An Open Letter from Concerned Australians on Trade-offs During the COVID-19 Crisis

The views expressed are those of the signatories and not necessarily those of their employer. 

Summary: Australia’s outstanding success cauterising the spread of COVID-19 has placed us in a position to seek to promptly reactivate the economy. If the current lockdown is allowed to continue as some academics propose, millions of Australians will suffer from dire economic and human costs, including prolonged unemployment, rising suicide rates, homelessness, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and abject poverty. A measured exit from the current containment strategy will spark a recovery in employment, incomes and growth, and minimise the financial and health costs from what could otherwise be a 1-in-100 year depression.

Dear Prime Minister and Members of the National Cabinet,

The undersigned Australians have witnessed and participated in the public debate about when to gradually relax the economic lockdown in Australia as the country crushes the coronavirus.

Some academic economists have expressed the view that there is “false distinction” in the trade-off between the public health and economic aspects of the crisis.

We, as concerned Australians, including economists, believe the aforementioned academics’ claim that there is no such trade-off is both theoretically and empirically wrong.

We further believe that the academics’ failure to acknowledge the inherent trade-off between the costs of shuttering most Australian businesses in exchange for the benefits of cauterising the coronavirus will do permanent economic damage by sacrificing millions of jobs and killing businesses that have every right to continue to survive an exogenous shock that is the financial equivalent of an asteroid strike.

The fact is Australia is in a position to optimise national health outcomes while minimising the irreparable economic destruction wrought by a policy of prolonged containment. That is to say, we can have a well-functioning economy operating simultaneously with an unrelenting, all-out effort to address and contain the public health COVID-19 crisis.

The pro-active policy measures Australia has put in place at our borders and within our states and territories have dramatically reduced the number of new infections to impressively low levels. We have successfully flattened our COVID-19 infection and fatality curves more effectively than the vast majority of developed countries.

It is imperative that Australia does not now squander our enviable position by throwing the economic baby out with the bathwater in the name of pursuing health goals in isolation from the profound and permanent financial costs of these policies.

It is now clear the policy of containment is also having adverse social, health and other human impacts on the approximately three million Australians who are tragically unemployed, underemployed or preparing their businesses for bankruptcy.

There is a present danger that the incredible work policymakers have done saving the lives of the minority of Australians at mortal risk from COVID-19 could potentially precipitate a 1-in-100 year depression that has much greater negative health consequences for society at large than the virus itself. These include high levels of prolonged unemployment, rising suicide rates, homelessness, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and abject poverty.

This represents a direct, second-order health trade-off beyond the first-order economic costs that could, ironically, be much greater than the health fears that prompted the policy of long-term containment in the first place.

These concerns were reinforced by the RBA’s governor, Dr Phil Lowe, during his assessment this week that Australia faces a “once in a century event of marked economic contraction”. Governor Lowe stressed that “the more people lose jobs and the more businesses are destroyed, the longer it takes to recover”. “The longer this goes on, the greater the economic damage to the economic infrastructure of this country will be,” Dr Lowe said.

We also worry about the significant increase in public debt required to fund one of the world’s most aggressive fiscal programs to back-stop growth for the proposed six-month period of business hibernation.

High debt levels limit the ability of future governments to deliver world-class health and education systems and other much-needed public amenities. They will also constrain policymakers from providing the fiscal stimulus required to combat more serious future crises while burdening subsequent generations with responsibility for servicing large tax liabilities that have been assumed to protect a minority of their predecessors.

Our borders will need to remain under strict controls for an extended period until rapid testing is available at air and sea ports. It is also vital Australians maintain social-distancing measures to minimise the coronavirus’s reproduction rate. And we endorse the government’s desire to continue to expand Australia’s world-class testing practices and enhance contact tracing capabilities, which are essential for avoiding future outbreaks while getting workers back into their jobs.

A measured scaling-back of the current lockdown policy would help avoid a depression by allowing businesses to reactivate over May, bringing staff back to work, offering goods and services the public can acquire, which will generate much-needed income across our communities. This will in turn reduce the risks of severe mental health issues damaging the lives of millions of unemployed Australians.

Academic research shows that those who have a job enjoy substantially superior health and quality of life than those who do not. We owe it to all Australians to act in their best collective interests by maximising their health outcomes while minimising unnecessary economic, social and human costs.

Sincerely,

Brendan K. Beare, Professor, School of Economics, The University of Sydney.

Everald Compton, Adjunct, Professor, Faculty of Health and Social Sciences, University of Queensland

Prof (Adj) Paul Kidd, National Senior Program Manager, Diabetes in Schools, Diabetes Australia

Ramesh Thakur, Emeritus Professor, Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University

David I. Stern, Professor, Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University

Adam Creighton, Economics Editor, The Australian

Will Hamilton, CEO, Hamilton Wealth Partners

Kieran Hennessy, CEO Seattle Group

Nick Hossack, Principal, Benchmark Analytics, former adviser to Prime Minister Howard

Christopher Joye, CEO, Coolabah Capital Investments

Stephen Koukoulas, CEO, Market Economics, former adviser to Prime Minister Gillard

Ian Macoun, CEO Pinnacle Investment Management, inaugural CEO of QIC

Harry Moffitt, CEO & Psychologist, Stotan Group

Terry McCrann, Business Columnist, Herald Sun & The Australian

Andrew Mohl, Former CEO, AMP and Non Executive Director, CBA

Campbell Newman AO, Chairman of Arcana Capital and Former Premier of Queensland

Anthony Roberts, Managing Director, Porter Davis

John Stone, former Treasury Secretary and Senator for Queensland

Dr Christian Dandre, Partner Eminence Capital Management

Michael Johnson, Chairman, Orbitz Elevators, Federal Member for Ryan (2001-2010), Parliament of Australia.

Dan Petrie, Economic Data Journalist and Tutor, Queensland University of Technology

Harvey Kalman, Executive General Manager, Corporate Trustee Services & Global Head of Fund Services

John Humphreys, economics lecturer at the University of Queensland 

Julie Claridge, Lawyer, concerned citizen 

James Newton, Principal, Urban Capital Private

James Philips, Lawyer, company director and writer

Nicholas D Birrell, CEO Kintan Pty Ltd

Brett Stevenson, Founder/Director, Excellere

Ezequiel Trumper, Principal Solicitor, Haller & Grad Lawyers 

David Chen, Managing Director, YHI Power Pty Ltd

Peter Robinson, Former Captain of Australian Blind Cricket Team

Rhian Bilclough, Economics Teacher, Shenton College

Dereck Becker, Titania CS Global PTY LTD

George M Bloomfield, Managing Director,  Bloomfield Tremayne & Partners

Dr. Milan Holecek, retired Radiation Oncologist

If you would like to add your name to this letter, please leave your name and company via the comments below



Dan Smith

We have enough wealth in this country, if it was distributed fairly (not equally), that we can keep the lockdown as long as medically needed. We've seen during the lockdown who should be paid more based on necessity and it isn't Gina, Twiggy et al Not sure adding Terry McCrann and Campbell Newman helps the cause either

Trevor Myers

I guess it should come as no surprise that there are people out there wanting to put the most vulnerable members of our community's lives ahead of more money for the wealthy and themselves. Until the last few Australians who are contagious with Covid-19 are no longer a threat the Government should keep the country or applicable state on lockdown; which by the looks of it won't be much longer. I'd be curious to see how many of the names on this list donate to charities affecting any of the aforementioned issues they all of a sudden claim to care about - domestic abuse, suicide prevention, drug an alcohol abuse etc. Be careful what you wish for; if restrictions are lifted too early and a 2nd wave of infection spreads everyone is in for a lot more pain.

Kevin Conlon

No doubt there are legitimate concerns for both health and wealth that need to be carefully considered but the current policy settings may well be a case of the “cure being worse than the disease”. Australians deserve to be respected by their political leaders. The right to live freely was hard won (think Anzac Day) and should not be surrendered easily. Respect goes both ways, Prime Minister! Ordinary Australians (particularly health workers) have achieved the encouraging outcomes in the fight against COVID-19 through their responsible and caring actions. Yet these outcomes are being attributed to Government and Police actions. I stand with the other signatories to this Open Letter in calling for appropriate easing of unnecessary restrictions that impose rather than mitigate significant risk. Political ambition and media hype aside, we can rely on Australians to do the right thing. This is the true reason why we live in a great country! Kevin Conlon CEO -Equity Release Industry Council (ERIC)

harvey kalman

Totally agree please add me to the letter. Thanks

G O

To paraphrase Churchill ...’the needs of the many, outweigh the needs of the few’ . La Trobe Financial donated $1m for bushfire relief and a further $1m for front line hospital staff during Coronavirus. An indefinite lock down is a far too high price for our young people to pay through loss of their livelihood. PM please get the economy back to work! G. K. O’NEILL OAM CEO & President La Trobe Financial

Lindsay Maroney

I must admit I am a bit surprised by a couple of comments to what is a discussion that needs to be had. I am vulnerable to this disease being a diabetic with lung issues. I have been warned to protect myself, and I will to the best of my ability. We know the vulnerable need protection, so do what we can to look after them. HOWEVER. The sooner we get as many of us back to work the better. If left to long, a lot will have no work to return to, and the results will be worse than virus itself. We have to look after all Aussies, or even more will be vulnerable. Twiggy and Gina have been hardly affected by this virus. They have gone out of there way to help our cause. Happy to add my name to the letter, and you really have been a must read the last couple of months in particular. Keep up the good work.

Stuart Barker

There is no logic to any response by the government during this crisis. Free childcare for what reason? Children still in close contact and due to go back to school next week with no social distancing while cafes and restaurants can't open! Residential care homes opening up putting the most vulnerable at risk while people can't go to the beach together. Double dole payments an a 750 bonus for what reason? Part time workers who worked as little as 3 hours a fortnight now getting 1500 while others have had a 50% pay cut. And those that say lives are being put at risk by relaxing the lockdown are not aware of the genuine science and data that prove that Covid 19 has a death rate similar to the flu. There has never been a successful vaccine produced for any Coronavirus, and it's very unlikely this will eventuate. There is no evidence that a lockdown works. We must follow Sweden's example. What will we do in the long run? Further problems will happen if this continues. Over 50 years of data shows that unemployment leads to high mortality rates.. For every 1% increase in unemployment in the US, annual deaths increase by 57,000. Governments in Europe and the US are attributing far too many deaths to Covid 19 when the patients are having heart attacks, brain aneurysms, kidney failure, etc even if they are asymptotic or they can assume they have Covid 19. Crazy! I could go on and on with scientific evidence. @Trevor Myers. The poorest workers are being affected the most.

Christian Dandre

Dr Christian Dandre, Partner Eminence Capital Management

John Forest

Sounds a bit like people seeing the tremendous progress all Australians are making yelling "follow me". As far as our right to live freely is concerned that is a ridiculous interpretation. The Americans should be changing their Patrick Henry quotation to "Give me liberty AND give me death" as the rabble swarm in the streets.

Dan Petrie

Chris, please add me to the signatories. Dan Petrie, Economic Data Journalist and Tutor, Queensland University of Technology

Fran Alt

No point having a C19 free country but left with a huge unemployment number and debt to be paid back. There will be lots of winging then. Vulnerable people should take precautions and the rest of the community get on with earning a quid to keep the economy going. More people hurt as we continue along this path. Fran Alt Small business owner

Christopher Joye

Sure guys

Ian Ashman

Looking at the list of signatories...nah. I'll listen to the scientists and doctors.

Bradley Wilkinson

I appreciate where the "reopen the economy" crowd are coming from. However, I feel they are potentially being premature and the fact that the current restrictions are working should be celebrated. If government, the banks and business work together then we should come through this without a depression or any long term negative impact to the economy. I firmly believe that there is no reason for any business to go bankrupt due to the restrictions because the banks should be seeking to support their customers through this period because as you would know our banks have strong balance sheets and are being supported by the RBA. There are risks to the economy with the first risk being if the Coronavirus breaks out of control, and the second risk is if the government looks to unwind its stimulus measures too soon, as it was the government's decision to chase surpluses that turned both the 1890s and 1930s recessions into depressions. Surely our economy is stronger than the "reopen the economy" crowd seem to be suggesting. Surely we are flexible and resilient enough to deal with this.

Brian Becker

Please add me to the list. Dereck Becker Titania CS Global PTY LTD

Mark Cardell

Love how the writer tries to blame "some academic economists" for the continuing lockdowns. it is the very conservative government taking advice from the top scientific and medical experts in the country. If the neolibs in power are prepared to take such drastic measures then it shows how serious the situation is. Read between the lines and the selfish nature of this open letter is clear to see.

Mark G

"Some of You May Die, but that is a Sacrifice I'm Willing to Make" - Lord Maximus Farquaad

Ben Lacey

I see it day in day out as a corporate banker, business is bleeding, certain industries will never be the same and our younger workers are copping the major brunt of it - the one's whom are least susceptible to the disease yet more so impacted. The shut downs, the pauses of major contracts, slowing of civil works, inability to trade goods internationally among others are going to cause irreparable damage to cash flow, liquidity and results in FY20 results. Its those financial impacts reported this financial year which will, for many industries, hamper their ability to invest or borrow to grow in FY21 and beyond. Shrivelled earnings and weaker balance sheets, from a bankers perspective, will make it harder for us to support corporate Australia out the otherwise through this coming financial year and the next................................If only EBITDAC (earnings before interest tax depreciation & Covid-19) was a legal accounting measure, alas it will not be. SO we then must now get on with it and reopen and allow.commerce to "re-start" now to start blocking the haemorrhages and open up FY21 with some semblance of commercial normally or road back to it. It goes without saying - in accompaniment with ongoing containment measures to protect our most vulnerable. Ben Banker

Andrew

Enough with this sort of arrogance. We have a Govt getting the advice it needs from people qualified to give it. As measured as this letter tries to be, we don’t need a random group of people fuelling more uncertainty.

Brendan K Beare

Please add me to the list. Professor Brendan K. Beare, School of Economics, The University of Sydney.

Andrew Smith

Similar has been promoted elsewhere (including by or support from fringe groups) in the US, UK and Germany, driven by strong libertarian (and some cases lunatic left) tendencies. Fact is Australia has relatively modest government debt levels by global standards and an ability to raise funds for short to long term investment, and consumption. Further, suggestion that government debt equates with household debt that needs to be paid off quickly through austerity, or heaven forbid equitable taxes vs. demands for tax cuts, is not so pressing provided money is flushed through the economy, in good time. In other words, when the medical and related science gives the all clear versus a premature and sudden opening up which may well make things worse due to another wave of virus (as occurred with Spanish flu), would self defeating.

Noddy Smith

I'm sure he'll get to your letter after he's finished reading Malcolm's book.

Wayne Findlay

Please ad me to the list too, Chris. I have always believed that the absolute vulnerable and the elders over 60 should have had the utmost protection and at the same time those able to work should work with as much protection as possible to keep the economy rolling along. Then only those who could not work are assisted with government payments. More money to go to those who really need it including casuals who may not have been in work for 12 months as it simple is a tie over till they return to work. I am a retired person receiving no assistance from the government who has watch my retirement savings diminish by over 40%...a big hit if I say. Furthermore, Chris the way you have documented the Covid19 stat’s has been very impressive! Thank you.

Erl Happ

Erl Happ. Happs Wines and Pottery Margaret River WA Our business is in the country and tourist/travel/holiday based. There have been no new cases reported anywhere in the region for three weeks. We have just re-opened on a scaled down, low cost basis. Nobody is coming. No traffic, its deathly quiet. Leave is being paid out. Soon, if we are to continue to pay employees we will have to dip into personal savings, the self managed super fund, sell assets or go into debt. Perhaps those on the highest incomes will be asked to accept a salary sacrifice. The preconditions for enabling freedom of movement are not yet attained. That's what the medical people need to sort out. Off the top of the head : First, three weeks with no more cases. Second, tests freely available, instant results and the cost met by the community. Third, ability to screen and certify all incoming travellers at point of entry. In the absence of a vaccine, or drugs that can counter the infection and with cases still popping up perhaps because the youthful are gregarious, the borders are leaky or the virus is transmitted by animals including domestic pets, livestock or migratory birds then an effective means of contact tracing (via mobile phone) must be accepted to enable the rate of attrition and the associated costs of caring for the infected to be kept to manageable levels. If eradication is impossible, a vaccine is not available, no drug is effective, then the rapid contact tracing option will be necessary, and will need to be enforced and the particularly vulnerable will have to manage their social contacts with vigilance. Are we willing to have the contact tracing option implemented? And under what circumstances? Or do we simply tell people it's every man for himself as the ship sinks. Then there will be anarchy.

Andrew Decker

Most of the restrictions now are senseless and lack logic. We are on track to destroy the future and the future of our young, while we are also letting countless people with other illnesses (like cancer) fall between the cracks and sadly, yes, also die. Signed: Dr Zita Ballok, F.A.R.C.P.

Lee Denman

Go ahead and open up early to appease a few money hungry financiers. Beware the second wave ahead such as seen in Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong, United States and Spain (just this weekend). The strain on the economy will be far greater after a second wave you can guarantee yourself of that. All the money you have invested will fall out when peoples confidence drops to 0 again. Are you sure it’s worth the risk? I am 29 and have lost both jobs. I can tell you for a fact that not one of my peers in the same boat has been caused any hardship and issues of depression or suicide. Quite the opposite in fact. This is a time where we are being forced to spend more time with our loved ones. Regarding friends, we can see one at time currently and soon to be up to 5-10. Do not assume OUR safeties or try to appear concerned just to appease your own personal financial agenda

Denis Prodea

No doubt Christopher as a fund manager would like to see the country get going again as would I if it is possible without major mortality and morbidity. What price can we put on the lives of our loved ones? We are facing the ultimate balancing act with this CCP virus. Christopher the worst case scenario is facing us. The WHO for all their deficiencies is concerned that immunity will NOT be forthcoming in most people recovering from the virus. That is a disaster if so. That means NO vaccine as a vaccine usually contains denatured virus particles or proteins from them. That means the immune system will not respond very well to the vaccine and if it does it's short lived and you can get reinfected. Drug trials on hydroxychloroquine are coming back negative for efficacy. The anti-viral drugs are failing the trials as well.Think about what this means for the future. If so the only way out is to completely eradicate the virus from countries one by one like has occurred with smallpox. Unfortunately this virus is smarter than smallpox.. Countries who can't do it become extinct economically and their populations dwindle. Even countries that can eradicate it will be economically ravaged as it will take a long time to do it and much damage will be done along the way. Get used to no international travel or tourists coming to Australia for years. This Wuhan Wog disaster as they say isn't over till the fat lady sings and I'm not hearing any music let alone any fat lady singing!

Parth Desai

Unfortunately in the finance/economic industry everything is seen from the dollar lens, This comes through especially with China where the $ trumps everything else...I will also stick to recommendation from health experts and will encourage the Victorian leader to continue the lockdowns.

William Rowlinson

William Rowlinson 87 aged pensioner worried about long term effecting our young

Brett Turner

The pace for relaxing controls needs to have a framework that allows impacts to be measured, so the number of cases does not explode as it has in other countries. Our success until now, unfortunately also means that we are just as vulnerable as we were at the beginning because so few Australians have been exposed (assuming having had COVID-19 provides some immunity). The risk has not changed. I would provide more support if the list above included more doctors, scientists and executives of major companies versus professional investors, academics and politicians. The letter lacks facts or a reasoned argument to suggest why and how we should "reactivate" the economy.

Alasdair Wardle

"High debt levels limit the ability of future governments to deliver world-class health and education systems and other much-needed public amenities". Why? We have been told by some economists for years that 'debt' levels are not sustainable. We have been told that the credit card is 'maxxed out'. It has proven to be nonsense. Australia issues its own currency and does not need to be constrained by an artificial level of debt. Inflation might be a problem, particularly if the productive capacity of Australia and other countries is constrained. The qualifications and background in economics of some of the signatories don't help your argument.

David Bainbridge

Christopher has been quoting stats as if they give a scientific basis for predictions that this infection is just about licked in Australia. That ignores the fact that, in the absence of a vaccine, the only widely researched vulnerability of viruses is heat, something that has been plentiful in Australia, less so in coming months. The world missed a bullet with SARS, which was largely confined to a winter season in the northern hemisphere and disappeared when warmer weather there raised ambient temperatures above 22C. A study of SARS in Hong Kong indicated that a large proportion of transmissions there were in air conditioned hotels and hospitals, not because of air circulation, but because of low controlled temperature and humidity that prolonged virus longevity. COVID 19 is far more infectious and although Australia has been enjoying an Indian Summer, it has had to use strong measures to limit its spread. The real test for Australia and other southern hemisphere countries will be in coming months when peak temperatures are regularly below 22C. Current NY temperatures - 8-19C - are similar to ranges that can soon be expected Downunder. That will be the test. A workable vaccine was never developed for SARS. In the absence of one for COVID 19, the best long term strategy is to totally eliminate the virus so there are none left to spread. Otherwise this virus will keep biting us, until there is a vaccine or the weather warms up again. David Bainbridge

James Light

right on, end the lockdown immediately, it is the worst idea ever perpetrated

Ruth Kassulke

I sympathise with all of the views above. I have always been concerned about whether we took the right path. But having taken the path, let's stay on it; I have been watching the world stats since January and it looks to me just 2-3 more weeks of this horror could place us in a position of being one of only a handful of countries (e.g. Greenland) that will have the infection rate so low it will be effectively wiped out. Then the lucky country can really get back to business. And no entry to Aus without quarantine.

Marcus Chong

100% agree. Ease these ridiculous restrictions ASAP. Otherwise the cure will be worse than the virus.

Brian Grebert

Thank goodness our Governments are taking the advice of medical EXPERTS and not those who think decision making should be determined by economic criteria as the dominant factor. Self interest and the reinforcement of long held positions regarding the market and the role of government need to be reevaluated in such unique times as we're experiencing this year.

George Bloomfield

Please add me to the signatories George M Bloomfield Managing Director BLOOMFIELD TREMAYNE & PARTNERS P/L

Christopher Joye

Added George

Peter Sullivan

These guys want everyone to think a staged withdrawal is all their idea and the CMO and State & fed govts and not int the process of formulating a plan.

Susan Briggs

I strongly support this letter. If we did not know about the virus in Australia, we would not have noticed its effects. People would have just thought there was an odd strain of flu going around. People have been hoodwinked by those who seek power for power's sake. Frighten people and you can do anything. We should have followed Sweden's model. Telling people that they cannot hug their mother, even in jurisdictions where there have been no cases of covid 19 for several days, reveals the true nature of the power crazed people who seek to control us. And, as for telling people that they should stay at home - that is the worst thing to do. People need sunlight to boost their immune systems. Tell people not to mix unnecessarily with other people, by all means, and tell people to practice social distancing makes sense, but telling people to stay at home causes more problems than it solves. I would not be surprised if we see children with rickets from people being told to stay at home.

Tim Flynn

I have thirty years on experience as a senior finance professional, mainly in the Government and NFP sector and consider it vital that the country get back to work as soon as possible. Tim Flynn MBA BA(Hons) PGCE FRSA CIPD LGMA