Interesting times

I was in a meeting last week when I asked someone from our Ops department (where I used to work) if there are any contingencies in place if and when COVID-19 became widespread. He looked at me as if I was daft.

I think the danger of COVID-19 is less than the panic-stricken reaction to it would suggest. That’s not to say COVID-19 presents no threat, which clearly it does. The infection rate has just about reached the exponential factor, which is why I don’t think it’s going way for a while and will get much worse before it gets better. Fatality rates seem to be somewhere between 1%-3%, the variance likely a factor of population demographics and treatment. In itself, it’s far from being a death sentence, but if enough people contract the virus then potentially that’s still a lot of people – the elderly, the infirm, the unhealthy mostly. And that could be many hundreds of thousands, even millions, across the globe.

Quite logically, everyone is doing their best to limit the spread, which is why we have travel bans and quarantine periods – and, just this morning, the whole of Italy being locked down. There are already sporting events going on in empty stadiums, and one of the biggest tennis tournaments outside the grand slams has now been postponed. Locally, there are schools sending students home as precautions.

All this may well slow the rate of infection, but I expect the virus will take hold nonetheless – and we should be prepared for this.

It’s the consequences of the virus which cause the greatest concern. World markets have plummeted. International trade has drastically slowed with China locked down. And, of course, we’ve seen the panicked reaction of investors in the market, and the general public with panic buying of so-called essential items. The shadow of the virus looms large ahead of any real impact on health.

Governments have a role to play in this, and the Australian government has been slow to react in any substantial way. I think by now there should have been a campaign to educate the public, to allay fears around essential supplies, and to advise in case of infection. On top of that is the critical stimulus required to keep the economy going as it begins to tank. That’ll be interesting as the government had ruled out – for political reasons – a package such as the Labor government successfully deployed during the GFC (and which staved off the worst effects of that). They’re also saying that there’ll be no increase to Newstart which, besides being a longstanding moral imperative, would be an extremely effective measure to stimulate economic activity: if you give money to people who have none and are struggling to get by, then they’ll spend it.

Much of this should have happened long before the threat of a coronavirus.

Practically speaking, I think we must expect that COVID-19 will ultimately take hold here as it has in other places. In due course, I expect there’ll be lockdowns across the country. There are already discussions around sporting events being played in closed stadiums. It only takes a few more (and increasing) cases of the virus for business being shut down selectively. And if it’s not the business enforcing protocols around sick staff, then it’s likely building management will do so, and the authorities.

Then you look at such critical services as the public transport that channel hundreds of thousands of people every day into our hubs. They’re a fertile ground for infection at any time, but with COVID-19 taking hold, are as dangerous as any sporting ground, and probably more so.

On top of all this is the social disruption we’re already witnessing, and the potential for stigmatisation.

We’re not at that point now, and it may never get to that stage – but I expect it to become a lot worse here and abroad. At the current rate of infection I reckon we have about 6 weeks before it gets to that point.

This is why I asked if there are any contingencies. It only takes one person to come down with COVID-19 in Ops and the whole area will shut down – that’s a critical function at the busiest time of year. (Pumping my own tyres, I suggested that chatbot and live chat – which agents can log into from home – were options to upscale).

I don’t worry about myself. I’m not downplaying the health risk, but I don’t fit the victim profile. That doesn’t mean that life won’t be turned upside down by this. I can foresee a time when anyone with any cough or cold is asked to stay home as a precaution. And if there’s a case of COVID-19, or if services are cut, then many of us are likely to be trapped at home.

For me, fortunately, I can work from home via VPN. I’m guessing that’s not currently an option for 90% of the workforce. And, more or less, that makes a lot of what I might do moot as I work in a channel.

Interesting times ahead.

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