I got nothing

After nearly six weeks in Melbourne’s current lock-down (#6 if anyone is keeping count…), I have nothing to blog about this week.

The lack of external stimulus has finally beaten me, and I have nothing much to say. The muse is gone, the well is dry, and there’s only so much you can say about being confined to quarters.

One benefit of this enforced inactivity has been the opportunity to catch up on recent movies, that I either missed at the cinema, or which were not widely distributed upon release.

A few of these films seem perfectly suited to these times – mainly because nothing much happens. These particular stories are more concerned with slow observation and self-reflection.

In “The Truffle Hunters”, there is a stillness bordering on stagnation, as a group of elderly men respond in different ways to the changes being foisted upon their cottage industry. It’s not just the fact that their traditional way of life is coming to an end – it’s the nagging inevitability of their situation, and the growing realisation that there’s probably nothing they could have done to avoid this happening.

Stagnation of a different kind informs the main characters in “Another Round”. They see their lives as being stuck in a rut (although outwardly, they have a comfortable existence), and they feel relatively helpless. Until, that is, they stumble upon the idea of a social experiment, which involves maintaining a consistent blood-alcohol level. They embark on the project to see if they can enliven their mundane existence, with vastly different results.

A similar sense of helplessness pervades “Brad’s Status”. Similarly dissatisfied with his life, and with a growing awareness that perhaps he has misread key social relationships, a middle-aged father uses a trip with his son to re-assess his friends, reflect on his values, and re-connect with what sustains him. He also finds contentment in his achievements, and achieves a sense of acceptance about what he can and can’t change or control.

Finally, a journey of self-realisation also befalls the protagonist in “People Places Things”. When his marriage collapses (and he didn’t see it coming…), our hero finds a way to use his work to explore and resolve this apparent failure to read the situation. In the process, he learns how to communicate his feelings, and more importantly, he gets comfortable with who he is.

Next week: No-code product development

 

 

Same, same – but different?

At the time of writing, Melbourne and the rest of Victoria are waiting to know when (if?) the current lock-down will be lifted.

Just to recap: Melbourne is presently in its sixth shut down since March of last year, and the fourth so far of 2021. All combined, Melbourne has now clocked up more than 200 days under lock-down. The present measures were introduced on August 5, originally scheduled to last one week, and came barely a week after the previous lock-down ended. Lock-down #6 was soon extended by another week, and then by another two weeks, and will now extend beyond September 2. This is not counting the “stay at home” directive that was in place for most of 2020, along with the various limits and restrictions on social interaction, workplace capacity, public gatherings, hospitality, events, sport, gyms, retail, schools, funerals and weddings. We also have a night-time curfew for good measure.

The following two pictures convey similar human sentiments, but they also represent very different responses to the situation we are living under. One is an example of the numerous messages of hope and encouragement that I see around my neighbourhood on my statutory daily walks. The other is a discarded placard seen a few days after an anti-lock-down protest.

The first reflects a “let’s grin and bear it” attitude – nobody likes being in lock-down, but we are all in this together, and if we can just remain positive, we will come through it OK.

The second is more reactive, and emotionally charged – the enforced isolation brought on by the lock-down is having an enormous effect on peoples’ mental health.

It’s hard to argue with either message….

I thought I would be able to cope better with each successive lock-down. Building a daily routine, maintaining some physical discipline (courtesy of the permitted daily exercise), managing at least 2-3 AFDs per week, treating myself to a nice restaurant-prepared meal now and then, catching up on films that I didn’t get to see at the cinema. But despite the recurring groundhog scenario, this lock-down seems different, and much harder to manage mentally.

First, the uncertainty of when it will end creates a sense of dread that we could be like this for 100 days or more (like lock-down #2). Second, the daily drip feed of data and the endless press conferences only reinforce the sense that we are not being given the full picture. Third, the sense of helplessness that for all our individual sacrifices of the past 18 months, we don’t seem to be any further ahead (if anything, we have gone backwards on so many counts). Fourth, State politicians seem to view this public health scare as a war of attrition between themselves and the voters (and their interstate and Federal counterparts). Gone is any sense that we are all in this together.

Quite apart from the cracks in Federation that the pandemic and its response has exposed, entire sections of the community are being driven apart and/or pitted against one another. Despite the so-called “National Plan” that the Commonwealth, State and Territory governments have all signed-up for, it’s clear that individual Premiers each reserve the right to interpret it differently, and will continue to impose internal border closures if they see fit. So, while Victoria and New South Wales seem aligned on this National Plan, Western Australia and Queensland in particular are more circumspect. Then there is the “race” to vaccinate their respective populations (or, as has been said a few times already, “our State citizens”, rather than “our Commonwealth citizens”).

At what point will the 70% and 80% vaccination levels be achieved to herald the promised social and economic freedoms? Is it the % of total population, or only the adult population, or only the eligible population, or only those between certain ages? Is it going to be calculated Federally, or at the State/Territory and/or LGA level? What about mandatory vaccinations for essential and front line workers, and those that have face-to-face dealings with the public? What about employers who require their staff to be fully vaccinated, but face resistance from unions?

Continued lock-down risks becoming a blunt instrument, and a tool of first (rather than last) resort. As such, it also risks alienating the majority of the population who are doing the right thing, in observing the public health directions and getting vaccinated (like, where’s the benefit?). And a prolonged lock-down risks undermining the efficacy of the vaccine, so we’ll need booster shots before we know it!

It seems that Covid19 is challenging our notions of the social contract between the government and the governed, and even testing the social license to operate we grant to big business (especially monopolies and cozy duopolies). The pandemic is also demonstrating the limits of individual responsibility and accountability, and potentially undermining the duty of care we owe to one another. If I knowingly, recklessly or carelessly (and as a result of breaching public health orders or OH&S measures) infect my family, my neighbour, my colleague or my customer, am I culpable? Does that mean I forfeit certain of my rights, especially if infection leads to death?

Just on the data, another reason the current lock-down seems different is because the information is being presented is not the same. Last year, everything was about the R0 number, flattening the curve, and “double-donut days”. There was also confusion over agreed terminology for “clusters”, “unknown cases”, “hot spots”, “red zones”, “complex cases” and “linked cases”. Politicians and bureaucrats talked about “settings”, “circuit breakers”, and “gold standards” for contact tracing. This year, it’s all about the “number of days infected”, “chains of transmission”, “mystery cases”, as well as the number of tests and vaccinations – much less analysis, it seems, on the number of confirmed cases per 1,000 tests or per 1,000 of the population, recovery rates or deaths as a percentage of cases.

From what I can glean, the stubborn levels of “mystery” cases can only be explained by the following:

  • more asymptomatic cases (are people building natural immunity?);
  • legacy cases shedding (a result of long Covid?);
  • longer incubation (and reporting) periods (less obvious initial symptoms?);
  • novel forms of transmission (or the virus is lingering longer on outdoor surfaces?);
  • QR codes and contact tracing not working (or the data is not usable?);
  • confusion over domestic/social/workplace/health/retail settings (e.g., extended families and multi-generational households?);
  • people being unclear about their movements (for fear of being victimised?).

Finally, I’m also not sure if lessons are being learned from elsewhere. We are still applying 14 day quarantine/isolation periods (albeit now with a day 17 test), yet in Hong Kong, for example, quarantine was extended to 21 days some time ago.

Next week: To be or NFT?

 

How about that AAA rating?

As the State of Victoria weighs up the costs of yet another lock down, you could be forgiven for thinking that the local economy has taken a further beating after the horrendous events of the past 15 months. Across Australia, thousands of companies and individuals accessed various government-sponsored financial aid packages to keep afloat, causing the federal government to borrow more money, at something like 8x the equivalent rate pre-COVID. National public debt is now expected to grow to more than 40% of GDP by the 2024-25 fiscal year – effectively double what it was in 2018-19.

So what has Australia done to retain its coveted AAA sovereign rating from Standard & Poor’s, and have the rating outlook upgraded from negative to stable? According to the ratings agency, and economists such as Westpac’s Bill Evans, there are probably three or four key factors that have warranted this optimistic economic reckoning.

First, while government borrowing (Quantitative Easing) has blown out as a proportion of GDP, the current low interest rates mean that the cost of servicing that debt is manageable.

Second, while the pursuit of QE has destroyed any hope of returning to an overall budget surplus, the deficit will return to similar levels last seen after the GFC, and the current account will continue to return a modest surplus over the coming quarters.

Third, despite the significant economic risks that were identified at the start of the COVID pandemic, the actual impact on the budget has been less than feared, and the economy is recovering faster than expected (as evidenced by latest employment data and consumer sentiment).

Fourth, Australian banks have seen an increase in customer deposits, meaning they are less reliant on more expensive overseas borrowing for their own funding.

Overall, just as with the GFC, Australia has managed to dodge a bullet (the shock to the system was less than anticipated) – in large part thanks to a resurgence in iron ore prices (again).

But weaknesses and disparities remain:

The over-reliance on commodity prices (mainly based on demand from China) hides the true nature of Australia’s balance of payments – we manufacture less than we used to, and our supply chains have been severely tested during the pandemic. And with international borders closed, we won’t see the same levels of GDP growth that resulted from immigration.

Our household savings rate as a percentage of disposable income has come down from its peak of 22% in July 2020, to less than 12% this past quarter, as people held on to their cash for a rainy day (or 3 months lock-down). The savings rate is expected to come down even further as consumers feel more confident and start spending again.

As with the GFC, home owners have chosen to pay down their mortgage debt – but the picture is more complex. Yes, interest rates remain low (and will likely stay so for at least another 18 months), despite commentary from another economist, Stephen Koukoulas suggesting that the RBA will have to raise rates sooner than expected. With property prices expected to increase 5-10% over the next 12 months, home owners will feel wealthier (but asset rich and cash poor?) as mortgage repayments reduce as a percentage of their home’s value. And while analysts at S&P expect banks’ credit loses to remain low while the economy recovers, the fact that two-thirds of banks’ exposures are to highly leveraged residential property could see increased stress when interest rates rise and if wage growth remains sluggish (more on the latter next week).

Australia’s sovereign credit rating is something of a badge of honour, and represents membership of an exclusive club – fewer than a dozen countries are rated AAA; no wonder it’s a big deal, and partly explains why the Prime Minister gets to attend the G7 (albeit as an observer). Comparatively speaking, Australia is doing very well when it comes to managing COVID (although we could be doing a lot better on a number of measures), and has an economy that continues to be the envy of many. Expect more on that AAA rating (“How good was that?”) as we head into the next Federal election…

Next week: Where is wage growth going to come from?

Here We Go Again…

At the time of writing, Melbourne is once again under a COVID19-related lock down. Currently, we are three-quarters of the way through a 14-day “snap” lock down or “circuit breaker”. Variously known as #lockdown4, v4.0 (now v4.1 with the added week), or simply “The South Australian One”. Along with a prevailing sense of déja vu, much of the political, media and social coverage has a very familiar ring to it – like, here we go again!

Overall, I would much rather be in Australia at the moment, compared to many other places in the world that are still struggling to cope with the pandemic. But there is no doubt that this latest lock down is once again revealing some political and structural weaknesses in the Australian Federal and State system – and the people of Victoria (and especially Melbourne) are paying a heavy price for these combined failings.

The blame game between Federal and State politicians is becoming a farce – most of us would rather see some effective leadership and practical solutions, as well as a bit more owning up and taking responsibility for where and when things have gone wrong. After all, the first known case of COVID19 was reported in Australia in late January 2020, so our elected representatives at levels and of all persuasions have had nearly 18 months to sort this out. It doesn’t help that our Prime Minister is generally regarded as being absent whenever there is a crisis – on the other hand, does it help to have him turn up in hi-vis and hard hat for another photo opportunity? And sometimes when he does bother to make it, he’s often made to feel unwelcome.

Here are just a few of the disconnects between Federal and State roles and responsibilities when it comes to managing COVID19:

First, the Federal government is responsible for external border control (i.e., immigration and quarantine). It’s generally argued that the Feds have failed to deliver a workable quarantine solution for anyone coming to or returning to Australia. For whatever reason (and we’ll probably have to wait 20 years before the relevant papers are released), National Cabinet in March 2020 agreed to delegate the management of hotel quarantine (HQ) to the individual States and Territories. The big question is: why did the States agree? Where there incentives on offer, or did they do so because they could see no solution coming from the Federal government? At the same time, the States have applied inconsistent border controls as between each other, and at times, Victoria has been able to suspend in-bound international flights, putting more demand on the other States’ HQ programmes.

On the other hand, Melbourne still managed to host an international Grand Slam tennis event in the summer (notwithstanding some COVID scares and cases), and our nation’s softball players have already been vaccinated prior to heading off to Japan for the Tokyo Olympic Games (which many locals want to cancel for obvious reasons). Plus, AFL teams were somehow able to travel interstate from Melbourne immediately prior to the lock down (did they get a tip-off?). Yet, at least one AFL club has breached COVID regulations, when travelling on a domestic passenger flight. I’m so glad we have got our priorities right when it comes to professional sport!

Second, health services (along with education, aged care and social services) are a strange mix of Federal and State responsibilities, services and delivery. As a result, there is bound to be some overlap and double handling, as well as some obvious gaps. The Federal government is being blamed for failing to secure and distribute adequate vaccine supplies when and where they are needed, and for failing to meet their own aspirational targets in terms of vaccine roll-out. Yet, as with so many public services, there is a (confusing) dual delivery system. Victoria set up a number of vaccination hubs – only it still hasn’t deployed an online booking system: only phone bookings (or walk-ins) are available. But the Federal delivery is via health clinics and GPs, with each service provider offering different booking systems.

Third, the vaccination roll-out (by age and priority categories) has seen the criteria move around, somewhat arbitrarily. There is anecdotal evidence that due to low take-up rates in March and April, some people within one of the priority age categories (initially 60, it was suddenly moved to 50 in May) could access a jab at a clinic or hub at short notice, as otherwise those stocks were going to waste. It doesn’t help that there was/is confusion over the vaccine requirement for certain front line workers (e.g., in aged care) and who is responsible for administering those vaccinations. Of course, since the latest lock down in Victoria, demand is outstripping supply, and it is difficult to verify data on whether anyone who was in a priority category was initially unable to access a vaccine (or was denied access) at the time they became eligible and wanted a jab.

Fourth, hotel quarantine continues to be the key weak point in the transmission chain. I’m not going to dwell on the systemic failure that led to Victoria’s second (and lengthy) lock down last winter/spring – from which we were only just starting to recover when #lockdown4 was imposed. The fact that the latest lock down was triggered by an apparent breach in South Austalia’s HQ is of some significance, as it re-introduced the Kappa “Variant of Interest” into Victoria. More worrying is the presence of the Delta “Variant of Concern”, whose precise source in Victoria is still unknown, but likely to have come from our own troubled HQ system.

Fifth, the calls for the Federal government to pay for dedicated and purpose-built quarantine facilities in each State are understandable – but I’m not sure why Victoria in particular didn’t just go ahead and build their own (and then later stick the Feds with the bill). It’s not as if there is a shortage of construction work going on at the moment in Victoria (much of it State-funded), so it would have been quite easy to pull that project together without waiting for the Feds to come to the party. After all, construction was one of the few industries to continue relatively unscathed during last winter’s lock down – and with the Federal job keeper and job maker subsidies available at the time, Victoria could easily have completed the task by now, especially with the support of a key developer such as the union-backed Cbus.

Sixth, Victoria has only just mandated a universal QR code system for checking visitors in at all business, commercial, retail and hospitality premises. Why it took so long, and why it allowed a mish-mash of third party apps and pen and paper systems is yet another example of poor IT implementation by government. (The Feds appear to be no better with their own COVID tracing app.)

Seventh, the Federal Government, via last week’s National Cabinet, appears to have established a common definition for a COVID19 “hot spot”. Again, it’s only taken the best part of 18 months, and we still don’t have consistent and national terms for defining “red zone”, “complex case”, “cluster”, “mystery case”, “complex case”, “unknown case”, “fleeting transmission”, “stranger to stranger transmission”, “primary contact”, “close contact” or “exposure site” tiers. Nor do we have a consistent framework for responding to a “hot spot”, especially when comparing Victoria to other States.

Finally, the latest lock down again reveals weaknesses and vulnerabilities in Australia’s manufacturing capabilities and supply chains (in terms of producing and distributing sufficient vaccines). It’s also shown up economic fragility with many people living pay cheque to pay cheque, and many small businesses, especially in retail, tourism and hospitality, will not manage to bounce back from a fourth shut down.

Next week: How about that AAA rating?