Russia and the West are at a stalemate over Ukraine. Is Putin’s endgame now war?

Originally published on theconversation.com

AP

The flurry of diplomatic activity last week over Russia’s latest military buildup near Ukraine ended, as expected, with no breakthrough agreement. Russian President Vladimir Putin called it a “dead end”.

Washington was hoping the talks between Russia and the United States and its NATO allies, which took place in three different European cities, would de-escalate the crisis along Ukraine’s border and lead to a diplomatic solution.

But the stalemate shows how differently the Putin and Biden administrations interpret the security situation on Europe’s periphery.

For the US, Russia’s determination to act as a spoiler stems from a petulant unhappiness with the post-Soviet geopolitical status quo.

For Russia, the US is the chief instigator of instability in Europe, pushing Western-dominated political and security institutions, like NATO and the European Union, ever closer to its borders.

These contrasting viewpoints give both protagonists entirely different objectives for the outcome of the talks – one wants to build walls, the other seeks to break them down.

Little room for agreement

The Kremlin has put forth a list of demands that are all about creating boundaries in Europe, in which Russia has a central role in the security affairs of the independent nations that surround it.

Russia also sees the “Ukraine question” as a broader “NATO expansion question”, and wants it resolved once and for all.

The Biden administration, meanwhile, sees the talks as a chance to restart dialogue on a path back to a strategically stable relationship with Russia.



Read more:
Ukraine: crisis between Russia and the west in the region has been brewing for 30 years

It’s clear now the two sides have little room for agreement. It is an open question whether Moscow even wants strategic stability, unless it is on its own terms. And the West will not allow a European security order riven between NATO members on one side and a group of Russian proxies and relatively weak nations vulnerable to Kremlin political interference on the other.

Given this disconnect, it is puzzling why the talks are happening at all, and what might possibly be gained from them.

After the first round of talks in Geneva last Monday, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman referred to the Russian position as a number of “non-starters”.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was similarly downbeat, warning of unspecified consequences for Europe if Russia’s demands were not met:

We don’t see an understanding from the American side of the necessity of a decision in a way that satisfies us.

US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, left, and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov at the security talks in Geneva.
Denis Balibouse/AP

The NATO-Russia Council meeting that followed in Brussels also yielded no progress, with Sherman saying Russia had the choice of “de-escalation and diplomacy, or confrontation and consequences”.

Meanwhile, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko accused NATO of trying to contain Russia and described the presence of NATO forces in eastern Europe as “intolerable” for Moscow.

Why is Putin raising the stakes?

With the talks so far following the expected script, it raises the broader question of why Putin has sought to escalate tensions so dramatically, and what his endgame might be.

Conventional wisdom would suggest the Kremlin sees the situation as a series of useful tests of Western resolve.

First, by upping the ante with troops on Ukraine’s borders, Putin is testing the Biden administration’s commitment to European security after the chaos of the Trump years.

Russian leaders certainly perceive Biden as weak, distracted by America’s internal political schisms and the need to outline a coherent approach to its competition with China.

Russian President Vladimir Putin listens during a meeting in the Kremlin last week.
Mikhail Metzel/AP

Second, Russia’s brinkmanship also helps reveal potential fault lines among NATO members. This is intended to wheedle out those who are more risk-averse, like Germany, from those such as Poland who see Russia as a clear threat to their territorial integrity.

Third, it allows Putin to test how well his muscular foreign policy is playing at home.

This is partly a pragmatic political gambit to prop up faltering support for his leadership. But it is also a social device, aimed at tapping into domestic nostalgia about past greatness. This potentially gives Russians a sense of a unifying national idea that has been largely absent since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

What could Putin do next?

All these are useful explanations for why Putin might seek to ramp up tensions with the US and the broader West – and why he’s doing it now.

But it doesn’t answer what would actually satisfy Moscow, given Washington refuses to acquiesce to Russian demands not to expand NATO to Ukraine, regardless of how remote a possibility that might be.

Stationing more than 100,000 military personnel – effectively an invasion force – near a sovereign neighbour is a dramatic piece of symbolism not without political risk.

A Russian tank fires as troops take part in drills in southern Russia last week.
AP

It is possible Putin may interpret failure to make headway in the talks as further evidence of the West’s malign intentions, and formally annex the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine – just as it did Crimea – in retaliation.

Yet that is hardly persuasive. For one thing, Putin is already in de facto possession of these regions, and leaving the negotiating table with only parts of Ukraine to show for it would hardly be a ringing triumph.

Another possibility is Putin genuinely wishes to bring confrontation with NATO to a head by threatening to conquer the rest of Ukraine.



Read more:
Why Putin has such a hard time accepting Ukrainian sovereignty

This should not be dismissed out of hand. After all, Putin has long telegraphed his personal sense of loss at the collapse of the USSR. It culminated in his bizarre essay last July which effectively denied Ukraine was a sovereign nation and claimed Ukrainians and Russians were “one people”.

This essentially frames Russia as a grand geo-cultural civilising project: it must dominate its historical spheres of influence in Eastern Europe in order for there to be stability.

And what should the West do next?

For the Biden administration and other NATO governments, Putin’s antics can no longer be dismissed as mere petulance, or sympathetically explained away as “legitimate” grievances.

Rather, they form a pattern of behaviour that has sought to undermine European unity, exacerbate domestic divisions in the US, and fragment the current security order by threatening to invade independent states.

Given this, as well as Putin’s increasingly virulent nationalism, talks are unlikely to assuage him. Instead, he is more likely to perceive it as weakness, and be encouraged to continue his brinkmanship.

So, if diplomacy fails, the US and its NATO partners will need to do more than rely on cycles of sanctions and dialogue to counter Russia. More importantly, if they really do seek to uphold the principles they espouse, they may find they can speak louder with actions than with words.

Matthew Sussex has receives funding from the Australian Research Council, Australian Defence Department, Fulbright Commission and European Union.

Why Novak Djokovic lost his fight to stay in Australia – and why it sets a concerning precedent

Originally published on theconversation.com

Many sports stars are, rightly or wrongly, held up as role models. In the case of Novak Djokovic, we have a set of powerful factors at play.

On one side is a tennis superstar who is unvaccinated and has raised concerns about receiving the vaccination. On the other side is a government which believes Djokovic’s presence in Australia will have a serious negative effect on public health orders and future vaccination levels.

Today, the full Federal Court, in a unanimous judgement, dismissed Djokovic’s application to overturn the cancellation of his visa. It is not surprising he lost his case. Although the evidence used by the immigration minister to cancel the visa was not overwhelmingly strong, the breadth of his powers under the Migration Act made it very difficult to successfully challenge his findings.

But the legal issues raised by this case do not end here. What are the broader implications of the government’s approach in future cases involving high-profile “anti-vaxxers” or people who may be seen as a risk to Australia’s social order?

Although the government may be very happy about this result, I would question whether this is a workable precedent to set for other sportspeople, or indeed anyone, who may be seen as posing a risk to the public interest of Australia.

What the government claimed

The immigration minister has the power to cancel a visa if he or she is satisfied a person’s presence in Australia might be a risk to the health, safety or good order of Australia and the cancellation is in the public interest.

The use of the word “might” is important – the minister does not need to show Djokovic would pose a risk, only that he may do so.

When cancelling Djokovic’s visa on Friday, Immigration Minister Alex Hawke reasoned the tennis player’s conduct and stance against vaccination may encourage others to emulate him by reason of his high profile and status.



Read more:
Novak Djokovic has long divided opinion. Now, his legacy will be complicated even further

There were two issues with the ministerial statement which were discussed at some length in the full Federal Court:

Hawke did not seek the views of Djokovic on his present attitude to vaccinations. Instead, the minister cited material that made clear Djokovic has publicly expressed antivaccination sentiment. This included a BBC article, which Djokovic’s lawyers argued was not sufficient to make a judgement about his vaccination views.

Hawke explicitly referred to the effect Djokovic’s presence would have on public health and social order. What the minister did not consider, however, was the other side of this argument. That is, Djokovic’s deportation might lead to an increase in anti-vax sentiment and/or civil unrest.

What Djokovic claimed

Djokovic’s lawyers made some very compelling arguments about Hawke’s reasoning. Put simply, the lawyers said the minister had two choices:

to cancel the visa and deport Djokovic

not cancel it and let him stay.

They argued it was irrational for Hawke to only question the effect Djokovic’s presence would have on anti-vax sentiment in Australia and not the effect his deportation would have.



Read more:
Why one man with ‘god-like’ powers decides if Novak Djokovic can stay or go

Djokovic’s lawyers also argued the minister’s findings lacked sufficient evidence to support the contention that his presence in Australia might pose a risk to the health or good order of the Australian community and the contention Djokovic had a “well-known stance on vaccination”.

Djokovic’s lawyers conceded Djokovic had previously said he was opposed to vaccinations. However, they pointed out in the BBC article he

later clarified his position by adding that he was ‘no expert’ and would keep an ‘open mind’ but wanted to have ‘an option to choose what’s best for my body’.

It is important to note this qualifying passage was not extracted by Hawke in his statement – a point Djokovic’s lawyers made in the hearing.

Supporters of Novak Djokovic hold Serbian flags outside the Federal Court building in Melbourne.
Tom Moldoveanu/AP

Why Djokovic’s case failed

In response, the government argued it was reasonable to conclude Djokovic is opposed to vaccination based on his previous public statements and the fact he is known to be unvaccinated.

The government also said Hawke was not only concerned with Djokovic’s current views on vaccination, but the public perception of his views.

Further, the government said Hawke did not have to show Djokovic’s presence has fostered anti-vaccination sentiment or necessarily will foster it. All he needed to show was his presence in Australia may foster anti-vax sentiment – a relatively low threshold to reach.

Presumably, this is why Djokovic’s case failed. Although there were questions about the evidence used by Hawke, the Migration Act powers are very broad and it is difficult to challenge them based on unlawfulness.

Implications for the future

While the Federal Court’s decision may be viewed as legally justified given the breadth of the cancellation powers in the Migration Act, some thought must be given to the future implications of these powers and what this means for the ability of the government to cancel other people’s visas.

The basis of Hawke’s findings seemed to be it was enough to show Djokovic is an iconic sports star who is perceived as being anti-vaccination and therefore may foster anti-vax sentiment in Australia.

I have a number of concerns with this.

First, it is unfair if the perception or actions of others can determine someone’s eligibility to remain in a country. A person may wrongly be viewed as having a particular belief and still be subject to a visa cancellation.

Second, the minister relied on Djokovic’s claimed status as a “role model” and his capacity as a high-profile sportsperson to apparently influence society. What if a sportsperson is unvaccinated, but not high-profile?

Third, and this is the most concerning point, if we extend this logic to other people, it could justify the cancellation of any individual who is seen as a “role model” and who may be perceived as causing social unrest or protests.

As legal commentators such as Kate Seear pointed out,

This kind of logic – that athletes are role models and role models can influence society […] could be extended to other athletes wanting to come here in the future, including those with diverse political views, such as supporters of Black Lives Matter and defunding police.

Lastly, the idea a person can have their visa cancelled because their views might affect the health, safety or good order of the Australian community raises issues for freedom of expression.

A wide cancellation power allows the government to stop international visitors who may have an important message to tell Australians. That would pose significant concerns for political debate in Australia.

Maria O’Sullivan previously received funding from the Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department to undertake research on automated decision-making. She also serves on the Human Rights Legal Advice Panel for the Queensland Parliament.

Novak Djokovic to be deported after Federal Court upholds government visa cancellation

Originally published on theconversation.com

Masahiro Sugimoto/AP

Novak Djokovic has lost his bid to stave off deportation, with the Federal Court upholding the decision by Immigration Minister Alex Hawke on Friday that he should be thrown out on “public interest” grounds.

After Sunday’s hearing, a full court under Chief Justice James Allsop announced the unanimimous decision by the three judges.

The government had argued Djokovic’s ongoing presence in Australia

may lead to an increase in anti-vaccination sentiment generated in the Australian community, potentially leading to an increase in civil unrest of the kind previously experienced in Australia with rallies and protests.

Djokovic’s legal team countered by arguing the minister hadn’t taken into proper account that deporting him could fuel disruptive behaviour.

But Stephen Lloyd, legal counsel for the government, said,

Obviously the minister was aware his decision to cancel would result in some level of further unrest. But the minister was no doubt principally concerned […] that Mr. Djokovic’s presence would encourage people to emulate his position and that would put the health of Australians at risk.

Djokovic said in a statement he was “extremely disappointed” with the decision, but he would respect it and cooperate with the authorities with his departure from Australia.

I am uncomfortable that the focus of the past weeks has been on me and I hope that we can all now focus on the game and tournament I love.

The deportation will be politically popular. A poll published in the Nine papers at the weekend found 71% of Australians believed he should not be allowed to stay and play in the Australian Open, which starts on Monday. Djokovic had been due to play against a fellow Serb on Monday evening.

But it will further infuriate Serbia. In a four-minute video titled “Support for Novak Djokovic and response to the Prime Minister of Australia”, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić said: “Is all this necessary to win the elections and please your public?” 

If you wanted to forbid Novak Djokovic to win the [Australian Open] trophy for the 10th time, why didn’t you return him immediately, why didn’t you tell him that it was impossible to get a visa?

The government had lost the initial decision to cancel Djokovic’s visa when it had to concede in the Federal Circuit Court a week ago that he had not been accorded procedural fairness.

The tennis star’s interview by Border Force had lasted several hours in the early morning of January 6, but given the time, he had not had an opportunity to contact advisers.

Djokovic, who is unvaccinated, had obtained a medical exemption from COVID vaccination on the grounds he had contracted COVID in December. The exemption was granted through a process run by Tennis Australia and the Victorian government.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison initially suggested the issue was a matter for the Victorian government. “They have provided him with an exemption to come into Australia, and so then we act in accordance with that decision,” he said.

But he then quickly changed his line after a big public backlash, distinguishing the issue of the exemption from that of visas, which are exclusively the federal government’s responsibility.

Hawke acted under the extremely wide discretionary power accorded to the immigration minister to act in individual cases.

In announcing the decision, Allsop said the case had not involved an appeal against the government’s decision but an application for the court to review that decision’s “lawfulness or legality” – whether it was irrational or legally unreasonable.

He said it was not the court’s function to decide on the merits or the wisdom of the decision. The judges will give their reasons at a later date.

Labor shadow health minister Mark Butler said at the weekend:

This has been an embarrassing soap opera of Scott Morrison’s making. If Mr. Djokovic did not satisfy the entry test to come into Australia, he should not have been granted a visa way back in November.

Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Why the volcanic eruption in Tonga was so violent, and what to expect next

Originally published on theconversation.com

The Kingdom of Tonga doesn’t often attract global attention, but a violent eruption of an underwater volcano on January 15 has spread shock waves, quite literally, around half the world.

The volcano is usually not much to look at. It consists of two small uninhabited islands, Hunga-Ha’apai and Hunga-Tonga, poking about 100m above sea level 65km north of Tonga’s capital Nuku‘alofa. But hiding below the waves is a massive volcano, around 1800m high and 20km wide.

A massive underwater volcano lies next to the Hunga-Ha’apai and Hunga-Tonga islands.
Author provided

The Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcano has erupted regularly over the past few decades. During events in 2009 and 2014/15 hot jets of magma and steam exploded through the waves. But these eruptions were small, dwarfed in scale by the January 2022 events.

Our research into these earlier eruptions suggests this is one of the massive explosions the volcano is capable of producing roughly every thousand years.

Why are the volcano’s eruptions so highly explosive, given that sea water should cool the magma down?

If magma rises into sea water slowly, even at temperatures of about 1200℃, a thin film of steam forms between the magma and water. This provides a layer of insulation to allow the outer surface of the magma to cool.

But this process doesn’t work when magma is blasted out of the ground full of volcanic gas. When magma enters the water rapidly, any steam layers are quickly disrupted, bringing hot magma in direct contact with cold water.

Volcano researchers call this “fuel-coolant interaction” and it is akin to weapons-grade chemical explosions. Extremely violent blasts tear the magma apart. A chain reaction begins, with new magma fragments exposing fresh hot interior surfaces to water, and the explosions repeat, ultimately jetting out volcanic particles and causing blasts with supersonic speeds.



Read more:
The ‘pulse’ of a volcano can be used to help predict its next eruption

Two scales of Hunga eruptions

The 2014/15 eruption created a volcanic cone, joining the two old Hunga islands to create a combined island about 5km long. We visited in 2016, and discovered these historical eruptions were merely curtain raisers to the main event.

Mapping the sea floor, we discovered a hidden “caldera” 150m below the waves.

A map of the seafloor shows the volcanic cones and massive caldera.
Author provided

The caldera is a crater-like depression around 5km across. Small eruptions (such as in 2009 and 2014/15) occur mainly at the edge of the caldera, but very big ones come from the caldera itself. These big eruptions are so large the top of the erupting magma collapses inward, deepening the caldera.

Looking at the chemistry of past eruptions, we now think the small eruptions represent the magma system slowly recharging itself to prepare for a big event.

We found evidence of two huge past eruptions from the Hunga caldera in deposits on the old islands. We matched these chemically to volcanic ash deposits on the largest inhabited island of Tongatapu, 65km away, and then used radiocarbon dates to show that big caldera eruptions occur about ever 1000 years, with the last one at AD1100.

With this knowledge, the eruption on January 15 seems to be right on schedule for a “big one”.



Read more:
Why White Island erupted and why there was no warning

What we can expect to happen now

We’re still in the middle of this major eruptive sequence and many aspects remain unclear, partly because the island is currently obscured by ash clouds.

The two earlier eruptions on December 20 2021 and January 13 2022 were of moderate size. They produced clouds of up to 17km elevation and added new land to the 2014/15 combined island.

The latest eruption has stepped up the scale in terms of violence. The ash plume is already about 20km high. Most remarkably, it spread out almost concentrically over a distance of about 130km from the volcano, creating a plume with a 260km diameter, before it was distorted by the wind.

This demonstrates a huge explosive power – one that cannot be explained by magma-water interaction alone. It shows instead that large amounts of fresh, gas-charged magma have erupted from the caldera.

The eruption also produced a tsunami throughout Tonga and neighbouring Fiji and Samoa. Shock waves traversed many thousands of kilometres, were seen from space, and recorded in New Zealand some 2000km away. Soon after the eruption started, the sky was blocked out on Tongatapu, with ash beginning to fall.

All these signs suggest the large Hunga caldera has awoken. Tsunami are generated by coupled atmospheric and ocean shock waves during an explosions, but they are also readily caused by submarine landslides and caldera collapses.

It remains unclear if this is the climax of the eruption. It represents a major magma pressure release, which may settle the system.

A warning, however, lies in geological deposits from the volcano’s previous eruptions. These complex sequences show each of the 1000-year major caldera eruption episodes involved many separate explosion events.

Hence we could be in for several weeks or even years of major volcanic unrest from the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcano. For the sake of the people of Tonga I hope not.

Shane Cronin receives funding from The University of Auckland Faculty of Science to study the 2014-2015 Hunga eruption.

Novak Djokovic has long divided opinion. Now, his legacy will be complicated even further

Originally published on theconversation.com

Darko Vojinovic/AP

After a convoluted and shambolic visa approval process, followed by questions about his movements over the past month and the information provided to Australian border officials, Immigration Minister Alex Hawke has cancelled Novak Djokovic’s visa.

The decision is a major blow to Djokovic, who is tied with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal at 20 Grand Slam singles titles, the most ever by a male player. While his lawyers will attempt to challenge the latest visa cancellation, Djokovic is unlikely to chase history at his most successful Grand Slam tournament.

The decision is also a blow to the Australian Open. With Federer out with injury, Djokovic and Nadal were the prime draw cards in this year’s men’s tournament. If the top-ranked Serbian player and nine-time Australian Open champion is deported, some have feared serious repercussions for the longevity of the event.

Critics have gone so far as to theorise global tennis powerbrokers might look elsewhere to host the “grand slam of the Asia-Pacific”, so as

[…] to be confident the tournament can proceed smoothly with strong levels of public and government support.

In that sense, the conservative MP and former professional tennis player John Alexander had urged allowing Djokovic to stay in the country, arguing:

Retaining the Australian Open as a grand slam event […] is in our national interest.

While the Australian Open’s reputation certainly has taken a hit, its status as one of the four Grand Slam tournaments has plenty of support. The longer-term damage might be to Djokovic’s legacy.

Given the extraordinary backstory to his medical exemption from COVID vaccination to enter Australia – along with the many questions that have arisen about his COVID infection in December – public opinion about him has swayed back and forth on a daily basis.

Courtside drama

Djokovic has long been a polarising figure in tennis. Despite his athleticism, endurance and mental toughness, he has sometimes been accused of gamesmanship, “exaggerating” injuries to allow for medical pauses when an opponent has the momentum.

Like other players, Djokovic has also exhibited unruly behaviour on court, with occasional racket smashes, as well as disqualification from the 2020 US Open after recklessly – albeit accidentally – smashing a ball into a line judge.

Novak Djokovic checks a line judge after inadvertently hitting her with a ball in reaction to losing a point at the US Open.
Seth Wenig/AP

Compared with the much-loved Federer and Nadal, Djokovic has a narrower fan base. At the Australian Open, he’s always had the effervescent support of Melbourne’s large Serbian diaspora, with their patriotic singing and flag-waving. But the mood of the rest of the crowd this year would likely have been mixed, with some undoubtedly voicing their hostility.



Read more:
Secrecy surrounding Djokovic’s medical exemption means star can expect a hostile reception on centre court

Indeed, local tennis fans would have good reason to chafe at Djokovic’s medical exemption from immunisation given the stringent COVID protocols they must follow to attend the Australian Open.

The tournament requires fans to be double-vaccinated or provide evidence of a medical exemption. However, unlike Djokovic’s peculiar defence, prior COVID status does not absolve local residents from the need to be double-vaccinated, with “previous infection” no basis for an exemption.

Grand slammed?

Further complicating Djokovic’s legacy is the question of whether he’ll now face visa difficulties at the other tennis majors. The rapid spread of the Omicron variant may alter the rules for unvaccinated players in different countries and tournaments.

As things stand, Djokovic appears to face no vaccine-related impediment to competing at the French Open in a few months. The French sports minister has said Djokovic “would be able to take part”, although unlike vaccinated players he would need to follow “health bubble” protocols.

French President Emmanuel Macron, however, has made headlines by declaring he wants to “piss off” the unvaccinated – in part by mandating a “health pass” for public venues, a requirement for which is to be vaccinated. Whether Macron insists on changes for competitors at Roland-Garros remains to be seen.

As far as Wimbledon is concerned, unvaccinated international arrivals to the United Kingdom are currently required to take repeat COVID tests over several days, plus quarantine for ten days at a residence of their choice.

Djokovic would, presumably, look to a rent a house with a lawn tennis court attached.



Read more:
Novak Djokovic’s path to legal vindication was long and convoluted. It may also be fleeting

The US Open seems less certain. The unvaccinated are not permitted in specific indoor venues in New York without a medical exemption.

So, if one of Djokovic’s matches on the showcourts at the US Open was affected by rain and the roof needed to be closed, it is not clear what organisers would do. He might be forced to forfeit the match.

Without getting vaccinated, Djokovic’s return to the US Open is far from certain.
Seth Wenig/AP

The Djokovic legacy

Given Djokovic has been less prone to injury than Federer or Nadal and is coming off one of his best years on tour, he is still likely to retire with the most men’s grand slam titles. If so, he can rightfully be feted as the greatest male tennis star of all time.

But how he will be remembered is a more complicated question. In one sense, Djokovic appears to revel in being depicted as the “arch-nemesis” of Federer and Nadal – it has fuelled his desire to surpass their grand slam title hauls.



Read more:
Why one man with ‘god-like’ powers decides if Novak Djokovic can stay or go

Yet, for all his tennis greatness, Djokovic often attracts eye-rolling outside the court – not simply in relation to his views on vaccines, but the wider pseudo-scientific ruminations that underpin his public pronouncements.

As the Australian tennis player Nick Kyrgios has put it, Djokovic seems “a very strange cat”.

The drama from the past week will have an effect on the way others view him, too. It will inflame his supporters, infuriate his detractors, and prompt even neutral observers to take a stand in respect to his entry to Australia. When it comes to Novak Djokovic, everyone will now surely have an opinion.

Daryl Adair does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Novak Djokovic’s visa cancelled ‘in the public interest’, with possible 3-year ban from Australia

Originally published on theconversation.com

Mark Baker/AP

Immigration Minister Alex Hawke announced late Friday he had cancelled tennis star Novak Djokovic’s visa “on health and good order grounds, on the basis that it was in the public interest to do so”.

Djokovic’s lawyers are expected to seek an immediate injunction against his deportation.

The government had delayed all week responding to the Federal Circuit Court’s Monday quashing of the original decision by Border Force officials to cancel the Serbian player’s visa when he arrived in Australia.

The delay was partly due to extensive material provided by Djokovic’s laywers. But also, after being humiliated by the overturning of the initial visa cancellation, the government was anxious to make sure Hawke’s action would withstand a fresh challenge.

There has been strong public reaction against Djokovic, which has also been a factor in the government’s thinking. But at a diplomatic level, Serbia reacted sharply against the initial cancellation of his visa.

Djokovic was seeking a tenth title at the Australian Open, which starts on Monday. The draw pitted him against a fellow Serbian player in the first round.

Hawke said in his Friday night statement: “The Morrison government is firmly committed to protecting Australia’s borders, particularly in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic”.

Djokovic, who is unvaccinated, obtained a medical exemption under a Tennis Australia and Victorian government process on the grounds he had tested positive for COVID last month and therefore did not need to be vaccinated. But this was not accepted by the federal government.

Hawke said: “In making this decision, I carefully considered information provided to me by the Department of Home Affairs, the Australian Border Force and Mr Djokovic”.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison also released a statement expressing support for Hawke’s decision.

“This pandemic has been incredibly difficult for every Australian but we have stuck together and saved lives and livelihoods,” he said.

“Australians have made many sacrifices during this pandemic, and they rightly expect the result of those sacrifices to be protected,” he added. “This is what the minister is doing in taking this action today.”

The federal government conceded in Monday’s court case that Djokovic had not received procedural fairness when he was interviewed at Melbourne’s airport upon arrival. The interview took place in the early hours on January 6, which meant he did not have the opportunity to contact advisers.

But while Border Force has come under criticism within the government over its handling of the matter, Hawke said pointedly in his statement, “I thank the officers of the Department of Home Affairs and the Australian Border Force who work every day to serve Australia’s interests in increasingly challenging operational environments.”

The immigration minister has broad discretionary powers under section 133C (3) of the Migration Act to cancel visas on public interest grounds, including on the grounds of health, safety or good order.



Read more:
Why one man with ‘god-like’ powers decides if Novak Djokovic can stay or go

Following Hawke’s decision, the law dictates that Djokovic will not be able to be granted another visa for three years, except in certain circumstances. These include compelling circumstances that affect the interests of Australia or compassionate or compelling circumstances affecting the interests of an Australian citizen, permanent resident or eligible New Zealand citizen.

Hawke did not address whether Djokovic was likely to be able to obtain a visa before the end of the three-year period.

Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Latest isolation rules for critical workers gets the balance right. But that’s not the end of the story

Originally published on theconversation.com

Thousands more essential workers will be allowed back to work rather than having to self-isolate for seven days, under new rules agreed by national cabinet.

High-risk close contacts – those living with someone who has COVID-19 – must have a negative rapid antigen test on day one, have no symptoms and must stick to certain rules.

These include wearing a mask at work, getting rapid antigen tests every second day until day six, and monitoring for symptoms for 14 days. They can only leave quarantine to go to and from work.

Any workers in these categories who develop symptoms will need to immediately leave work. Anyone who tests positive will also need to isolate.

The move is designed to stem staff shortages and maintain critical services in the face of high COVID infection rates and increasing numbers of workers in isolation.

Food logistics workers and health staff already had different self-isolation requirements to most others. However the new rules also apply to emergency workers, teachers, childcare staff, among others.



Read more:
I’ve tested positive to COVID. What should I do now?

This is a proportional response to managing risk at this stage of the pandemic, with so many of us vaccinated and receiving boosters.

However, we need to keep a close eye on how the changes influence case numbers at these critical workplaces. That’s so we can dial up or down future public health measures in response to changing conditions, including any future variants.



Read more:
Grattan on Friday: Government management of Omicron blighted by false assumptions, bad planning

What are the benefits?

Treasury estimates existing isolating arrangements could see 10% of workers, including those in critical industries, out of the workforce. If schools shut and parents had to stay at home to look after children it estimates a further 5% will be away from work.

So this latest announcement aims to find the optimal balance between freeing up as much of our industry and education sector to return to work and keeping a cap on infection risk.

That balance has shifted over time. We now know Omicron generally causes less-serious disease for most people than earlier variants, and the risk is reduced further as many of us are vaccinated and receiving boosters.

Teachers have been added to the list of workers who can return to work under these new rules. This should give us more confidence when planning how schools re-open after the summer break.

Ensuring schools stay open, with the teachers to staff them, is not only critical, it’s also an equity issue – we know school closures disproportionately affect disadvanaged students.

Allowing other critical workers to return to work, while balancing the risks, is also an equity issue. This latest move means people who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic so far – including younger workers, casual workers, people in low socioeconomic groups – can get back to work and not lose income.



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What are the risks? How do we manage them?

Yes, we need to manage the risk of more infections at work. But we are far from having a zero background risk as it is.

The virus is already in many workplaces. And only a fraction of infections are in people who would meet the close household contact definition; they could have picked up the virus at the pub or from social connections.

We also know from past experience, people often wait two to three days after developing symptoms to get tested, and wait even longer to get a result. So by the time they know their status, they may have had the infection for a week or more, with their housemates likely already infected and unknowingly taking the virus to work.

The latest changes also rely on rapid antigen testing to clear people for work, which has its own risks. Rapid antigen tests for use at home can miss detecting some infections, especially early in the infection. In other words, some infectious people will test negative, risking returning to work while unknowingly capable of transmitting the virus to others.

That’s why the latest changes ask for rapid antigen testing every two days. This makes it less likely you will repeatedly miss an actual infection. Repeat testing also means you can pick up those who incubate the virus for longer before becoming infectious.

There’s some evidence the reliability of rapid antigen tests might increase later in the traditional isolation period, which is more likely to overlap with the period when a contact knows they have to quarantine, or test for work if asymptomatic.

Workplaces and workers still need to minimise the risk of onward transmission for this identified at-risk groups of workers. For instance, there will be different rules for wearing personal protective equipment, and returning workers will still be allowed breaks, but they won’t be allowed to sit with other people.

Staff will still need to wear masks at work and socially distance while taking a coffee break.
Shutterstock

After all, it’s in industry’s best interests to manage this well to keep enough employees healthy and at work.

So what we have with these latest changes is a marginal increase in risk that relies on testing, monitoring symptoms and safe work practices.



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What needs to happen next?

I’d like to see a few more measures in place to monitor these changes. These will tell us if we need to dial up or dial down public health measures for this current wave, and for future variants.

Infection numbers should be monitored by occupation to look for signs of a spike in particular occupational groups. Case counts are not the best measure as testing patterns change across the community and over time, but it would still allow detection of large shifts in infection patterns, especially in the critical settings that now require testing.

After the peak of the current wave is over, we should sample staff in key industries to see how many are infected and monitor this over time (known as surveillance). Ideally we look at infection rates before and after public health measures change to measure impact. This then allows us to design and manage quarantine and testing rules with greater precision going ahead.

We could target high-risk workplaces such as meatworks. These could be the canary in the mine. If case rates are OK there, they’re likely OK everywhere.



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We also need to change the way we test

A move away from relying on PCR testing towards surveillance testing is what we should be moving to more broadly as Australia learns to live with the virus. It’s an approach South Africa is taking.

If surveillance isn’t suggesting numbers are going up, and there is no change to hospital patterns, then it’s business as usual. So rather than slamming on the breaks with the types of hard public health measures we’ve seen in the past, we tap the breaks lightly, or merely decelerate. We do this when we see a shift in infection patterns or new variants – minimal settings with the greatest disease control potential.

It’s not about widespread lockdowns any more, but we do have to be careful to avoid the shadow lockdowns we’re seeing now. We also need to invest in the evaluations we need to more precisely manage the risk of transmission in workplace and education settings in future.



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Catherine Bennett receives funding from National Health and Medical Research Council, the Medical Research Future Fund and VicHealth. Catherine was also appointed expert advisor on the AstraZeneca COVID-19 Vaccine Advisory Group, and is on the COVID-19 Advisory Board of ResApp Health.

This WA town just topped 50℃ – a dangerous temperature many Australians will have to get used to

Originally published on theconversation.com
shutterstock Shutterstock

While Australians are used to summer heat, most of us only have to endure the occasional day over 40℃.

Yesterday though, the temperature peaked at 50.7℃ in Onslow, a small Western Australian town around 100km from Exmouth.

Remarkably, the town sits right next to the ocean, which usually provides cooling. By contrast, the infamously hot WA town of Marble Bar has only reached 49.6℃ this summer, despite its inland location.

If confirmed, the Onslow temperature would equal Australia’s hottest on record set in Oodnadatta, South Australia, in January 1960. It would also mark only the fourth day over 50℃ for an Australian location since reliable observations began.

Unfortunately, this extreme heat is becoming more common as the world heats up. The number of days over 50℃ has doubled since the 1980s. These dangerous temperatures are now being recorded more often – not just in Australia but in cities in Pakistan, India and the Persian Gulf. This poses real threats to the health of people enduring them.

Where did the heat come from?

Hitting such extreme temperatures requires heat to build up over several days.

Onslow’s temperatures had been close to average since a couple of heatwaves struck the Pilbara in the second half of December. So where did this unusual heat come from?

This weather chart from 13th January 2022 illustrates the conditions just half an hour before the record-equalling 50.7℃ was recorded. The blue dashed line marks the trough which meets the coast close to Onslow and helped bring in the hot air.
Bureau of Meteorology

In short, from the bakingly hot desert. South to south-easterly winds blew very hot air from the interior of the state up to Onslow. The wind came from an area that has had little to no rainfall since November, so the very hot air was also extremely dry.

Dry air kept the sun beating at full intensity by preventing any cloud cover or storm formation. The result? The temperature rose and rose through the morning and early afternoon, and the temperature spiked at over 50℃ just before 2.30pm local time.

Aren’t we in a cooler La Niña period?

Australia’s weather is strongly linked to conditions in the Pacific Ocean. At the moment we’re in a La Niña event where we have cooler than normal ocean temperatures near the equator in the central and east Pacific.

La Niña is typically associated with cooler, wetter conditions. But its effects on Australian weather are strongest in spring, when we had unusually wet and cool conditions over the east of the continent.

During summer the relationship between La Niña and Australian weather usually weakens, with its strongest impacts normally confined to the northeast of the continent.

During La Niña we typically see fewer and less intense heatwaves across much of eastern Australia, but the intensity of heat extremes in Western Australia is not very different between La Niña and El Niño.

The pattern of extreme heat in Western Australia and flooding in parts of Queensland is fairly typical of a La Niña summer, although temperatures over 50℃ are extremely rare.

Recent flooding in Queensland is also typical of La Nina summers.
RAPID RELIEF TEAM

Climate change is cranking up the heat

Should these temperatures be a surprise? Sadly, no. Australia has warmed by around 1.4℃ since 1910, well ahead of the global average of 1.1℃.

In northern Australia, summer-average temperatures have not risen as much as other parts of the country, because summers in the Top End have also got wetter. That’s in line with climate change models.

When the conditions are right in the Pilbara, however, heat is significantly more extreme than it used to be. Heat events in the region have become more frequent, more intense, and longer-lasting, just as in most other regions.

Most of us have chosen not to live in Australia’s hottest areas. So you might think you don’t need to worry about 50℃ heatwaves. But as the climate continues to warm, heatwave conditions are expected to become much more common and extreme across the continent.

In urban areas, roads and concrete soak up the sun’s heat, raising maximum temperatures by several degrees and making for dangerous conditions.

Even if we keep global warming below 2℃ in line with the Paris Agreement, we can still expect to see our first 50℃ days in Sydney and Melbourne in coming years. In January 2020 the Western Sydney suburb of Penrith came very close, reaching 48.9℃.

Sydney and Melbourne will experience 50℃ days in coming years.
Joe Castro/AAP

As you know, it’s going to be very hard to achieve even keeping global warming below 2℃, given the need to urgently slash greenhouse gas emissions in the next decade.

As it stands, the world’s actions on emission reduction suggest we are actually on track for around 2.7℃ of warming, which would see devastating consequences for life on Earth.

We already know what we need to do to prevent this frightening future. The stronger the action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally – including by major carbon emitting countries such as Australia – the less the world will warm and the less Australian heat extremes will intensify. That’s because the relationships between greenhouse gas emissions, global temperatures and Australian heat extremes are roughly linear.

You may think Australians are good at surviving the heat. But the climate you were born in doesn’t exist any more. Sadly, our farms, wildlife, and suburbs will struggle to cope with the extreme heat projected for coming decades.

Let’s work to make this 50℃ record an outlier – and not the new normal.

Andrew King receives funding from the Australian Research Council and the National Environmental Science Program.

When will this COVID wave be over? 4 numbers to keep an eye on and why

Originally published on theconversation.com

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Before Australia’s recent changes to COVID testing, working out when we reached the peak of cases was, in principal, straightforward.

We looked at the numbers of new daily cases, diagnosed via PCR. From there, we worked out a range of other key indicators related to COVID spread, testing and hospitalisation – each dependent on those daily case numbers.

However, we’ve seen a huge spike in cases recently as people test positive using rapid antigen tests, especially as reporting their results to state health authorities is now possible and becoming mandatory.

So it will be a few days before we can measure some key numbers with any degree of accuracy. Only then will be able to say with confidence when we’ve hit the peak and are coming down the other side.

1. The number of new daily cases

Most people by now would have seen an epidemic curve. It is a plot of the number of new cases of COVID-19 diagnosed each day. Here is the current epidemic curve for New South Wales.

Epidemic curve for NSW. Note the erratic case numbers in recent days.
Author provided/Adrian Esterman

As for the date, states and territories use different cut-off times for defining a 24-hour period. As authorities undertake investigations, the date of some cases can change. So, do we plot the daily announced case numbers, or the “true” case number after modifications?

That sounds complicated, but even more complicated is trying to define a case.

Before rapid antigen tests became available to the public for use at home, cases were diagnosed from positive PCR tests.

Then, because of huge queues at PCR testing hubs and many people, even those with symptoms, giving up and not getting tested, our testing system changed.

National Cabinet agreed to remove the requirement for a PCR test to confirm a positive rapid antigen test result.

As most states and territories move towards reporting both positive PCR tests and positive rapid antigen tests, we still need to iron out the bumps in the data. Potentially, someone could get both tests and be included twice!

The uncertainty in case numbers also affects other key parameters we use to monitor the current wave.

2. The Reff

The effective reproduction number (Reff) is a measure of how many other people on average each case infects. We want that to get below 1 to stop an outbreak. At its most simple, the Reff is today’s case number, divided by the case number four days ago.

Since we currently have so many problems defining and counting case numbers, it will be a few days before we can consistently interpret the Reff for each state and territory again.



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3. Percentage of positive tests

This is the percentage of positive tests out of all COVID-19 tests taken. It is an important measure as it gives an indication of the amount of undiagnosed cases in the community.

The World Health Organization suggests if it is under 5%, things are under control.

When diagnosis was only by PCR test, we had good data on both the number of tests, and the number that were positive.

Now, states and territories are moving to reporting rapid antigen test results, it’s not so straightforward.

Some jurisdictions like Queensland only ask you to report a positive result. This means we no longer know how many tests were taken. SA Health is encouraging people to report negative tests as well, which is a much better system.

4. Number hospitalised

As Australia opens up, we’ve been told to pay more attention to COVID-19 hospitalisations, rather than just the case numbers. But even that gets complicated.

Clearly if someone tests positive for COVID-19 and then gets admitted to hospital, they are an admitted case. But what if they are admitted as a probable case?

And should hospitalisation numbers include people being managed in a hospital-in-the-home type arrangement? After all, they still take up hospital resources.

Finally, what if they were admitted for something else but subsequently diagnosed with COVID-19 in hospital?

Even more difficult is attempting to calculate the rate of COVID-19 hospitalisation. This is the number of people in hospital with COVID-19 divided by the number of people diagnosed. But you have to decide which time periods you’re talking about, another debate entirely.

There are similar issues with measuring the number and rates of people in intensive care.



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How do these changes impact modelling?

NSW Health recently released modelling to look at what’s ahead.

With current restrictions in place in NSW, the modelling shows a peak of 4,700 hospitalisations, with 273 in intensive care over mid- to late January.

It is unclear whether changes to testing rules have been factored into the modelling. However, it’s understood, even if the detection rate changes significantly, it doesn’t affect any projection of when the peak will be reached that much.

Modelling is therefore still likely to be reasonably accurate despite the changes to COVID testing. This is good news for other states and territories that rely on modelling results for planning.



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Where to from here?

A good start would be to have mandatory reporting of rapid antigen test results, both positive and negative. That way we can calculate the percentage of positive tests again.

The United Kingdom has a good system. After you take a rapid antigen test there, you scan a QR code on the pack and report the test results as positive, negative or void to a central government database.

Importantly, let’s have one national body responsible for defining, collecting and reporting COVID-19 statistics. It could be the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Better still would be to have our own Centre for Disease Control, which people like myself have been calling for for a long time.

Chris Billington, from the University of Melbourne, contributed to the section on modelling.

Adrian Esterman does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Grattan on Friday: Government management of Omicron blighted by false assumptions, bad planning

Originally published on theconversation.com

Australia’s journey through Omicron is like the bus tour from hell. Steering awry, seat belts forgotten or not working, and the driver’s patter wearing thin with stressed passengers.

Eventually we’ll see the back of the boggy ground on this outback track. But in worse shape and at higher cost than the Morrison government was suggesting only weeks ago.

“Omicron is a gear change and we have to push through,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Monday. “You have two choices here: you can push through or you can lock down. We’re for pushing through.”

Surveying the present shambles, you’d have to conclude the gearbox is shot.

Morrison’s “either-or” dichotomy is simplistic and misleading, trying to disguise the failure to have been better prepared with a more nuanced response.

It wasn’t “either-or”. It was about managing to best effect a transition that must be made to the so-called “living with COVID” new world. The challenge was to find the right settings on a spectrum of choices.

So what went wrong? Almost everything, it seems. Federal and state governments share blame, but as PM, Morrison has to shoulder prime responsibility.

After being able to pride itself on (with some notable exceptions) coping with COVID well in the pandemic’s earlier stages, Australia has suddenly jumped from having minimal rates to widespread infection in the community (excluding Western Australia).

Obviously this Omicron journey was going to be rough. But surely it did not have to be as bad as we’re experiencing on multiple fronts.

Earlier lessons weren’t properly learned. Planning has been woeful. The relationship between health and the economy was misread.

Morrison’s much vaunted “national plan” of last year (admittedly formulated when we were in the Delta stage) put near total faith in vaccination. Vaccination has been transformational, reducing the severity of illness and saving lives. But it doesn’t stop the transmission of the highly-infectious Omicron, which can still hobble the country.

As Christmas approached, and on the back of a good economic bounce-back from the lockdowns, the federal government wanted people spending as much as possible of their stored-up savings as a further stimulus.

In the biggest state, new NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet was particularly gung ho about achieving maximum freedom as quickly as possible.

But soon the catch-22 emerged. If Omicron is ripping through, people might not be locked down but many will choose or be forced to behave as though they are – doing less, tightening their purse strings.

The lack of preparation has been even more stunning than the miscalculation.

The future need for rapid antigen tests (RATs) was anticipated months ago. Yet we’ve been hit with an acute shortage, just as delays lengthened in getting results from PCR tests.

After the vaccination stuff-ups, you’d have thought federal and state governments would have pulled out all stops to get enough RATs. But no.

Without denying the importance of RAT results being collected, there was some irony in NSW this week rushing to announce fines for people who fail to record these – when they can’t readily secure the tests. Now the NSW government concedes its policy won’t be enforceable – the policy was “a line-ball call”, said one NSW minister.

It’s great that younger children are currently getting vaccinated. But who thought this would not put immense pressure on already overloaded GPs, with many parents preferring to take their kids to a doctor than elsewhere?

That job won’t be finished by the end of the holidays. But Morrison is desperate for children to be in school. Treasury told Thursday’s national cabinet “current arrangements could see 10% of Australia’s workforce, including many workers in critical supply sectors, withdrawn from the workforce”. If schools didn’t open that could add another 5%. Queensland and South Australia have already put back their school start dates.

Morrison late last year argued that with a very high vaccination rate we shouldn’t concentrate on case numbers but on hospitalisations rates, much lower than in earlier waves.

But with skyrocketing infections, the absolute numbers in hospital are going to weigh down the system, as well as pushing aside other care, notably elective surgery.

This is happening while the wildfire infection takes out large numbers of health care workers, directly through illness or indirectly through furlough.

When the PM last week said he would “strongly encourage” people with COVID to contact their GP, doctors’ phones ran hot. The medicos weren’t impressed with the prime ministerial referral system.

The narrative that most people wouldn’t be very ill so the health system and the economy should be fine was always problematic.

It didn’t take enough account of how everything connects to everything else in this pandemic, and how the interconnections are multiplied a hundred fold when the numbers become so high. In just one example, lack of RATs weaken supply chains.

COVID is hitting these chains in a way inconceivable in 2020. Morrison this week personally led talks on the supply aspect of the crisis.

At the start of the pandemic, Australian governments prided themselves on following the health advice. Now the health considerations are following the economic and political ones.

Isolation rules and close contact definitions are being continually changed to keep the wheels turning – whether they are the wheels of the health system (trying to keep enough workers on the job) or those of the transports taking goods to the supermarkets.

But the more you dilute these rules – even for very good reasons – the more infections can be expected to increase, leading to fresh problems and constraints.

Morrison acknowledged on Thursday, after the latest alterations: “The less restrictions you put on people to get them at work, the more pressure that can potentially put on your hospital system. And vice-versa.

“The more you try to protect your hospital system, the more people you’re taking out of work, which disrupts supply chains. So this is a very delicate balance that needs to be constantly recalibrated.”

The Omicron wave is expected to “peak” within weeks. But how much planning is underway for variants that might follow?

Assuming there is not some new variant soon, the government is banking on things then calming down before the election.

Work is underway on the late-March budget with its election sweeteners, although Treasurer Josh Frydenberg presumably has been a little slowed this week by experiencing a bout of COVID himself.

Morrison is hoping that in a May election he can escape or minimise the blame for the gross mismanagement of the Omicron wave. But “long COVID” is a nasty illness for those who get it, and it could have a harsh political variant.

Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.