Whakaari tragedy: court case highlights just how complex it is to forecast a volcanic eruption

Originally published on theconversation.com

Phil Walter/Getty Images

While today’s pre-trial hearing over the Whakaari White Island tragedy revealed most of the 13 parties charged have yet to enter pleas, there is no disputing the basic facts.

The December 9 2019 eruption struck when 47 people were on the small island; 22 people died and survivors were left with severe or critical injuries.

But what will really be on trial when proceedings resume, most likely in September? Ultimately, it comes down to how the individuals present on the day perceived the natural hazard and risk, and especially its uncertainty.

This understanding rests on processes we have in place to communicate and manage risk for workers and tourists exposed to unpredictable natural environments. It is really these processes that should be on trial.

Scientists are at the frontline of understanding volcanic nature. They use physical, chemical and geological methods to delve into volcanic systems.

This knowledge is the first step in a long chain: feeding models of volcanic processes, which are used to produce hazard forecasts that, finally, are converted to hazard maps and public warnings. But each step has its uncertainties, and no scientist is certain of the future — only the odds.

Read more:
Scientists should welcome charges against agency over Whakaari/White Island — if it helps improve early warning systems

Monitoring volcanic hazard

To monitor a volcano like Whakaari, we cannot look directly below the eruption vent. Instead, we interpret internal processes indirectly, using seismic sensors, gas output, heat flow and satellite measurements — and then work out what the data mean. There isn’t always a straight answer.

For instance, if gas and heat output drop, it might mean the system is cooling or magma has waned. Or, it could be that a clay or liquid sulphur seal has formed, trapping gas and heat. The difference in risk and consequence is obviously huge.

Whakaari White Island has a network of instruments that measure seismic waves.
Phil Walter/Getty Images

We rely heavily on seismic data (ground vibrations mostly too small for people to feel) collected by GeoNet in real time. But the volcanic system is “noisy” thanks to ocean waves, wind or rain. Some seismic signals are distinct, such as the cracking of rock when magma rises, others are diffuse, such as fluids moving through voids.

Read more:
New Zealand’s White Island is likely to erupt violently again, but a new alert system could give hours of warning and save lives

We are constantly learning about new features of Whakaari’s volcanic system. The vent area changes after each eruption and is affected by deep and shallow processes, such as magma intrusion, a lake over the crater or landslide debris.

Magma rises in unusual ways, sometimes abruptly, but mainly slowly at Whakaari. It often just stalls well below the crater, slowly crystallising and degassing in place.

Communicating monitoring information to forecast hazard and risk requires a degree of simplification. It is generally impossible to say in black and white whether people should go onto a volcano. Thresholds of acceptable risk need to be set, often with little quantitative guidance in terms of the probability of an eruption.

What went wrong at Whakaari

For those guides traversing the volcano every day, familiarity breeds a false impression of safety. Even with a full understanding of risks, after the novelty of the first few visits, fear dissipates and familiarity leads to an expectation that it will always be safe.

But risk is cumulative with exposure time. Feeling safer over time is the opposite of reality. How much of a factor was overconfidence of tourism operators who had visited Whakaari for decades without major incident?

People gathering for a memorial service one year after the eruption of Whakaari White Island.
Phil Walter/Getty Images

Different people are involved in decision making in tourism activities, and they perceive hazard differently. For a visitor present for two hours, the risk is much lower due to their brief exposure, but how can the magnitude of risk be expressed to short-term visitors adequately?

Say there is a 0.1% chance of an eruption today: would you visit the volcano and take the 1 in 1,000 risk? But visit every day over a year, and that grows to a 1 in 3 chance.

A better approach is to distinguish days when it is safe (say, 1 in 10,000 risk) from those that are marked as “eruption possible” (1 in 50). These assessments are possible now, although they are plagued by data uncertainties, human biases and methodological arguments.

One focus during the trial will be risk messaging. Two weeks before the eruption, the Volcanic Alert Level was changed to 2 (level 3 means an eruption is occurring). The last communication before the event had contrasting messages:

The monitoring observations bear some similarities with those seen during the 2011-2016 period when Whakaari/White Island was more active and stronger volcanic activity occurred.


While the [fountaining] activity is contained to the far side of the lake, the current level of activity does not pose a direct hazard to visitors.

This shows how difficult it is to address uncertainty in observation through to forecasting. With 20/20 hindsight it is easy to judge the outcome, even if it is grossly unfair to those doing their best at the time to provide expert judgement and balance.

An added factor is that Whakaari is privately owned and sits in an unusual administrative “grey” zone. It was unclear who would have a mandate to “close” the island. While GNS Science provided warning information, it had no jurisdiction or control.

Contrast that with the Department of Conservation, which was quick to restrict access at Mt Ruapehu at the end of last year when GNS Science raised its alert level to 2.

This brings into question the role of the National Emergency Management Authority (NEMA), local authorities and indeed the owners of the island.

One of the most important considerations we must take forward from the tragedy is the cumulative nature of volcanic risk. The length of exposure time is critical. In basic risk calculations, using conservative figures and OECD accepted life-safety models, repeated visits to Whakaari by tour guides place them near unacceptable limits.

To get better at forecasting different levels of eruption risk requires advances in our basic science, as well as automated systems that can dispassionately judge risk and raise concerns. It also requires a more rigorous regime that ties warning systems to restrictions in access.

Even with this, the compounding uncertainties of how we measure and interpret this natural system mean it will never be completely safe.

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Lockdowns don’t get easier the more we have them. Melbourne, here are 6 tips to help you cope

Originally published on theconversation.com


As Melbourne prepares to begin a second week of lockdown, it’s important to recognise the serious toll this is likely to take on many people’s mental health.

Research during earlier COVID lockdowns in Australia found lockdowns were associated with poorer mental health, such as symptoms of depression and anxiety, among young people and adults.

A variety of factors play into this — from financial stress, to concerns about contracting COVID-19, to disruptions to work or study, to separation from friends and family.

For Melburnians, this latest lockdown will come as an especially upsetting setback. Victoria faced the longest lockdown in the country last year, and in recent months there’s been largely no COVID in the community.

If you’re a Melburnian and you’re feeling more stressed, uncertain, anxious, lonely or burnt out, or are worrying more about COVID-19, these reactions are completely normal.

But there are a variety of ways you can look after your mental health during this time, which will hopefully make it a little easier.

1. Stay connected with others

Lockdown can be extremely lonely, especially for people who are separated from loved ones, or living alone. Fortunately, the “single social bubble” is again in place, where people who live alone or single parents can nominate one person who is able to visit their home.

Keeping in touch with others — via phone, text, social media, or in other ways — can help avoid isolation and depression. Plan these catch ups so they are in your diary.

2. Think about what’s in your control, and what’s not

When facing the prospect of more uncertainty, disruption, and plans turned upside down, it can seem futile to have any expectations at all. You may be left feeling helpless.

Take the time to acknowledge this, but focus on things you can still do, and that you enjoy, or the small things you can do each day to make the day better. For example, doing a hobby you enjoy, exercising, relaxing, listening to music, or watching TV.

Focusing on the smallest of positives, the silver linings, or the things you are grateful for, can help improve mood.

It also helps to recalibrate your expectations so you’re not holding yourself or other people to unrealistic standards (which can cause more distress). Try asking yourself what you’re expecting of yourself or someone else and whether that’s realistic right now. Maybe good enough is good enough, just for one more week.

Read more:
More screen time, snacking and chores: a snapshot of how everyday life changed during the first coronavirus lockdown

3. Look after your body

Getting a good night’s sleep, doing some physical activity, and eating healthily can help give you more energy, motivation, and help manage the emotional fallout of the extended lockdown. Limiting alcohol and drugs is also key.

Looking after your physical health can be helpful for your mental health.
Jonathan Borba/Unsplash

4. Manage anger and frustration

Repeated lockdowns are likely to evoke feelings of frustration and resentment. We might vent our anger in ways we wouldn’t normally, that make us feel ashamed or hurt our relationships.

If you feel an outburst bubbling up, step out of the room or away from your phone. Spend ten minutes writing down what you’re feeling and who is to blame. This is just for you, so don’t censor yourself. Once you have your thoughts down on paper, you’ll likely be calmer and clearer.

Then, ask yourself what more you need to know about the situation and the people in it before yelling or pointing fingers. Try asking questions rather than hurling accusations. A bit more information or another person’s perspective can soothe anger and help us understand each other better.

Read more:
Are the kids alright? Social isolation can take a toll, but play can help

5. Set boundaries around your work

For those who work, be mindful of the hours you’re working and the amount of time you’re “switched on” — for example looking at emails — even after you’ve clocked off.

Working from home blurs the boundaries between home and work life, and increases the tendency to work harder, for longer. Being mindful of this, ensuring you’re taking breaks, and switching off at night can help reduce exhaustion and burnout.

If you feel like your colleagues or boss are expecting things you can’t deliver at the moment, consider talking to them and coming up with a plan for the remainder of lockdown.

Feeling stressed, uncertain or anxious is normal.

6. Seek support

When you’re not feeling like yourself, or you’re exhausted or burnt out, it can be hard to tell the difference between what’s a “normal reaction”, versus when it’s a problem that needs professional help.

If you’re feeling like you may not be coping, talk to a GP you trust, call a telephone counselling service, or contact a mental health professional. They can help assess whether you might benefit from additional support or treatment.

Read more:
We can’t ignore mental illness prevention in a COVID-19 world

While public health measures to protect us from COVID-19 are important, this pandemic has shown us mental health care should be top of the agenda too.

Building positive coping strategies now can help set you up for positive mental health long term.

If this article has raised issues for you, or if you’re concerned about someone you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636.

Jill Newby receives funding from the Australian Medical Research Future Fund, and the HCF Research Foundation.

Peter Baldwin 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.

Curious Kids: if trees are cut down in the city, where will possums live?

Originally published on theconversation.com


If trees are cut down in the city, where will possums live? – Millie, age 9, Sydney.

Hi Millie.

Thanks for your question. I worry about this too.

Trees are really important to possums in the city. Like lots of Australian animals, possums depend on hollows — a hole that forms in trees as they get older. Because possums are nocturnal (meaning they only come out at night), they need somewhere safe to curl up and sleep during the day. A nice cosy tree hollow is the perfect place.

Tree hollows are special because they take a long time to make. They usually happen when a tree gets injured and the place where it broke starts to rot away, eventually forming a hole. Most types of gum tree don’t even start making hollows until they’re more than 100 years old. Usually, the bigger the tree, the more hollows you’re likely to find.

Out in the bush, a possum might have lots of different trees and hollows to choose from. Some kinds of possum might have 12 different hollows – 12 bedrooms! Can you imagine?

But in the city, we don’t have as many big trees with hollows, so possums can’t be as picky about their bedrooms. And when a big old tree dies or is cut down, even if we plant a new one we might have to wait hundreds of years before it provides a good possum house. This means the possums have to look for somewhere else to live.

People often find possums sleeping in their roof.

Read more:
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Other possum places in the city

Now, there are a few other places that possums might find in the city.

They want somewhere dark, dry and warm, and they don’t mind if they’re not supposed to be there.

That’s why people often find possums sleeping in their roof, in old pots in the garden, or even inside a barbecue!

Tiny possums can squeeze into even smaller places. Sugar gliders are sometimes found in electricity boxes, and feathertail gliders might nest in a drainpipe.

It’s amazing how resourceful animals can be! But these aren’t very safe places for possums to make a home. So there are two things we can do to help.

Tiny possums can squeeze into even smaller places. Sugar gliders are sometimes found in electricity boxes.

1. Protect our city’s big trees

There aren’t many left, so every single tree is important. And it’s not just gum trees — lots of types of trees make hollows or provide food for native animals. Even dead trees!

Great big trees can get dangerous as they get older because if they drop branches or fall over they could hurt someone. Sometimes tree experts can use cables to keep the trees upright and safe, or only cut down the dangerous branches.

Or sometimes we can fence the area so that people don’t walk underneath. If a tree does have to be cut down, scientists came up with an idea to move the whole tree to a new spot — like a tree transplant! The tree can’t grow anymore, but it still has all the hollows possums and other animals need to make their homes.

2. Build new possum homes

There are lots of different ways to build new hollows for wildlife. Nest boxes (sometimes known as dreys) might be made out of wood, or old hollow logs, or even pot plant liners.

Sometimes local councils will use a chainsaw to carve holes into trees to make new homes for wildlife.

And other scientists are using 3D printers to make hollows that mimic the same shapes as real hollows (but we need to make sure the designs are safe).

City trees are so important. They help keep us cool in summer, make the air nice and fresh, and they’re nice to look at. Some of them have been here longer than the buildings.

So protecting trees in the city isn’t just good for possums. It’s good for humans, too.

Read more:
Curious Kids: why does the sun’s bright light make me sneeze?

Hello, Curious Kids! Have you got a question you’d like an expert to answer? Ask an adult to send your question to curiouskids@theconversation.edu.au

Kylie Soanes has previously received funding from the Clean Air and Urban Landscapes Hub and the Threatened Species Recovery Hub of the Australian Government’s National Environmental Science Program. She provides advice to local councils and other land managers on ways to promote biodiversity in cities and towns.

Speeding drivers keep breaking the law even after fines and crashes: new research

Originally published on theconversation.com


Over 1,000 Australians died as a result of a traffic crash in the past year, with speed being a factor in around 2040% of crashes.

Historically, many of the attempts to convince drivers to obey road rules have relied on strategies that highlight the risks associated with the offence. However, findings from a Queensland-based study suggest some motorists may acknowledge the risks associated with speeding and continue to offend anyway.

Humans are well designed to recognise and respond appropriately to risk, which is largely connected to our drive to avoid pain and seek pleasure. In other words, if we know the risks and dangers associated with a behaviour, we are expected to not do it.

When it comes to speeding, campaigns typically focus on the negative consequences of doing it, ranging from receiving a ticket to the destruction and loss associated with a fatal traffic injury. It is intended that each time we view one of these campaigns, we are reminded that engaging in these dangerous driving behaviours increases our risk of a negative outcome.

But what if motorists don’t think the risks apply to them? Or what if they acknowledge the risks and continue offending anyway?

Our research explored these questions by looking at motorists’ perceptions of the risks of being involved in a crash due to speeding, and of getting a speeding ticket. We asked what they perceived was the likelihood of these events for them compared to a driver of the same age and sex.

A total of 760 Queensland motorists were involved in the research. Participants were members of the public, recruited in shopping centres, online and at a Queensland university.

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The research found speeding was common, but participants considered their risk of being involved in a crash to be lower than that of other drivers (72% of sample). Importantly, 74% considered their driving ability to be better than other drivers’.

However, a closer look at the factors related to speeding highlighted that those who reported offending more often recognised that, compared to a similar driver (of the same age and sex), they believed themselves to be more likely to be involved in a crash due to speeding, and more likely to get a speeding ticket. However, they considered their driving ability to be better than other drivers’.

Drivers who sped frequently were also more likely to report being involved in a traffic crash in the past and having lost their licence. Therefore, frequent offenders were aware of the dangers of their behaviour but continued to offend anyway.

The challenge of changing behaviour

The research findings suggest those who break the speed limit are aware of the possible risks. For some, these risks remain “hypothetical”, with drivers dismissing them with inflated perceptions of their own driving ability. For others, not even previous crash involvement (or receiving a ticket) is enough to change driving behaviours.

The findings further highlight the challenge of improving road safety, particularly in regard to influencing drivers.

From a different perspective, the perceived risks of speeding might not outweigh some of the benefits or “driving forces” that motivate speeding. Previous speeding research has found:

motorists may be more likely to speed if they have influences (such as peers or parents) that endorse and promote speeding behaviour, so the benefit of peer acceptance may outweigh the risks

some people have a greater tendency towards sensation-seeking and may seek experiences from which they derive sensation (such as dangerous driving)

many mainstream movies portray risky driving behaviours in a glamorised way, which may encourage motorists to adopt similar behaviours

some drivers simply enjoy driving fast.

Read more:
Busted: 5 myths about 30km/h speed limits in Australia

Deterring drivers who understand the risks but offend anyway

The findings remind us that biases are common and so is speeding. Both may contribute to the road toll refusing to go down. Put simply, the link between increased speed and crash outcomes is well documented, yet motorists are still willing to take the risks.

While punishing offenders remains a key ingredient, new approaches are badly needed to ensure motorists regularly recognise (and respond appropriately to) road risks. That is, the risk is real and extends beyond one’s own driving ability, as it should not be forgotten that we share the roads with many others.

While humans are considered the apex creature for learning, this capacity does not always extend to the roads. Until the autonomous self-driving machines arrive and potentially save us, we need to enhance our willingness to respond to ever-present risks in order to save ourselves and others.

Laura Mills receives funding from the Motor Accident Insurance Commission (MAIC).

James Freeman receives funding from the Motor Accident Insurance Commission (MAIC)

Verity Truelove receives funding from the Motor Accident Insurance Commission.

Why has Victoria struggled more than NSW with COVID? To a demographer, they’re not that different

Originally published on theconversation.com


There’s been much talk in recent days about the demographic and travel behaviour differences between Melbourne and Sydney and to what extent they may help explain why Victoria appears to be struggling with COVID outbreaks, while New South Wales isn’t.

Recent commentary has suggested transport, age, jobs, migrant population and other factors among the reasons that may help explain the difference.

As I outlined in a recent thread on Twitter, pure luck or random chance play a role in virus outbreaks — but you can also unpack some of these questions using publicly available statistics.

A tale of two states

When considering virus outbreaks, population characteristics and behaviours are crucial. The data doesn’t support the suggestion population and behaviour differ greatly between the states. When you look at the numbers, Victoria and NSW just aren’t all that different.

Is Victoria younger than New South Wales? No, median age and age distribution among the working age population (the most socially interactive group) aren’t all that different.

Is Victoria younger than New South Wales? No.

It’s not a huge difference.

One theory circulating is that there are a lot of migrants in Victoria and that these communities are more likely to live together, visit and support each other. Are there more migrants in Victoria versus NSW? Not really, the proportion of the population born overseas is similar in NSW to that in Victoria.

The proportion of the population born overseas is similar in NSW to that in Victoria.

What about population density, then?

Is Melbourne more densely populated than Sydney? Not overall.

It’s true the ABS said in a 2021 data release the most densely populated areas in Australia were inner-city Melbourne (22,400 people per sq km), followed by Potts Point-Woolloomooloo (16,700) and Pyrmont-Ultimo (16,500), both in inner Sydney. But, as the ABS points out:

Population density can also be explored at a finer level by breaking Australia up into 1 km² grid cells.

Grid cells can be grouped into population density classes, ranging from no population to very high.

Sydney had the largest combined area in the high and very high density classes (193 km²), followed by Melbourne (77 km²) and Brisbane (15 km²).

The word “combined” there is very important.

Do people in Melbourne use active transport (meaning public transport, biking and walking) more than those living in Sydney? No, Sydneysiders have the highest rate of active transport use in the country.

Sydneysiders have the highest rate of active transport use.

Do people in Victoria live in more crowded housing situations than in New South Wales? No, overcrowding appears to be a bigger problem in New South Wales where it is estimated there are 49,333 people living in overcrowded housing compared to 28,710 people in Victoria.

What about travel?

Do people in Victoria travel longer distances than those living in NSW? No, average commute distances are similar for Victoria and NSW.

Average commute distances are similar for Victoria and NSW.

Do people in Melbourne travel around more than those in Sydney? No, the data doesn’t support that based on travel to work information.

In short, it would appear Victoria and NSW have more in common, demographically, than many think.

Liz Allen 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.

Indonesia may be on the cusp of a major COVID spike. Unlike its neighbours, though, there is no lockdown yet

Originally published on theconversation.com

No one really knows true state of the COVID-19 pandemic in Indonesia, and that means it is unpredictable. But there are good reasons to worry about what will happen next.

Fifteen months after Indonesia reported its first case of COVID-19, testing for the coronavirus remains among the lowest in Asia. Perhaps because it is not free, testing has reached only around 40 per 1,000 people, compared with 115 in the Philippines, 373 in Malaysia, and more than 2,000 in Singapore.

Testing is better even in Myanmar, where a military coup has triggered daily protests and an increasingly fraught security situation.

And Indonesia’s test results are not reliable. The country is still excessively reliant on rapid antigen tests, which are less accurate than PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests.

Read more:
Indonesian-made COVID-19 breathalyser sensitivity comparable to RT-PCR

Indonesia’s official death reports are questionable too. LaporCovid-19, an independent website established to provide accurate information about the pandemic, noted a discrepancy between the 48,477 COVID-related deaths reported by the government in May and its own total of 50,729. It reached its tally by simply adding the death tolls of each province – and that was with out-of-date data from six provinces and none from Papua.

In fact, researchers and journalists have long pointed to significant “excess deaths” as evidence of significant under-reporting of COVID fatalities in Indonesia.

Excess deaths refer to the number of deaths occurring beyond what would be expected in a normal year. One study found a 61% increase in excess deaths in Indonesia in 2020 compared with the previous five years, which was not reflected in the official data.

Indonesia’s COVID deaths surged in late January, but may be on the rise again.
Achmad Ibrahim/AP

Concerns of a super-spreader event

But even on the clearly inadequate official data available, COVID case numbers are now on the rise. Indonesia reported 2,385 new cases on May 15. Two weeks later, daily cases had more than doubled to 6,565.

If numbers keep growing at this rate, Indonesia’s health system will not be able to cope. When daily cases peaked earlier this year at 10,000-14,000 new cases per day (officially), Jakarta’s hospitals were overwhelmed and COVID patients were turned away.

And there is a real possibility the numbers will get this high again — maybe even worse.

Countries in the region that had managed the pandemic well through 2020, such as Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia are now experiencing deadly third and fourth waves. In early May, Indonesian authorities also reported cases of the UK variant (B.1.1.7), South African variant (B.1.351) and Indian variant (B.1.617.2), which are more contagious than the original strain.

Read more:
COVID is forcing millions of girls out of school in South-east Asia and the Pacific

To make matters worse, Indonesia just experienced a national super-spreader event: Eid al-Fitr, the most important Islamic holiday.

Traditionally, millions of Muslims return to their home villages to see family and friends during this time — a mass event known as mudik. Fearing a repeat of last year, when daily cases shot up by 93% after mudik, the government banned travel this year — the second time it has tried to halt mudik.

But, as is so often the case in Indonesia, enforcement was badly lacking, and mudik rolled on, even if numbers were down. WhatsApp groups were ablaze with ways to avoid police checkpoints.

Over the past fortnight, Indonesians have been gradually returning to the cities, fuelling concerns of a major outbreak.

This is happening in next-door Malaysia, where the government has announced a post-Eid total lockdown of the entire country as consecutive days of record infections catapulted its total caseload above 550,000.

In Vietnam, as well, the government has just imposed a two-week lockdown on the largest city, Ho Chi Minh City, with plans to test all 9 million residents.

But in Indonesia, with more than eight times the population of Malaysia and a far weaker health care system, it is business as usual, or what the government calls the “new normal”.

The government recently expanded its social restrictions nationwide through June 14, requiring schools to shut, shops and restaurants to close by a certain time each night, and limits on employees allowed in offices. However, a more robust lockdown still appears only a remote possibility.

Read more:
Why a ‘new normal’ might fail in Indonesia and how to fix it

Vaccine rollout offers some hope

Indonesia’s vaccine rollout may offer a slim ray of hope. More than 27 million vaccine doses have now been delivered and nearly 4% of Indonesia’s population (10 million of 270 million) has been fully vaccinated, compared with 3.6% in Malaysia, 2.7% in Japan and a woeful 2% in Australia.

Indonesia’s vaccine program began in January with a combination of AstraZeneca, procured through the World Health Organization’s COVAX scheme, and the Chinese-made Sinovac vaccines. But AstraZeneca shortages exacerbated by the recent COVID surge in India have led to greater reliance on China.

In April, the Indonesian government approved Sinopharm for emergency use, and supplies of the China’s CanSino and the Russian Sputnik V vaccines are on the way.

There are concerns about the efficacy of these vaccines, but most Indonesians would agree they are better than nothing.

A two-track vaccination system has now been developed. The government is offering Sinovac or AstraZeneca vaccines free to health workers, senior citizens and public servants, and for a fee to anyone else.

At the same time, a program self-funded by companies is offering their employees Sinopharm vaccines supplied by the government.

This two-pronged approach will help increase vaccination numbers, but only a little. The corporate program is costly, and most medium-to-small enterprises — which represent 99% of businesses in Indonesia — simply can’t afford it.

And the young, poor and unemployed — a fast-growing group as the economy continues to slide – have little hope of getting a jab.

Scandals and data leaks

Price-gouging, corruption and other crimes are only make things worse. Several civil servants were arrested last month, for example, for allegedly stealing Sinovac vaccines intended for a prison, to sell to the public.

Worse still, former social affairs minister Juliari Batubara stands accused of taking 17 billion rupiah (A$1.5 million) in bribes related to the distribution of COVID-19 aid for the poor.

Read more:
Indonesia’s coronavirus fatalities are the highest in Southeast Asia. So, why is Jokowi rushing to get back to business?

And, most recently, the social security data of 279 million Indonesians — both alive and dead — is believed to have been leaked and sold on the dark web.

Pandemic fatigue has well and truly set in, and these high-profile scandals threaten to further deepen distrust between Indonesians and the government. The country will not fare well if predictions of an even bigger outbreak fuelled by new variants of the virus come true.

If this happens, the government will may well find itself facing a looming health catastrophe, rising social unrest and perhaps serious political tensions, too.

Tim Lindsey has received funding from Australian Research Council

Max Walden is a PhD Candidate under the Australian Research Council-funded project “Indonesia’s refugee policies: responsibility, security and regionalism”.

Guide to the Classics: Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, a tragicomedy for our times

Originally published on theconversation.com

Vladimir: Well? Shall we go?

Estragon: Yes, let’s go.

[They do not move.]

Samuel Beckett originally subtitled his 1953 play Waiting for Godot “a tragicomedy in two acts”. Vivian Mercier, the critic for the Irish Times, dubbed it “a play in which nothing happens, twice.”

Two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, wait on the side of a country road. Each act begins with the pair reunited after spending the night apart. As they await their enigmatic patron, Godot, Estragon laments being beaten by nameless figures during the night, and Vladimir seeks to pass the time by stirring his companion into repartee.

These two are ill-starred but well-suited: Estragon’s feet are in constant pain, and Vladimir’s unspecified affliction induces frequent and painful urination. Estragon’s shoes stink, while Vladimir adheres to a diet of garlic to ease the symptoms of his condition. Vladimir remembers, and Estragon forgets.

Memory stretches into the deep past. The present sits on the cusp of a hopeful future. Time’s recurrence is marked by the moon and the sun. The endless wait for a rendezvous … for what, exactly?

To receive instructions? To be delivered from this tormented life? To relieve the tramps of their little canters, their bombastic declarations, their pleas? To relieve the steadfast audience?

From its first performances in the 1950s, Waiting for Godot enjoyed a positive critical reception. Yet its earliest audiences thought otherwise, ensuring the interval was the most popular part of the play by voting with their feet. Over time, though, Godot would become a celebrated avant-garde play, and a popular cultural reference for fruitless waiting.

This waiting is eerily prescient in a time of pandemic.

From Dublin to Paris

Samuel Beckett photographed in 1977.
Wikimedia Commons

Samuel Beckett was born in Dublin in 1906. As a child he boarded at the Portora Royal School in Enniskillen (Oscar Wilde’s alma mater), before a degree in Modern Languages and Literature at Trinity College Dublin.

His enduring relation with Paris began soon after. During his two-year position as lecteur d’anglais at the Ecole Normale Superiéure (1928-29) Beckett met and became close with James Joyce, who introduced him to the Parisian literary and artistic avant-garde.

Beckett spent two years in London (1933-35) undergoing a course of psychoanalysis under Walter Bion at the Tavistock Clinic, during which he wrote his first published novel, Murphy (1938). Following travels in Germany and Italy, Beckett settled in Paris in 1938, as war looked increasingly likely.

Beckett joined the French Resistance but his cell was infiltrated and he was forced to flee to Roussillon for the duration of the war, where he composed the novel Watt (published in 1953) in English. Back in Paris, Beckett embraced French and embarked upon one of modern literature’s most eccentric and fruitful monastic episodes: the “siege in the room” which yielded the trilogy Molloy (1951), Malone Dies (1953) and The Unnamable (1953).

The script opens with the stage directions ‘A country road. A tree. Evening.’, as in this New Orleans street art.
Derek Bridges/flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Beckett’s trilogy contributed to the new wave of French postwar novels renowned for their spare style and forensic treatment of plot, a movement that came to be known as the nouveau roman (“New Novel”).

Beckett wrote Waiting for Godot between October 1948 and January 1949. It was his first play to reach the stage — his first full playscript, Eleuthéria, was written in 1947 but only published posthumously.

Nothing, twice

Despite appearances, Godot is a surprising blend of suspense and dramatic action. Themes repeat over both acts: the same waiting, the same fights. A messenger boy appears in each act — or, perhaps, two different boys in each act, brothers. The horizon of time is scanned twice, once in each act.

The symmetry of Vladimir and Estragon, endlessly waiting for the unseen Godot, is echoed by another pair, Pozzo and Lucky, who pass by in each act. In Act 1, Pozzo is the grand landlord — a revenant of the Irish Big House literary tradition — whipping his servant Lucky into service.

Pozzo’s pomposity is matched by Lucky’s silence, and when Pozzo compels Lucky to speak, finally, Lucky’s cascade of logorrhea stands in contrast to Pozzo’s grandiloquence.

In Act 2 Pozzo returns, blinded, his authority diminished to the merely rhetorical. His final speech echoes Macbeth on time and the brevity of life. In Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth pronounces:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more

Pozzo’s final passionate outburst reduces life to:

the same day, the same second […] They give birth astride the grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.

Estragon’s complete indifference to Pozzo’s swansong has Vladimir wonder at his own dilemma, inducing an irrevocable moment of clear vision:

At me too someone is looking, of me too someone is saying, he is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on.

This burden of recognition places Valdimir within a tragic mode, out of step with the farcical tragicomedy around him. He is no longer immersed in the condition of waiting, but breaks through to understand the act of waiting as a condition of life.

Audible yawns – from those who stayed

Godot premièred at the Théâtre du Babylone in Paris in January 1953. The play drew positive attention from reviewers and from some of the biggest names in French theatre and literature. Its fame rose slowly — then abruptly, when a fistfight broke out in the interval of one performance, between the play’s defenders and those offended or shocked by its (in)action and the cruel plight of the character Lucky.

Its English-language premiere in London in August 1955 was met with “waves of hostility” and audible yawning from audience members who remained after interval.

The play’s fate in the United States was little short of catastrophic: billed as “the laugh sensation of two continents”, its opening night in January 1956 at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami was farcical.

Even Alan Schneider’s expert direction couldn’t salvage the play from a disruptive rehearsal atmosphere, complicated sets and an ill-suited venue. The interval, again, turned out to be the most popular part of the performance.

Bert Lahr (who played the Lion in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz) played Estragon in Miami and would be instrumental in the play’s success later that year on Broadway, an event that remained one of his career highlights.

Waiting for Godot played on Broadway for only 10 weeks, but Bert Lahr’s performance was immortalised by Columbia Records.
Internet Archive

During those early years, Godot was also performed in prisons, including a landmark production by the San Francisco Actors Workshop at San Quentin State Prison in 1957. Inmates were astounded a playwright could capture limbo with such insight and sensitivity.

All of us are waiting

Over time its fame has grown to the point where Godot is a definitive meeting point of the avant-garde and popular culture. The play has inspired numerous parodies and spin-offs, perhaps most notably the 1996 mockumentary Waiting for Guffman, in which the cast of a small-town musical production in Missouri awaits the arrival of a legendary Broadway producer.

The claustrophobia of Beckett’s next play, Endgame (1957), might capture the experience of lockdown in the current pandemic (“Beyond [the wall] is the other hell”), but Godot captures the distortions of time combined with the uncertainty of respite.

Populations across the globe have endured various kinds of waiting: waiting for published infection numbers, for hospital beds, for oxygen supplies, for borders to reopen, for opportunities to see loved ones. Running through our individual narratives, waiting has proved to be a truly global, shared experience.

How do we remember pre-pandemic times – that past “a million years ago,” as Vladimir pronounces in the play – and what do we forget?

Estragon exclaims: “Nothing happens. Nobody comes, nobody goes. It’s awful.” But dilatory time and static place also offer opportunities for new perception: a long moment to consider our circumstances and ourselves anew.

Mark Byron 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.

Politics with Michelle Grattan: Mark Butler on the vaccine rollout and democracy in the Labor Party

Originally published on theconversation.com

Despite this week’s strong economic figures, the pandemic is not as distant in the rearview mirror as many had hoped it would be by now.

In Victoria, cluster outbreaks have forced the state into a new lockdown. With cases amongst aged care workers and residents, the state waits nervously as health authorities battle to contain the situation.

As Shadow Minister for Health and Ageing, Mark Butler is focused on scrutinising the federal government’s handling of pandemic and the aged care sector, and what more should be done.

“The problem is distribution[…] We need to ramp up the aged care vaccination and disability care vaccination. And that just means the Commonwealth needing to engage more teams to do the job.

“They’re doing that in Melbourne right now. But still, we have hundreds and hundreds of aged care facilities that haven’t yet received their second dose. And 98% of residents in disability care haven’t received their second dose. These are priority groups. So that is what the Commonwealth should be doing as a matter of urgency.”

Butler is a former national president of the Labor party and sits on its national executive. This week, rebel backbencher Joel Fitzgibbon called for Labor to scrap the rank and file component in selecting its leader. Currently the Labor leader is elected on a 50-50 basis between the caucus and party membership. Butler firmly rejects the Fitzgibbon call for change.

Indeed, he says he’s held a “strong view” for “many, many years” that there should be more rank and file decision making in the party – not less. But the complication is that with party membership decreasing, membership decisions skew a certain way.

“There is an obligation. You can’t rely upon a shrinking group of party members[…]but what I do know is that it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy if we continue to disrespect our members and just expect them to roll up to polling booths every election day and not really do much else.”

Additional audio

A List of Ways to Die, Lee Rosevere, from Free Music Archive.

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.

We’re seeing more casual COVID transmission. But is that because of the variant or better case tracking?

Originally published on theconversation.com

Victoria’s lockdown is to be extended for another week to get on top of the growing number of community cases, which now stands at 60.

But questions remain about what’s behind some of these cases.
Victoria’s COVID-19 testing commander Jeroen Weimar said yesterday in about four or five cases, the virus was transmitted after only “fleeting contact”.

Today, we heard from Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton about one case suspected to have been infected when visiting a site some two hours after an infectious person had left. The source case had been there for some time, and it was described as a poorly ventilated space.

Nonetheless, this is consistent with the aerosol transmission we have become increasingly concerned about, and perhaps this is the first documentation of this outside hotel quarantine.

Today we also heard that health authorities have reported about 10% of cases are linked with more casual exposures, including at “tier two” sites (Victoria describes exposure sites according to risk, with a tier one site being the most risky).

So is it the virus, or more focused efforts in tracking cases, that’s led us to finding such casual exposures?

Read more:
What can you expect if you get a call from a COVID contact tracer?

Is it the virus?

Despite today’s news, people are not more likely now to get infected by brushing past someone on the street.

In the vast majority of cases, people have become infected by very close contacts, or at certain “tier one” exposure sites when there at the same time as a known case.

There is evidence the variant associated with India is more infectious. This particular lineage of the Indian variant B.1.617.1, however, may not be as infectious as other lineages.

It reinforces how important it is that outbreaks are contained as early as possible where this increased risk of spread is still manageable.

On average, with variants of concern like the one currently circulating in Victoria, a case might infect 15% of household contacts instead of 10% seen in 2020. When new case numbers are high later in an outbreak, this difference in transmission translates to much bigger jumps in case numbers.

The way the virus spreads in clusters has also not changed, with some cases not passing the virus on, while a small number pass it on to many.

If this strain of the virus were vastly more transmissible than the original strain, we’d expect to see many cases. This strain has been in our community for a month now, undetected and running free for more than two weeks. There would be many more than 60 cases if this were true.

Read more:
What’s the ‘Indian’ variant responsible for Victoria’s outbreak and how effective are vaccines against it?

We’re also better at tracking cases

The main thing that’s changed since Victoria’s second wave last year is that we have forensic analysis of every case and we’re better at finding casual links between cases.

We’re now publishing lists of venues with exposure times and more people are coming forward for testing than at the peak of Victoria’s second wave. We also have check-in data for many venues.

This results in more reliable measures of both the total spread and routes of virus transmission, than in the second wave, or any community outbreak of this size.

Transmission associated with more casual exposures would have been much more likely to be missed before. Even if these cases were picked up, they might have been counted among the “mystery cases” that comprised 18% of all cases in 2020. We didn’t know where these cases were infected as there were no apparent links between them and known cases.

We are doing much better this time with only three transmission events that not yet fully understood.

How about this ‘fleeting contact’?

The four or five cases Weimar mentioned yesterday relate to a range of indoor exposure sites including a display home, a Telstra shop, local grocery stores, and a shopping strip.

This is where people may have been in direct contact with a case, but where no definitive exposure event is documented, there is no check-in and people don’t know each other.

So from what we know so far, there’s been a crossover between when most cases were present and where their contacts became infected. And 90% of these are in the settings we know are high transmission risk — households and workplaces in particular, where there is extended and repeated indoor contact.

Read more:
Australia has all but abandoned the COVIDSafe app in favour of QR codes (so make sure you check in)

The more casual contacts described yesterday, in a display home or at the Telstra shop, there might have been some overlap with a case in a small enclosed area for sufficient time to receive an infecting dose.

A further example Sutton provided today was an infection that started with someone sitting in the same outdoor area as a case at a hotel bistro. We know there is less risk in outdoor settings generally, but on a still autumn day, we now know this is all it takes.

Now, as we have transmission in the beer garden, all those nearby will be recategorised as primary close contacts and asked to quarantine for a full 14 days, even if they have returned a negative test. Better to be safe than sorry.

That’s why it’s so important to check in with a QR code. You don’t always know the name of the person who’s standing (or sitting) next to you. It is also why check-ins will now be required at more retail and public venues across the state. Being able to identify contacts in these settings will remove some of the fear associate with this more casual spread.

So what are we to make of this?

This latest news reinforces the importance of QR codes and checking in. You never know who you’re standing next to in a long queue while shopping.
Extending our QR codes into further settings whether retail, grocery stores or display homes, which we now know are a risk, is a good move.

The message remains the same, get tested if you have symptoms or when directed to by public health officials, and isolate when necessary. In particular, keep an eye on those exposure sites, even if you only dropped in to grab a coffee.

But we shouldn’t be overly concerned about COVID-19 spread by “fleeting contact”. The precautions we all know (hygiene, distancing and masks) still work and are our best forms of protection.

Catherine Bennett receives funding from National Health and Medical Research Council and the Medical Research Future Fund.

The four GDP graphs that show us roaring out of recession pre-lockdown

Originally published on theconversation.com

Back in the first three months of this year when we had JobKeeper, enhanced unemployment benefits and no lockdowns, Australia roared out of recession.

The GDP figures released on Wednesday tell us that in the months leading up to the end of JobKeeper and the coronavirus supplement at the end of March Australians spent, earned and produced an impressive 1.8% more than in three months to December, which was itself more 3.2% more than the three months to September, which was itself 3.5% more than the three months before that.

It’s growth of more than 8%, described by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg as the most over three quarters since 1968.

But it followed a collapse in gross domestic product of 7% – by far the worst since the Bureau of Statistics began compiling records in 1959.

The net result over the year to March growth of 1.1%, an extraordinary result which means that, at least until Victoria’s (just extended) lockdown, we were producing, earning and spending more than before the COVID recession.

On the graph it’s not much more, not the two or so per cent of normal growth the Reserve Bank had been expecting before the recession, but it means that almost alone among developed nations (along with South Korea and probably New Zealand whose figures aren’t yet out) we are better off after the COVID recession than before it.

Australian quarterly gross domestic product

Chain volume measures, seasonally adjusted.

And we are better off than that bald GDP figures suggest.

In accordance with what is normally good statistical practice those figures are adjusted down for upward movements in prices.

We’ve had a monster upward movement in the price of iron ore over the past year which has enriched Australians through channels including company profits, tax revenue and a higher dollar that aren’t fully reflected in gross domestic product.

That’s why the bureau publishes a separate measure that measures buying power called real national disposable income per capita.

The graph shows it has climbed well above where it was to a new record high.

We ended the recession with 5.8% more buying power than before it began.

Real national disposable income per capita

Chain volume measures, seasonally adjusted.

But we’ve been reluctant to fully use that buying power.

While consumer spending has bounced back to where it was before the recession, in terms of what it buys it is no higher.

In March 2021 we were buying no more than we were in March 2020 — more goods, less services, and more essential items, fewer discretionary items, but no more than we did a year earlier.

Zero growth in buying at a time of substantial growth in buying power can be seen as either disturbing, a sign of understandable caution, or a sign that the best is yet to come.

Household final consumption expenditure

Chain volume measures, seasonally adjusted.

At his press conference Frydenberg painted the caution to date as something that would support economic growth in the months to come as we unwind our record-high household saving rate.

But the unwinding slowed in the three months to March.

In the December quarter the saving rate plunged from 18.6% of after tax income to 12.2%. Before that it had plunged from the record-high 22% to 18.6%.

But in the March quarter it barely fell, inching down from 12.2% to 11.6%, perhaps reflecting the imminent end of JobSeeker and the coronavirus supplement.

Household saving ratio

Ratio of saving to net-of-tax income, seasonally adjusted.

The subsequent spread of coronavirus in Victoria, and the reluctance to date of the federal government to reinstate JobKeeper in Victoria will give Australians to keep saving rather than spending their money for some time to come.

Frydenberg told the national accounts press conference he was open to further assistance of another kind and would speak to Victoria’s Treasurer as soon as he could.

Leer más:
Frydenberg spends the bounty to drive unemployment to new lows

Business investment in buildings and equipment surged 5.3% in the March quarter (enough to account for nearly all of the economic growth over the past year) aided by investment incentives which were renewed in the May budget.

Australia’s rigorous approach to compiling the national accounts means the ones released Wednesday are out of date.

Although much will have improved since then, the spread of coronavirus and the lockdown in Victoria means much is suddenly worse.

Our future is about as uncertain as it has ever been.

Peter Martin no recibe salario, ni ejerce labores de consultoría, ni posee acciones, ni recibe financiación de ninguna compañía u organización que pueda obtener beneficio de este artículo, y ha declarado carecer de vínculos relevantes más allá del cargo académico citado.