Image Description: A bright yellow padlock is placed on a somewhat rusted lock to a wooden door.
By Millie Muroi
Dr Ian Li, senior lecturer in health economics and policy at UWA, believes that a partial lockdown – as observed in Australia now – is effective, but that the Australian government needs to take a more proactive role in looking after the labour force.
“There are a lot of unknowns,” he says.
“One of our priorities is to find out a lot more about these uncertainties, so that we can give a far more defined response and address the policy gaps.”
Firstly, is a lockdown effective?
Whilst not without side-effects, the whittling number of new COVID-19 cases – particularly in Western Australia – would suggest so.
New Zealand, meanwhile, pursued a similarly successful approach of ‘elimination’ over ‘suppression’; in March, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern implemented a level four lockdown – one of the earliest countries to do so – engendering stricter regulations than were observed in Australia.
Though both countries are now in the process of easing restrictions, a month ago, some keyboard warriors were calling for Australia to go further, mandating a complete two-week lockdown to eradicate the virus. Would such a policy theoretically have worked? And would it be viable if Australia saw a second wave of infections?
When Pelican spoke to Dr Li, he asserted that “the martial-law approach is not viable” and that “it would create a lot of serious problems.”
In the first place, he said, “we’d have to think about the logistics of getting necessities to people…and the government would have to assume that responsibility.”
“You don’t want to have a lockdown and two weeks later go door knocking and realise that there’s a lot of dead bodies.”
He said that putting people under house arrest would give rise to a myriad of other problems including increased domestic-violence incidents, homelessness, and mental health issues. Indeed, a survey conducted by Women’s Safety NSW, published at the beginning of April, indicates a 50% increase in reported client numbers by frontline services, since lockdown measures were first implemented.
“In Australia, we’ve got the luxury of space…that’s a plus factor for us,” Dr Li told Pelican.
“But a lot of people, especially the vulnerable, the disadvantaged in society…are going to suffer the worst from a lockdown.”
Then there would be the question of what happens after the two weeks have passed, and complications that arise from the unknowns of the virus.
“People who have been discharged and declared to be free of the virus have been re-tested and found to be infected again,” Dr Li said.
“The test at discharge could have been a false negative but we don’t know what’s happening there. (It could) lay dormant for a while and then reactivate.”
Dr Li further points out that because carriers of the virus can be asymptomatic, and the infectious period is unknown, there is the possibility that once restrictions are lifted, “the coronavirus could start up again and we’d be back to square one.”
This is also the reason why lockdown measures – even if watered down – must be retained for some time after the number of new COVID-19 cases plateaus.
What about the opposite approach? Could Australia abandon restrictions entirely and let the population be exposed to the virus in the hopes of developing herd immunity? Proponents claim that this policy – or lack thereof – would cut short the pain to the economy.
Dr Li dismisses such thinking as “very siloed”, stating that the “health and the health of the economy are actually interconnected.”
“Adverse health consequences are damaging to the economy due to the loss of human capital, and likewise economic losses would adversely impact health and welfare.”
This is also a key reason behind why a lockdown, drawn out for too long, is unfavourable.
Economist Bjorn Lomborg has a road analogy that helps to demonstrate the point.
It goes something like this: if we wanted to prevent all road deaths, we could reduce the speed limit to 5km per hour; but this would have “huge social ramifications,” which could also lead to lost welfare.
So, should we be implementing a lockdown at all? Dr Li says that “the current status quo is not far from where we want to be…allowing a semblance of normal life, but with restrictions in place.”
Now, what’s missing in terms of policy?
Dr Li has recently looked into workforce redeployment as a way to address both the economic and health threats of COVID-19.
“Current stimulus packages are aimed at stopping the bleeding, but only address the symptoms, and not the problem,” he says.
“The government funding will not last forever and will eventually run out.”
Instead, he suggests that the government “take more initiative to think about what sort of skill sets jobs in demand actually require, who the displaced people are, and who the best people for these new jobs are.”
So far, Dr Li has noticed that “industry has taken the lead.”
Internationally, he points towards “automotive companies in Europe” which have “diverted to producing ventilators,” while on a domestic front he cites QANTAS’ partnership with Woolworths in which they “deployed their baggage handlers as supermarket stockers because the demands of the job are quite similar.”
The Australian government has released an online job portal, but Dr Li believes that it is “not that much more helpful.”
So what does Dr Li have in mind?
“We need to start off with skills-mapping,” he tells Pelican.
This would involve identifying which industries are most affected – possibly through Centrelink data – tracing back the backgrounds of workers in these sectors, mapping out what skillsets they already have and what areas are in great demand in the economy, and helping people get work in these areas.
Dr Li provides the healthcare space as a case study, saying there is currently “a lot of lack of human capital” and “shortages in PPE” that need to be prioritised.
“Surgical masks are not sophisticated, and can be made via manual labour,” he says.
“It seems like a no-brainer to allocate resources where we get the most benefit…(we would be) helping people by offering them a livelihood, keeping them economically active, and dealing with shortages in equipment that health efforts desperately need.”
With intense competition to procure goods such as PPE, he states that “supply is just not catching up with demand,” and that government should “step up and take more of a look at where bottlenecks and pain points are.”
If upskilling of the workforce is required, Dr Li says that it is “just something we have to think about as well,” with retraining that offers workers value in the longer-term being prioritised.
With most liberal estimates putting a hypothetical mass-marketable vaccine at least 18 months away, policies to ease infection-rates and economic pain are ongoing considerations.
Whilst restrictions on day-to-day functions are a sufficient starting point, Dr Li is unsure why the government has not focused on filling the supply gaps.
“We have the manufacturing capacity in Australia…the government just needs to be more proactive.”
Photo courtesy of chris panas on Unsplash.