Flat White

The DAN 2020 computer: kill off the economy, it detracts from the mission

8 September 2020

7:23 PM

8 September 2020

7:23 PM

The Victorian governments’ COVID roadmap was perhaps the most eagerly anticipated policy announcement in the history of Dan Andrew’s Labor government – to say that the Premier and his roadmap failed to deliver even the slightest measure of hope to an increasingly impoverished and distraught Victorian population is a gross understatement. The roadmap is a stinging slap across the face to everyone who’s already endured more than a reasonable amount of pain – it quite literally states the conditions for reaching the end of lockdown may not be possible. It all but guarantees that Christmas with extended family is cancelled. It tells every small business owner who’s somehow managed to hang on to this point that they may as well give up. 

At its core the COVID roadmap is an abuse of science to confer political legitimacy. It is beyond obvious that the Andrews government is blatantly using allegedly apolitical institutions to absolve itself from criticism in this next crucial period of time in returning to some semblance of normality. These are unacceptable actions in a time of crisis and it must be stated in the strongest possible terms that what Dan Andrews is attempting to do is not normal in democratic states. That is, governments are responsible for some very basic things in a time of pandemic: listening to a variety of experts and formulating an appropriate public policy response that best balances the diverse interests – health and otherwise – of their constituents. The notion that somehow only health experts are required to make decisions for all of Victoria is stupid and offensive – would anyone believe, for one second, that when the health challenges inevitably pass Victoria will be turned over to the management of academic economists to rebuild business from whatever tattered ruins remain?

To suggest, as Dan Andrews has done, that his roadmap is wholly supported by some nebulous class of ‘experts’ and therefore unable to be challenged is worse than a lie. It is a lie that also seeks to render the government free from all liability of the decisions it asks the public to trust it in making. It is a lie that is based on modelling that has the complexity of something asked of graduate students as part of a final year project. It is a lie that also neglects the input of other health practitioners (experts in their own practice albeit clearly not the same experts to which Andrews refers) that lockdowns are a dead end that do more harm than good.

The use of the word ‘supercomputer’ multiple times in recent press conferences is another clue that something is deeply wrong with the sophistry Victorians are being asked to swallow – processing power doesn’t mean anything whatsoever when a predictive model is misspecified. 

It is difficult to even articulate just how deficient this modelling is as a policy input without sounding hyperbolic. Dan Andrews has defended it as the unquestionable source of truth in deciding these next critical steps in determining the relaxation of restrictions – a claim that the model creators at Melbourne University are quite happy to point out is false. 

In no particular order, here are some ostensibly critical factors that the model does not account for. These are taken directly from the official model overview and are not edited, however bold is used for emphasis. 

  1. The number of unknown source cases (community transmission or ‘mystery cases’) which should be core to the decision of whether to ease restrictions.
  2. The differences in infection rates in geographic areas – including high-risk LGAs and low-risk regional areas.
  3. Fine details about the testing and tracing system.

In a nutshell, the model defines itself as a useless tool for answering the most pressing questions necessary to understand a way out of this mess. Victorians – especially regional Victorians – are being asked to assume basically the same restrictions as metropolitan Melbourne based on a model that fundamentally does not account for low or non-existent COVID transmission in regional areas. Further, the model does not recognise nor cater for the fact that quick and accurate tracing means that small outbreaks can be managed without reimposing restrictions. 

There is hardly any language left that seems apt to describe the death cycle Victoria is now in. Our Premier assures us that we must follow a single, immutable path out of the pandemic. This statement alone is absurd, even our roadmap policy could have been (and probably was) subject to various permutations before reaching its final form. We are told that the “science” requires us to follow this plan and this plan alone and that the modelling conducted makes this all but irrefutable. Dan Andrews is deliberately and ruthlessly posturing to ensure that his critics are no longer his political adversaries but instead anti-science, removing them from the political conversation altogether. This is a simple yet devastating tactic – after all, if voters genuinely and truly believe that you are the conduit for scientific reality, what use is the parliament? If the answers can be derived from a model, what need is there of debate or scrutiny? 

One final word on the modelling – the graph shared by the Premier to all his social media accounts had the ominous “probability of returning to lockdown” given in red for a number of case scenarios. In truth Premier, the probability of returning to lockdown becomes zero as soon as you can be brought to understand that lockdowns should never be used for the ongoing management of a pandemic.

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