Part 3: Things we know at the end of 2020

Wednesday, Dec 30, 2020, 10:52 PM | Source: Pursuit

Jason Thompson, Kenny McAlpine, Melissa Conley Tyler, Tony Blakely

Who knew, at the outset of 2020, that so many of us would spend the year glued to televised updates from government (both in Australia and overseas) and getting to know the faces our chief health officers – some to the point that they inspired their own fan clubs.

We watched graphs, debated policy and discussed numbers as the pandemic rolled on.

Victoria’s Chief Medical Office Brett Sutton became something of cult figure during the state’s extended lockdown. Picture: Getty Images

In Part 3 of this series, University of Melbourne experts to back on the year and think about things they know now that they had no clue about just 12 months ago.

DR JASON THOMPSON, Faculty of Architecture

In around 1260, the Italian philosopher and priest, Thomas Aquinas, noted that not even God could create a triangle containing more than 180 degrees. As we approach the end of 2020, I find myself thinking about this ‘omnipotence paradox’ a lot.

For me, the messages of this statement fall along two lines.

First, it exposes the harsh reality that as a species, we are actively pushing the boundaries of ourselves, our lives and the Earth’s systems beyond what they can ultimately tolerate.

Most of us have had a year operating at the edge of our capacities – social, personal, professional, psychological, economic, environmental, and biological . We have bumped-up hard against the realities of life and life has bitten back fiercely.

Suddenly we aren’t living an abstract existence where nothing really matters because life just bubbles along anyway – this shit is real.

Most of us have had a year operating at the edge of our capacities. Picture: Getty Images

Second, it highlights to me the stark realisation playing out around the world that – despite their overtures – leaders are also not omnipotent. This has been scarily refreshing.

For the first time in years, leaders have honestly told us to expect bad news, that trade-offs will have to be made, that short term-losses will be felt but off-set by long-term, sustainable gains, and the electorate can’t all be winners all the time.

They have admitted that the angles of the triangle really are finite.

Countries with leaders that have pretended otherwise – the UK, Sweden, Brazil, the US – have failed dismally. In 2020, good leadership has really mattered, and the public has repaid good leadership in spades.

It’s said we get the leadership we deserve, but this means we can also get the leadership we design. If we want better leadership – to reflect at least some of the positives we saw in 2020 Australia – then, as citizens and scientists, we must create the possibility for it to be so. We must engage.

On a personal level, I would like this new honesty in political leadership to continue. Tell me the reality – I can take it.

We know that goals of good health, economy, environment and liberty are achievable, but can we achieve them all at the same time? Maybe not even God can do that.

Spontaneous choirs formed on balconies and classic songs were re-imagined. Picture: Getty Images

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR KENNY McALPINE, Melbourne Conservatorium of Music

If ever I seriously doubted the emotive power of music, never mind its potential to function as a sort of convivial social glue, 2020 has reminded me of Longfellow’s notion that music is the universal language of humankind.

As our habitual routines were dismantled by COVID-19 and replaced with isolation and uncertainty, music permeated the fractured seams of our disrupted lives.

Spontaneous choirs formed on balconies and doorsteps; classic songs were re-imagined and new ones penned in response to the pandemic, and the world came together online to play and listen.

More profoundly, music and movement were used to communicate public health messages to remote regions where other forms of messaging simply couldn’t reach.

All of this, of course, speaks very powerfully to the social capital of music, but what of its economic value?

2020 has been a bumper year for online streaming services, but while advertising revenues and paid subscriptions have risen, musicians mostly haven’t seen the benefit.

The parsimonious royalty payments from streaming sites would make Scrooge himself look munificent, and as door sales at physical venues have dried up, so too have musicians’ incomes.

There has never been a better time to better reflect the true value we place on music and those who make it. Picture: Getty Images

COVID-19 hasn’t just disrupted livelihoods, it has exposed and accelerated some serious systemic imbalances in the commercial infrastructure of the creative sector. With that infrastructure currently dismantled, there has never been a better time to rebuild it – to better reflect the true value we place on music and those who make it.

In that regard, as Churchill might well have put it, COVID-19 is simply too good a crisis to let go to waste.


Australia is more Asian than we thought.

If we compare Australia’s response to COVID-19 to others’, we’re less like the US and Europe and much more like our neighbours.

This feeds into an old debate about Australia in its region: Is Australia Asian? Is it the odd man out in Asia?

In one way, Australia has answered the question by sidestepping it. Official government documents now talk about our region as the ‘Indo-Pacific’ rather than Asia.

But at another level, we’re perhaps more culturally aligned with our region than we suppose. It’s a region mostly made up of small and medium countries. In many, there’s a focus on governance and social cohesion; there’s some trust in government and expertise.

By contrast, one thing we know for sure at the end of 2020 is that global leadership is in short supply. The world isn’t looking favourably at the US or China. Neither emerging powers nor the ‘West’ have done well. Each country has dealt with COVID-19 individually, primarily through nationalist responses.

One thing we know for sure at the end of 2020 is that global leadership is in short supply. Picture: Getty Images

In a year of few winners, Australia has emerged from the worldwide stress test better than we might have imagined. Perhaps we’re more competent than we give ourselves credit for.

PROFESSOR TONY BLAKELY, Centre for Epidemiology and Biostatistics

I was one of the four modellers – led by my colleague Dr Jason Thompson – who provided the modelling to Victoria’s Department of Health and Human Services that underpinned the State’s Roadmap out of COVID-19.

Agent-based models (ABM) are one type of micro-simulation model – they simulate individuals in all their randomness and stochasticity, rather than groups of people using average rates.

By simulating individuals, you can include heterogeneity and a near-infinite number of types of possible contacts of individuals in the simulation. Which is important for something like COVID-19.

Critically, these models have the advantage of being able to simulate elimination. One person infected can become zero people infected – many other models just keep assuming a smaller and smaller proportion of the group are infected…but never quite zero.

I was a sceptic before 2020 about ABM. “They need so much data” I would pontificate, if any one was listening. But, when done in collaboration, they can serve their purpose really well.

Victoria ‘let’s go hard’ approach – or aggressive suppression – worked. Picture: Getty Images

This is provided there’s lots of pushing and pulling, logic checks or validation against the epidemic so far, expert expectation, stress testing and the scrutiny of many eyes from many disciplines.

Pivoting to the politics of it all, I was initially critical of political and science leaders in Australia for not being explicit about an elimination strategy. But I’ve learnt through the course of this pandemic that there are other ways to do it without putting all your eggs in that one fragile basket.

Victoria ‘let’s go hard’ approach – or aggressive suppression – worked and our model proved remarkably accurate.

Finally, Melbourne – even in harsh lockdown – is a great place. It’s fantastic to live in such a vibrant city, and collaborate with such talented, interesting and interested colleagues.

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