Dr Owain Williams By: Dr Owain Williams
Lecturer in IR and Human Security
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11 Aug 2020 : Holiday Blues

I have just returned from first week off since Xmas, spending 1 week in an apartment overlooking the sea in the south of Queensland. It was lovely. The apartment block facing the sea backs on to a road the other side of which is the Gold Coast airport. Normally flights start at 6.30 am and end at 10.30 pm, with jet after jet landing to service the extended beach strip that runs for some 100 kilometres to the north of this point. Now the town was perfectly quiet day after day, with as few as 3 jets landing each day and air traffic limited to the odd drone of light aircraft. All you can hear is the sea. The locals I talked to are stunned by the absence of noise, and many can’t quite believe how perfect an environment they now live in. The economy is also surprisingly vibrant, as after months of staying at home tourists are flocking from local metropolitan areas. Social distancing is minimal and bars and restaruants are crowded.

The town is also on the border from New South Wales. Just 1 kilometre from us is the motorway border crossing to New South Wales. Populations previously closely linked over a largely abstract border now have to apply for passes – in effect a form of COVID visa – to work or visit family, this policed and blockaded in all the different passing points, including the arterial M1. There is a localised travel bubble which allows holders of 'X' and 'S' passes to get by, but the hold ups are substantial.  I see evidence of some people with New South Wales state plates living in cars along the sea front, surely to compensate for delays and continue work. This is all pretty surreal in Australia.

The outbreaks in Victoria and New South Wales are simmering and there are very strict measures controlling movement between Australian states, with South Australia, Queensland, Western Australia, and the Northern Territories clearly hanging on to undeclared elimination strategies. It is clear that the recent outbreaks in Victoria have fallen hard on the aged care sector and health and care workforces. Some of my analysis in April and May made the obvious point that privatised, loosely regulated and downgraded staff skills and training all prepped long-term care sectors in many OECD countries for catastrophic failures. Some of the conditions in COVID affected homes in Melbourne in the last weeks have been reported as atrocious by public health and social services inspections. One state government hearing yesterday saw a testimony who flatly declared we should not be surprised by what has happened to the aged system, as it is designed this way. Failure built in to the service and business model. There is the predictable federal response of an announced public enquiry. This will make recommendations which will likely be ignored or diluted, the can of failing aged care kicked down the road.

One of the most telling things for me about my last week of self-enforced news blackout (and certainly no focus on COVID permitted) is that I am a seething mess of anxieties about how much I have missed out on. Basically, I cannot take my attention away from the pandemic for too long or I feel that I am somehow falling behind. It is not good and I need to get a grip on it. So predictably I find myself back at work searching through COVID updates and looking at country reports and so on. But the trajectory is depressing and the politics of the pandemic much the same. Sadly, in 10 days I could have just guessed and got it fairly right. This is no achievement on my part, it is just that some countries have still no real response, and the virus does what the virus does.

Cases globally today are just reaching the 20 million mark with half of these in just three countries – the USA, India and Brazil. The USA on the 10th August saw it reach an additional 1 million cases in just 17 days, building on the last increase of 1 million cases in 15 days. This means that in a period of just over 4 weeks the USA has moved from 3 million to over 5 million cases. This is a quarter of all official global cases. Against this backdrop Trump’s attention appears to have moved to rigging voting for the election in November by trying to cancel out postal voting by basically sequestrating the United States Postal service via a political proxy.

Across Europe previously well performing states that flattened the curve of the first wave are seeing an alarming if predictable rise in cases. The EU and the European CDC are asking states to ramp up social messaging and consider a fresh wave of lockdowns. Populations in a range of countries have largely relaxed into a general feeling that the worst was over with social distancing and so on evaporating. France, for example, is responding by announcing new measures for mask wearing and so on. There is also much signalling that the second wave should see better European coordination across national measures, particularly border closures.

In India there were 64,000 new cases on the 10th August. This with much evidence that testing rates in India continue to be low, and that rural infections are of particular concern. The Indian epidemic may well be moving from the cities to the poorer rural areas and states, bringing the Indian total of cases up to over two and a half million. The Indian government is still concerned with opening up. University students are being expected to take end of year exams and there are substantial objections by students as to their choice in this risky exposure. The echoes of the government led return to schools and universities in the USA are obvious. Modi continues fatuous public statements and nationalistic temple building ventures, distractions from the deepening pandemic crisis that he has long since abandoned. It took India only 20 days to double the total number of cases by the end of the week ending the 9th. The economic and unemployment effects of the pandemic in India are also really deeply troubling. Formal unemployment is now over 25%, with 122 million becoming unemployed in April alone. The informal economy must also be in tatters.

In Brazil they have passed 100,000 official deaths in the last week. The government is still pushing the open-up agenda hard and Bolsonaro is spouting the same anti-scientific populist nonsense. An army general leads the Ministry of Health and cases have risen to over 3 million. Like India, the pandemic in Brazil appears to be moving from the cities (where the first wave seems to have peaked) to rural areas. The disproportionate effects of the virus on the indigenous and black population are still apparent, with continued warning of the effective loss of some indigenous ethnic groups completely. Peru, Colombia and Chile are also fairing badly in Latin America, but Brazil alone accounts for over 50% of cases in the region.

The list of countries tracking badly includes Mexico, Indonesia and South Africa, both riven with grift and government corruption. South Africa is adding some 7,000 plus new cases per day. These numbers are likely to be underestimates as testing is still low. There is substantial infection of healthcare workers with now familiar reports of shortages of PPE and some 24,000 having become infected. Corruption and misappropriation of government funds and foreign aid continue to hamper the country’s pandemic response.

All in all it is a sad way to come back to work, but sadly no real surprise.

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