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Six Short Takes About The Lockdown

To begin with, a correction : in yesterday’s column I said that there were 650,000 New Zealanders in Australia that do not qualify for income support if and when they lose their jobs as a result of Covid-19. This was factually wrong. In fact, about half of those Kiwis were resident before the rules were changed by the Howard government in 2001, and their entitlement to income support got carried over. This still leaves about 300,000 Kiwis resident in Australia – in general, they’re younger people who moved across the Tasman after 2001 – who are now at risk of losing their jobs and their ability to support themselves while in lockdown. That’s unless the Morrison government grants them a temporary extension, as asked for by the Ardern government.

This changes nothing about the arguments advanced in yesterday’s column. If anything, it re-inforces them since the temporary extension of income support to that reduced number of Kiwis would (a) be more affordable and (b) would in effect, be merely waiving the 2001 change as if it had not happened. It would temporarily re-extend to one group of New Zealanders the same treatment received by another group of ( generally older )Kiwis. Here’s a good personal summary of the currently dire situation, as recounted to the ABC yesterday by a New Zealand resident in Australia :

On February 26, 2001, legislation introduced by the Howard government created two categories of New Zealanders living in Australia. The Special Category Visa created for New Zealanders in 1994 was split into "protected" visas for those of us living in Australia on or before February 26 of that year and "non-protected" visas for those arriving after. The former retained full access to Australian benefits while the later would be mostly ineligible.

My "non-protected" SCV means I'm a resident for tax purposes but cannot access Jobseeker payments unless I've lived here for 10 years, at which point I can access a one-time, six-month payment period. I can receive that in June, but currently am unable to access Covid-19 welfare payments for individuals. I also can't receive tertiary funding or access to the NDIS [ National Disability Support Scheme.]

The contrast between the treatment that we extend to Australians and what our citizens receive across the Tasman is, as yesterday’s column indicated, pretty stark. Here’s how Nick Buckley depicts it in his ABC opinion article :

Australians can access unemployment benefits in New Zealand after living there for two years, vote after one year of residency and gain citizenship after five…As someone who started living in Australia before 2016 I can also access a pathway to citizenship introduced by the Turnbull government. To be eligible for this pathway I need to have earned a taxable income of $53,900 for the four years preceding my application.

That’s a high hurdle, especially for workers in the gig economy, and say, in hospitality industries. A Change.org petition has been circulating – reportedly signed by 100,000 New Zealanders –

– calling on the Morrison government to grant access to Centrelink ( unemployment benefit) support to Kiwis resident in Australia. Unfortunately, this call risks being drowned out amidst the flood of Australians who have suddenly lost their jobs, and are seeking income support.

That aside, today’s column brings together a few news items that may have been overlooked as the lockdown kicked in here last night :

1.Chloroquine fails test. The FiercePharma site has always been a useful window into the pharmaceutical industry, and yesterday it reported that chloroquine – an old anti-malarial drug cited prematurely by Donald Trump as a potential Covid-19 cure –had failed a clinical trial. 

Malaria drug chloroquine, AbbVie’s HIV combo therapy Kaletra and an influenza med called Arbidol are among top candidates that physicians are repurposing for the treatment of COVID-19. Despite backing from officials, though, the three have disappointed separately in two Chinese clinical trials of mild patients. Hydroxychloroquine, a more tolerable form of chloroquine, didn’t top placebo at clearing the coronavirus among mild Chinese patients, or helping them reach normal temperature sooner, Evercore ISI analyst Umer Raffat noted in a Tuesday memo.

Separately, neither Kaletra—a combination of HIV antivirals lopinavir and ritonavir—nor Arbidol (umifenovir) delivered benefits in viral clearance or symptom relief compared with no antiviral treatment in a small Chinese study in mild-to-moderate COVID-19 patients, results published Monday on the preprint site medRxiv show.

Still, these drugs and others – including the anti-viral remdesivir – will shortly be given a further chance to prove their worth in an urgent WHO trial ( called Solidarity) that will reportedly involve thousands of patients worldwide. Remdesivir was initially developed as an HIV remedy ( it failed) then as an ebola treatment ( it failed) but it is now being trialled again in the hope that it can disrupt the ability of the Covid-19 virus to bind with receptors at the outset of the infection process.

2.Lockdown logic. The best summary of the rationale for the lockdown – and the most thorough assessment of the options and tough ethical choices facing the government – can be found in this blog entry by epidemiologists at the Otago Medical School. 

IMO, what’s grimly interesting is their comparison of the various death tolls likely among the policy options …They also usefully outline the process whereby sufficient numbers of infected young survivors of the disease may gradually create a form of ‘herd immunity’ (as the virus finds it increasingly difficult to find new and vulnerable hosts) that will benefit the more vulnerable (usually older) citizens who may need to be kept in total lockdown until herd immunity can eventually reduce the risk significantly, to them. That discussion includes this observation :

 

Is specifically protecting the old (and people with chronic conditions) ethical from the perspective of the young and healthy who incur higher infection rates? Under a health gain maximising utilitarian framework, yes. So long as the total life years saved by protecting the old and unwell exceed the life years lost among the increased numbers of young people dying – which it probably does. There are other ethical and philosophical analyses that could be made – the ‘fair innings’ argument for example which puts more weight on saving younger lives. But if the NZ Government adopts the ‘flattening the curve’ strategy it should probably mean we are then obligated to consider a societal contract.

If young (and healthy) people are expected to keep working and experience higher infections rates, the small proportion of those young people unfortunate enough to get very sick deserve prioritisation of critical care facilities over the elderly and people of all ages with chronic conditions.

In other words, there will be trade-offs and all those trade-offs have implications in lives saved, and lives lost. Among other things, the Otago Medical School blog entry offers a nuanced version of the trade-offs currently being tackled in his usual fashion by Donald Trump – who seems entirely comfortable with treating the health of the economy as more important than public health.

By mid year here, the discussion will be revolving around the possible exit strategy from the lockdown – and chances are, younger New Zealand workers are going to be the canaries in the mine. All logic would suggest that older and vulnerable people may have to stay in lockdown for longer, possibly for much of this year.

3.Trump’s Support Rises. Talking of Trump….while most of us – and many Americans – regard his management of the Covid-19 crisis as abysmal, his current polling shows that his support is actually increasing, and that his disapproval numbers are falling. Go figure. Especially when on his Twitter feed this morning, Trump is continuing to treat a disease that’s claiming so many lives, as being purely a personal affront :

The LameStream Media is the dominant force in trying to get me to keep our Country closed as long as possible in the hope that it will be detrimental to my election success. The real people want to get back to work ASAP. We will be stronger than ever before!

4. Just Like Us. Since we’re talking this morning about the trade-off between the health of the economy and the health of actual, real live people…here’s a link to another country that’s implementing a strikingly similar package of economic supports/social lockdown strategy as New Zealand. Namely, Denmark.

The Atlantic interview linked to above is with Denmark’s Employment Minister Peter Himmelman who among other things, notes that Denmark’s unions and employers have always had a positive working relationship - and that this has made Denmark’s Covid-19 employment package easier to implement, and to win public support. Note the similarity with what New Zealand is doing: both countries are funnelling high levels of wage support ( 80% here, 90% there) through employers :

First, all…employees would be eligible to receive income compensation as long as you keep them on contract. That means they are sent home, and the government pays you, the restaurant owner, up to 90 percent of their salaries—up to about $4,000 a month—which you would pay to the workers you still have on contract.

Second, the government would compensate you for fixed costs, like rent. For example, the government will pay a portion of your rent depending how much your revenue declines.

Third, if any of your employees get sick from the coronavirus, the government will pay their sick leave from day one. Generally, in Denmark, the employers are responsible for the first 30 days of paid sick leave. Finally, we decided to postpone the deadlines of taxes like the value-added tax, and we’ve encouraged banks to extend credit to companies like yours.

Denmark is spending an amount equal to 13% of its GDP on this effort.

5. More Readers/Viewers, Less Revenue. Even as the Covid-19 crisis underlines the public’s need or information across all forms of the media, the US reality seems to be that the increases in readership/viewership in the wake of the crisis is still not compensating for the accelerated collapse in ad revenues caused by the economic shutdown. In addition, public access to information appears to be drying up : some of which can be put down to logistical reasons. Some is less so, as with this message from the FBI, picked up by Buzzfeed:

A message posted on the FBI's Freedom of Information Act website Tuesday says:

"Due to the emerging COVID-19 situation, the FBI is not accepting electronic Freedom of Information/Privacy Act requests or sending out electronic responses through the eFOIPA portal at this time. You may still submit a FOIPA request via standard mail. We apologize for this inconvenience and appreciate your understanding."

It did not explain why, at a time when Americans are being encouraged to stay home and to avoid physical contact, posted letters were preferable to email.

6. Letting Go. You may not be surprised to hear that the pain of the global lockdown is falling unequally.

Concerns about the safety of an outsider entering their homes coupled with financial instability have prompted even the well-heeled to dispense with their help, and severance payments are a rarity.

Unlike their employers, undocumented workers cannot collect unemployment or benefit from a government bailout. They are part of the bustling informal economy, typically paid cash and off the books for the essential work they do. Without paid sick leave, remote work capability and access to jobs, they become uniquely vulnerable.

Answer : keep paying them.

Songs for the crisis (a series)

Apologies for inflicting the sleazy Police track “ Don’t Stand So Close To Me” on you yesterday, in an attempt to re-purpose it for current relevance. It is still a terrible song. This morning, here’s a usefully defiant track by Ana Tijoux, a star turn at Womad in 2017. A few months ago, I featured her terrific “Cacelorazo” track about the protests in Chile, and this new track amps things up into a global call for resistance :

 

If that’s a bit too rowdy for your current state of mind, this soothing, mysterious cut by super sideman/producer Blake Mills ( Laura Marling, Perfume Genius, John Legend, Alabama Shakes etc) is worth a listen. The cut seems very Perfume Genius in song structure and vocal inflections - which makes me wonder just how big an influence Mills was on the No Shape album.

 

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