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?

 

Are we there yet?

A couple of weekends ago in Melbourne, the question on many peoples’ minds was, “Are we there yet?” Namely, had the rate of new Covid-19 cases slowed down to the point where we could start to emerge from one of the longest and strictest lock-downs in the world? The answer was, “Yes, but not to the satisfaction of the government and their public health advisers.” So the opening up was pushed back again, having been brought forward by the very same government. It felt like the goal posts had been moved, and despite the huge sacrifices made by the general population, we were being asked to take a “cautious pause”.

No wonder some people got a bit uptight, and it took some tedious questioning from the media to establish what the Premier could have said at the outset of his umpteenth daily press conference. Yes, the Premier was tired, and he had been up late the night before, and he’d done over 100 pressers on the trot by that point. But you could hear and see the exasperation in his voice and in his body language as he realised how he’d managed to miscommunicate what should have been positive news – i.e., “We’re very close, everyone, and thank you all for your efforts, but just to be absolutely sure, please give me a couple of days more before I can confirm the decisions the government have already made.”

At the time of writing, people in Melbourne are still under pandemic restrictions, some of which have been in place since March:

  • If you can work from home, you must work from home
  • There is a limit on the number of people who can come to your home
  • There is also a limit on the size of gatherings in public
  • You can’t travel more than 25km from home
  • You can’t travel outside the Greater Melbourne area
  • Retail and hospitality are only allowed to open under strict conditions
  • Everyone must wear a face mask in public

And while there are some exceptions to each of the above, under the current State of Emergency, the government can rescind or reimpose each and every condition, or add new ones as they deem appropriate – including re-introduction of the overnight curfew, which seems to have been a political decision as much as one made on grounds of public health or public order.

I should say that I was in favour of the first lock-down in Victoria. In fact, I was actually glad that the Victorian Premier took a more conservative approach than some of his counterparts, which meant that during lock-down #1, Victoria appeared to be doing a much better job than NSW in containing the spread of the virus, when comparing the daily number of new cases in March and April. But I think the Victorian government should have gone harder when they had the chance, to nip it in the bud:

Charts sourced from The Guardian

However, masks weren’t made compulsory until much later during the so-called second wave, and lock-down #2. There could be several reasons for this:

  • Medical opinion was divided as to the efficacy of masks
  • The government wanted to reserve supplies for medical and other front line workers
  • There was inadequate public supply, partly because stocks had been diverted to regions impacted by the summer bush fires (and, initially, some local stocks had been donated to aid projects and sent overseas to China)
  • There were already too many other social behaviour changes that were needed, and which were deemed a higher priority

I’m not sure why there is still so much local resistance to wearing masks in public. Many people think it’s an infringement of their civil liberties, or they question the science, or they simply don’t like being told what to do. For men, I wonder if they feel that wearing a mask somehow emasculates them? For women, does it make them feel even more invisible than they already are in society? And for the ardent civil libbers, don’t any of them understand the concept of the mutual duty of care we each owe to our fellow citizens (even the self-styled, self-sovereign ones)? Having spent a lot of time in Asia, where social norms mean it is quite common to see people wearing masks in public, I guess I am less resistant to the idea. So much so, that I started wearing them in Melbourne before they became mandatory.

Of course, over 90% of locally-acquired cases which caused the second wave of new infections were directly the result of the failed hotel quarantine programme in two Melbourne hotels. I’ve commented on this fiasco before, and now the recent Board of Inquiry set up to investigate what happened has asked for an extension before delivering its verdict, owing to the late submission of evidence by key witnesses, including civil servants, public officials and elected representatives. As I wrote previously, the decision to engage private security to manage the quarantine programme is not the issue – it’s the decision-making process itself (referred to as “creeping assumptions”), and the oversight of the programme once it was established.

At this stage, we still don’t know who made the decision to hire private security companies; it’s not entirely clear which government department had oversight of the programme, as there was confusion and poor communication between departments; it’s also not clear whether the chosen security companies were on existing lists of Commonwealth- or State- approved contractors – and if they weren’t, what criteria were applied to employ them? And how did the other states manage to avoid the same level of community transmission that could have come from their own quarantine measures?

Anyone who has worked in or around government procurement will know how difficult it is to get on a contractor “panel”, and even then, the tendering process can be arduous and opaque. From my own experience, governments often use RFI/RFP/RFQ processes to glean as much intelligence as they can (with a view to keeping the project in-house), or to simply drive down the price, rather than to get the most qualified supplier at the best and most appropriate commercial rate. (And of course, there are examples of ex-civil servants forming their own businusses in order to tender for work they used to allocate – using their insider knowledge to the detriment of other bidders. In some cases, the civil servants don’t even wait to leave office….)

I appreciate there is a widely-held view that the breakdown in the hotel quarantine programme was not the only or direct cause of the second wave in Melbourne; but even if it were, it was the failure of the Commonwealth government to manage properly the private aged care facilities under their jurisdiction, which in turn revealed huge vulnerabilities in that sector, leading to the death of around 800 elderly Victorian residents from Covid-19. While I don’t doubt the inadequacies in aged care “settings”, I would have more sympathy with this argument if we had seen the same level of infections in aged care facilities in other states, particularly NSW, given that each state is under the same regime. The “mishaps” of the hotel quarantine programme sit front and centre as the root causes of the second wave, leading to the much severer lock-down #2.

Meanwhile, although the Premier likes to thank everyone for “doing the right thing” during the lock-down, he and his administration had a highly subjective attitude towards those members of the public who clearly weren’t doing the right thing. At times the rhetoric was merely ambivalent; other times it was highly ambiguous; occasionally it was disingenuous (if not wrong). This inconsistency and selective admonishment helped create further confusion among the public about how/when the various lock-down restrictions would be enforced. Worse, it sowed the seeds of growing discontent and underlying resentment in many parts of the community. And not helped by the apparent assertion that community cases among health care workers were all acquired in domestic “settings”, rather than in workplace “settings”.

Some of the other factors that may have contributed to Victoria’s second wave (and which have inter-state and national implications going forward as the domestic borders begin to re-open) include:

  • A highly centralised public health system (the current Premier was formerly the state Minister for Health, so no doubt he will have some views on that)
  • Inadequate PPE supplied to front-line medical staff and health workers in hospitals and clinics
  • Poor inter-departmental and inter-agency communication and co-ordination (plus those “creeping assumptions”)
  • A poor culture of “managing up” within ministerial offices (oh, and those “creeping assumptions”)
  • Confusion over respective roles and responsibilities, for example, as between the Chief Health Officer, the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Preventive Health Officer
  • “Track and trace” systems not fit for purpose
  • Lack of common definitions across the country – e.g., hot spot, complex case, mystery case, locally acquired case, quarantine and isolation periods, close contact, etc.
  • Lack of common IT systems for “track and trace” – so without inter-state interoperability, how is that going to work as people start traveling around the country again?

One “common” definition that definitely needs to be established is what constitutes a “household”? I’m not sure if there is a practical legal definition – maybe the Census form is one point of reference? (Perhaps another “test” is the supermarket offer, which usually says “only 1 per household”?) I would have said that a “household” is defined as a group of people who ordinarily live in the same dwelling or residence (whether a house, apartment, unit, rooming house, care home or hostel), regardless of whether they are related to one another, and regardless of whether they consider themselves as “living together”. Conversely “household” does not automatically mean everyone in your immediate or extended family. Where the lines have become blurred is when family members are frequently in each other’s homes for the purposes of sharing meals, care-giving or child-minding. The issue is not one of mere semantics – as we have seen, it is critical both in terms of preventing community transmission, and in enforcing quarantine and isolation measures.

Finally, I should also stress that I am very grateful to be living in Australia at present during this global pandemic, especially given the situation in many other countries. But at the risk of sounding parochial, I really would like to understand why Victoria got it so wrong (and has had to endure a second and onerous lock-down), and how NSW (so far) appears to have got it just about right.

Next week: From Brussels With Love (Revisited)

Bread And Circuses

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, here in Melbourne we are waiting for signs that the State Government is preparing to lift some or any of the restrictions that have kept us in Stage 3 & 4 lock-down for most of the past 7 months.

Photo sourced from Twitter (thanks, Warwick…) https://twitter.com/peely76/status/1309750743331606533?s=21

Data on new cases and community clusters released over the past few days suggest we won’t be “getting on the beers” with our mates any time soon, and certainly not with the Premier’s blessing.

The slow drip feed of information at the Premier’s daily press conferences, and the painful revelations at the recent Board of Inquiry into the failed hotel quarantine program, somehow suggest a Head Teacher who is forever saying, “This hurts me more than it hurts you” before handing out another punishment. Believe me, the audience increasingly feels like it is being tortured for its own good – because even though most of us understand why we had to have the first lock-down, the blatant failures within government, the civil service, certain public agencies and their private sector contractors have made it seem we are paying for their mistakes.

In Roman times, the general populace stayed docile as long as there were “bread and circuses” to feed and entertain them.

Now, apart from some toilet roll shortages early in the piece, and the occasional binge shopping on pasta and tinned tomatoes, by and large, the supply chains have been kept open, and the supermarket shelves replenished. (Some small grocers and independent producers may actually have benefited, as people are forced to shop local, and as restaurants pivoted towards cook-at-home meals – but equally, others may have been forced out of business if the major chains have used their market power to commandeer supply. Hopefully, the ACCC under Rod Sims will be keeping the latter honest.) Plus food delivery services have flourished due to the increased demand. So most of us can’t be said to be going hungry (although food banks have likewise never been busier).

So, in the words of Kurt Cobain, since we are still in lock-down, “Here we are now, entertain us!”

Box set bingeing and non-stop streaming only get us so far (I gave up about 3 weeks into lock-down Part 1). Broadcast sports are patchy given the limits on live crowds. Home-gigs/domestic-busking are not the same as a night at The Corner Hotel in Richmond. The lack of access to cinemas, theatres, galleries and museums means my need for culture is not easily satisfied. And while I have been digging into my library, revisiting classic albums, and trawling the BBC sound archives (as well as creating my own electronic music), the additional stimulus provided by in-person and on-location events is sorely lacking.

It’s clear that many of our artists and performers are also struggling, but their particular plight is not being fully recognised or acknowledged. In the UK, for example, the arts and entertainment community argues that their industry is under-appreciated for the financial contribution it makes to the national economy. This is not to overlook the social, cultural and mental health benefits of a thriving creative sector.

Meanwhile, the tedious cat and mouse game being conducted between the Premier and some sectors of the media (plus the highly divisive commentary generated by the Premier’s fervid supporters and detractors on social media) is no substitute for proper entertainment – and even though a couple of heads have been dispatched thanks to the Board of Inquiry (so, that was a thumbs down from the Emperor?), the lock-down song remains the same. Time to change the (broken) record?

Next week: Golden Years

Making Creeping Assumptions

Even if the recent Board of Inquiry into Victorian Hotel Quarantine Program does not reveal who actually made the now fatal decision to engage private security companies, it will have at least added a new phrase to the lexicon of public discourse – the notion of “creeping assumptions”.

To recap, based on the evidence presented during the public hearings, we have been led to believe that no single person, department or government agency made the all-important decision. Instead, we are left to conclude that this was a decision made by default, based on a series of “creeping assumptions”.

What this suggests is that rather than a conscious or affirmative decision, the parties relied on their own interpretation of unfolding events and information flows to conclude that someone else had made the call to outsource hotel security, and as a consequence everyone involved simply went along with it. As I have pointed out before, the decision to engage private contractors is not the issue. But it does beggar belief that even if nobody could recall who made the decision, they could not point to the information that informed their assumptions, nor could they specify who instructed the drawing up of the commercial contracts. As a result, the Victorian Government has spent $6m to find out who signed off on $30m of expenditure.

Anyway, one of the consequences of these so-called creeping assumptions is that the decision-making was deeply flawed because it lacked process, scrutiny and accountability:

  • Process was clearly missing (unless the Inquiry finds otherwise), because of the absence of documented minutes or formal note-taking.
  • There was no scrutiny of the “decision”, to confirm the various dependencies and delegated authorities that initiated the contracts issued to private contractors.
  • And the fact that no-one can be identified as being responsible for the decision, could mean that no-one can be held accountable.

If nothing else, this will become a case study for students of politics, public administration, and corporate governance.

Next week: Bread & Circuses