Public trust in the government’s COVID response is slowly eroding. Here’s how to get it back on track


David Gray/AAP

Mark Griffith Evans, University of CanberraPublic trust is critically important during the pandemic. Without it, the changes to public behaviour that are necessary to contain and ultimately prevent the spread of infection are slower and more difficult to achieve.

In mid-2020, Australia was widely viewed by the public as having successfully managed the pandemic, especially compared to the US, UK and other European countries. Australians’ trust in their government almost doubled in a year from 29% to 54%.

The same is not the case today. Australia remains locked down with a stalled vaccine rollout, while the US, UK and other countries are opening up. And public trust in the government is eroding.

The latest Essential poll last week showed people’s support of the government’s handling of the pandemic sliding nine points from 53% to 44%. And 30% of respondents described the government’s COVID strategy as poor, compared to 24% a month earlier.

Why people tend to trust government in crises

It’s common for people to show support for their leaders during crises. In the initial stages of the pandemic in early 2020, surveys showed leaders in a large number of countries enjoyed an increase in public confidence.

The approval rating of Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte hit 71% in March 2020 – 27 points higher than the previous month – despite the fact his country was in the throes of a deadly first wave of the pandemic.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel saw her approval rise to 79%, while the prime ministers of Canada and Australia, Justin Trudeau and Scott Morrison, saw similar surges in popularity during the early months of the pandemic.

Perceptions of political leadership during the pandemic, July 2020.
Adapted from Will Jennings and others, 2020, Political Trust and the Covid-19 Crisis – pushing populism to the backburner?, Author provided

The upsurge of support is partly explained by what is called the “rally-round-the-flag” effect.

In Australia, Morrison’s approval rating soared on the back of his effective handling of the initial threat, judicious decision-making on early closure of international borders and an atypical coordination of state and federal governments via the National Cabinet.

Moreover, a severe threat like a pandemic can make people more information-hungry, anxious and fearful. COVID has become a powerful shared experience for people. It touched most households through people’s connections with health and social care workers and their communication with relatives, co-workers or friends who were in lockdown or unfortunate enough to get sick.




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Yet, research also suggests many people do not lose their capacity for reason or critical judgement in a crisis. For example, people can oppose wars or other heavy-handed responses to terrorist attacks even if such attacks make them more anxious or fearful.

Above all, the competence and outcomes of the government’s actions matter. If the government is perceived as not able or willing to adequately respond to a threat, then public support will fade.

How government can get public trust back

Fast-forward to today. The Australian public is disenchanted with the slow rollout of the vaccine program and mixed government messaging over the relative risks of the AstraZeneca vaccine. This has punctured public trust in government in a very short period of time.

At the same time, people are proving highly vulnerable to fake news and conspiracy theorists, who are taking advantage of mixed messaging by government to try to sow more confusion.

The dangerous implication of all of this: it’s fuelling vaccine hesitancy. One in six Australians now say they will never get a COVID vaccine, according to a recent poll.

So, what needs to be done to reverse the decline in public trust of the government? The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has provided some timely guidelines that suggest the need for greater community engagement.

This can be achieved by the government taking these steps:

  • proactively releasing timely information on vaccination strategies, forms of delivery and accomplishments in a user-friendly format
  • providing transparent and coherent public communication to address misinformation and what is known as the “infodemic
  • engaging the public when developing vaccination strategies.



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The public needs to have its say

At the start of the pandemic, co-designing strategies with citizens was a low priority. But in the later stages of crisis management when behavioural change – in this case, vaccine take-up – becomes critical to containing the virus, you ignore the views of citizens at your peril.

Moreover, in the recovery stage – when it’s time to reflect on the government response, take accountability for missteps and draw lessons for the future – citizen engagement becomes even more important.

As inquiries are eventually launched to explore what went right and what went wrong with the coronavirus response, the public must be invited to the discussion.

And there are models for how to do this. Just look at the citizen’s assemblies that have been formed in France and the UK to push for greater action on climate change in the post-COVID global recovery.

There’s no way of knowing if COVID-19 could have been managed more successfully if there had been more public participation and debate from the start, given the whirlwind of uncertainty and the need for rapid decisions to tackle a crisis.

But there is little doubt that at some point the public will have to have their say. Important nationwide discussions need to be had on how best to limit the creep of executive power, how to better facilitate public debate in a period of high anxiety, and how to get the best out of the experts.




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How to combat misinformation?

And what about the longer-term problem of combating truth decay in society?

Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands have an effective weapon to combat fake news: education. These countries all include digital literacy and critical thinking about misinformation in their national curriculums.

Moreover, the Finnish fact-checking organisation Faktabaari provides professional fact-checking methods for use in Finnish schools, focusing on misinformation, disinformation and malinformation (stories that are intended to cause harm).

This is where Australian public universities can play a critical role by providing independent, evidence-based, fact-checking services in their areas of expertise to the community. This is essential not only to combat truth decay, but to strengthen our responses to future crises.The Conversation

Mark Griffith Evans, Professor of Governance and Director of Democracy 2025 – strengthening democratic practice at Old Parliament House, University of Canberra

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

Grattan on Friday: General’s vaccine advance waits on more fuel


Michelle Grattan, University of CanberraDespite some questioning about a military man being in charge of the vaccine rollout, when it comes to communicating, Lieutenant General JJ Frewen is a refreshing change from the pollie-speak and fudges we hear all the time.

At a Tuesday news conference, after his virtual meeting with the states and territories, Frewen answered questions directly and briefly.

He was distinctly “forward leaning”, indeed pre-empting the content of the roundtable Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and he were to have with business representatives the following day.

Frewen sounds like a man who knows what he’s doing. Coming days will tell whether that’s the reality. (You can find a touch of scepticism in certain state quarters.)

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is naturally inclined to put faith in the military, especially after his Sovereign Borders experience. But bringing in Frewen was also a response to what was becoming a desperate situation. It was a call to Triple Zero. He’s now very impressed with the general and relying on him heavily.

While critics baulk at the “men in uniform” pictures (Frewen flanked by colleagues), a degree of concern is also being expressed from quite another quarter. Some defence sources are wary of the danger of politicising the military.

The Australia Defence Association tweeted this week: “Relying on the ADF to head emergency efforts (not just assist the civil community) risks dragging a necessarily non-partisan institution into #auspol controversy”.

The ADA referenced the 2007 Northern Territory intervention over child sex abuse, when the seconded general heading a multi-departmental operation was targeted in a highly politicised environment.

At the moment, however, Frewen has more immediate worries. The general has landed on the beach, reworked the maps, and is marshalling available forces. But his advance is hampered by the shortage of fit-for-purpose fuel.

As each day goes by, the limited quantities of Pfizer and the absence of any other currently available alternative to AstraZeneca (which is subject to restrictive health advice) is being highlighted more starkly.

The fact this will change later (we are assured) doesn’t help when the here-and-now is urgent, as the Sydney outbreak and the extension of the lockdown there underline.

It’s a time-gap that up until now Australia has not been able to significantly narrow.

We’re hearing about vaccine transfers abroad – for example, Israel is providing doses to South Korea, to be repaid later.

But it is hard for a country like Australia, with relatively few cases, to make a plea. Morrison was asked why we haven’t been able to use our “special relationship” with the US to get some of its surplus doses. Unsurprisingly, others have greater needs or better arrangements.

Announcing on Thursday a liberalising of the COVID disaster payment to assist in the Sydney outbreak, Morrison also said the state would be provided with 300,000 extra vaccine doses next week, equally divided between Pfizer and AstraZeneca. This won’t affect what other states receive (on the per head of population formula), and NSW’s numbers will be smoothed out later.

The federal government has now rustled up additional shots of Pfizer.

On Friday, it was announced the supply of Pfizer had been brought forward, with 4.5 million doses expected to be available in August instead of September.

The supply problem came through strongly when Frydenberg and Frewen spoke after Wednesday’s business meeting.

The roundtable canvassed workplace vaccinations. Frydenberg said there were a lot of offers. Virgin Group CEO Jayne Hrdlicka said, “Big employers have the ability to stand up vaccination programs very quickly and would welcome the opportunity to be able to vaccinate as much of the workforce as quickly as possible”.

According to Treasury sources, when the rollout was being prepared, Treasury put forward the view that employers should be used as a channel, as with the flu vaccine. But up to now, we’ve heard little from the government about such an obvious way to boost rates. And, among other things, that goes back to supply.

If we had more Pfizer, there is no reason why this could not have been happening now. (Except where there’s lockdown and work from home!) But employers can’t be in the thick of the rollout when the supply problem means the younger people in their workforces could not be given the vaccine preferred for them. The workplace sites will be for later in the year.

If there had been more Pfizer, the under 40 cohort could have been brought into the general rollout program much earlier – these people are still waiting, unless their job or health puts them into a special category, or they choose AstraZeneca.

And with adequate Pfizer supplies the PM wouldn’t have needed to encourage younger people to consult their doctor about taking AstraZeneca.

The extension for another week of the Sydney lockdown further removes the special status NSW has claimed – and has been accorded by the federal government – as the gold standard for handling COVID without having to resort to extreme measures. The virus again has proved itself the great leveller.

NSW’s decision would be especially disappointing to Morrison. But there is a tone of greater tolerance towards his home state than he displayed to Victoria, in its recent troubles, when he held out for some days before announcing assistance. (In fairness, the Delta outbreak in Sydney is particularly bad.)

“We’re working very cooperatively and positively together [with NSW] because let me be clear – what is happening in Sydney just doesn’t have implications for Sydney,” he said.

“What is happening in Sydney has very serious implications not only for the health of Sydneysiders but also for the economy of Sydney, but also the economy of NSW and indeed the national economy.”

At the moment, one in three eligible people in Australia has had a first vaccine dose, and one in ten has received both doses.

The government has been foreshadowing for a while that by year’s end, all eligible Australians will have had the opportunity of a first jab. On Thursday, Morrison pointedly said this was the government’s intention “based on the advice of Lieutenant General John Frewen that that will be possible”.

That’s assuming “the supply lines hold”.

The PM said this would mean the vaccination program would be only two months behind the schedule the government had when it talked about an October deadline.

No pressure, JJ.

This article has been updated to take into account the prime minister’s Friday announcement on bringing forward Pfizer dosesThe Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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

Too late, already bolted: how a faster WHO response could have slowed COVID-19’s spread


Victor He/Unsplash

Michael Toole, Burnet InstituteUrgent global action is needed to end the COVID-19 pandemic and prepare for future threats, according to a new report by the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response.

The panel, co-chaired by former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark and former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, criticises the World Health Organization (WHO) for its tardy actions during the first months of 2020.

The WHO was slow to warn of person-to-person transmission after it first received this information in Wuhan, China, in early January.

And it was slow to declare a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC), which it did on January 30.

The WHO also opposed international travel restrictions that, if implemented earlier, might have slowed the international spread of the virus. By the time the PHEIC was declared, COVID-19 had spread to 18 countries outside China.

But WHO’s hands were tied

While this may appear just a scathing criticism of the world’s peak health body, the WHO had its hands tied by the international framework that governs the response to emerging infectious diseases and pandemics, the International Health Regulations (IHR).

These regulations were drafted in 2005 in response to the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and H5N1 (avian flu) pandemics and endorsed by member nations in 2007.

The regulations imposed new requirements that must be met before the WHO director general could act on emergencies, rather than enabling the WHO to act immediately and independently.

The regulations also prohibit international travel restrictions in public health emergencies.




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Many member nations failed to act

The report describes February 2020 as a “lost month”, referring to the time between the declaration of a PHEIC and the WHO statement on March 11 that characterised COVID-19 as a pandemic.

The panel found this was due to a lack of understanding that the PHEIC declaration was the loudest possible alarm open to the director general. The pandemic declaration was not based on International Health Regulation guidelines.

The panel found a number of countries took a wait-and-see attitude during February 2020, allowing the virus to spread uncontrollably.

Effective and high-level coordinating bodies were critical to a country’s ability to adapt to changing information. Yet only a few countries set in motion comprehensive and coordinated COVID-19 protection and response measures.

Of the 28 country responses the panel analysed in depth, only a handful adopted aggressive containment strategies, including China, New Zealand, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

Some others had uncoordinated approaches that devalued science, denied the potential impact of the pandemic, delayed comprehensive action and allowed distrust to undermine efforts. While not named, the United States and Brazil were probably among them.

The report praises the role of the African Union and the Africa CDC in leading a continent-wide coordinated response.

It also singles out research and development as a major achievement, especially in vaccine development.




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Preparation was inadequate

Despite the lessons learned from previous outbreaks of SARS, H1N1 (avian flu), Zika, MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) and Ebola, preparedness was vastly underfunded.

The US government, led by the Centres for Disease Control, established the Global Health Security Agenda, a group of 70 countries — including Australia – committed to building global capabilities to implement the International Health Regulations. But the Trump administration defunded most of the US CDC’s activities under the agenda.




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Defunding the WHO was a calculated decision, not an impromptu tweet


After the H1N1 pandemic, Australia reviewed its health sector response and made many recommendations for future preparedness. However, inaction followed. Australia has not run a large-scale pandemic simulation exercise since 2008.

Australia also dropped the ball on regional pandemic preparedness. After the SARS outbreak in 2003, the government developed a five-year regional emerging diseases and pandemics strategy, which received A$100 million from the Howard government. Yet the second five-year strategy attracted very little funding.

Fixing the global system

The panel urges immediate action to end the pandemic through:

  • accelerated vaccination
  • proven measures such as masks and social distancing
  • testing and contact tracing.

However, the focus of its recommendations is on future preparedness.

The panel is convinced a Global Health Threats Council at the most senior level is vital to future success. It would help secure high-level political leadership and ensure attention to pandemic prevention, preparedness and response is sustained over time. Such a body is long overdue.

To ensure the WHO is more agile, the panel recommends an increase in the proportion of funding that is unearmarked for specific programs and countries. This would allow for financial reserves to respond to sudden, unexpected events. It also needs an improved surveillance system, quicker alerts for emerging virus threats, and authority to publish information and dispatch expert missions immediately.

Transparency, speed, flexibility to act more independently and better resourcing are critical to the reforms proposed. Efforts to do this will need unqualified support from its member nations, starting at this month’s World Health Assembly.

After the disruptive years of the Trump presidency, the WHO needs restoration. Australia is influential and should be at the forefront of ensuring this happens.The Conversation

Michael Toole, Professor of International Health, Burnet Institute

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

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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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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Yes, the coronavirus mutates. But that shouldn’t affect the current crop of vaccines


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.




Read more:
Vital Signs: the cost of lockdowns is nowhere near as big as we have been told


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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Why China’s ‘debt-book diplomacy’ in the Pacific shouldn’t ring alarm bells just yet


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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How might coronavirus change Australia’s ‘Pacific Step-up’?


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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Forget JobSeeker. In our post-COVID economy, Australia needs a ‘liveable income guarantee’ instead


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.




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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.




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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.