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Data-Driven you say? Well, allow the data to drive!

By Matthew Rehn - posted Tuesday, 11 August 2020

Melbourne's stage four restrictions have now been in force for a week. Stricter limits on movement. Limits on outdoor exercise and shopping for groceries, including 8 pm curfews have been introduced as the new norm. Such stringent measures are being enforced in efforts to 'eliminate' the virus from community transmission entirely.

However, the COVID-19 is only temporarily avoidable. All over the world, we are observing from the data new waves of transmission. Once-daily infection rates have been suppressed to low figures; it has re-emerged. As is the case in Melbourne. It is becoming more apparent that unless avoidance of all forms of contact occurs, for sustained periods, we will continue to see damaging wave upon wave sporadic and unpredictable. This is virtually impossible to achieve while running essential functions to satisfy societies basic needs. Elimination, when you follow the reasoning to its conclusion, is severe and indefinite isolation. With no vaccine, we are merely waiting, haphazardly, for one to be released. A vaccine also does not guarantee permanent elimination.

The economic, social, physical, and mental cost of indefinite and harsh lockdown measures with a rinse-repeat cycle is threatening to have lifetime effects. Costs are mounting with each day. Suicide rates are increasing; preventative health activity is not occurring which can fuel a future health crisis. Healthy people are unemployed, financially, and emotionally broken, binging Netflix or shopping on Amazon, idle and in compliance, but also disillusioned. Drinking heavily with compounding isolation side-effects. References to a possible stage five level of restraint, which go even deeper beg questions about the appropriateness, legitimacy, and longevity of the current policy settings.


Premier Daniel Andrews has stated publicly, and repeatedly, that Victoria's approach to the pandemic would be data-driven, by experts. A handful of nations around the world (including Japan, Sweden, Taiwan, Belarus, and Iceland) have decided against imposing severe lockdown conditions, sanctions, and universal quarantine measures. Their approach has been to socially distance and adopt some mitigative policies, yet not place clamps on the entire economy with mandatory closures in efforts to control the viral spread. The data emerging from those countries are observing declining death rates and fewer daily cases over time after initial spikes. This mellowing trend observable in the data challenges the justification for our ongoing approach of severe restrictions, to eliminate the virus from our borders. It also runs counter to the initial fears of run-away exponential death rates. The data from these countries offer a legitimate alternative pathway to consider. In addition, bring into question the government's data driven claim.

A prime example to illustrate this point is the decision to impose curfews on the Victorian public. When examined thoroughly, this does not seem in step with a data-driven approach. By reducing the number of permissible hours in a day, and the frequency members of the public can shop for necessities, we are increasing the concentration of people in proximity when they do shop. More people in one place, at one time, is counter-productive to the very logic of social distancing. This does not make much sense. Particularly when you consider before curfews, you required a legitimate and lawful reason for being out anyway.

This is frankly not an example of data driven decision making. Even the commentary from the Chief Health Officer Mr Brett Sutton was a public statement to the effect of a "shock and awe" approach. Let us scare people to less movement with harsher restrictions in the hope it works. It appears on this evidence the politics of compliance are driving the plan, and I see a little examination of alternatives emerging from the data.

In Sweden which decided against state forced lockdowns, met with much early criticism; in part due to the virus connected deaths reaching 5763 from 82323 cases (as of writing). What is now emerging from the Swedish data is that its death rate peaked at 115 deaths per day in April, then plateaued. Interestingly without any lockdowns began declining, considerably, with each passing day. Meaning fatalities have not exponentially grown without preventative lockdowns to overload their health care system and cause devastation. The exponential death factor was the primary motivation for urgent lockdown measures drawn from early modelling. This fear remains the basis of the current policy settings here in Australia.

A growing number of credible voices are speaking out against the modelling and current policy settings. Professor Gigi Foster's courage to publicly flag this emerging data and recommend a shift in policy settings have brought forth some disappointing criticism. However, offer alternatives worthy of public consideration to refine our approach. It is becoming increasing clear we need to balance the devastating effects of prolonged lockdown and isolation. Much of the current public discourse has sought to condemn the idea of alternatives to lockdown. Appealing instead to a narrative that such an approach is "advocating death." Let us be clear none of these prominent voices are advocating we offer up those at-risk Victorians as cannon fodder to the virus. With no compassion, or care, nor moral duty to insulating the vulnerable. The discussion for alternatives to lockdown is about considering the utility of our current approach. It is about making decisions according to the data emerging overseas to mitigate the burgeoning and ruinous consequences repeated lockdown cycles produce. Applying detrimental labels to public experts looking to analyse alternative options is not particularly helpful. Crucially as so many lives are being damaged with each passing day.

It seems evident Premier Andrews claims of applying data driven policy settings is only applicable to their chosen pathway. They have hitched their wagon to the 'elimination strategy', and any dissenting view is sadly being met with public rebuke. Victorians cannot afford the conversation to suppress alternative models which can alleviate suffering, including noteworthy results emerging in other countries. Data driven policy would be taking these findings from Sweden, Iceland, Japan, and Taiwan as an indicator to reasonably examine credible programs and infusing them into our approach. I am concerned we are observing that the government is engaging in a destructive form of confirmation bias. A bias to affirm its substantial sunken cost and clinging commitment to decisions to execute wide scale and harmful shutdowns. The government is driving its own policies, not allowing the data to drive its decision making, as claimed.


Collectively we need to ask more questions of the Andrews Government and confront inclinations of framing opposing strategies, and importantly the people that advance them, as being merchants of death. This only achieves silencing objective debate. Given the scale and severity of what we are dealing with, they must be allowed to examine alternatives, which involve balancing risk to save lives, but also livelihoods. If the premier is going to frame the COVID-19 response in Victoria as a data driven policy approach, then his government need to allow the data to drive the response.

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About the Author

Matthew A Rehn is a dispute resolution professional with an academic background in public policy and law. He has an interest in politics and debating social issues.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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