QED

Nicola Roxon, How Smart You Were

If you want to see what a proportionate response to a pandemic looks like re-visit 2009. That was when the Swine Flu pandemic’s projections posited up to 20,000 deaths in Australia, yet there were no lockdowns. AFL and the rugby codes proceeded unimpeded and no one accused solitary golfers of killing their fellow citizens, as Victoria’s Daniel Andrews told the ABC just days ago. Travel and the economy were similarly unaffected. The exaggerated response to COVID-19 is what you get when policy is placed in the hands of bureaucrats given their head by elected leaders taking their cues from hysterics.

In coming months our politicians and bureaucrats will be busy crafting the history of their response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Considerable emphasis will no doubt be placed on comparing early epidemiological models, based on data from other countries, which suggested tens of thousands were at extreme risk from the virus. Indeed, exactly that spinning is now underway, with Victoria’s chief medical officer, Brett Sutton, claiming on Monday that the measures he has recommended, and which the police have enforced with random stops and $1600 fines, saved 36,000 lives.  Why be so modest, Dr Sutton, why not come up with some fresh modelling and claim credit for 100,000 saved lives?

It is perhaps worth noting here that, until he switched to COVID-19 alarmism, Dr Sutton was a committed propagator of the so-called “climate emergency”, being the lead author of a paper published as late as March 16, which detailed how the Garden State would respond to the “existential threat” of rising temperatures. In another recent paper, Dr Sutton was at pains to stress how

by working together, we can better address the complex challenges that climate change presents, safeguard our prosperity, and ensure Victoria continues to be one of the most sustainable and liveable places in the world.

Read that excerpt with an eye for irony in light of the current anti-COVID measures and you’ll find it hard not to wear a grim smile, not least at the enthusiasm with which Dr Sutton flings himself and his models at every latest “existential threat”. As for “safeguarding our prosperity”, he really should have a chat with some of the newly unemployed. They could have a coffee together — no, wait, the cafes are all shut, and if they repaired to a local park VicPol would swoop with fine books at the ready.

Yes, history will be written by officials keen to justify their policies and the economic disaster that has ensued, the extreme lockdowns and abuse of civil liberties to enforce them. What we can count on is of them making no mention by way of comparison with that Swine Flu of 2009? The Rudd Government was in office at the time and its response — credit where credit is due — should have provided some lessons applicable to our current circumstances.

Swine Flu infected between 700 million and 1400 million people globally (the estimates vary), the higher number representing as much as 21 per cent of the global population. The fatality estimates are similarly broad, with somewhere between 150,000 and 575,000 thought to have been killed. Epidemiological models of the Swine Flu pandemic suggested Australian deaths would be in the order of 20,000. The Rudd Government, surprisingly, ignored the worst of the models while still planning for up to 6000 deaths. There are other differences between then and now. Unlike COVID-19, which harvests the bulk of its lives from the ranks of the elderly, Swine Flu afflicted the young, the median age of those Australians whose lives it claimed being 48.  Infants and young children were among those killed.

By the end of 2009, around 38,000 Australians had been infected and there were 191 dead, a crude death rate of 0.9 per 100,000. The disease had a hospitalisation rate of 13 per cent, with 13 per cent of those admitted needing to be placed in intensive care. Despite the rate of infections and deaths, the Rudd Government did not impose any restrictions on movement or force businesses to close. Restaurants, bars and clubs remained open and profitable. Beaches and parks were not closed. The public was able to barrack at the footy, play sport, go fishing, and wash their cars without the risk of being fined by revenuers in blue. There were no restrictions on interstate or overseas travel. Even with the aftershocks of the Global Financial Crisis unfolding, Australia’s unemployment rate in 2009 remained below 6 per cent. There was no economic or social meltdown. There were no outcries from the media or public for the government to do more, to adopt any measure that might save an additional life, not even with small children and mums-to-be succumbing.

By comparison COVID-19 has thus far officially infected less than 7000 and killed 72 (April 21), according to the latest data.  As of April 16, the median age of the dead was 79. Remarkably, no Australia under 50 has thus far died from the disease. The crude death rate of COVID-19 in Australia stands at just 0.25 per 100,000. In 2009, despite experts predicting up to 20,000 deaths, Kevin Rudd offered little more than basic hygiene advice – wash your hands. By contrast, the economic impact of the measures implemented by state and federal governments to save Australians from COVID-19 is measured in the hundreds of billions of dollars. We could see as much as a 22 per cent drop in GDP. After a month of lockdowns the unemployment rate is already over 10 per cent and is expected to rise to figures last seen during the Great Depression. The contrast in responses and consequences given the similar magnitude of today’s threat and that of 2009 could not be more stark.

The current government’s modelling that showed a health system overwhelmed with Covid-19 cases if nothing were done was based on deeply flawed inputs that assumed the virus’ local impact would mirror the disastrous tolls in Italy and Spain. Various Quadrant contributors, Peter Smith most notably,  have pointed out that rates of transmission and death in jurisdictions with dense and highly concentrated populations, especially those with large cadres of the elderly, is to compare apples with oranges.

The so-far mild impact of COVID-19 in Australia could have been predicted, or at least anticipated as a likely possibility, based on Australia’s unique geography, demographics, lifestyle and season. The virus arrived at the end of summer, the weather still warm and with the flu season, which typically kills around 3000 Australians per year, still months away. Our generally healthy population resides for the most part in sprawling suburbs of stand-alone homes. Yes, Australians do live in apartments, but even where the density is high it remains slight by comparison with, say, New York, where COVID-19 is taking a much higher toll. We have low rates of smoking. Our frail and elderly largely live isolated from the rest of us in nursing homes, and the next most vulnerable group of independent retirees reside in their own homes, mostly away from family, unlike Italy and Spain. If these factors were taken into account by the modellers, insufficient weight was accorded them.

Models are only as good as the data they are fed — and the number-crunching bureaucrats fed their epidemiological models on junk food. Unfortunately no single politician exercised any critical thinking and the flawed models, adopted as gospel truth, were b roadcast to a worried public. “Flatten the curve” became the law of the land, with no serious questions being raised. In 2009, Rudd’s health minister, Nicola Roxon, ignored expert epidemiological models that predicted 20,000 Swine Flu deaths. Many Quadrant readers will likely think poorly of Rudd & Co., but credit where it is due: when the panic merchants came calling, Ms Roxon sent them on their way with the sheaves of dire predictions they rode in on.

The current pandemic could have been successfully handled with increased public awareness of hygiene, appropriate distancing and protection of the most vulnerable without resorting to the extreme measures that have created the dystopian world in which we are now forced to reside. The number of deaths would likely be a little higher, but not much more than those of 2009.

The response to Swine Flu vs COVID-19 is mystifying. How can the government say its response has been proportionate to the level of risk when the risk-reward assessment was never done? How, in just ten short years, did we discard the pragmatic and rational response to one virus with a declared man-the-battle-stations “health emergency”?  How is that a minister in an incompetent Labor government could see through flawed advice, yet a Coalition government which bills itself as better and sharper managers swallowed hook, line and sinker?

Later, as the “experts” re-write history to the advantage of their conduct when COVID-19 came to town, these are questions it behooves Australians now being fined and confined to keep very much at front of mind.

21 comments
  • Peter Smith

    This is a really insightful article. Why have governments, this time around, reacted so disproportionately or, more to the point, so misdirectedly. It was known early in the piece that the disease, predominantly, only grievously attacked the aged with co-morbidities. Why not protect that cohort of people and allow the economy to go on working? I think we have evidenced the rise of internationally-connected public health experts allied with modellers. Once one government had fallen under their thrall the rest followed like dominoes – sadly, even Trump has been taken in.

  • March

    Hi Peter, thanks for comment and appreciating your insights into this government made crisis. There’s an interesting comment in the summary of H1N1 referenced below that spells out that focus should be on the at risk groups. I still can’t believe government agencies learnt nothing from that recent experience. Extract below…

    “Key lessons so far from this experience in an unprotected population suggest that important elements of the response were a national coordination of efforts and the use and modification of the national pandemic plan framework, focusing on persons who were most at risk.”

    Australia’s Winter with the 2009 Pandemic Influenza A (H1N1) Virus New England Journal of Medicine 2009; 361:2591-2594
    DOI: 10.1056/NEJMp0910445

  • Guido Negraszus

    Scott Morrison, still shell-shocked from the bush fires, is now totally controlled by the bureaucrats. Resistance = zero. It’s scary. What do we elect a government for when all the decisions are made by the bureaucrats? I lost trust in the medical profession long ago. Just compare the two biggest states chief medical adviser numbers. NSW claims their measures saved 700 lives and Victoria claims they saved 36,000 lives. Says it all really. You are right of course: after this is all over they will pop the champagne and will tell us all how great they did.

  • Warty

    I don’t read the SMH and certainly don’t listen to the ABC, though there is little to differentiate between them politically. The Guardian, Huffington Post, Matilda and other seriously deranged publications simply do not count . . . my point being that I happily live in a conservative echo chamber, with no intention of expanding my viewpoint.
    Having delivered my undoubtedly suspect credentials, I can’t help but believe that our collective willingness has been partly driven by the MSM, with even The Australian and Sky News finding it impossible to drag themselves away from a daily dose of Covid 19. The other aspect, in terms of our response to government coronavirus ‘initiatives’ is a largely compliant public, and this is the aspect that frightens the bejeebers out of me, particularly when you throw in the various increasingly autocratic state police forces into the equation.
    I mean, who the hell cares whether a mother allows her daughter to travel beyond the front gate when giving her a driving lesson? How many scores of people are they likely to infect when you contrast their being enclosed in a car to my being allowed to enter the very bowels of a local supermarket?
    Who is likely to be infected by a topless man sunbathing in a park, scores of metres away from anyone else, when socialist Swedes are able to go to restaurants, enjoy the early spring sunshine in far greater ‘clusters’ in their comparatively miserable parks and still go about their business pretty well as normal? And yet we have an allegedly conservative Federal Government using socialism as their weapon of choice (I’m talking about the insane stimulus measures brought in to combat the great depression we had to have.
    Sweden is supposed to be a ‘high trust’ society, which is why they have found a way of comfortably regulating themselves, but Australia has a history of living off the back of huge flocks of sheep, and somehow the wool (not the mud) sticks. We have gone beyond the bounds of a ‘high trust’ society into the realms of not just gullibility, but a complete inability to think (clearly) for ourselves.
    We have that expression about ‘keeping your powder dry’ which alludes to being prepared for an emergency, but what is an appropriate expression for the idiot who pours his powder into a pouch, the one he knows has a hole in it. We’ve let loose with everything we’ve got in the armoury, and we later discover it was only a (pandemic) feint attack. What happens when Wuhan lets slip a few packets of anthrax? Have we collectively gone stark raving mad?

  • Rob Brighton

    It would be brave to the point of foolishness not to heed of advice from Nobel Laureates who have spent their entire lives specialising in infectious disease.
    That would explain Roxon rather than any depth of understanding on her part or clever forethought, she was Billy boys squeeze for a while further calling into question her ability for clear thinking.
    This link pretty much outlines the grievous level of stupidity and deceit.
    https://quadrant.org.au/opinion/qed/2013/06/roxon-unmourned-and-best-forgotten/
    It may well be the case that the disease is not what was first thought but I do wonder if Captain Hindsight is leading the charge here.

  • ianl

    > “Our generally healthy population resides for the most part in sprawling suburbs of stand-alone homes”

    A key parameter, ignored or brushed aside by most people. Yet, world-wide, large densely populated cities are where the real damage has occurred. In Aus, the most intense areas of infections were immediately north and south of the Bridge, where dense populations who are also relatively wealthy and so frequently travel o/s reside.
    Even Bernard Salt has done a 180 on this issue – 6 months ago, aging “boomers”, bogan outer suburbs and redneck regionals were doomed by the advancing mega-cities, but not now.
    I cannot guess how long before our international borders are opened again. At this point, Federal and State Govts are able to borrow huge sums to try and mitigate economic damage, but the willingness of lenders is dependent on our exports, notably iron ore from the Pilbara and high quality coking coal from the Bowen Basin, mostly to mainland China. Thermal coal, the bulk from the Hunter Valley, is exported to Asian countries (little of this to China): Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Pakistan, India. With our international borders closed, there is great regional risk here.

  • pgang

    Great article, and just the detail I think many of us have been wanting. It shows that we should not be putting our faith in what passes as a ‘conservative’ government anymore. We should not be putting our trust in government at all, in any form.
    .
    Rob Brighton the disease is proving to be exactly what was expected from the outset before hysteria took over. Back in Jan/Feb we were told that 98% of those infected would barely notice it, and it would be primarily a threat to those with weakened immune systems. In other words – a fairly benign viral outbreak, and we had perhaps dodged a stray Chinese bullet. Trump was calling the media beat-ups fake news and trying to settle everyone down, wanting a return to normality by Easter.
    Hindsight has nothing to do with it. There was never anything to fear except fear itself, as many of us here at Quadrant have been pointing out from the start. So please stop revising history.

  • pgang

    Peter Smith I don’t know if Trump has been taken in or, for once, simply overwhelmed by events. He couldn’t prevent the mass panic, so perhaps he considered it politically expedient to play the game. I’m guessing there were ‘advisers’ in the background. And here’s a prediction. Trump will come out in future years calling it the biggest mistake of his presidency.

  • lloveday

    I don’t usually have much time for Susie O’Brien, but here’s what she wrote:
    *****
    NICOLA Roxon has resigned as Attorney-General to spend more time with her seven-year-old daughter.
    .
    She’s doing something most working mums can only dream of: putting children before career and motherhood before money.
    .
    It just goes to show, yet again, how wide the gap is between our elected politicians and the rest of us.
    .
    However much the average mum or dad would love to be able to take a step back at work and spend more time with their children, it’s just not an option.
    *****
    Just 6 months later Rixon resigned at age 46, after less than 15 years an MP, on a life-time indexed pension estimated at $100k in 2013.
    .
    When I read of Howard’s achievements, his closing of the Parliamentary Pension Scheme to newcomers in 2004 is regularly not mentioned, but imo, should be, and it’s a disgrace the media publishes articles, comments and letters falsely accusing people like Turnbull of receiving that pension. There is enough to criticise Turnbull of without resorting to libel.
    .
    Latham claims fame for pushing the issue, but then next year at age 44, after just 11 years in parliament, resigned and accessed the old scheme’s life-long pension of an estimated $80,000 (2005) indexed.
    .
    Latham hypocritically claims credit for stopping new members from joining the scheme while he luxuriates in its benefits. Yes, Howard also receives the old scheme pension, but at least he was 68 with 33 years service when he started receiving it.

  • Peter Sandery

    Thanks for that timely reminder, Marc. To get a bit of an idea as to where we might be heading I recommend to all readers a book entitled ” Australia and Argentina On Parallel Paths”, by two of Australia’s specialists in Argentine political and economic history, Tim Duncan and John Fogarty.

  • Alistair

    I have an feeling that things are different this time around because people have much more of an “end of time” fear and that is feeding their panic. Not just the global warming alarmists, but the debt crisis people, immigration crisis people – all of that sort of thing as well. People rushed eagerly into lockdown both for respite but also there is a deep hope that things will be different afterwards. There is a hope that this will trigger a paradigm change

  • Warty

    Rob, I second pgang’s statement about hindsight having no part in this discussion.
    Perhaps it was the intimidating name, ‘coronavirus’, with its equally intimidating alias, ‘covid 19’; enough for the media to conjure up a dark Conrad-like ‘heart of darkness’ laced with superstitious sprinklings of the unknown and shades of the apocalypse (as though historic events in the Belgian Congo weren’t apocalyptic enough).
    What about the Green’s mantra: ‘the science is settled’? I know where I’d stick computer-generated models.

  • pgang

    Warty Sweden stopped being socialist a long time ago, because their economy was tanking in the ’70’s. By their own admission they went down the socialist path because of success-induced hubris. ‘Socialist Sweden’ is now a contemporary leftie myth. This explains their current relative freedoms. Australia on the other hand is probably where Sweden was in the 60’s – on the road to socialism.

  • pgang

    Parts of the media are finally ‘getting it’. Not that they care.

    https://www.infowars.com/hot-mic-moment-at-coronavirus-task-force-briefing/

  • Rob Brighton

    What is the connection between green imbecility and the commentary of a STEM science? That is quite the strawman Warty. Mind you the modelling (as I suspect most models are) was pretty useless, garbage in garbage out. Still, that is the information those who are making the decisions were working with at the time.
    Pgang, I do not believe this is a historical whitewash.
    Who said that 98% of those infected would not suffer (aside from the CCP)? What are their qualifications to comment and be taken seriously? Mr OBriens commentary has been a sane perspective but as he quite openly stated not a medically informed one.
    On one hand, you can accept the perspective of 7 well educated knowledgeable men of law as would all clear-thinking humans yet doubt the commentary of scientists who are in fields that are generally not poisoned by irrationality as exemplified by the green movement. Only one of these things suits your perspective, there is a word for that.
    Our subsequent questioning of the decisions made ought to be done in the light of the information to hand at the time of those decisions. Anything else is hindsight.

    Here is the timeline of action, nowhere does it say 98% will be ok. I would love to see evidence to the contrary so I can adjust my thinking but so far all I have is unqualified bleating or seriously qualified scientists from STEM fields, not the social science department. Given the choice between the two, only one is worthy of serious consideration.

    https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/feb/03/timeline-how-australia-responded-to-the-coronavirus-outbreak

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QwoNP9QWr4Y Korean Professor.

  • PT

    I agree with Rob Brighton. If there’d been the sort of scenes coming from Italy, or the lockdowns in Western Europe, she’d have been pushing for this! As would Krudd! Roxon was one of the least impressive ministers in a very poor quality government!

  • Warty

    Good afternoon pgang. Tell that to my fellow Rhodesians who not only had to fight Zanla and Zipra (military arms of Zanu and Zapu respectively) but they had to compete with Swedish funding (along with that of the World Council of Churches). Tell that to the pre 1994 South African government which also complained of Swedish funding of terrorist organisations.
    Then there was this bizarre Left alignment with Islamist groups in their suicidal opening of their borders to Muslims and north Africans (largely the latter and largely young fighting-age men). That wasn’t restricted to Sweden, of course. Perhaps Sweden’s stopping being socialist is some sort of technical definitional thing, but the muzzis were particularly attracted to their social security benefits.
    One is largely defined by what one does, not what one says.

  • DG

    Ah, 2009, the good ol’ days. I was called upon at that time to prepare a pandemic plan for my area of responsibility in the public service, both for service continuity (that’s the ‘back office bureaucrats), and service delivery (2000 front line staff and a similar number of service recipients). We had plans, we knew how to react. All was calm, methodical and no one panicked at either the threat or the plan.

  • pgang

    Not sure what your point is Warty. None of that has anything to do with where Sweden is now in regards to being a socialist nation or not. And border policy is established by the EU.

  • en passant

    As I understand it the PM and our government has already proudly blown about $300Bn in borrowed money to replace our dead economy. It is a deliberate misnomer to call it a ‘stimulus’ as few businesses in Australia are operating or will benefit. This loan can only be spent on essentials, temporarily paying down debt and buying overseas manufactured stuff. Oh, good as that probably means we have stimulated the Chinese economy so they will be able to finance our further indebtedness to them. As tax revenues must have dropped by a huge percentage we can only pay back our newly created debt by increasing taxes until our eyes bleed, or really stimulating our economy.
    If you want to know what real callousness is, watch the tax meter as Death Duties on estates are reintroduced, Superannuation Funds are raided, the GST is increased, and tax, tax, tax is the preferred ad infinitum solution – for our own good.
    I am not so much bemused, as angered by 25M people being imprisoned because 75 or so may died and 7,000 were infected in basically three locations. Some international travel restrictions may have been imposed, but I have strong doubts even these were necessary. Domestically, thousands of ‘grey nomad’ caravaners were turned around from heading to warmer climes for the winter. I have not seen a single reported case of one of their number being infected while going north or returning to the cold, grey south. I would take a bet that some of them will die of winter diseases in Victoria. Best we hurry and get those Death Duty taxes in place before winter.
    According to the infection tracking website, only eight cities in Australia have recorded cases of the Chinese Wuhan Virus. Let’s hypothesis that by the time we are ready to restart the economy we are $500Bn in debt and 100 people have died. What would have happened if we had segmented Australia into Wuhan-Virus and Non-Wuhan-Virus affected areas? Can any politician post an explanation why we also locked down Alice Springs, Broome, Carnarvon, Geraldton, Kalgoorlie, Ceduna, Warrnambool, Geelong, Ballarat, Bendigo, Albury, Wodonga, Wollongong, Newcastle, Rockhampton, Townsville, Cairns, etc, etc. Even within Sydney and Melbourne, until a case is shown to be in a suburb or specific location, there was no rational justification for this collective punishment.

  • norsaint

    The ghastly Roxon, courtesy of her excise tax innovation, has put the kindly cigar well out of reach of your average punter. Why do we let harridans like this take away our simple pleasures?

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