Ideas@TheCentre – The Centre for Independent Studies


Ideas@TheCentre brings you ammunition for conversations around the table.  3 short articles from CIS researchers emailed every Friday on the issues of the week.

School closures hurt disadvantaged families more

Blaise Joseph

02 April 2020 | Ideas@TheCentre

Schools are one of the most complex parts of the policy response to coronavirus. Policymakers seemingly have to navigate the tightrope between saving lives and harming children’s education.

Last week the expert medical advice to the National Cabinet was that it was safe for schools to stay open, however the political response from state governments changed. Parents were told to keep their children at home unless they couldn’t look after them during school hours — leading to an absentee rate of about 90% in NSW. There are still calls to close schools for all students except for children of emergency workers.

But school closures particularly hurt families from disadvantaged backgrounds.

There is a clear cosmopolitan bias in how the impact of closing schools is viewed. People who can easily work from home — such as academics, journalists, and office workers — are certainly facing challenges in supervising their children’s education at home.

But the challenges are workable compared to those faced by many other professions — such as tradies, cleaners, and hospitality staff — who cannot stay home without jeopardising their income. This harsh reality isn’t sufficiently acknowledged.

And obviously, students who have highly-educated parents and access to fast internet and sophisticated digital education platforms will learn much more than students who don’t — exacerbating existing inequities.

Moving millions of Australian children to digital learning may be temporarily necessary as an emergency measure, but it’s certainly not ideal; and there’s no clear evidence it’s a more effective way of learning compared to face-to-face.

If the best that can be said for online education is that it’s useful for a few months during an unpredicted once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, then there’s not much to be said for it usually.

On the positive side, it may get parents more involved in their children’s schooling — or at least, as much as practicable while also working from home.

We can argue about when it would be safe to completely re-open the schools and go back to normal. But it’s imperative we appreciate there is a real educational and human cost in the meantime.

Police state

Peter Kurti

02 April 2020 | Ideas@TheCentre

Scott Morrison’s massive $130bn JobKeeper subsidy package shows how determined the government is to ‘do whatever it takes’ to keep the Australian economy turning over.

But the expansion of welfare in these straitened times has been accompanied by an equally massive expansion of powers given to the police to enforce social lockdowns.

A public health order issued in NSW on 30 March makes it unlawful to leave home unless for a specified reason – a measure now comparable to those being introduced in other states.

One reason for this is that NSW is the nation’s COVID-19 hotspot, with more than 2,000 confirmed cases and 8 deaths. This compares with just under 1,000 cases in Victoria.

Another is that NSW’s high rate was caused by the Ruby Princess fiasco which left the government red-faced as infected passengers disembarked at Circular Quay and vanished.

Since the majority of all cases of COVID-19 in this country acquired the infection overseas, NSW has been determined to catch up, stop further infections, and show it means business.

For the most part, Australians get this.

Debate rages about the appropriate levels of social isolation or levels of government assistance needed to support businesses and employees.  But we accept government had to act – much as Boris Johnson had to act quickly with tough lockdowns once UK public health warnings were upgraded from moderate to urgent.

Both here and around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to drastic restraints being imposed — on travel, movement, and association — that few of us have ever experienced.

In Australia, we already see that these measures have helped to stem the rise of new infections. And we also stand ready to help those in our community who are doing it tough.

But what we are not prepared to accept is the way the state, acting through the police, is now wielding unprecedented powers to march into the lives of ordinary people.

In Sydney, police are now rounding on park-goers to stop mums pushing strollers and dads playing with the kids — while these parents are already observing social distancing rules.

Such ‘do whatever it takes’ policing will be counter-productive. Effective policing depends on an unspoken contract between constable and citizen which is founded on trust.

Aggressive policing, directed at citizens already strained by massive disruptions to daily life, threatens to erode this trust and to harm public estimation of the women and men in blue.

Health system autocracy

Carlos d'Abrera

02 April 2020 | Ideas@TheCentre

Under the guise of the ‘precautionary principle’, Australia’s health system has overnight transformed from a bureaucracy into an autocracy. This is no surprise to anyone who has worked in public healthcare.

Some infection control measures — like hand-washing, sequestering the elderly and staying at home if sick, for example — make scientific sense. Yet other edicts, issued without clearly defined activation triggers, sunset clauses or limiting principles, are less common sense.

This pandemic, unlike the swine flu in 2009, has given legitimacy to panic.

Because the health system is  trained to overestimate risk, it is  not being transparent with the public.

The median age of death from COVID-19 in both Australia and Italy, is 81 and the case mortality is less than 0.5%. The ‘normal’ flu killed 3,000 Australians last year. To date, 19 patients nationally have died from COVID-19.

How many infections will be stopped by closing parks and playgrounds?  How many by shutting gyms? What is to be gained, in terms of infection control, in forbidding people to drive to their favourite national park for a hike? Why close state borders, but at the same time allow passengers to arrive from overseas without even basic medical screening?

The line separating the arbitrary from the necessary is a blurry one. The bureaucrats wouldn’t have it any other way.

One death is too many, they say, and politicians seeking re-election are acutely aware of this.

Health economics is all about trade-offs. Have we paid too high a price to ‘flatten the curve’? Governments — state and federal — have not satisfactorily modeled the social and psychiatric consequences of economic catastrophe, prolonged isolation or school absenteeism.

The public have, for the most part, behaved obediently and with good grace in the face of indefinite house detention. The limits of this patience will be tested in the coming weeks.

(These opinions are my own and do not reflect those of my employer, CIS or any other entity).