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9/11, twenty years on: memories launch our perspectives

Just about anyone who remembers September 11, 2001 – a full twenty years ago, to the day, of this writing – can pinpoint exactly what they were doing, who they were with, and what they were looking forward to doing in their immediate futures.

But how many can admit, or recall, with any degree of certainty, how much those aims, goals or perspectives were permanently altered?

Truth is, September 11, 2001, as a singular date, exists as – with apologies in advance to the millennials who were either born after this date or too young to remember the events of the day itself – a watershed day of linked events in the course of global history.

Every generation has their relative points in history such as those. Such as when U.S. President John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas (that’s the one people of my parents’ generation speak to), when the Challenger space shuttle exploded in the sky, when the first Gulf War broke out, when Princess Diana was killed, or for those aforementioned millennials, when terms like “COVID-19”, “global pandemic”, and/or “lockdowns” became a part of our general lexicon.

But focusing on the day which has been abbreviated to “9/11” in the modern global parlance, many of us possess vivid memories of what they were doing at the moment, and what was to follow.

My personal story starts with me being in another country.

For those who are familiar with my life’s narrative, and not just my works of journalism, can recall that I am an American ex-pat who has lived in Australia for almost the last 20 years. In fact, this December marks 20 years since I decided to arrive on Australian shores, as a first-generation immigrant, to live here permanently.

So by that chronology, that “other country” was not Australia, but rather The Netherlands, otherwise known colloquially as Holland.

Among the variety of freelance journalism jobs that I was doing at that time, with freelance journalism existing as a self-employed pattern for myself in the first 10-plus years of my journalistic odysseys, was for a late, lamented website called DailySoccer.com, covering American soccer features and the occasional match report around the USA’s men’s and women’s national teams, Major League Soccer, and other writings of interest.

I was doing a great string of regular work for them, and getting a global exposure for my writings as well. Not bad considering a World Wide Web that was still evolving, pre-iPhones and social media and the like.

I had started freelance work for DailySoccer.com in early 2000 as I was preparing for two things – my work ahead of the 2000 MLS season and a key World Cup qualifying campaign for the USA’s men’s national team, and my first overseas trip in June, to Australia to meet Jennifer, a woman I had been chatting online with for the previous 18 months or so. That Australian visit lasted just three months on a tourist visa, but by the time it was done, I had proposed to her (she said “yes”, by the way).

So returning to the U.S., and returning to my day job, I had a wedding to finance and prepare for, the return venture to Australia for the wedding to take place in February 2002. Quite the balancing act awaited me for the next several months.

In early August of 2001, one of my editors at DailySoccer.com rang me with a different sort of proposal. (At this stage, we were speaking once per week, at least via telephone, despite the time difference between central Europe and my then-home in California.)

“William, we’re planning some exciting new changes to the website, the business model and everything else, and we want you to be a part of the launch of it all,” he said.

“That’s great! What do I have to do?” I asked in reply.

“We want to fly you over here, to partake in the meetings. How does early September, around the 8th or 9th sound? We’ll pay for your flight on KLM Airlines and your accommodation, too,” he said.

How could I say “no” to that!

Of course, that “over here” was Amsterdam, and then off to the website’s offices and my accommodation in Haarlem, about 30 minutes outside of the city.

My first trip to Europe – and return airfares from San Francisco to Amsterdam at the time were just less than $600 USD, in economy class.

I left on the morning of September 9, arrived at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam in the middle of the afternoon same day. My hosts (office co-workers) showed me around Amsterdam and then Haarlem on the day and evening. I was so impressed, with the centuries-old history, the architecture, and everything about the cities and towns (even the “hey, it seems like everything is legal here” observation).

 

Amsterdam

 

The next day, Monday the 10th, we had the essential meetings which we had discussed, and I mentally coasted through them – my head was in a fog, not sure if it was from jetlag from the flight, or too much good Dutch beer from the night before.

Whatever it was, the buzzkill was yet to come.

As I was finally settling into a rhythm of writing features and doing other duties for the website, especially after lunch, on Tuesday the 11th, just after 2pm Central European Time, one of my editors pointed to the TV, which was on CNN International, and said to me:

“William, are you watching this? Perhaps you should.”

One plane after another hitting into the World Trade Centre’s famed Twin Towers. Needless to say, I was stunned, my eyes did not divert back to my laptop screen, and – for obvious reasons, and we already know the rest of the story in New York from here, and the consequences from it – I was excused from getting any more work done for the day.

Flights all over the world were suspended from this point, until the following weekend. “How am I going to get home?” and “How am I going to get to Australia?” were two of my most immediate thoughts. These were themes as I kept ringing nightly to my mother and brothers in California, my managers and co-workers at my day job, and to Jennifer in Australia.

The Dutch locals in Haarlem and Amsterdam, every time they’d pick up my American accent, were absolutely lovely, offering condolences for my countrymen and women, regardless of whether I was in the streets, the pubs, hotels, restaurants, wherever (including, yes, in front of the hash bars and sex hostels). And all this was occurring while my DailySoccer.com co-workers and I were contemplating the future for the world at-large. The compassionate acts were as meaningful as the larger consequences, good and bad alike.

Ultimately, I did make it home – and on the first permitted flight out of Europe, on the following Saturday, in fact – and I did eventually make it to Australia for the wedding (and yes, Jennifer and I are still married).

When I did get home, many people, especially those at my day job and other reporters whom I saw on a regular basis at soccer matches, told me how lucky I was, to be in another country when it happened.

However, this was also with the knowledge that over 2000 others weren’t so lucky: the largest American death toll from one event until the COVID-19 pandemic. In our inner circles, many of us either knew people or knew people who knew others who were involved in the 9-11 terror attacks, including those who wouldn’t come back.

These memories, along with the perspectives of how much the world has changed in the last 20 years, with global economies, the airline industry, security in general, and the geo-political spectrum having irreversibly been altered, can never be dulled from the minds of those having been touched.

It is a much different world now. And no going back to what it was then – no matter how much we long for those days.

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Now is not the time for subsidy cuts, says ACTU

The timing of cuts to government welfare subsidy programs such as JobSeeker and JobKeeper still lacks an appropriate nature at the start of 2021 as the Australian economy still lags in times of a recession, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) said in its New Year’s message.

Addressing the nation’s workforce, and speaking specifically to the plight of the unemployed, under-employed and those labouring in insecure jobs, Scott Connolly, the ACTU’s assistant secretary, said that while unemployment rates remain high, the Morrison government going ahead with its cuts to subsidy packages takes much-needed money out of the hands of those who can best boost the nation’s flagging economy.

Initially lauded for introducing subsidies to help the suddenly-unemployed when the COVID-19 pandemic was declared in March, the government under Prime Minister Scott Morrison and federal treasurer Josh Frydenberg has proceeded to slash JobSeeker recipients’ coronavirus subsidy from its original $550 per fortnight to complement the old NewStart base rate of $559.00 per fortnight, to $250 per fortnight as of 25 September to $150 per fortnight effective their first full fortnightly reporting interval in 2021.

Connolly cites that living on an average of $51.20 per day after the most recent cut leaves JobSeeker recipients struggling even further to spend money on life’s necessities of rent, bills, and groceries, let alone anything beyond them.

“After a year spent battling bushfires and surviving a pandemic, the last thing Australians should have to worry about now is how they will pay their bills or put food on the table,” Connolly said on Friday.

The JobKeeper subsidy is also meeting the government’s machete chops, to the tune of $100 per fortnight, taking it to $1000 per fortnight for workers that had performed part- or full-time positions, or $650 per fortnight for those working under 20 hours per week.

And Connolly stresses that the cuts add up, especially for those who had been used to the struggles of their normal everyday lives.

“For many Australians, the JobKeeper coronavirus supplement meant that for the first time, they were able to eat three meals a day, or purchase much-needed medications,” Connolly said.

“To take that away from them now as this difficult year draws to a close is both callous and heartbreaking,” he added.

As reported by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) last month in its November figures, the national unemployment rate continues to hover at 6.8 per cent – which represents an improvement of 0.2 per cent from October as workers who were put aside by their employers at the start of the pandemic returned to their duties represented a portion of those responsible for the improved numbers.

However, as the union movement and the Australian workforce continue to struggle with the impact of the current state of unemployed and under-employed as well as those embroiled in a spate of insecure jobs, Connolly also cites the recent resurgence of positive COVID-19 cases in New South Wales and Victoria as another factor as to why Morrison and Frydenberg would have been justified to delay the current round of cuts.

In fact, Connolly and the ACTU claim that the failure to even consider this action revealed a lack of proper initiative on the part of the government.

“With COVID-19 resurging in NSW and the national economic crisis far from over, cutting economic support to millions of struggling Australians is also an extremely irresponsible act,” Connolly said.

Bill Shorten, the former leader of the Labor party now serving Anthony Albanese’s shadow government as its minister for government services, concurs that the timing is poor to go ahead with the scheduled cuts.

“The government should reconsider it,” Shorten told Nine’s Today program on December 29.

“We are not out of the woods yet with this pandemic and the economic effects. They are reverberating around the economy, especially in regional towns and suburbs where there are a lot of casual workers who have bourne the biggest brunt.

“For the less well off, we shouldn’t be cutting their circumstances at this point in time,” Shorten added.

Youth unemployment remains another factor which the unions and government figures alike are grappling with, as the recent round of cuts will likely hit workers aged 16-to-24 years of age even worse.

According to the ABS in its November statistics on employment, youth unemployment currently sits at 15.6 per cent – and noting a 12-month increase of 4.1 per cent over the year before – and while that figure calculates to more than double of the national general rate of unemployment, fears abound of what impact that may have on the economy.

Especially when disabling demographics of people who are otherwise motivated to spend money to inspire a struggling economy.

“Cutting the rates of JobKeeper and JobSeeker is only going to worsen the impact of the coronavirus crisis on young workers and our community. We need jobs, not cuts,” Young Workers Centre manager Arian McVeigh said back in September, when the first cuts to JobSeeker and JobKeeper were on the eve of occurring.

 

Arian McVeigh, manager of the Young Workers Centre, who warned about the impact of JobSeeker and JobKeeper cuts back in September (Photo from abc.net.au)

 

Moreover, when the initial JobSeeker and JobKeeper cuts took effect, it was forecast to stifle the Australian economy by $31.2 billion according to a joint report from economics analysis firm Deloitte and the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) – and while real figures to confirm the degree of impact have yet to be released, agreements range widely outside of government figures which confirm that consumers lack the confidence to spend money.

Advocates for the “Raise The Rate For Good” hashtag trending across social media would claim that a move to raising the old NewStart rate permanently – which has not occurred since 1994 – would help restore that confidence.

And while the ACTU has pushed for that payment to resemble the original JobSeeker amount, Labor ministers such as Shorten and Linda Burney, the ALP’s shadow minister for families and social services, have vowed to attack the issue when Parliament sits for the first time in 2021 next month before the current rate of JobSeeker and JobKeeper subsidies are set to expire at the end of March.

“Around two million Australians will be impacted by the government’s scheduled cut to the coronavirus supplement next March,” Burney said last month when announcing a similar bill to the upper house.

“Returning unemployment support to the old base rate places millions of Australians at risk of hardship and jeopardises local jobs,” added Burney.

 

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Aged care’s pandemic reply still a mess, unions say

The Morrison government has failed to respond specifically to the findings of the recent Aged Care Royal Commission and the problem points and issues revealed from it – and the longer which that persists, especially on the findings specific to the COVID-19 pandemic, the longer the crisis over the aged care sector will go on, members of Australia’s union movement said on Tuesday.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) asserted that the government – specifically aimed at Prime Minister Scott Morrison and indicted by association, Greg Hunt, the government’s health minister, and Richard Colbeck, the government’s minister for aged care – will not address shortages and shortcomings in providing responses to staffing levels, training or transparency within the aged care system.

“This Government needs to take responsibility for the years of understaffing and low wages in aged care. There have been 685 preventable deaths caused by COVID-19,” said Michele O’Neil, the ACTU’s president.

“In the midst of a crisis in aged care which has been exacerbated by a pandemic, aged care workers need more funding, and they need that funding to be tied to outcomes for staff and residents so it cuts through the bloated for-profit system.

“Yesterday, the Morrison Government opposed legislation to require aged care providers to publicly report on how they spend their revenue. Accountability for government funding is long overdue,”

O’Neil and the ACTU were responding specifically to an announcement on Monday from Hunt regarding a $132.2 million investment package which, in representing the government’s official response to the findings of the Aged Care Royal Commission as it pertains to the needs brought on by the pandemic, included a detailed breakdown of spendings on top of a $245 million funding in August.

“This investment directly addresses issues raised by the Aged Care Royal Commission and will improve and support the health and wellbeing of aged care residents most significantly impacted by COVID-19,” said Hunt upon announcing the new package of investment.

“For our aged care sector, the revised plan allows flexibility to manage individual situations in each state and territory [and] also builds on and consolidates the critical and successful work already undertaken by the Commonwealth government,” said Hunt.

Colbeck said that the current updated plan attached to the new investment was created upon conjunction with the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee’s Aged Care Advisory Group (ACAG), thereby meeting one of the Royal Commission’s aims.

“While we hope there won’t be further COVID-19 outbreaks in aged care facilities or in home care, if it does happen, key learnings will inform the future work of the ACAG and be shared with the aged care sector,” said Colbeck.

Previously, Annie Butler, the national secretary of the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF), said that her union had welcomed the six basic conclusions from the Aged Care Royal Commission’s findings, but still fears that maximum protections for older Australians living in nursing homes and aged care facilities will not be met.

“Nursing homes desperately need additional nurses and care staff to provide safe, effective care outcomes for residents, not just to enable more visitors,” Butler said in October, shortly after the Royal Commission’s findings were released.

“While that is critical for the wellbeing of residents, more staff are urgently needed just to meet basic needs for residents in far too many nursing homes.

“Our members have been on the frontline during the pandemic and have witnessed how it has stretched staff and resources even further, again demonstrating the importance of having sufficient staffing levels and skills mix, to cope with intensified demands and workloads,” added Butler.

O’Neil suggested that the government utilise a quota-based system which possesses a variety of skill sets to suit the needs of a maligned aged care sector, whose shortcomings in a privatised status continue to be greatly exposed during the pandemic.

“The crisis in aged care won’t be turned around by one announcement, this government shows no commitment to the long-term change which it has been told again and again is necessary,” said O’Neil.

“We need minimum staffing levels with a mandated mix of skills on every shift in every workplace. This announcement takes us no closer to this goal.

“Mandated training requirements are urgently needed to ensure that workers and residents are safe. This announcement will do nothing to improve training,” O’Neil added.

Butler suggested that any additional funding, regardless of when it would become available, be used in a targeted budget approach in intended areas rather than a government-based value-for-money tactic would be of better use to the sector.

“We welcome the recommendation for immediate additional funding, but reiterate the need for greater transparency for any additional government funding, because aged care providers must be held accountable – and actually use the money for its intended purpose of employing additional nurses and carers for the depleted sector,” she said.

Ultimately, O’Neil languishes at the likes of Hunt and Colbeck failing to adhere to finding common ground between the Aged Care Royal Commission’s findings and the needs of the aged care sector itself.

“We have been willing to work with the Morrison government on this issue. So it is deeply regrettable that they continue to ignore the expertise of the workers in the sector,” said O’Neil.

 

 

 

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You will catch it

You are going to catch it.

Not everyone who reads this article will contract COVID-19, the novel coronavirus originating in Hubei province, China. On the current rates of transmission and expected trajectory, however, the chances are better than even that if you are reading these words, in the near future you will catch this virus.

Harvard epidemiology professor Marc Lipsitch believes that the virus has moved beyond any attempts to contain it. Whilst governments around the world, Australia included, continue to talk about containing the virus and preventing its spread, they are also mobilising their plans for responding to a global pandemic. Dr Nancy Messonnier, head of the US government’s Centre for Disease Control, said on Tuesday that COVID-19 could not be stopped and that public policy would have to switch from containment to mitigation.

“Pandemic” has a formal definition. Professor Brendan Murphy, Australia’s Chief Medical Officer, explains: “A pandemic is a label that simply says that there’s sustained community transmission in several countries. We are already preparing for the eventuality that we have further outbreaks in Australia should they happen. So that’s what the preparation is about. So, declaring a pandemic doesn’t change what we do.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison today announced that the government is preparing its full response plan for management of the crisis. Current plans include securing the supply chains for required medical supplies and personnel, and as reported elsewhere, the repurposing of sports stadiums and other infrastructure as temporary medical facilities.

The truth is, it is likely this virus already qualifies for “pandemic” status. Whilst the majority of cases have so far been detected in China, the disease is spreading rapidly and largely uncontrolled throughout Asia. The United States has seen its first case of an apparently disconnected diagnosis – a confirmed case of coronavirus in a patient with no known contact to people from affected areas. There have been reports of people becoming symptomatic up to 28 days after exposure, which is well outside the accepted quarantine measures. In all likelihood, in several countries or many, the disease is spreading unchecked and unseen throughout populations.

They won’t know about it for some time yet. The disease is often mild, or even for some asymptomatic. This virus appears to be more contagious than influenza, and every individual affected may on average infect four others (reducing, as the virus becomes more endemic in the population). In combination, a highly contagious virus with mild effects is likely to be impossible to control. Once it gets out of control in any one place, in practical terms our globalised economic system ensures it will spread everywhere.

The most important direct response anyone can take towards this sobering thought is: Don’t panic!

The moments of greatest disruption from this virus are right now. There is much that is yet unknown, but from the cases we have so far seen, we can draw some conclusions.

COVID-19 is far more virulent than the common cold, it’s true. It’s more severe than normal strains of influenza. Typical influenza hospitalises a small percentage of sufferers, with complications and severe outcomes including death for between 0.1% and 0.5% of all infected. COVID-19 has a mortality rate between 1.5% and 4%. The wide range reflects that the severity of virus outcomes depends largely on the quality of medical care sufferers receive. Untreated, obviously more people die than those in countries with advanced medical systems, such as Australia. COVID-19 appears also to be particularly severe in the elderly and those with co-morbid conditions (pre-existing conditions such as Diabetes or Asthma). This is no different to the regular strains of annual influenza and related cold and flu viruses.

COVID-19 is not a devastating new epidemic to kill vast swathes of Australians. It’s far more akin to a particularly severe flu strain. The more pernicious effect of the virus is measured in how societies are responding to its threat.

Governments have already closed borders, and even after a few short weeks the global economy is shuddering under the strain. Australia’s universities are suffering a loss of international students, many of whom will not return. Global trade markets are at a standstill, as are many major industrial facilities in China. (As a result, China’s CO2 emissions for the quarter are hugely reduced, although if COVID-19 is contained and restrictions are lifted there is an expectation that China’s factories will roar back into life, seeking to make up for lost time.) There have been reports already of panic buying of medical and infection prevention materials in various cities. Japan is terrified about the possibility of the Olympic Games not going ahead, or (worse) being run without an influx of tourists. International art, fashion and music festivals have been postponed or cancelled for fear of spreading the virus amongst attendees. Forget making people sick, COVID-19 is having a devastating impact on modern society, in much the same way terror of terrorism used to.

Our modern economy cannot operate if people are reluctant to go out in public, if they avoid sporting events and art galleries, beaches and rock concerts, if they avoid Chinatown and restaurants and shopping centres, the whole edifice that is our carefully constructed and tended economy may crumble.

Already stock markets are tottering, and the worst effects have not yet begun to bite. Investors have been so far reluctant to admit the worst possibilities of this pandemic, assuming that the effects of the virus will be to depress the stock market for a short while – perhaps one fiscal quarter – before the inevitable rebound. It seems hugely optimistic to assume that COVID-19 will be under control in a single quarter. This crisis has, almost certainly, a lot longer yet to run. Some analysts fear that the results of COVID-19 will be worse than the GFC. Compared to the damage this could do to modern societies and nations, the physical effects of this virus seem positively benign.

In reality COVID-19 is not too dissimilar, in many ways, to the existing strains of flu. If it becomes endemic in world populations, to the extent that governments cease attempting to contain and eliminate it, we will treat it much as any other flu-like illness: with symptomatic treatment. It is important to note also that there are vaccines currently being developed for this disease. Contrary to some breathless reporting elsewhere, such efforts will not be providing an immunisation against COVID-19 any time soon. The best-case scenario is for a working, mass-produced vaccine to be available 22-24 months from now. This timeline is unprecedentedly swift: most vaccines take up to a decade to bring to market. Two years from now, COVID-19 will either be eliminated in practical terms, or it will be everywhere, sweeping across the globe in annual waves with the weather.

So what would a world with COVID-19 look like? Largely this depends on a couple of factors, which are currently not known.

One of the most important questions is whether COVID-19 might, like existing influenza strains, be highly mutable, changing form every year such that the touted vaccine for this year will be less effective next year. If this proves the case, COVID-19 might be here to stay. The good news is that the severity of COVID-19 might be due in part to its novelty – it is a new virus not previously found in human populations, so it’s feasible to suppose that this virus is proving harder for the human immune system to beat. Unlike the flu, nobody has immunity to COVID-19 from either immunisation or having experienced an earlier strain. After we’ve all experienced COVID-19 once, the likelihood is that many will resist any future strains, should they come. Once you’ve recovered from this year’s strain, your body might more easily fight off the next iteration.

Our most probable future is one where COVID-19 has swept through most global populations and most, at least in western, advanced societies, are now either immune or vaccinated against it. Perhaps the virus will be mutable, each year seeing a new strain, with the medical fraternity encouraging us all to get our Flu-and-COVID shots as each flu season rolls around. Or it will be a one-and-done. In either case, we will no longer be afraid to step outside our doors, to interact with our fellow humans, to socialise and share company and food and experiences. In truth, we shouldn’t be afraid of these things now. Either the authorities will prevail, against the odds, and COVID-19 will go the way of Polio and Ebola, eliminated in most human populations with only a rare outbreak occurring from time to time. Under this scenario the chances of a typical Australian contracting the virus are slim. We are protected by our strong biosecurity and the tyranny of distance. If any country can retain control of such a disease it is Australia. Or else the virus will slip past our defenses anyway and run amok through our cities. Your chances of avoiding the disease then, due to your own vigilance, become unfeasibly small. You are likely to catch it. And that shouldn’t bother you. Most of us will catch it, and for the vast majority of us the result will be a case of coughs-and-sniffles.

At 2% morbidity, COVID-19 would be a substantial killer of the old, the sick, the vulnerable, but as always this cost will be borne most heavily in third world countries, rural areas or those with undeveloped medical systems. Here in affluent Australia it will be a mere sub-component of the list of diseases which can kill us, and we will give no more thought to it than we do to Measles. So, don’t panic. If COVID-19 becomes a pandemic, the likelihood is we’ll just have to live with it. So we shouldn’t let it stop us living now.

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