The Watercooler, 4 July 2020
Updated: Jul 16
By Nick Cater
The delusion that we can stop COVID-19 in its tracks is killing our economy. We are going to have to live with this unwelcome visitor while resuming near-normal business and taking precautions in proportion to the risk.
Nick Cater, Executive Director, Menzies Research Centre
Without or without the localised spike in infections in Victorians, the risk of being infected is far lower than we thought when COVID-19 first arrived. The risk of needing hospital treatment is smaller. And the risk that our intensive care unit beds will become overwhelmed with the sick and dying is remote. The risk to jobs and businesses, on the other hand, has risen dramatically. The risk of a longer, deeper economic downturn grows every day lockdown measures are in place. This week’s letter is longer than usual for good reason. We find ourselves at a crucial point in the management of the COVID-19 pandemic when serious policy decisions must be made. Is our goal to reduce the infection rate to zero, as New Zealand tried to do but failed? Or is it to manage the risks, shield the most vulnerable, care for the sick and get the country back to work? A calm conversation based on empirical evidence is long overdue. In our view, the draconian lockdown measures introduced by the Victorian government this week are an extraordinarily dangerous over-reaction to the manageable risks we face. The Andrews government has failed to take into account three key changes since the virus began to spread in late summer. First, the potential number of lives saved by restrictions is far smaller than we first thought. Second, our preparedness to treat, track and trace is many times greater. Third, the economy is in a more precarious position, especially in Victoria. Some facts may clarify our thinking in what is fast becoming an emotion driven debate. The proportion of the Victorian population that has been infected by COVID-19 is 0.05 per cent. Two-thirds of those have since recovered. The proportion that has died is 0.0003 per cent. Three-quarters of COVID-19 cases are confined to 17 local government areas. For those that live in the other 62 LGAs, the risk of contracting the virus up to now was one in 350,000. In response to this threat, Victoria Police will be policing whale watching, fishing, golf and other harmless activities this weekend. A family in Moama, NSW, can picnic on the banks of the Murray, but a family from Echuca, Victoria cannot without risking a fine. The cost of policing this lockdown will be substantial. In union-dominated Victoria, police overtime does not come cheap. The cost to small businesses, jobs and communities mounts by the day. The precise balance between public health protection and economic activity is a matter that our elected governments must decide based on all the available information. They should be guided by this eternal wisdom: Perfection is for the next world. Here the best we can expect is the very best we can do. Fortunately, there’s much more to read, watch and listen to in Watercooler this week than COVID-19. Follow the links below to discover what is on offer. In particular, allow me to recommend Cancelling Bill Leak, a conversation about the late cartoonist Bill Leak between Tony Abbott, Fred Pawle, Johannes Leak and myself recorded at the Bill Leak Gallery on the Central Coast last week.