Coronavirus Government Global Briefing: May 19

By Chris Woods

May 19, 2020

Welcome to Coronavirus Government Global Briefing, Mandarin Premium’s morning update on everything in local and global government responses to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Sweden’s “let it rip” approach saw only marginal economic activity: report

A new University of Copenhagen paper suggests that Sweden, which has pursued relatively-soft lockdown measures, has only seen marginally higher economic activity than their more gung-ho Scandinavian neighbours.

While it may not have yet been peer-reviewed, the 12 May paper, titled Pandemic, Shutdown and Consumer Spending: Lessons from Scandinavian Policy Responses to COVID-19′, cites Danske Bank figures in concluding that aggregate spending in Sweden dropped 25% from 11 March to 5 April 2020; this is only four points higher than spending in Denmark, which opted for stronger measures earlier in the outbreak and has seen spending fall by 29%.

Source: University of Copenhagen.

As analysis by the Financial Times’s Claire Jones indicates, the study suggests a less binary “health vs economy” understanding of the crisis — people are, obviously, less likely to spend amidst the pandemic whether or not they are legally allowed to, while Sweden’s current death toll of 3,679 vastly exceeds Denmark’s figure of 547.

However, as Sweden’s government maintains their informal (and largely debunked) “herd immunity” approach will lead to effectively similar cases in the long-term, Jones emphasises that the report should be acknowledged as a relatively early comparison of the two countries’ approaches; “we do not know if Sweden’s strategy will prevent sharper second waves, or if Denmark’s relatively low death rate will lead to less of a climate of fear once lockdown measures ease.”

“It’s tricky to assess, given that many in Sweden have followed social distancing guidelines out of choice – while this would not necessarily be the case everywhere. Especially in places where many more people’s jobs are more precarious,” Jones writes.

“Still, it’s a blow to the notion that to lockdown or not is a simple either/or question of saving lives, or saving jobs.”

For a domestic rejection of the reductive (not to mention borderline sociopathic) “economy vs health” binary, researchers at The Conversation report that not only do economists back social distancing 34-9 in a new Economic Society-Conversation survey, but that, even if we consider Australian government’s “value of a statistical life” concept of A$4.9 million, a two year lockdown cost of $90 billion is barely a blip on our population’s total value of $1.1 trillion.

T-cells, antibodies, and Kawasaki disease; what else have we learnt about COVID ‘recovery’?

Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen a number of studies into the lasting consequences, and challenges, for COVID-19 recovery:

  • The Lancet has reviewed some early studies amidst amidst reports of the (still-relatively rare) novel, severe Kawasaki-like disease in children related to COVID-19.
  • While the majority of the 100+ vaccines in development focus on antibodies, Science has unpacked two of the first studies demonstrating the existence of T cells that target the virus in COVID-19 patients.
  • As The Conversation reported in late April, a range of new studies indicate that up to 36% of COVID-19 patients have neurological symptoms; while many are mild and include things like headache or dizziness, which could be caused by a robust immune response, others are more specific and severe symptoms i.e. loss of smell or taste, muscle weakness, stroke, seizure and hallucinations.
  • After nearly two million “rapid” antibody tests imported into Australia were declared effectively useless last week, The Conversation explained the challenges of creating both a sensitive and specific antibody test (i.e. a test that determines antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 and SARS-CoV-2).
    • For more, see April reports from Clinical Chemistry and Nature over the accuracy of antibody tests, their capacity to demonstrate “immunity” (still not determined), and potential for manufacturers to slip poor tests past America’s FDA.

In other science news, Nature has unpacked the importance of visualising SARS-CoV-2 proteins in the race to develop both treatments and vaccines.

The downsides of a COVID business boom

While global lockdowns have created a surge in unemployment and shut down sectors like hospitality and media, Reuters has explored how even companies experiencing growth in the crisis face new costs associated with everything from personal health — i.e. new workplace cleaning and social distancing requirements — to supply chain and logistical challenges.

For example Emerald Packaging Inc, a US supplier of plastic bags for produce such as baby carrots and iceberg lettuce, saw orders surged 150% in March and another 7% in April but expects additional costs to add up to at least US$350,000 by the end of the year; for context, annual sales sit at around $85 million.

Those costs, which do not include at least an hour a day in lost production time in wiping down machines, include:

  • $50,000 on an automated temperature scanner
  • $75,000 in cleaning costs, which include:
    • six workers to constantly scrub and sanitise surfaces
    • six new cleaning backpacks, at a total cost of $10,000
    • a jump in rags from 2,000 a week to 7,000, and a tripping of disposable glove use
  • Replacement fees for faded labels on signs and equipment due to increased cleaning

Which businesses are hiring?

On a macro-scale, an early May survey from Atlanta Fed found that US firms hired just under 3 new workers for every 10 layoffs across April’s historic unemployment spike.

While researchers note that the ratio needs to consider contractors and leased workers, the result aligns with large-scale hiring from companies such as Amazon, Walmart, CVS Healthcare, and Domino’s Pizza.

Source: Atlanta Fed.

None of which, of course, undermines historic underemployment rate; as the Grattan Institute unpacked last week, about 2.7 million people out of Australia’s labour force of 13.7 million either lost their job or lost hours in March.

That qualifier might sound obvious, but, as The New Daily reported yesterday as part of an investigation into the personal toll of new directions for job providers, there’s absolutely a danger of pressuring an influx of jobseekers to find work amidst a 65% drop in job postings.

On the home front: NSW releases public transport plan

In an effort to maintain social distancing as restrictions ease, the NSW government has released a COVIDSafe* Transport Plan (*not affiliated with the app).

This includes

  • Avoiding peak travel: if you are not already using public transport in the peak, please do not use public transport in the peak. Services are already close to capacity to allow for distancing at these times. Off peak times are between 10am and 2pm
  • Deep cleaning and more hand sanitisers: intense and ongoing cleaning will occur throughout the transport network and there will be a continued rollout of hand sanitiser at key transport hubs, including at high demand stations
  • Boosting parking: special event-style parking arrangements will be in place at Moore Park for people who are able to drive to work. Other locations will be rolled out soon. In addition car park operators will be offering special deals for all day parking
  • More cycling and walking options: the government is working with councils on establishing pop-up cycleways and enhancing pedestrian access to allow more people to find alternative routes to work
  • Physical distancing — ‘no dot, no spot’: distinctive green dots will be used on trains, buses and ferries to show passengers the safest places to sit and stand. A ‘No dot, no spot’ will see passengers asked to wait for the next service. School children will be given priority access
  • More data: customers to be given real time information through apps, social media and Transport Info to see which services have space available to maintain physical distancing
  • More services: changes will be considered to increase services eg; more ferries, water taxis and private vehicle passenger services on the water.

State wrap

In other state announcements:

For health department updates: Federal, NSW, Victoria, QueenslandACTSouth AustraliaTasmaniaNorthern Territory and Western Australia.

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