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Memo to the prime minister: speak less, lead more

By Jonathan J. Ariel - posted Monday, 16 March 2020

In the COVID-19crisis, like most crises, leaders are charged with two equally important tasks: to solve the immediate problem and to keep it from happening again. The current COVID pandemic is one such example. Leaders need to ensure sufficient ICU beds are/will be available to treat the say 20% of the population for whom age and medical history indicates that mortality is a distinct possibility and for the other 80%, all must be done to reduce the instances of diffusion of the disease and the severity of morbidities.

The United States' Centres for Disease Control & Prevention explains that the virus is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person:

  • Between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet) and
  • through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs.

Accordingly, the best way to prevent illness is to avoid being exposed to this virus. That means taking all steps necessary to contain the disease within a community (nursing homes, restaurants, cafes, public bars, major events, sports clubs, public swimming pools, gymnasiums etc) as well as not increasing the burden on the health care sector by, for instance, allowing arriving travellers to possibly infect the homeland.

Have our leaders including, but not limited to the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison and NSW Minister of Health, Brad Hazzard been served well by the experts and bureaucrats upon whom they rely? Other jurisdictions, such as Singapore, the United States and Germany have already rolled out education campaigns or released crucial information about the disease. Information that in Australia, has until yesterday been invisible at worst and patchy at best. On Sunday the Commonwealth gave a $30 million fillip to the advertising and media industries by way of a COVID-19 information campaign. Alas a cursory look at it disappoints. For instance, mention is made that hand washing is important to keep the virus at bay. Sounds good, right? But a look at comparable media sites overseas, such as the United States' Centres for Disease Control & Prevention makes clear that not "hand washing" per se, but 20-30 seconds of keeping hands clean, while the tap is closed, is what is required. And 20 seconds of proper hand drying thereafter doesn't hurt. The science behind the CDC's recommendation is compelling. Another let down is Australia's Department of Health's video targeting arriving travellers that suggests that those who query if they have symptoms of the virus or have come into contact with the virus should stay at home.

Have we not already passed the time of suggesting to the potentially infected persons to self isolate?

Israel, like Singapore is another leader in aggressively tackling COVID-19. It realised weeks ago that arrivals only increases (not decreases) the spread of the virus, no matter how well contained it is in the country. On 9 March it responded aggressively by becoming the first country to compel all arrivals (both tourists and nationals) to self quarantine for 14 days.This follows Israel's foresight on 23 February to deny deplaning of tourists flying from Seoul on Korean Air KE957 for fear of yet more diffusion of the virus in Israel. Earlier a group of Korean pilgrims who visited Israel were found to be infected. The tracing of who these Koreans contacted while in Israel (many but not all in the hospitality sector) proved to be very time consuming. While Seoul criticised Jerusalem's decision, a couple of weeks later others, including Australia decided to close the runways toKorean visitors.

Citizens in the United States are informed that the disease can kill healthy adults in addition to elderly people with existing health problems. Not exactly the same messaging we're receiving. The data so far suggests that the virus has a fatality risk around 3.4%; this rate would make it many, many times more grave than typical seasonal influenza. COVID-19 is transmitted quite efficiently, with the average infected person spreading the disease to two or three persons. There is also strong evidence that it can be transmitted by people who are even slightlyill.Following the airlifting of German nationals from Hubei Province on 1 February, testing by University Hospital Frankfurt and the Institute of Virology, Philipps University in Marburg found that some of those passengers that initially passed the symptoms-based screening later were confirmed as suffering from COVID-19. The Germans concluded that COVID-19 will be much harder to bed down than the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which were spread only by symptomatic people.

Contrast this with developments in Australia.


Last Tuesday the Sydney Morning Herald reported that the nation's Chief Medical Officer, Brendan Murphy claimed that the "existing travel bans were precautionary and no more were recommended" and that "you cannot fully isolate the country".

Spoken like a hard working lobbyist for the tourism sector.

Murphy's comments were preceded by similar outbursts a couple of weeks earlier, by a major promotor of global travel, the World Travel and Tourism Council that released a statement calling for continued travel and tourism and making the patently self-serving and grossly irresponsible statement that "closing borders, blanket travel bans....will not stop the spread of the coronavirus".

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About the Author

Jonathan J. Ariel is an economist and financial analyst. He holds a MBA from the Australian Graduate School of Management. He can be contacted at

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