go with it. Under the right conditions, universal human traits like in-group favoritism, existential anxiety and a desire for stability and control combine into a toxic, system-justifying identity politics.

Science denial is notoriously resistant to facts because it isn’t about facts in the first place. Science denial is an expression of identity – usually in the face of perceived threats to the social and economic status quo – and it typically manifests in response to elite messaging.

I’d be very surprised if Anthony Fauci is, in fact, actually unaware of the significant impact of politics on COVID-19 attitudes, or of what signals are being sent by Republican state government officials’ statements, partisan mask refusal in Congress, or the recent Trump rally in Tulsa. Effective science communication is critically important because of the profound effects partisan messaging can have on public attitudes. Vaccination, resource depletion, climate and COVID-19 are life-and-death matters. To successfully tackle them, we must not ignore what the science tells us about science denial.

This is an updated version of an article originally published on Jan. 31, 2020.

[Get our best science, health and technology stories. Sign up for The Conversation’s science newsletter.]The Conversation

Adrian Bardon, Professor of Philosophy, Wake Forest University

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

How should leaders respond to disasters? Be visible, offer real comfort – and don’t force handshakes


Rosemary Williamson, University of New England

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been harshly criticised for being on holiday in Hawaii as the catastrophic bushfires were burning Australia.

Since his return, he has visited stricken communities – most recently, on Kangaroo Island yesterday. He has acknowledged the emotional toll on victims and promised practical support.

But the criticism continues. Every detail of the prime minister’s performance is being scrutinised via the 24/7 news cycle and social media. There is plenty of scope for perceived missteps, and little tolerance of them.

Disaster of any kind throws qualities of leadership – or the perceived lack thereof – under the spotlight. By what criteria, then, do we evaluate a leader’s performance at such times? What do we look for?

Criticised for being out of touch, Scott Morrison made a visit to Kangaroo Island to tour the fire damage and meet with locals.
David Mariuz/AAP

How Jacinda Ardern got it right

These are questions that have guided my research on how prime ministers have historically connected with Australians during times of peril.

During crises, people expect two things, broadly speaking. One is practical information, advice and support to minimise the risk faced by those directly impacted. The other is “humanistic communication” – or, the ability to offer comfort.

Last March, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern showed both of these qualities in her decisive response to the massacre of 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch.




Read more:
Politicians need to listen up before they speak up – and listen in the right places


She immediately provided detailed information and promised aid and tighter gun control measures. And she unambiguously aligned all New Zealanders with the Muslim community by what she said – “They are us” – and by standing with community leaders and comforting those in distress.

Importantly, Ardern also wore a headscarf when meeting the families of victims. This was seen as a strong and culturally sensitive statement of solidarity and support – a mark of good political leadership.

Women across New Zealand wore headscarfs in solidarity with the victims of the attacks after Ardern’s gesture.
SNPA Pool/EPA

Being on the ground to see themselves

Australian leaders have long shown strength in times of need, but the way they do so has changed over time. Today, there’s much more emphasis on being visible.

Following the Black Sunday bushfires in Victoria in 1926, for example, The Age printed a speech by Prime Minister Stanley Bruce in which he promised federal government aid and praised the heroism and altruism of Australians.

When the Black Friday fires devastated the state 13 years later, The Age quoted an “appalled” Prime Minister Joseph Lyons, who promised aid and expressed his “heartfelt sympathy” to victims.

But nothing was said in the newspapers back then about either prime minister interacting directly with victims.




Read more:
Scott Morrison’s biggest failure in the bushfire crisis: an inability to deliver collective action


A leader wouldn’t get away with that these days. Since televisions became ubiquitous in people’s homes, it’s become necessary for leaders to be on the ground following a disaster, surveying damage and consoling victims.

Prime Minister Harry Holt, a savvy user of the media in the early years of television, travelled to Tasmania in the aftermath of the Black Tuesday fires in 1967. Holt said he had to go to see for himself, to better understand people’s experience and needs. A detailed study of the 1967 bushfire response notes that Holt’s visit, while short, “caught the imagination” of journalists, who reported his reaction to the devastation in vivid detail.

This is what we now expect. Visits to disaster sites have become rituals vital to crisis management and a fixture of disaster reporting.

Listening to victims

For a prime minister, such visits are also a chance to express those inherent qualities of “Australianness” that guarantee a full recovery. Everything that is said and done matters, which is why small details are heavily scrutinised.

People do not expect to be held at arm’s length on these occasions. Expressions of empathy are often reinforced by physical contact, even hugs.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd demonstrated this following fires in Victoria in 2009, as did John Howard in the wake of the fires that swept through Canberra in 2003. They shook hands, patted backs and embraced survivors and emergency service workers.

John Howard comforting a fire victim in a Canberra suburb in 2003.
Pool/AAP

Others have got it completely wrong. Among his many missteps in his response to Hurricane Katrina, President George W. Bush delayed returning to Washington from his vacation by two whole days. An image of him surveying the damage from Air Force One then backfired – a decision Bush later called a “huge mistake”.

When Hurricane Harvey devastated Texas in 2017, President Donald Trump was likewise criticised for paying too little attention to victims when he toured the site. And after the Grenfell Tower fire in London, UK Prime Minister Theresa May admitted that not meeting residents on her first visit was a mistake.

Misjudging what type of response is welcome from a leader also risks being seen as symptomatic of poor leadership, of being out of touch with the people. As we saw recently with Morrison, not everybody appreciates a handshake.

Stilettos and camouflage jackets

Even what a leader wears may be important. First Lady Melania Trump, for instance, was widely mocked for wearing stiletto heels to tour the Harvey devastation.

And when Prime Minister Julia Gillard went to Queensland in early 2011 following extensive flooding and held a press conference with Premier Anna Bligh, some commentators focused on the differences in their attire. Gillard, with her tidy suit, was criticised for not striking the right note. Bligh’s more casual appearance, meanwhile, had the look of someone more in touch with the suffering of the people.

Earlier this year, Morrison was also faulted for wearing a military camouflage jacket when touring a north Queensland flood zone, with some saying he was “hamming it up” for the cameras.

Morrison visiting flood victims in Townsville last February.
Dave Acree/AAP

Authenticity matters more than anything

The reactions to Morrison’s handling of the bushfires shows how important these qualities are in our presidents and prime ministers and how they will continue to influence perceptions of leadership in times of crisis.

Just as every leader is different, every disaster also requires a distinct approach. Each demands quick and sensitive judgements about what’s appropriate for the occasion. Reaction to any perceived errors of judgement will be swift and will spread quickly.

Above all, we look for authenticity in these moments, rather than obviously scripted photo opportunities. And in times of crisis, we’re more attuned to those out-of-touch moments when authenticity seems to be lacking.The Conversation

Rosemary Williamson, Senior Lecturer, School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, University of New England

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