It was interesting to read Michelle Grattan’s take on the discord within the ‘national cabinet’ assembled by Prime Minister Scott Morrison1. She characterised it as a contest between hardliners such as Daniel Andrews and Gladys Berejiklian who clearly gave notice their states are going into lockdown, where people would be confined to their homes, and the gradualists, led by Morrison, who are resisting a full lockdown, even to the extent of sounding like Trump. Morrison argued that he didn’t want to throw people out of jobs where it was possible to avoid doing so, and he feared the consequences of the stresses the economic crisis would put on families1. This was a furphy, and was simply designed to prevent the government having to outlay even more billions to assist the unemployed and businesses. An economic crisis stresses families when government assistance is insufficient. However, that pales into insignificance compared to the loss of loved ones. So, basically, in Morrison’s head, this gets down to a trade-off between money and lives. If you want to keep the number of lives lost to a minimum, then you test, test, test and lock, lock, lock the nation down. This is not what Morrison wanted. He was more concerned about his government being what he considers ‘economically embarrassed’ by a debt and deficit disaster (remember that?). However, as he belatedly realised the scope of this pandemic (the clue is in the name), any thoughts of a surplus, however imaginary2, disappeared in a puff of shed coronavirus particles. The plaintive cry of Frydenberg early on in this catastrophe, after thoughts of a surplus had disappeared, that the budget was ‘back in balance’, has also disappeared in a puff of reality3. Also nowhere to be seen was Morrison’s assertion, a week ago, that there would be no wage subsidy4; it took four days for the backflip to arrive5.
The New Zealand government has released its COVID-19 modelling and they estimate they are facing between 12,600 and 33,600 deaths, with 6.8% of the population (i.e. 325,000) requiring hospitalisation6,7. Given that New Zealand has only 176 intensive care beds8, this is concerning, even though the estimates of those requiring hospitalisation is across a year and not all at once. The New Zealand scenarios have used an R0 (the average number of people infected by each sufferer) of 1.5 and 2.26. There are numerous differences between New Zealand and Australia which may have a significant effect on modelling. A simple extrapolation from the numbers in New Zealand, which has one fifth of the population of Australia, is obtained by multiplying the New Zealand figures by 5 to give an estimate. That estimate is between about 65,000 and 174,000 deaths, and 1.74 million hospitalisations6.
For the coronavirus, it is estimated by the World Health Organisation that the basic R0 is 3.28, while the median R0 from several studies is 2.799. The extreme lockdown used by Chinese authorities in Wuhan decreased the estimated R0 from about 4.0 to 0.310, which is why there has been a huge decrease in the number of new cases in China. The estimated R0 currently in operation in Australia is unknown, but is presumed to be quite low, largely due to the strict social distancing policies in operation in all states and territories.
While the Australian government refuses to release its modelling to the populace, it is rumoured to have given the New Zealand government the Australian modelling, but this could not be confirmed. I suspect the reason the government will not release all of its modelling of various COVID-19 scenarios to the Australian population is because, like that from New Zealand, it includes details of how many lives are projected to be lost. Given Morrison’s narcissism, he could not bear any decrease in his perceived popularity that this could cause, nor the effect it would have on the plaything of his donors, the stock market. The modelling will likely also include assorted social and economic policy settings and their impact on the spread of the virus, as well as the impact on the economy. Some of these scenarios will make it clear that there is a possible tradeoff between lives and economic impact. Given the deaths attributed to the robodebt debacle, it is clear which comes first in the government’s preferred paradigm, and it isn’t lives11.