Masks in the City
Masks in the City

The new norm: How coronavirus has changed our world

Beside suburban Woden Westfield shopping centre in southern Canberra, sits a fairly nondescript building from where the Federal Government is co-ordinating one of its greatest national crisis in living memory.

It is a 'war room' like you would see in movies but instead of uniformed military in front of a giant TV screen directing a theatre of conflict, in suburban Scarborough House sit 65 mostly civilian men and women.

They are watching an invisible enemy depicted on screen as an ever spreading and enlarging red dots pop up across the whole of the planet.

This is the National Incident Room (NIR) from where national authorities are fighting coronavirus, on a full 24/7 operational capability war footing, where the Federal Government's Emergency Response Plan was created and from where what Australia does next will be decided.

And make no mistake, they are preparing for things to get worse.

"The NIR is currently staffed by around 65 officers, operating on extended shifts with a full 24/7 operational capability," said a federal Health Department official.

"The Department will soon boost the NIR's capacity to meet the demands of the COVID-19 response over the coming weeks."

 

Coronavirus War Room in the Department of Health building in Canberra. The National Incident Room Operations Manager Adam Lambert. Picture Gary Ramage
Coronavirus War Room in the Department of Health building in Canberra. The National Incident Room Operations Manager Adam Lambert. Picture Gary Ramage

 

Here teams of experienced epidemiologists, general practice doctors, pathologists, crisis managers, Home Affairs officials and border health and biosecurity agency officers are collecting, analysing and reporting on Covid-19 to create the policies to try and keep us safe.

It was here the SARS outbreak response was coordinated in 2003, the tsunami the following year and the Bali bombings the year after that.

The Commonwealth's response to the Victorian bushfires were coordinated out of there in 2009 as were the recent devastating bushfires across the country and the White Island-Whakaari volcano eruption in New Zealand which resulted in 20 dead including 14 from Australia and 26 injured of which 10 were Aussie.

But nothing compared with how broad and widespread this crisis is.

"As states and territories manage emergencies within their jurisdiction, national co-ordination is vital for incidents which affect multiple jurisdictions," the spokesman said.

It will be here too where analytics could invoke sweeping little used powers, namely the Biosecurity 2015 Act, that could effectively close schools, public spaces and sporting events.

 

 

 

 

EDUCATION

Schools and universities around Australia are readying themselves to teach classes virtually as the country's first school was shutdown this week due to coronavirus.

But while the higher education facilities are well prepared for the Edtech revolution, schools across the country are furiously working to ramp up their online capabilities.

It comes as in NSW Epping Boys High School was closed on Friday after a year 11 student tested positive and Queensland Education department sent out a missive to schools to calm fears among students.

The memo advises parents and carers when speaking to children to "acknowledge how they may be feeling and answer questions as honestly as possible."

The memo also asks adults to point out that the number of cases are small and that "we are lucky" to live in a country with first-class healthcare, and advises people to remain calm around children.

 

Parent Chris Zheng collects his child from Banksia Cottage Childcare within the Macquarie University Campus. Picture: John Appleyard
Parent Chris Zheng collects his child from Banksia Cottage Childcare within the Macquarie University Campus. Picture: John Appleyard

 

"Remain calm", the memo reads, "reassure them that there is no cause for alarm."

In NSW some parents have been told that if a student becomes unwell while at school the school will isolate the student as per infection control guidelines.

In China students are continuing their classes via video conferencing and history teacher Zachary Ruch is teaching his students in Shanghai via a computer in his in-laws' Parramatta home in NSW.

He and his wife came to Australia in January from China and he is continuing to teach his usual classes online.

"I have had almost perfect attendance," he said.

"A lot of students haven't left their house in weeks. All of the schools in Shanghai are doing online classes."

 

Students from Epping Boys High school return from a school camp. The school is closed until Monday because one of its students has tested positive to the virus. Picture: John Feder/The Australian
Students from Epping Boys High school return from a school camp. The school is closed until Monday because one of its students has tested positive to the virus. Picture: John Feder/The Australian

 

In Australia the universities have already been partly working virtually; Monash University is working with students stranded in China, Iran and South Korea with specialist software that allows them to connect visually or by audio.

Sydney University has a pandemic working group and has rolled out online learning for remote students. Australian Catholic University has said if campuses were to close they can use tutorial recording systems.

Digital education expert Dr Carlo Perrotta, Monash University said most universities have systems to offer a degree of online learning but that outside higher education the "system is quite fragmented".

"It is the infrastructure partly and also the level of individual schools; one school might have resources in place to immediately mobilise technology and another might have nothing like this. There are no clear standards and the landscape is very fragmented."

 

 

 

 

SPORT

Both the NRL and AFL codes have held talks over the impact of the virus on the competitions including worse case playing games to empty stadiums. There will be impacts.

On Wednesday the AFL was forced to cancel a scheduled round 11 St Kilda-Port Adelaide clash to be held in Shanghai in China.

 

Players run through the banner during the Round 11 AFL match between the St Kilda Saints and Port Adelaide Power at Jiangwan Stadium, Shanghai, China in 2019. Picture: AAP
Players run through the banner during the Round 11 AFL match between the St Kilda Saints and Port Adelaide Power at Jiangwan Stadium, Shanghai, China in 2019. Picture: AAP

 

The game was deemed to be a risk for players and fans and also could disrupt the competition here if players have to be put into mandatory 14-day quarantine.

Asian and European football competitions have already been affected including the Six Nations rugby tournament with matches involving Italy now postponed and Euro 2020 games and locations under review by UEFA while A league soccer matches in Italy were being played behind closed doors.

 

Inter Milan, left, and Ludogorets line-up inside the empty San Siro stadium in Milan, Italy ahead of their Europa League round of 32 second leg soccer match. Inter beat Ludogorets 2-1 in an empty stadium as a precaution because of the virus outbreak in Italy. Picture: AP
Inter Milan, left, and Ludogorets line-up inside the empty San Siro stadium in Milan, Italy ahead of their Europa League round of 32 second leg soccer match. Inter beat Ludogorets 2-1 in an empty stadium as a precaution because of the virus outbreak in Italy. Picture: AP

 

The F1 Chinese Grand Prix in April has been postponed indefinitely while the Qatar MotoGP has been cancelled.

"We are watching all those trends and if things change, we will deal with it," NRL chief executive Todd Greenberg said, adding he had a working group specifically liaising with the federal government and the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) on the contagion.

Most companies are also looking at business continuity plans including staff working remotely to reduce infection as well as identifying multiskilled or multi-tasking personnel to pick up any slack particularly if workers have to stay at home with sick children for long periods.

 

URBAN POWERS

As exclusively revealed last week by News Corp, intelligence, Australian Defence Force and Home Affairs agencies discussed the possible use of the Biosecurity Act 2015 to contain the Corona contagion.

At its most dire this could mean deputising the military as National Response Agency biosecurity officers to enforce management of a pandemic outbreak.

This could include guarding medical stocks or designated medical screening stations and enforcing closures of sporting events or sequestering sports stadiums as designated quarantine sites.

 

Passengers wearing protective masks arrive at Sydney International Airport in Sydney. Picture: AAP
Passengers wearing protective masks arrive at Sydney International Airport in Sydney. Picture: AAP

 

Attorney-General Christian Porter referenced the powers after Australia's first human-to-human transmission in NSW.

"These are challenging times going forward and these will be some of the first times these important powers may be used," Mr Porter told Parliament.

He later added: "It's very likely that these laws will get used on a larger scale, and it's very likely that Australians will encounter practices and instructions and circumstances that they've not had to encounter before."

"They will be, in some instances, strange and foreign to many Australians, but they will become very important over the next couple of months."

 

 

 

 

ECONOMY

The nation's economy could enter a recession if the fallout from the coronavirus continues to strengthen over the coming months.

AMP chief economist Dr Shane Oliver said Australia's balance sheet would undoubtedly take a hit from the disease in the March quarter.

"There will include the drop in demand from China in areas like tourism, higher education and commodity demand," he said.

"The big unknown is what the impact will be in June quarter, the likelihood scenario is China will recover and things will be brought under control and the economy would bounce back."

But Dr Oliver said if the economic problems continued through into the June quarter it would be enough to push Australia into recession.

 

A man stands in front of digital market boards at the Australian Stock Exchange (ASX) in Sydney. Picture: AAP
A man stands in front of digital market boards at the Australian Stock Exchange (ASX) in Sydney. Picture: AAP

 

Financial experts are also strongly predicting another cash rate cut next month, which would bring it down to a record low of just 0.25 per cent.

This would reduce mortgage rates for borrowers even further and deliver them extra savings, while causing further strain for savers who rely on back deposit interest rates.

Other measures that might have to be implemented include quantitative easing which is effectively flooding the financial system with freshly-minted money.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg is also set to deliver the federal budget in May and Dr Oliver said reaching a surplus was looking "increasingly unlikely".

"It was always wafer thin in the first place and now with the economy likely to have gone backwards in the current quarter it's unlikely the government will give adequate revenue to give a surplus," he said.

"It could turn out to be a small deficit, which isn't the end of the world because we've come from big deficits."

Tax cuts could also be brought forward or one-off stimulus payments remain an option.

 

MUSIC and EVENTS

Record labels and major music agencies have banned non-essential travel for their employees and artists are cancelling or postponing tours to Asian and European hotpots.

All Australian labels have been told promotional tours by international artists such as Dua Lipa's recent visit for Mardi Gras and to promote her upcoming album Future Nostalgia are off until further notice.

The South by Southwest Festival in Texas, which had been slated to take place March 13-22, was cancelled on Friday, with serious doubt now hanging over the future of Coachella.

Even before SXSW was cancelled, major brands like Netflix, Apple and Amazon had already pulled out.

Tech companies including Facebook and Twitter have pulled out of the huge culture festival due to kick off on March 14 as a Change.org petition demanding the event be scrapped reached more than 50,000 signatures.

The 2020 Eurovision Song Contest in Rotterdam in May is also in the spotlight as the virus spreads across Europe.

The Heads of Delegation of more than 40 competing countries are due in the Netherlands next week for a "meet and greet" with the European Broadcasting Union which stages the event. Israel have withdrawn from the planning sessions on the advice of their health minister while SBS Australian Head of Delegation Josh Martin is still attending.

 

Australia's Eurovision 2020 entrant Montaigne. Picture: Supplied.
Australia's Eurovision 2020 entrant Montaigne. Picture: Supplied.

 

"The EBU is, of course, closely monitoring the situation concerning the coronavirus and taking necessary measures in line with WHO and national authority guidelines. We will continue to follow developments across Europe; however, it is currently too early to comment on possible scenarios," the organisers posted." Australian pop sensation Ruel recently shifted his Asian concerts scheduled for February and March to September and it is likely more artists will be forced to curtail or shift their touring plans to later in the year.

Other artists to shelve Asian tours for the time being include South Korean boy band superstars BTS, Green Day, Stormzy, Mariah Carey, Avril Lavigne and Mabel.



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