Choices, choices …

By April 1, 2020Other

I carry in my memory a Ginger Meggs cartoon in which Ginger wants to go to the movies, but needs his mother’s approval (and probably money). He finally persuades her by saying that the plot involves a husband who has to choose to save either his wife or his best friend. Father Meggs comes home to find a cold dinner and a note: ‘Heat it yourself, you brute! I’ve gone to mother’s.’ Choices like that are the devil, and as the Covid-19 plague increases we are beginning to see two sorts of choices being pointed to. One is whether we should focus on the economy or the virus. The other is whether we shouldn’t just let nature take its course, and let the oldies die. Here is a pungent version of the second, sent to me by an appalled correspondent, himself a doctor. I’ve slightly edited it.

So if three million children die each year from hunger related causes, what does this mean for the western world’s reaction to the coronavirus?

Is there a chance that we are so life-selfish that we cannot make rational decisions? Do we really believe that a few hundred thousand … or more … deaths from the virus, if we let it take its course (mainly older people who will die in the next ten to fifteen years anyway) justifies destroying the wealth that otherwise might help living children live and concurrently control the birth rate in these countries? And so on…

In other words, has the western world put up selfish blinkers everywhere in their body. In my opinion, our reaction to this thing is selfish, self-preserving and hence destructive to mankind. It joins the list of the other things already there … climate change and country conflict being some of the others with 5 stars on the list.

Now I am one of those oldies, so I am not impressed by the statement above. In many cultures the care of the elderly is a priority, not something one can ignore. I’ve seen some wonderful examples of this kind of care in Japan. Why should it not be similar for the West? Yes, I declare some self-interest here. Then there is the offering of a binary exchange: don’t save the oldies but spend the money on the kids, as though this were simply a matter of moving money around a single portfolio. ‘Country conflict’ is always a problem, but such conflicts have been on the decline for the past five years and were lowest last year (look it up in Wikipedia). “Climate change’ is a problem only for the alarmists. The rest of the world has it way down the scale of real problems (and this is not a sentence that should cause a barrage of comments about climate change).

There is a dislike of old people throughout the quoted statement. Where does it come from? I have no idea, but it has links, I think, to the ‘fear and greed’ theme that followed scenes of fighting over toilet-paper in supermarkets, and probably to those who think the measures to deal with the viruses are both draconian and unnecessary (the flu kills more each year, and so on).

The choice between protecting our health and protecting our jobs is one no government wants to have to make. President Trump would dearly love the American economy to get back off its knees and make the country strong again. Unfortunately for him, the number of cases and the death statistics in his country are both going up quite sharply. He has had to postpone the economic revival from Easter to the end of April. He may have to do it again. In any case, he needs world trade to revive as well, and for much of the world, dealing with the virus is coming before dealing with the economy. There could be a slow recovery in the USA, and a lot more death there.

Our Government is trying to do both things at once, and its efforts are staggeringly ambitious. Three thoughts come to me, and I’ll deal with each in turn. The first is the extent to which we accept regulation, the second the advantages available to an island nation, the third the extent to which we have become, quite quickly, a socialist paradise. I have written about the first in the past. The notion that we are a society of larrikins, contemptuous of authority, is a theme of a long-past Australia. We are, in fact, a society that is used to regulation. More, we behave as though governments have the right to regulate, while elections are the decider of who ought to make the regulations. We take regulations pretty seriously once we are past adolescence and early adulthood. Who would have thought that the social distancing being insisted upon by our authorities would have the effect that it has plainly had? It helps that the States and Territories have united with the Commonwealth in a ‘national Cabinet’ whose edicts are common throughout the country.

That leads me to the second theme. Throughout the world nations are closing their borders to prevent the importation of the virus. To do so is much easier if your nation occupies an island. Yes, a boat can slip through, though I doubt that many are trying at the moment. Aircraft, which were thought to be bringing in quite a lot of illegals with forged passports as well as people who overstayed their visas and disappeared into the community, are no longer arriving in any number, and their passengers must move at once into quarantine for two weeks. That has greatly aided our Government in controlling the spread of the virus. What we have now is a virus that is within our community but not increasing through importation, so it is in principle controllable through our own efforts. There is the first sign that these efforts are having a positive effect. Here’s hoping.

Third, around half of all workers in Australia are now effectively in the payroll of the Commonwealth Government, and the proportion is likely to increase. The cost is out of my ken. We are now talking trillions of dollars, not billions. There is no money tree. When this is all done and dusted we will be hopelessly in debt. Relative to many other countries our position seems to be stronger, nonetheless, so we ought to recover more quickly. How long will recovery take?

The Left in Australia is delighted. What is being done is much more expensive, and more egalitarian, I think, than Kevin Rudd’s ‘stimulus’ for the GFC in 2009. It is also based on a huge assumption: that we will get through the virus pandemic reasonably quickly and have our commercial and industrial entities more or less intact. But will we return, if we do, to what once was, or will there be a new culture in which everyone is guaranteed their jobs and their dwellings and their futures, by the Australian Government? Will the State and Territories argue that the ‘national Cabinet’ should be extended to other issues? There may be a single hospital system. The Commonwealth may well control four airlines. I could go on. What will the outcomes be?

I don’t know, and can hardly guess. We do live in interesting times, whether or not we wanted to.

Join the discussion 35 Comments

  • John says:

    “I don’t know, and can hardly guess.” I wish more commentators would have the honesty to say that.

  • dlb says:

    In war time half of the male population maybe on the Government payroll, is this anything new for Australia?

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    Cui bono?

    The people most enthusiastically supporting the current social restrictions are? The police.

    Whether or not the virus goes away, the laws and the precedents won’t. They’ll be hauled out every time the government thinks it can get away with declaring an ‘emergency’.

  • Neville says:

    Don I agree with your summary and I too have no idea how long it will take us to pay our way out of debt.
    BTW more than half of the CV- 19 cases + deaths in the USA come from just 2 states and they are New York and New Jersey with a combined pop of just 29.5 mil people out of the USA pop of 330 mil.
    Europe has a much higher CV-19 death rate than the USA and very much higher if NY and NJ aren’t counted.
    But then again total deaths in Europe are slightly lower this year, at this time, compared to the last 3 years. Who knows why and perhaps this could change?
    BTW I’ve used Worldometer CV site for USA deaths by states, deaths etc.

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    As viruses have no interest in killing all their potential hosts, I suspect that epidemics have a natural lifespan. Since we do not know what that is, for any infectious disease, we cannot know the efficiency of any control measures (except vaccination, for which there is abundant evidence). Breast beating ( on either side of the aisle) is fatuous.

    • Boxer says:

      But Bryan, a virus has no strategy. Some viruses kill their hosts and subsequently extinguish themselves, and some viruses happen to strike the right balance and last for a very long time. A severe virus like MERS petered out because, it seems, to have got this balance wrong by killing nearly 40% of it’s hosts; the common cold is a terrific success because it rarely kills a host. The Black Plague killed about half the population of Europe – this was a relatively poor strategy for the virus, but the human and economic cost was also too high. Such a result in today’s world could lead to failed states on a global scale, so survival for an individual would involve picking the best warlord to whom you would pledge your allegiance. Like viruses, humans are not entitled to survive, either individually or collectively; we will persist by our own efforts and a enough good fortune.

      Your point about political partisanship is fair enough. Some civilisations are their own worst enemy. I think our government striking a reasonable balance between economic strength and tolerable loss of life, but the level of lockdown at the moment is only sustainable for a short time. I hope it gives us time to assemble sufficient ICUs to minimise the harm. Whatever happens, this virus will not destroy us, it will make us less wealthy to an unknown degree.

      • Bryan Roberts says:

        All organisms have a strategy for reproduction and survival. I’m not aware of any virus (not even smallpox or Ebola) that has eliminated itself by killing all its hosts. It’s just not in their interest.

        Once these ‘new’ viruses are in the population, they will stay. Whether they make their presence felt after the initial outbreak will depend on conditions at the time.

        • Boxer says:

          Perhaps our principal point of difference here is that to me, you are close to implying there is some element of design in evolutionary processes. I don’t think there is.

          It is a random and indiscriminate process that produces many failures, so the pathogens of which we are aware now are the ones that have successfully managed to infect their hosts, use them as vectors and/or (for viruses) propagators, and enabled the pathogens to increase in number. Pathogens that have stuffed this up and killed too many hosts have disappeared; most species in general that have emerged since life began have become extinct.

          The problem we appear to be having with plagues is the pathogens that jump the species divide to humans. This virus seems to have come from bats, and my guess is that it is widespread in wild bats and the bats survive quite well enough, so they can end up in a wet market coexisting with the virus. The virus has not struck any balance with humans, so what is probably a minor burden for wild bat populations is alarming and dangerous for us.

          Take myxomatosis in rabbits, which we have pushed into an incompatible host (the rabbits) with the objective of wiping the rabbits out. Analogous to a wild pathogen jumping into humans. My observation of wild rabbits in the SW or WA is that the myxo sweeps in and decimates the local population of rabbits, but before the last few rabbits die, the virus expires (at the local scale) because it can’t find enough hosts to keep reproducing viruses. The few surviving rabbits repopulate the area. After 5-10 years the virus is reintroduced from a neighbouring rabbit population and the process repeats itself. This works okay for us because it causes localised population crashes in the rabbits, but it’s a dangerous “strategy” for the virus because it goes through cycles of local extinction, while the rabbits “only” experience near-extinction events.

          Modern human societies going through near-extinction events would be a more complex issue than rabbits, because rabbits don’t possess weaponry. We are far from anything like that, it’s just going to be harder to make my super go the distance, which is obviously a very first world problem.

          • Bryan Roberts says:

            Thanks for the comment, but you have missed the point. (European) rabbits (and humans) are not the natural hosts for these viruses, and whether either population goes extinct does not affect the virus, which is surviving perfectly well in its natural host (South American rabbits), or bats (presumably) in China.

      • Bryan Roberts says:

        btw, the Black Plague was not a virus, it was a bacterial infection (Yersinia pestis) spread by rodents in circumstances of poor hygiene.

  • spangled drongo says:

    Yes, it’s economically terrifying, Don. If you are a battler struggling to earn a couple of hundred a week you now get a raise to 750 a week.

    If you’ve got a tax bill this month of a hundred thousand because of share investment performance last year [which has all disappeared into the ether plus a lot more besides] you have to cough up and suffer.

    One obvious choice is; seeing as China started it all with their wild animal markets that they were supposed to curtail after previous similar virus introductions, could the ROW summarise the cost and send them the bill?

    While it’s unlikely they will pay up, the account could be offset against money owed and the message would ring loud and clear.

    • Alex says:

      Yes, reparation would be difficult and futile however telling the CCP we no longer accept we are in their debt would be easy and effective. Another point, does CCP deserve to be on the UN Security Council? I don’t think so but removing them is problematic as they could veto it. In the early 20th century we had the League of Nations then after WW2 the UN, so perhaps its time for a new body, start again with a clean sheet with the understanding of what has gone wrong at the UN.

  • spangled drongo says:

    Can you believe Queensland’s [recently hugely increased] 224,000 public servants are getting a pay rise in the middle of all this mayhem.

  • JMO says:

    Since the late middle ages,civilisation has been selling the future through tradeable bonds, initially to fund warring city states in Italy. Venice and Genoa were the first to use these as a commonly used type of security. As economies grow, the future grows in value, which can then be traded through present bonds. The one hitch is it requires certainty, faith and trust in the future; that things will be better and the economy will continue to grow.

    So far, overall, since the late middle ages this has been the case. The doomsters have been shown to be wrong time and time again.

    Yes, we are talking over a trillion $ of government bailouts. So what?

    Of course we cannot just keep printing the money and issuing bonds, but as long as the future economy grows in 10 to 30 years time and we have faith and trust this will happen then we should not fret (too much).

    I remember as kid a millionaire was someone rich beyond my wildest dreams. Now, if you own a mortgage free house in an Australian capital city you are there, or very close; despite having little money in the bank and wearing rags and on welfare. If 66 y.o.and over you are eligible for the old age pension and may even be entitled to it, which I always thought was for poor old people.

    So $1 trillion sounds a huge amount, in 10 years it will be large amount, in 30 years it will just be like another day at the bond office.

    So please don’t worry, I am not – as long as the future is better than the present; which it has been (overall) so far since the 15th century.

    But I am an optimist.

  • Aert Driessen says:

    Greetings Don, and thank you for a thought-provoking piece, particularly covering also the relative value of human life. My comment is not so much on your particular opinion piece but on the theme you write about. It is difficult to get away from the news broadcasts and opinion comments about this topic. The three phrases I hear most, whether spoken by Australians in foreign countries, cruise liners, airport lobbies, or 5-star hotel lobbies in Australia, is ‘It wasn’t ‘my/our/their fault’ complaining about some reason why they are ‘out of pocket’. The mind boggles at where mind sets like this could lead us to.

  • Boambee John says:


    Here are some comments from various luminaries about climate change. How many do you think would make the samecor very similar comments about COVID 19?

    ”Unless we announce disasters no one will listen.” Sir John Houghton, First chairman of the IPCC

    It doesn’t matter what is true, it only matters what people believe is true.” Paul Watson, Co-founder of Greenpeace.

    ”The only way to get our society to truly change is to frighten people with the possibility of a catastrophe.” Emeritus Professor Daniel Botkin

    ”Isn’t the only hope for the planet that the industrialized civilizations collapse? Isn’t it our responsibility to bring that about?” Maurice Strong, Founder of the UN Environmental Program

    ”Global Sustainability requires the deliberate quest of poverty, reduced resource consumption and set levels of mortality control.” Professor Maurice King.

    ”I suspect that eradicating small pox was wrong. it played an important part in balancing ecosystems.” John Davis, Editor of Earth First! Journal.”

    • Boxer says:

      The curious thing about people who make arguments like the ones you have presented BJ, is that, to the best of my knowledge, I have never met a misanthrope who was prepared to act on their principles, and kill themselves. So my conclusion has been that they consider themselves one of the most special humans who must be preserved, and their morbid opinion only apply to lesser mortals. Perhaps misanthropy is a form of narcissism.

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    ”I suspect that eradicating small pox was wrong. it played an important part in balancing ecosystems.”

    One assumes the same argument would apply to syphilis and polio. And, by extension, to the coronavirus?

  • spangled drongo says:

    Wuflu? Wuflu? did you say wuflu?

    Hush yo’ mouf if you know what’s good for you!

  • A few respondents have reminded us of the Spanish Flu after World War 1. It’s spread was linked to returning troops and general dislocation after the war. Authorities closed borders and sporting events were banned much like today. People were interred for swimming across the Murray at Albury. I had no idea of this. The disease must of have run its course. I don’t think a cure was ever found

    • Chris Warren says:

      Yes, you cannot rely on a cure – one or two deaths from MERS are still occurring every few months. Last death report was from December 2019.

      However, when there is no cure/vaccine we can rely on a properly funded public health system to minimise the damage as much as possible.

      The frequency of these events seem to be increasing.

  • spangled drongo says:

    Crisis? Fake or real? Climate activists like Christiana never let any crisis go to waste and see the Covid-19 crisis as an opportunity to enslave the world with green communism. They are hoping frightened people, reeling from the shock of the Covid-19 outbreak, will be more willing to do what they are told and they can prolong this current misery indefinitely:

  • spangled drongo says:

    Well, well, the Donald must have been right all along:

    • dlb says:

      Predictably Dr Norman Swan from the ABC is downplaying chloroquine as a preventative measure for covid19 virus. The ABC have just run an article saying the army aren’t very happy that they may be used in test trials of chloroquine.

      I have a suggestion: why don’t all the noisy proponents of chloroquine, including Trump offer themselves as test subjects for the trials. They could go back to work as normal, no social distancing, no travel restrictions, and see what happens.

  • Neville says:

    Here’s Data from John Hopkins Uni comparing normal flu deaths every year and Covid -19 deaths etc worldwide and in the USA. This is up to the 4/4/20. Andrew Bolt is also quoting research that flu deaths this year are lower than normal in the USA and Italy for example.

    Dr Spencer also found that flu deaths this year are lower than normal in Italy and Europe. Here’s part of the John Hopkins data and the link.


    COVID-19: No vaccine is available at this time, though it is in progress.

    Flu: A vaccine is available and effective to prevent some of the most dangerous types or to reduce the severity of the flu.

    COVID-19: Approximately 1,131,713 cases worldwide; 278,458 cases in the U.S. as of Apr. 4, 2020.*

    Flu: Estimated 1 billion cases worldwide; 9.3 million to 45 million cases in the U.S. per year.

    COVID-19: Approximately 59,884 deaths reported worldwide; 7,159 deaths in the U.S., as of Apr. 4, 2020.*

    Flu: 291,000 to 646,000 deaths worldwide; 12,000 to 61,000 deaths in the U.S. per year.

    The COVID-19 situation is changing rapidly. Since this disease is caused by a new virus, people do not have immunity to it, and a vaccine may be many months away. Doctors and scientists are working on estimating the mortality rate of COVID-19, but at present, it is thought to be higher than that of most strains of the flu.

    *This information comes from the Coronavirus COVID-19 Global Cases map developed by the Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering.
    Scientist carefully insets a pipette into a test tube.
    Coronavirus Disease

  • Neville says:

    Here is the UK govt’s latest data for total deaths for England and Wales. This compares the same period for the last 5 years compared to 2020.

    Here’s what they have to say for this year and the average for past 5 years.

    “Looking at the year-to-date (using refreshed data to get the most accurate estimates), the number of deaths is currently lower than the five-year average. The current number of deaths is 138,913, which is 4,869 fewer than the five-year average. Of the deaths registered so far in 2020, 108 mentioned the coronavirus (COVID-19) on the death certificate; this is 0.1% of all deaths. Including deaths that occurred in week 12 but were registered up to 25 March, the number involving COVID-19 was 210 (this is not shown in the chart)”.

    SEE DOWN TO POINT 6 AND FIG 4 at the UK Govt link. Even Dr Goklany is now warning us to wait before having confidence in the final USA numbers. And he is an expert in the field and has worked for the IPCC and previous USA administrations etc.

  • Neville says:

    Here’s Bolt’s interview last week with the Doherty Institute professor running their trial.
    Also two more trials are linked, one to the malaria drugs and another drug trial from the Murdoch Children’s centre.
    See the link for videos and the Doherty Institute prof seems fairly confident of a positive outcome. Let’s hope she’s correct.

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