Monday, 6 July 2020

The utter failure of Victoria’s government – and the consequences for everyone

The news that Victoria had 127 new cases – easily the most on record – this morning, after I half-joked that the figures would be much, much higher, was of itself no alarm given that I had been told that cases would rise due to outbreaks in a number of housing blocks in Flemington and North Melbourne. The alarming thing is that a mere sixteen of the new cases are due to testing in those above-mentioned housing blocks, leaving 111 – fifty percent more than yesterday – cases from community transmission.

What this shows is that government moves to merely lockdown affected or “hotspot” suburbs are an utter failure. At present rates of community transmission, Victoria will be receiving over 1,000 new cases by new week (13 July), assuming testing rates remain the same.

Premier Andrews, if he were serious about containing COVID-19, would accept that would have to implement a strict Stage 4 – stricter than the past autumn lockdown – with a law forbidding any revision until minimally four weeks (28 days) after the last new case. The rate of community transmission is so high at present that even under such a strict lockdown it is certain to take several weeks longer than other Australian states have taken to eliminate community transmission. If we base our calculation upon New South Wales, who took two months to largely eliminate community transmission, it would take minimally four months before Victoria would have passed four weeks with zero new cases every single day.

Four months from now would be early November, and after the frustration of the autumn lockdown, a much severer lockdown for twice as long or longer would be intolerable for more Victorians including myself. Nevertheless, if coronavirus is ever to be contained in Victoria there is clearly from recent figures absolutely no alternative except locking down until four weeks – or longer – after the last new case. Rigid rules that require any incoming traveller to test negative before being released into the community are also absolutely essential. This would have to be backed up by the severest punishments both personal and financial for those who breach these rules or who allow anyone positive to COVID into the community. As it stands, Stamford and Rydges must pay the entire economic cost to those placed out of work and financial support – their negligence is what has placed Victoria in its current predicament, and they must pay to get it out. New South Wales has conclusively demonstrated it is possible to open up without risk of a second, worse wave of infections. If Victoria eliminates COVID-19 adequately – which it had quite simply failed to do when it began to open up in June – it can if its quarantine is good enough reopen very quickly a second time with absolutely zero risk of recurrence.

As things are, one can only conclude that Victoria’s people and politicians are too frustrated to do what is needed to contain COVID-19 beyond an epidemic that could easily be much worse than any in Europe or North America. The radical left have shown for many decades that there is the money to defeat COVID-19 if the super-rich were made to pay for it. The present epidemic in Victoria is entirely or almost entirely the fault of wealthy hotel owners’ profit seeking leading them to cut costs in quarantining returning travellers, so the Trotskyist solution of seizing their profits and locking up their bosses without trial can appear absolutely just. Even if we do not fully accept the radical views of Socialist Alternative or the World Socialist Web Site, there can be no justice for economically displaced Victorians until these hotel companies pay for the damage they have caused in full. If they did pay the costs of their negligence in full, it would be easier for Victorians already displaced from work for several months for twice as long a period out of work – but with the knowledge that when they were back at work they would be at zero risk of this happening for a third time.

The present government path of targetted lockdown is proving an utter failure. Either the government will have to rescind its current policy and adopt a Stage 4 lockdown until four weeks (possibly more) after the last new case to permit a rapid, zero-risk reopening, or it will continue its present failed policy of locking down more suburbs and seeing the virus spread for month after month with continuously increasing cases. Whilst the former policy is already unnecessarily painful – with unbotched quarantine Victoria would be already at the stage of a rapid and complete reopening with zero risk of recurrence – it will cost everybody less in the long term except for the super-rich businessmen who can make profits out of their negligence, and will mean Melbourne ending its COVID-enforced isolation from the rest of Australia much sooner.

Thursday, 2 July 2020

Why a fully imported food supply and complete revegetation should be Australia’s goal

Tonight, when I was having dinner with my brother and mother, my brother made a stern criticism of my talk about Australia’s sorry greenhouse gas emissions record, revealed by this table from the Climate Change Performance Index. Baḥrain, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Turkmenistan are major omissions owing to their very high per capita emissions, but the table is still useful even with them omitted and many countries with low total and per capita emissions included.
The position of Australia at the absolute bottom of this list must constitute utter shame for every Australian. Writers like Tim Flannery, Thomas Aquinas McMahon, and Gordon Orians and Antoni Milewski have shown that Australia’s ecology is:
  1. shaped by soils that – at least in Quaternary landmasses – are uniquely ancient, weathered, nutrient-poor and vulnerable to erosion
    1. the unique vulnerability to erosion is caused by extreme texture contrasts
    2. these in turn are caused by clay accumulation in deep subsoil after 300 million or more years of topsoil leaching
    3. most of this leaching occurred in much wetter and hotter climates than found in the Quaternary
  2. demanding of extremely low energy consumption by native fauna, and extremely low nutrient requirements for native flora
  3. demanding of extremely large territories for native fauna due to the extremely low density of nutritious food and the absence of nutrients that allow effective digestion of cellulose
  4. in the case of aquatic organisms, shaped by uniquely high variability in runoff due to extremely low runoff coefficients and absence of baseflow where it is found in similar climates elsewhere
    1. this is due to much greater absorption of water by native vegetation compared to similar climates elsewhere on the globe
    2. in turn this high water absorption and low runoff component of moisture budgets is due to the need for deep, dense roots to absorb nutrients from ancient soils
These features, especially (2) demand that Australia have by far the world’s lowest per capita energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, not excluding the poorest tropical African nations. They also demand logically that Australia be ranked as incomparably the world’s best country in terms of climate change performance. Both of these stand exactly opposed to Australia’s uniquely bad and worsening performance over the past three decades. An acceptable performance – even factoring in that many of the highest-performing countries could reasonably have been omitted – would have required Australia completely decarbonise so early as 2005.

Following on from groups like Socialist Alternative, the International Socialist Organisation, and the Democratic Socialist Party, I have long assumed that by expropriating the wealth and profits of Australia’s major corporate greenhouse emitters, rapid and total decarbonisation of Australia would prove easy to plan and execute, chiefly by transferring from cars and coal to renewable energy and electric mass transit, complete cessation of land clearing, and large-scale revegetation of degraded farmland with native flora.

However, this evening, my brother said I had severely neglected the impact of the meat industry, and said I did so because I enjoy eating meat despite its major impacts via greenhouse gas emissions and using Australia’s uniquely scarce water resources. Consider that the volume of water carried by all mainland Australian rivers south of the Tropic of Capricorn – draining around four and a half million square kilometres – is only four-fifths that carried by the Kaladan, a river draining an area half the size of Tasmania.

I have long held that the environmental impacts of food grown abroad are negligible vis-à-vis analogous food grown in Australia because:
  1. water resources overseas average around fifteen times as intense per unit area as the water resources of Australia south of the Tropic of Capricorn
  2. required storage sizes for the same total draft in the same climate in Australia are (approximately) 7.3 times as large as for Europe, East Asia, the Americas or New Zealand
    1. in fact, because of Australia’s high evaporation rates during dry spells due to advection of dry air from the interior, the figure of 7.3 times larger is most definitely an understatement
  3. soils in the Enriched World (extratropical northern and western hemispheres) and the younger parts of the Tropical World are almost all under 10,000 years old and are rapidly replaced when eroded or damaged by new soil
  4. in contrast, the topsoil of Australia was mostly formed over 300,000,000 years ago during the Carboniferous and is not replaced if eroded or damaged: instead, the landscape is permanently denuded, gullied and/or salinised
  5. Australia’s oceans have – according to on old atlas that I was given by one of my father’s sisters – less than one-tenth the animal plankton density of seas in the same latitudes of Europe, East Asia, or the Americas
  6. the requirements of Australian soils for the nutrient elements in which they are severely deficient compared to all other present-day landmasses can produce ecologically dangerous eutrophication during large floods, and also make land unsuitable for native flora and fauna
  7. Australia’s native trees are extremely efficient at storing carbon in the absence of large-scale bushfires, vis-à-vis shorter-lived and more easily browsed Enriched and Tropical World trees
  8. climate change has already substantially aridified Australia’s major agricultural areas, and as it further does so, larger areas of sub-marginal land of high conservation value might be cleared
    1. ironically, this last point is most likely to be an issue if global warming makes present conservations reserves unsuitable for the species they were proclaimed to protect
These differences are much more severe for animal foods (including fish) than for annual plant foods, and much more for annual plant foods than for perennial plant foods. Contrary to the implicit attitude of many vegetarians, non-meat animal foods are equally or more unsustainable in the Australian environment as meat itself. Milk production uses more water and nutrients than meat, and fish is so unsustainable in Australia’s warm, oligotrophic oceans that many Aboriginal groups developed absolute taboos against fish eating, but not against meat. Australia is indeed so nutrient-poor that any population density above 0.1 people per square kilometre cannot be ecologically sustained by local nutrient resources unless the diet be de jure and de facto vegan. This means no animal foods would be eaten whatsoever and that law and/or custom also mandate no animal foods be eaten. The pre-industrial human history of Australia (see here), however, reflects that a vegan diet based on local resources would be impossibly poor nutritionally.

Contrariwise, in the Enriched World production of animal foods has exceedingly small comparative impact, so veganism becomes of itself a form of consumerism that helps divert food production into more fragile lands.

The only real argument against a fully imported food supply and complete revegetation of Australia is transport energy costs. Whilst these must not be dismissed, I have generally thought that with major improvements to fuel efficiency of ocean and rail transport, and even of intercontinental air transport, these problems could certainly be overcome to a substantial degree, and that even if they were not entirely overcome the gains in terms of conservation of Australia’s land and elimination of emissions from land clearing would make it justifiable.

The complete protection of Australia’s ancient soils and uniquely structured ecosystems would give a completely new and much truer image of Australia to outsides – an image of a continent whose ecological and even climatic structure is much closer to (if not perfectly representative of) the Earth during its predominant geological history as an ice-free oligotrophic planet. This history is not known to most of the world’s population, and is not well-understood even by ecologists, but that it needs to be known there is no doubt.

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

Blind spots in the Trotskyist worldview

Ever since the painful and frustrating COVID-19 pandemic began affecting Victoria in March, I have read the Trotskyist websites World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) and Red Flag (the descendant of Socialist Alternative whose archives can be found here) as a response to frustration and hoping for a radical solution to the COVID-19 crisis that:

  1. would avoid any risk of the recurrence that is occurring in Melbourne as I write this and
  2. would not be too slow
I have extreme fear that lockdowns – on and off – will persist in Victoria well into 2021 and possibly into 2022 or 2023, whilst the rest of Australia has fully opened up and contained COVID-19 by the end of this year or earlier.

Revelation today that major quarantine breaches have been the major contributing factor to the explosive growth of COVID-19 in Victoria since 17 June has made me imagine that a “genuine socialist” society – as defined by Socialist Alternative and the WSWS – would avoid the mistakes that my mother has said are inevitable. By eliminating the profit motive more care would be taken to ensure no COVID-19 escapes from quarantine, rather than sacrificing care to reduce costs. Moreover, I have emphasised a major factor in why COVID-19, but not Ebola or swine flu, caused a major pandemic is that there is zero quarantine for travellers exiting tropical and East Asia, but strict quarantine for those exiting Latin America. This despite tropical and East Asia being more nutrient-rich and favourable for microbial development than Africa or eastern South America (although Mesoamerica and Andean South America are more nutrient-rich than tropical Asia).

The remarkable thing is that Trotskyist groups never think of quarantine as a good thing at all. They view it as merely a product of capitalism, which they define as exploitation of workers for profit. Much more importantly, Trotskyists view quarantine as a product of nation-states, which they believe are a weapon of capitalist class rule to divide the workers by nation, thus preventing a rapid international revolution to overthrow global capitalism. The fact is that, even if the majority of political divisions are artificial, there does exist extremely distinct ecological regions of the world, as I have outlined in many older posts on this blog.

Trotskyists’ COVID-19 policy consists of a rigid cessation of all nonessential industries with zero loss of pay until a vaccine is found. The World Socialist Web Site have claimed that a vaccine would be found in one month if every single cent of the wealth and profits of the richest 1 percent – or even of the richest 0.01 percent – was expropriated and diverted to urgent medical research. Trotskyists also believe that if land clearing in the tropics were eliminated, large-scale pandemics would be too, although they lack understanding of why it is only the Tropical World where land-clearing has such disastrous effects.

No actual scientist believes that a vaccine could possibly be found in one month even with the total expropriation advocated by the Trotskyists.The human body does not function in such a manner that testing of vaccines can be done perfectly within such a short time. Side-effects of vaccines and of drugs can take several months to develop. The Trotskyists undoubtedly believe that:
  1. new electronic medical technology would permit extremely rapid developments of perfectly safe and effective drugs and vaccines
  2. such would be possible if every last cent of the profits and wealth of the richest 1 percent or 0.01 percent were expropriated and placed in the hands of the majority
However, their claims – as I recall them – seem to be what my brother calls marginally misleadingly (because Trotskyists are insistent that human work and constant struggle against the capitalists is the key to achieving the immense benefits of workers’ rather than bosses’ control) “magic solutions”. By “magic solutions” is meant an idea or action that would solve every single problem in the world in a completely failsafe manner. In the case of COVID-19, the Trotskyist worldview goes ridiculously far, and has definite blind spots in their extreme internationalism failing to recognise natural ecological boundaries, and their belief that workers’ control can eliminate all social and economic problems immediately.

Monday, 29 June 2020

Five months (or years?) more of frustration

Today, with the news that Victoria’s new COVID-19 cases have increased by 75 compared to yesterday, the looming future for the state becomes mapped out so clearly.

Around five weeks ago, Victoria’s leaders were criticised for not opening up sooner. Today, such criticism seems patently absurd with as many new COVID cases as at the March peak, and certain in ensuing days to be far more than the previous record of 111. Contrariwise, if Victoria had waited until four weeks after the last new COVID-19 case to remove restrictions in place in April and May, Melburnians would have seen life back to normal by this coming spring with zero risk of a new wave of infections. As it is, with only a portion of these restrictions removed, COVID-19 cases are again growing exponentially, and, as targeted lockdowns in major centres of COVID-19 growth have failed, Victoria stands faced with three unpleasant choices:
  • a strict lockdown with all non-essential services closed until four weeks after the last new COVID-19 infection
    • this will absolutely ensure that no COVID-19 whatsoever remains in the Victorian community
    • to ensure the complete elimination of the virus this move would need to be accompanied by sustained high levels of testing until eight weeks (56 days) after the last new COVID-19 infection
    • only this policy, although unpleasant in the short term, can ensure absolutely zero risk of another wave of infections and permit rapid, complete reopening once zero risk is attained
  • short-term lockdowns and reopenings when cases have fallen merely to “manageable” levels
    • this is the actual policy of the Andrews Government, but will result in severe long-term hardship for the majority of Victorians
    • the certain result is a chaotic pattern – lasting many years – of lockdown after lockdown, partial reopening after partial reopening, with the virus entirely uncontrolled
  • continuing reopening in face of exponential growth of COVID-19 that is certain to overwhelm the state’s medical services
Given observed rates of decay in new COVID-19 cases before the partial reopening at the end of May, it is probable that, had there been no partial reopening, it would have been around the end of August before the state reached four weeks after the last new COVID-19 case, although possible timeframes could have ranged from late July at the earliest up to late September or even later. Eight weeks after the last new COVID-19 case would have been the middle of October 2020, although a range from late August until the end of November would have been plausible.

Melbourne’s populace was frustrated with lockdowns before reopening began at the end of May, and would have found it difficult to tolerate a continued strict lockdown into August, September or even October 2020 (into whenever is four weeks after the last new infection). However, such a long lockdown, alongside constant testing and rigid quarantine, would have ensured a rapid return to normal conditions without any risk of reoccurring infections. This would have been a definite lesser evil and allowed rapid although seriously delayed return to normal life with zero risk of local COVID-19 infection. As it stands, Melbourne’s populace will almost certainly become more frustrated again with repeated lockdowns and reopenings into 2021, 2022 and further on, alongside continual spread of COVID-19.

What is already striking, and certain to be more so in the future, is that Victoria will beyond doubt remain locked down whilst all Australia’s other states and territories have eliminated COVID-19 spread, and almost certainly after basic social distancing requirements are eliminated in all other states. Even if movement into border communities on the Victorian side of the Murray River is permitted, there will likely be no permission for movement into or out of Victoria beyond those limits once COVID-19 is eradicated from the remainder of Australia. Rather, we will simply see travelling links that exclude Melbourne and its surrounds established and maintained for many years. Long-term trends towards Melbourne’s relative growth will likely be reversed and growth transferred to other parts of Australia, although which other parts will benefit be is impossible to yet tell.

Friday, 26 June 2020

A looming disaster and a quarantine botch

Twenty days ago, there was a family celebration to celebrate Victoria’s first day with zero COVID-19 cases.

Unfortunately, the hope provided by two days early this month with no new COVID-19 case in Victoria has been crushed by rapid community spread of the virus at a time when the rest of Australia has not seen locally sourced transmission for a long time. Despite the rapid spread – which is practically certain to exceed Victoria’s peak of 111 reported cases per day late in March – the Andrews Government is preceding with the opening of major libraries and museums for the school holidays. These school holidays, which finish on Sunday 12 July, are critical for the finances of economically crippled cultural institutions such as the State Library and the Melbourne Museum. It is also true that some precautions are being taken to reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19 inside these claustrophobic building environments.

If COVID-19 cases in Victoria grow at the rate they have over the past fortnight – from a daily average of three coronavirus cases in Victoria a fortnight ago to 23 today – they would rise to 176 cases per day over the coming fortnight to end on 10 July, and to 1,351 cases per day over the first fortnight of the scheduled school term, which ends on 24 July. Given that testing is steady at around 20,000 tests per day over the past three days, and tends to peak on Thursdays and Fridays when people are most often at facilities in major shopping centres, 1,351 cases per day would mean that 6.75 percent of Melburnians have COVID-19.

Such a situation would mean that Melbourne – though likely not rural Victoria where there is no community transmission – would return to the strict lockdown from between 17 March and the late May. Most likely the state government would be eager to maintain a much longer lockdown than the ten weeks seen last autumn, in order to ensure that COVID-19 really does get eliminated from the state. Security would require that the severest restrictions remain until four weeks after the last new COVID-19 infection, to ensure that the virus has completely gone. Such would mean that restrictions would be returned to the highest level – or higher than last autumn – and last until well after the ordinary September holidays, and most likely not being removed or even relaxed until November or even December. Whilst such a long lockdown might remove COVID-19 from Melbourne to a reasonable degree, it would be certainly horribly frustrating for a population already not wishing to see restrictions upon movement re-imposed.

For politicians who are awfully vacillating rather than acting decisively, a re-imposed lockdown is feared as costing votes, unlike in the German state of Nordrhein-Westfallen, where a lockdown has been re-imposed without opposition two days ago upon 400,000 people after an infection in a meatpacking facility. This is what Victoria needed to do in the Cities of Brimbank and Maribyrnong as soon as the Cedar Meats cluster was detected.

It is popularly thought that the reason why Victoria alone amongst Australian states is suffering community transmission of COVID-19 is luck. This is patently wrong. The reality is that there is no accident behind why Victoria is the only state with community COVID transmission:
  1. The source of most of Victoria’s current community COVID-19 transmission is almost certainly from security guards in quarantine hotels, most critically the Rydges and the Stamford Plaza
  2. Most people in quarantine are recent migrants who travelled abroad to visit near relatives on urgent family matters
  3. Western Australia, South Australia, Tasmania, Queensland and the Territories are home to a very small proportion of recent migrants, and essentially none live in rural areas
  4. Most critically, in New South Wales army personnel and medical staff were used to strictly enforce quarantine. Contrariwise, in Victoria security guards with no medical knowledge were used to enforce quarantine
The result is that COVID spread from those in quarantine to immigrant communities chiefly in Melbourne’s western suburbs, but has remained inside quarantine in New South Wales and has essentially disappeared from rural areas and from other states. There is a severe lesson exactly analogous to the one I noted about the absence of quarantine for travellers from tropical Asia at the start of the pandemic here: that strict and properly-enforced quarantine is the best way to stop disease spreading. Both the Victorian Government and the World Health Organisation appear yet to learn this lesson.