Welcome to Coronavirus Government Global Briefing, Mandarin Premium’s morning update on everything in local and global government responses to the COVID-19 outbreak.
America vs Singapore, April 2020: Where do countries with the worst and best health responses go from here?
March was an historically tragic month for America. The country, with a population of 329.5 million and GDP of US$21.4 trillion, went from less than 70 confirmed cases at the end of February to over 216,000 today — easily the world’s largest group after Italy’s 110,000 — and a current death toll of more than 5000 people.
On the other side of the world and much closer to the virus’ epicentre is Singapore, a city-state that — with a population of 5.7 million and GDP of US$382 billion — remains a gold standard even without pursuing lockdown measures; their cases rose from less than 100 in February to 1000 as of today, with just three deaths.
How they both got to be where they are has been relatively well-covered — Singapore led with immediate action on health centres, early testing, contact tracing, science-like social-distancing measures, strict quarantine rules, and clear communication.
America, on the other hand, has been crippled by self-inflected testing delays at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an already broken medical system, and an initially dismissive, currently reactive White House led by a man that, just one month ago, declared the virus “very much under control”.
Now, two new articles shed light on what both countries face going into April.
America needs to act big, act fast, and coordinate
First, Science unpacks how, despite the White House passing a $2 trillion stimulus package that included $117 billion for hospitals — and, as of last week, publicly flip-flopping back to taking the pandemic seriously — a litany of expert believe any battle plan now requires:
- immediate coordination between federal, state and local governments;
- massive action on health worker and equipment shortages;
- a radical shift in public messaging to persuade hundreds of millions of people to adopt non-pharmaceutical interventions, specifically social distancing;
- a stronger public presence from the CDC, which, according to a former director, has been largely invisible within public discussions of policy options;
- tracing apps — for example, something like Singapore’s now open-data app TraceTogether; and
- more transparency and communication of government data.
These challenges are further hampered by both political and legal divides; not only are some states being outbid — yes, outbid — by the White House for medical supplies, but Republican governors, specifically Florida’s, have refused to implement stronger shutdown measures for fear of breaking away from Trump.
Political hurdles are also hardly limited to Republican-Democrat divides, however, with the current global epicentre of the virus — Democrat-controlled New York State — just yesterday passing a new budget that slashes Medicaid by billions of dollars, undoes bail reform mechanisms, and rejects a decriminalisation bid for marijuana.
The Science article, which dropped one day after US President Donald Trump outlined a graph demonstrating 100-250,000 deaths as the relatively optimistic option, ends by noting that even if shutdowns effectively halt the virus, the federal government — not states or councils, those political divisions and supply shortages being too huge — will need to marshal massive resources to monitor, trace, and contain any new outbreaks.
Singapore: still slow and steady, but will it last?
According to the Lowy Institute’s The Interpreter, Singapore faces an altogether different challenge: supporting a large, and growing, elderly population during a pandemic where the state is still not on lockdown.
Singapore, as the article explains, is currently the victim of a 1965 campaign against overpopulation, “Stop at Two!”, which, many decades later — and in spite of campaigns against underpopulation over the past two decades — means the country currently sits at a fertility rate of just 1.14, “well below the 2.1 needed to sustain a population without immigration, and among the lowest in the world.”
The go-to solution for this has been immigration; only 3.5 million of that 5.7 million population are citizens, with half a million foreigners with permanent residence and a further 1.6 million temporarily working or studying.
And while it’s unlikely the pandemic will put a permanent end to that stop-gap —The Interpreter frames the issue as more of a long-term challenge for the country, where diminishing couples of childbearing age create a feedback loop against any future increase in fertility rates — a quick scan of local newspaper The Straits Times offers some insight into how Singapore is protecting its elderly population:
- suspending government-run social and fitness activities for seniors;
- supermarkets creating priority hours for elderly and vulnerable groups;
- quarantining both an 86-year-old patient and attending staff at a nursing home following the former’s positive diagnosis; and
- warnings from a government taskforce for extra vigilance around older family members, including to avoid when feeling sick and hand-washing.
It remains to be seen whether Singapore ever enacts anything closer to full lockdown measures, either for the elderly or general public; those three deaths were all people aged over 60 with health conditions, but, just two days ago, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong rejected a fast shutdown/fast resumption approach as a “silver bullet” in favour of more sustainable measures that can last throughout the year and beyond.
Federal grants, protests, and community aid across Indigenous communities
Yesterday, Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt announced a $123 million package to help Indigenous businesses and communities respond to the pandemic across the next two financial years, to be broken down into:
- Up to $50 million for Indigenous businesses, to be delivered as up to $100,000 measures through Indigenous Business Australia (whether or not companies are IBA customers);
- Up to $25 million for targeted regions and industries facing labour shortfalls, with support from the National Indigenous Australians Agency in connecting with local Indigenous workers;
- $10 million through the Aboriginals Benefit Account for four Land Councils in the Northern Territory, to help with immediate infrastructure needs and travel expenses associated with people returning to homelands;
- Up to $10 million for community night patrols, to provide guidance and maintain physical distancing through their communities;
- $23 million to enhance the delivery of critical social support programs, including alcohol and other drug services, social and emotional wellbeing projects, family support and youth engagement and diversion programs; and
- Up to $5 million to expand the school nutrition program across the Northern Territory so that meals can be delivered during school closures and holiday periods, and also to extend the program to vulnerable families and the elderly where required.
The measures come after the government launched its ‘Management Plan For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Populations’ on Monday, and — despite pre-existing bans on non-essential travel to Indigenous communities — comes as Western Australia implements further restrictions between the region’s four local governments areas following six new cases, including five health workers.
Elsewhere, two major criticisms popped up yesterday of government considerations for Indigenous Australians throughout the pandemic:
- Amnesty International Australia criticised states implementing on-the-spot fines for breaking social-distancing and quarantine rules, with Indigenous rights lead and former Victorian Greens MP Lidia Thorpe highlighting how fining vulnerable people increases “their risk of being incarcerated or even die as a result of coming in contact with the prison system”; and
- the NSW Department of Communities and Justice is, according to a petition from “Indigenous kids with Indigenous families”, planning on letting a foster family fly two Indigenous children to England today despite concerns from their Wiradjuri mother over Europe’s outbreak.
Finally, as Croakey unpacks in a truly impressive run-down, federal, state, local government and community groups have created a range of television, radio, print and digital resources for Indigenous communities (#KeepOurMobSafe).
Wi garra holot maindim mijel
Washim yu bingga garra bigmob soup en woda
— Northern Land Council (@NLC_74) March 31, 2020
One resource highlight is NACCHO, which has been sharing daily Coronavirus news alerts with the latest developments and resources and launching a special COVID-19 hub.
The messaging campaigns are astounding, and vary from both management plan recommendations — which include health advice, travel restrictions, vaccine information etcetera — to mental and cultural support.
In other civic and community action news:
- According to the Transport Workers’ Union, SafeWork NSW has served a notice of formal investigation to Qantas and CEO Alan Joyce over claims the company violated non-discriminatory protections (s104 of the NSW Work Health and Safety Act 2011) over the suspension of an aircraft cleaner who raised concerns about workers being exposed to the coronavirus;
- Victoria’s Justice Connect has launched a series of legal resources amidst the pandemic, including information on federal, Victorian, NSW and Queensland emergency measures and court access; national bankruptcy and unlawful termination guides; resources for not-for-profits; and a “Dear Landlord” letter writer for Victorian tenants;
- ArtsHub has released a JobKeeper guide for sole traders;
- GetUp! has launched a campaign for a jobs guarantee;
- American website The Cut has created a guide to every good and delivery strike happening across the country, including Amazon, McDonald’s and Whole Foods;
- America’s National Law Review has launched a guide to labor and employment issues in the recently-passed Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), for example loan restrictions that dictate neither borrowing companies nor their affiliates “may repurchase their own equity securities that are listed on a national exchange unless that the borrowing company is contractually obligated to do so”
Meanwhile, on the home front…
On top of announcing a plan for free childcare yesterday afternoon — which the ABC has unpacked in excellent detail here — the federal government has announced a new “Jobs Hub“, integrating public and private employment opportunities as well as a registry for businesses, and, if Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter’s comments today are anything to go by, rejected calls from resources and energy employers to slash award rates.
Additionally, The Age reports that the National Cabinet will consider putting commercial landlords on the $130 billion JobKeeper scheme ahead of a potential collapse of commercial real estate in shopping centres and offices around the country.
Over at state responses to the crisis:
- Victoria has finalised their agreement with the state’s private hospitals and announced changes to make it easier for pharmacists to give flu shots outside of their normal location to help relieve healthcare pressure in winter.
- The state also clarified that all outdoor activities except exercise are banned following confusion over fishing and boating;
- Western Australia has passed the Emergency Management Amendment (COVID-19 Response) Bill 2020, enabling new $1,000 on-the-spot fines and other enforcement powers;
- NSW, as AAP reports, will fast track planning process and development applications in order to support the construction sector;
- Queensland announced the closure of a number of places within the state’s national parks including picnic areas, toilet facilities, lookouts, popular walking tracks, swimming areas and four-wheel drive beach recreation areas;
- South Australia has brought forward a $45.7 million expansion of the Flinders Medical Centre Emergency Department by four months; and
- Tasmania banned racing for the next four weeks, and 6pm today will prohibit or close farmers markets, recreational scalloping, garage sales, sex worker services and TAB and UBET stores.
Finally, because we could all absolutely use some good news, check out this text from Perth’s Pan Pacific hotel’s manager to WA Community Services Minister Simone McGurk a day into the state’s pilot programming of housing rough sleepers.
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