Counting the cost of Covid19

Here in Melbourne, we are nearly two weeks into Covid19 Lock-down Pt II, and as we know sequels are rarely as good as the original. The State Government of Victoria has also decreed that anyone under the Stage 3 restrictions has to wear a mask whenever they are outside their home. The irony is that relative to other parts of Australia, Victoria went harder and earlier under Lock-down Pt I, and was later and slower in opening up – in fact, we hadn’t got that far before the second Lock-down was announced.

Some of the details about mask wearing are still a bit vague (what about when I’m driving my car, or playing golf, or in a self-contained space where there is no-one else?), so good luck with the enforcement process. And what significant information do we know now that we didn’t know back in March under the first Lock-down, that somehow made it OK to NOT advocate or require wearing masks four months ago? Could we have made even better progress in suppressing and/or eradicating the virus if we had all covered our faces from the start?

Of course, the major failings by the State Government are evidenced by the apparent human errors associated with the lapses in the hotel quarantine programme, the failure to fully understand the nature (and extent) of key clusters (cruise ships, abattoirs, schools, aged care facilities, fast-food restaurants, logistics centres, public housing towers, and even health care staff), and the inadequacy of community consultation early in the pandemic.

There is also a suggestion that the public became complacent, due in part to the way the politicians and civil servants were telling us how good a job they were doing. No doubt the initial measures were successful in containing the numbers and flattening the curve. So some people over-compensated when Lock-down Pt I ended, and not only disregarded social distancing measures, they started gravitating back to social gatherings, pubs, restaurants and shopping malls. Plus, the undue focus on getting professional sport back on TV helped to suggest things were back to “normal” (even though no games are being held within Victoria).

Some Government spokespeople implied that certain Covid19 conspiracy theories had taken hold in the community, resulting in people not taking the virus seriously. This commentary (that the virus is a hoax, that it is all a plot to curtail individual freedom, and that the “experts” were pushing an authoritarian agenda) has also been linked to anti-vaxers, anti-5Gers and regular members of the tin foil hat brigade. In particular, some conspiracy theories suggest that the pandemic is an attempt to distract us from other issues.

There is a huge human and economic cost to the virus (the number of cases and fatalities, the restrictions on daily life, job losses, business closures and trillions of dollars of government and corporate debt). It will cost a lot more before the pandemic is over and/or we have a viable vaccine. But there has also been a huge cost in terms of public debate and intellectual rigour. Language has become a weapon, science has been politicised (i.e., it shouldn’t get in the way of a political agenda…) and experts have been undermined. Possibly not since Galileo and heliocentrism has science been so poorly debated, irrationally challenged, arrogantly dismissed and badly defended by our leaders – even as some of these same leaders and those around them caught the disease. (OK, the political debate on climate change is another case in point…) If trust in politicians was already at a low, the pandemic is taking a further toll on our democratic institutions. Which suits autocrats, populists, demagogues, fundamentalists and radicals alike in their hatred and contempt for liberal, pluralistic and secular societies.

Choosing to not wear a face mask has apparently become an expression of individual freedom and civil liberty. Whereas I thought wearing a mask during a pandemic caused by a respiratory disease was both common sense and a courtesy to other people.

Next week: Life During Lock-down

 

 

Music during lock-down

Large parts of Melbourne are again under lock-down during Covid-19. I find myself taking even greater comfort in music during the prolonged period of working from home.

This is a personal selection of music that has accompanied the lock-down over the past four months:

1. “Sleep” by Max Richter – if you can’t take the full 8 hours, the 1 hour version “From Sleep” is a perfect way to end the day – music to fall asleep to

2. “The Piano Sings” by Michael Nyman – very personal interpretations of some of his best-known film scores, and as used evocatively throughout “The Trip” series of films (and not to be confused with Nyman’s soundtrack to “The Piano”)

3. “Playing the Piano for the Isolated” by Ryuichi Sakamoto – a specially-recorded live performance for these unsettling times – I’ve also been listening to his recent collaboration with Alva Noto, “Two (Live At Sydney Opera House)”, and Alva Noto’s minimalist interpretation of The Cure’s “A Forest”

4. “Erratics & Unconformities” by Craven Faults – long-form ambient and hypnotic analogue synthesiser compositions that embody the Pennine landscape (which I probably won’t get to see again for some time)

5. The “Selbstportrait” series of albums by Hans-Joachim Roedelius – reflective collections that act like musical diaries

6. “Music for Installations” by Brian Eno – what better soundtrack for lock-down than a series of works created for interior settings…

7. “In A Slient Way” by Miles Davis – nowhere near as famous as “Kind of Blue” or “Bitches Brew”, but just as ground-breaking as a transitional album in the Davis’ catalogue (and a contender for earliest ambient album before the term existed)

8. “New Energy” by Four Tet – for a downtempo/chill-out album, this is incredibly uplifting and joyous – in fact, any of his recent releases are worth investigating

9. “Five Years in The Dark” by Pye Corner Audio – hopefully, we won’t be five years in lock-down…

10. “Live at Empty Bottle/Chicago” by Fennesz – highly abstract but totally absorbing live performance revealing complex harmonics and sublime electronic textures

Next week: Open Banking and the Consumer Data Right

Business as Unusual

At the time of writing, the Victorian Government has decided to defer the easing of Covid-19 restrictions, in the wake of a sudden spike in community transmissions. There was always a risk that opening up too much, too soon, would result in a second wave of coronavirus infections, as people returned to work, as shops, restaurants and bars started to re-open, and as people began socializing on a larger scale. There is even talk of more drastic local restrictions in so-called hot-spot areas.

Meanwhile, the deferment (and the extended State of Emergency) is creating further uncertainty for businesses in an already fragile economy. In recent weeks, I have been attending a number of on-line seminars on the broad theme of business in the post-pandemic era. Variously described as the “new normal”, the “new new normal”, and even the “next normal”, things are unlikely ever to be the same, and not many punters are willing to bet on the resumption of business as usual.

Here are some of the challenges and opportunities that lay ahead:

Future of Work

As employees head back to the workplace, employers will need to balance the need for productivity and business continuity with the obligation to provide a safe working environment. Some staff can’t wait to get back to the office, some will prefer to continue working from home (if they can), while a large number would probably welcome a mix between the two. This has prompted debate on introducing a 4-day working week, the introduction of team rostering (e.g., alternating one week in, one week out), and possibly the end of hot-desking.

Overall, new work practices will necessitate a re-think on office space, workplace location and employee facilities. Some commentators have predicted that companies will need to extend their current premises (to allow for adequate space per employee); while others suggest CBD workplaces may need to decentralize towards more suburban or regional hubs (to reduce commuting times, to relieve congestion on public transport and to allow people to work closer to home). The latter may also stimulate local economies as people reallocate their commuting costs and daily expenses into local shops, cafes and services.

Innovation

Change and uncertainty should drive companies to innovate – in fact, former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull recently spoke about innovation in light of the pandemic. His view is that current technological trends will only accelerate, and industries facing disruption will be displaced even faster. So no time for complacency, and no point waiting for normal service to resume.

Necessity has driven many retail and restaurant businesses towards more online engagement with their customers, and those that have been shown to be creative, resilient and agile appear to have found a way through the lock-down. Equally, many businesses used to delivering their services in person have had to find ways to embrace digital solutions – no doubt enhancing their digital transformation in the process.

Self-sufficiency

We’ve heard about the need for food and fuel security – especially when supply chains are disrupted, and when countries pursue “domestic first” policies in relation to essential goods and commodities.

While Australia is a net food exporter, we still have to import many daily staples. Primary producers have come to rely on lucrative export markets, so in the light of trade wars and import bans, local farmers and consumers alike will need to adjust their expectations – on choice, price, seasonal availability and market volumes.

Australia is also in the enviable position of being potentially self-sufficient in energy – but although we are rich in renewables, we are still reliant on fossil fuels, and recent events revealed our vulnerability to volatility in the oil markets. It suggests the current environmental and economic debates around weaning ourselves off coal, oil and gas are only going to become more critical.

There has also been a call for a larger domestic manufacturing base – not only to enhance workforce skills and productivity, but also to ward off supply chain disruption. Some have called for a return to domestic car production. Even if that were desirable, let alone a realistic option, I don’t imagine that anyone would welcome the bad old days of churning out Australian-made gas guzzlers that nobody wants to buy. We would need to advocate for smarter cars, energy efficient and non-fossil fuel vehicles, environmentally sustainable materials and manufacturing process, and possibly different car ownership models (in line with the trend for ride share businesses and smart city solutions) and more creative financial incentives to the industry than wholesale subsidies.

Other manufacturing sectors that are getting attention include medicines and medical supplies (surely there must be a market for domestically-produced PPE made from bio-degradable materials?), clothing (again, an opportunity for environmentally sustainable materials and manufacturing processes), processed goods (after all, we already have much of the raw material), domestic appliances and technology.

One area where Australia has also proven vulnerable is in recycling. China and the Indian Sub-continent are pushing back at taking and processing our exported waste. So we have to get smarter at recycling household waste (paper, plastic, glass and metal) especially if in a post-pandemic world we see a return to single-use items and additional sterile and protective packaging for foodstuffs and personal products. We also need to look at e-waste, and find ways to extract more recycling value from obsolete devices.

The lock-down during the pandemic has also highlighted an opportunity to re-connect with the “make do and mend” mentality of our parents and grandparents. Again, if supply chains are disrupted, buying a replacement item might not be an option. But often, nor is it possible to buy replacement parts – either they rely on the same supply chains, or there are no user-serviceable parts available. What if manufacturers and distributors had more of an obligation to take back and recycle their products, or to include more interchangeable parts in their designs, and enable consumers to become more self-sufficient in repairing and maintaining their electronic and electrical goods?

Federal, state and local governments have a huge role to play here – from mandating the use of more recycled and recyclable materials, to incentivizing recycling schemes, from supporting local repair workshops and “maker” projects, to creating more common and open standards around components and replaceable parts.

Finance and Digital Money

At a time when many people are on reduced income and/or or relying on government welfare, the pandemic has also demonstrated a need to rethink our relationship with money in general, and cash in particular.

The latest round of QE by governments and central banks to offset the financial impact of the pandemic has highlighted once again the fragility of current monetary policies, including fractional reserves and treasury buy-backs. The decision to print money on demand will only increase public appetite for crypto currencies as a legitimate store of value – including stable coins and (ironically) central bank digital currencies – and paradoxically, accelerate the removal of physical cash from the economy.

In times of crisis, digital currencies can also transfer money to remote recipients faster and cheaper than traditional means (i.e., incumbent remittance businesses, bank transfers, payment gateways), and actually increase transparency and traceability.

The lock-down also revealed that many people did not have a sufficient financial buffer to withstand job losses, especially in the casual workforce and the so-called gig economy. This suggests a new approach is required for how people are remunerated for their labour and services, taxed on their income, and incentivized to save for the future. Current systems cannot address these issues because they are over complex, far too rigid, and totally dis-empowering of the people they are designed to serve and support.

Digital currencies (along with the benefits of Blockchain technology, and the new economic models represented by digital assets and tokenization) will enhance trends such as decentralization, peer-to-peer networks, trust-less systems, fractional ownership and more sophisticated barter structures.

Bitcoin was created in response to the GFC, it has now come of age in the post-COVID-19 era.

Next week: Antler Demo Day – Rewired

 

 

 

 

 

Can we come out now?

At the time of writing, the Victorian government has just announced the State’s very own measures as part of the “3 Steps to Recovery”, designed to ease the Covid-19 lockdown restrictions, in a controlled and manageable way. This follows last week’s meeting of the National Cabinet, where broad agreement was reached on a plan to help “prepare Australians to go back to work in a COVID-19 safe environment and getting the economy back to a more sustainable level“.

Even at the MCG, the advice is stay safe, stay home, and think of others

The biggest “winners” in Victoria will be our immediate friends and families (groups of up to 5 people can gather at each others’ homes), outdoor activities (groups of up to 10 people), wedding organisers and funeral directors (more people can attend ceremonies)…. oh, and the AFL (training can resume!).

But Premier Andrews has stressed that this is neither an excuse to host dinner parties every night, nor a reason to ignore established protocols and best practice on personal hygiene and social distancing. So no overnight raves or camping trips. And no dining-in at restaurants or cafes, and definitely no pubs, bars or clubs.

For some people, the continued Stage 3 restrictions seem too much to bear, with a few fringe elements (along with the anti-vaxxers and the anti-5Gers) being more vocal and more physical in their views. But they probably fail to see that no-one actually enjoys living under this regime, and nobody would do it if they had a choice or other safe options.

Thankfully, the majority of the population are willing to comply with the restrictions, however uncomfortable or inconvenient, because they realise the consequences of a second wave of infections (especially as we come into winter) would be worse than some temporary limitations on their freedom of movement. There is also a renewed albeit grudging respect for and trust in our political leadership (if not always felt towards individual ministers), and here in Australia we can also consider the political decisions and public advice in light of scientific data and medical evidence.

A large proportion of Covid-19 infections in Australia came via overseas travellers (cruise ships and ski trips), while some of thee first community infections came from gatherings such as weddings and religious services. And then there have been “hubs” within sectors such as aged care, meat processing and airport baggage handling.

There are still questions over plans to re-open schools, and sectors such as aviation, tourism and hospitality have a long way to go before “normal” service resumes. Parts of the retail sector have managed to survive thanks to on-line shopping and e-commerce solutions (supply chain logistics and delivery) but we should expect some businesses will never bounce back. Every employer will probably need to have a “Covid-19 Safe” operating plan before bringing staff back to work in significant numbers, whether as part of their best practices on risk management, or as a prerequisite to satisfy workplace health and safety obligations.

The apparent rush to get professional sport back on the field feels like a misplaced priority – especially given the controversy around NRL and AFL players who apparently lacked the self-discipline to comply with the social-distancing measures; and those players who are refusing the flu vaccine as a condition of rejoining their clubs. On this point, I rather admire the comments by Chelsea manager, Frank Lampard, who expressed his unease at the thought of professional footballers getting priority for Covid-19 testing, ahead of essential and front-line workers, simply to fast-track the resumption of the EPL.

Even with the various safety plans and gradual easing of restrictions, it’s up to each of us individually to be responsible for our own actions, and maintain a personal duty of care to each other so as not to risk spreading the infection, nor risk exposing others as a result of something we do or omit to do.

Next week: The Bitcoin halving – what happened?