Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Today by Paddy Manning

Bad to worse
The government is treating people like fools

Image of Greg Hunt

The Australians attending Centrelink offices, medical centres and supermarkets have been relatively peaceful so far, but there is a growing prospect of social unrest if federal and state governments do not lift their game in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Government Services Minister Stuart Robert’s admission that he failed to anticipate demand – “my bad”, he flippantly told 2GB – is a glaring example of the kind of incompetence that enrages the public, compounding anger over his attempt yesterday to shift blame for a failure of the myGov website onto a denial-of-service attack that never occurred. As 2GB’s Ray Hadley said this morning, the minister is still talking “absolute BS” about people’s ability to access Centrelink via the myGov site. At a press conference in Parliament House today, Health Minister Greg Hunt lashed out at “disturbing reports” of abuse of health workers. “If we take care of them,” he said, “they can take care of us.” Fine words, but the government will need to do more.

Anger at healthcare workers is a symptom of rising panic among the public, and today the Greens suggested an answer: to rebuild trust in the community, the government should release its COVID-19 modelling in the face of confusing and fragmented advice from state premiers, first ministers and the Commonwealth. So far, the data circulating publicly has either been historical, such as the number of infections or deaths to date, or it has been unofficial, such as the modelling by University of Melbourne epidemiologist Tony Blakey, reported [$] in The Australian this morning. 

Blakely’s figures, based on modelling by the Imperial College London, are frankly terrifying: assuming that strict social distancing reduces the infection rate, Blakely predicts that the epidemic will peak in Australia at 125,000 new cases a day by late May, with 60 per cent of the population infected. At the peak, he predicts there could be 5600 people a day requiring intensive care, competing for just 2200 beds. Hospitals are in the process of trying to double that capacity.

“Based on that scenario, there’s no way our ICU system will cope,” says the Greens health spokesman and former leader, Senator Richard Di Natale. Di Natale is a doctor and public health specialist who worked on influenza pandemic planning in Victoria before entering politics and visited West Africa during the 2014 Ebola outbreak. He says conflicting advice and misinformation – including from clinicians who are not trained in epidemiology – is causing public confusion and distrust.

Di Natale believes the solution is for the Australian government to follow the United Kingdom’s example and publicly release the COVID-19 data and modelling that they are working from so that Australians can better understand the extent of the situation. Beyond flattening the curve, Di Natale says, there has been little discussion of what the end game looks like. “What’s the long-term strategy here?” he asks. “Are we going hard enough, early enough? Let’s get the modelling out so we can know what the assumptions are. You’ve got to not treat people like fools – all that does is breed more distrust and more anxiety.”

Di Natale, whose family background is Italian, has an elderly aunt in Tuscany with rheumatoid arthritis who is highly vulnerable to the pandemic, and is watching the scenes unfolding there with horror. Is that the future for Australia? “It may or may not be,” says Di Natale, “there’s clearly a lot of uncertainty, but we should all the know the basis on which we’re making the decisions we’re making.” 

While the pandemic is increasingly alarming for those who are well informed, today’s Essential poll also shows a third of the public believe the government is overreacting, which is leading to the kind of complacency that necessitates ever-more stringent lockdown measures. “Right as we speak,” Hunt flagged today, those next stages of the lockdown “are being designed and the timing and the implementation measures for [them] are being carefully considered.” Releasing the official modelling, and taking the public into the confidence of the government, could break the cycle of complacency and crackdown.

“People remember the river as it was when they were children, or they remember the stories their grandparents told them perhaps, but there is no living memory of what the river was like before we began to intervene, before we built big dams like the Hume and the Dartmouth, before we put locks and weirs in place, so what people regard as natural or the natural state of the river is often in fact not natural … at all.”

Author and journalist Margaret Simons talks to ABC Radio National’s Life Matters about her Quarterly Essay on the state of the Murray–Darling Basin.

“By refusing to take the appropriate steps required to prevent the evolution and spread of COVID-19 coronavirus, China has put all human life worldwide at risk. China must be called out and any attempts to attack or criticise people for referring to COVID-19 as a ‘Chinese virus’ should be pushed back on.”

One Nation leader Pauline Hanson takes an opportunity to push her dangerous Sinophobia.

Coronavirus, part two: How the government failed
Medical experts say that the government’s slow response to the coronavirus outbreak has left Australia exposed, and a lack of resources could make the crisis worse. Today, in part two of our series on COVID-19, Mike Seccombe on the challenge our country and health system is facing.


The amount of taxpayer dollars that will be spent upgrading the Vales Point coal-fired power station in NSW, controlled by Liberal donor Trevor St Baker, after a decision by the independent Emissions Reduction Assurance Committee.

“A new protocol between internet service providers (ISPs) and the eSafety Commissioner … positions them to block websites hosting graphic material that depicts a terrorist act or violent crime, to stem the risk of its rapid spread as an online crisis event unfolds … It delivers on one of the recommendations of the Taskforce to Combat Terrorist and Extreme Violent Material Online, which was set up after the widespread distribution of the live-streamed terrorist attacks in Christchurch.”

Communications Minister Paul Fletcher announces a new protocol to stop the sharing of terrorist or graphically violent content online. Providers supporting the protocol including Telstra, Foxtel, Optus, TPG, VHA and Vocus Group.

The list

“Games may be cancelled, but the names play on. Includes the unisex Taylor census: Taylor (8), Tayla (5), Taylah (2), Tyla (1), Taylin (1), Ty (1).”

“In senior levels of government, Defence and corners of the wider military community, there is now an expectation that a four-year investigation by New South Wales Supreme Court Justice Paul Brereton for the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force (IGADF) will recommend that police investigate, and ultimately prosecute, a range of alleged incidents.”

“All the interests and obsessions that distinguish Wyld are expanded and explored: the violence of men, the meek submission and consequential fury of women set within and against the impersonal natural world. Her fiction is restless, always aiming to understand what it’s trying to see.” 

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Inside the Greens and the unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?


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