Forget coronavirus – what about the travel bug?

Good times for travellers have gone, and the travel industry will never be the same again.

Two things about Covid-19: its spread outside China started in major travel destinations – Milan, New York, Sydney – and Australian victims include a disproportionate number of rich people.

We know about the wealth bias because last week the Victorian and NSW governments released details about infection distribution in those states. The largest outbreaks have happened in our richer suburbs, places like Waverley and Woollahra in Sydney and Melbourne’s Toorak and South Yarra.

The picture emerging is familiar: richer people tend to travel further and more often, both by air and aboard cruise ships.

The pandemic has highlighted a couple of other well-known facts: that mass air travel spreads a virus at great speed to far-flung places, and that cruise ships with their thousands of passengers are hotbeds of infection.

At any given time in the past few years, until last month, about 10,000 civil aircraft were in the sky and 300-odd cruise ships were floating around the world’s oceans. Their total human complement approached two million.

Think about that. Roughly half of all the people living in Sydney or Melbourne rubbing shoulders up in the air or on the high seas, all at once. Most of them tourists.

This is without any historic parallel. Once, a new arrival in town would draw audiences keen to hear every last detail of the traveller’s tales, for the simple reason that until the last century exotic travel for non-military purposes was expensive and rare.

Ever-cheaper fares from the 1990s made global travel commonplace. In some circles, and not just richer ones, it would have been hard to find anyone who wasn’t planning or undertaking or just back from their “trip”.

That’s apart from the burgeoning band of aerial commuters who routinely fly hundreds, even thousands of kilometres in the course of a day’s work. In Australia we’ve developed a whole new travel sector: fly-in-fly-out workers commuting between large cities and remote work sites.

Covid-19 has stopped all that dead in its tracks. Airports that never slept are now comatose. There are thousands of travellers stranded abroad, fleets of planes grounded for who knows how long, travel agencies closed and tens of thousands of travel workers out of a job.

Cruise ships were once welcomed to ports by governments, tourism leaders and many others pleased to be on their tour map. They became familiar sights on many waterfronts including the deep water port of Hobart, able to accommodate the biggest of them.

Their sleek, picture-perfect image has suddenly vanished. Now they are viewed as harbingers of doom, floating petri-dishes. Thousands of edgy passengers, including 2500-odd Australians, are stranded aboard as country after country refuses them permission to land.

Whatever their mode of transport, Australian travellers returning home are now forced into two weeks of isolation. If they’re Tasmanians they will have to suffer another two weeks, and if they live on King Island or Flinders Island they face yet another two weeks.

The pandemic has been a severe jolt to a nation of travellers living for the next holiday abroad. It has left most of our favourite destinations in partial or full lockdown, with others joining them daily. Far from being welcomed, visitors are shunned and told to leave.

That was Peter Gutwein’s message, as premier and minister for tourism, to visitors to our holiday isle last week. The few who remained in hotels, caravan parks or camping grounds last week were bluntly told to get on the next plane or ferry.

Contrast that with the red carpet rolled out to visitors by his predecessor in both capacities, Will Hodgman, who took pride in the record numbers of tourists attracted to the island.

In these extraordinary times, fact is far stranger than fiction. We’ve been led to believe that normality will return when the virus is corralled, but it won’t. We are going through a revolution, with all its associated traumas. Economic recovery will be long, difficult and incomplete.

The many thousands of cruise ship and airport refugees caught up in this month’s travel frenzy, plus millions of others who saw and felt their plight, now have a whole new perspective on travel. Those memories will be lurking ready to emerge whenever another trip is contemplated.

For years after the pandemic, the travel industry will be smaller and less adventurous than it was, which for a business whose environmental footprint was getting out of hand would be no bad thing. Significant recovery, if it happens, may take a generation.

Home. As the old song goes, there’s no place like it.

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Dumping the fictions and embracing real economics

The viral pandemic is opening doors to a new, reality-based economics.

A little over three weeks ago, economist Chris Richardson predicted the COVID-19 outbreak would cost the Australian economy less than $6 billion, adding that in Australia’s $2 trillion economy such an outcome would be “not too bad”.

In these extraordinary times, a few weeks is a lifetime. Last week KPMG calculated that our economy will lose at least $17 billion – nearly three times Richardson’s earlier estimate. Chances are KPMG is wrong too, by an order of magnitude.

A “downward spiral” in the Australian economy, said KPMG’s report, could gain momentum, leading to much lower consumer spending and threatening the viability of businesses. Read: bankruptcies, job losses, widespread pain and suffering. That’s apart from the disease itself.

Canberra-based Richardson has built a reputation as an astute, if somewhat conservative, observer and a competent interpreter of the complex processes by which we produce, distribute and consume goods and services.

But he is handicapped from the start by the way he and most of his colleagues continue to frame the economic debate, and by uncertainties and misgivings about his profession’s rigour, impartiality and heavy focus on paid work, and its neglect of the physical world on which all economic activity is based.

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across our world, economists have been exposed for their inability to discern threats on the horizon and inherent weaknesses in national economies.

Well before the triple whammy of drought, fire and pandemic, we all knew about the gap between market and financial hype on the one hand, and on the other the harsh reality of social inequality and our growing underclass of unemployed (or under-employed), homeless and disempowered.

For three decades we have also been warned about a dangerously degraded natural environment affecting Earth’s atmosphere, oceans, waterways, forests and soils, and threatening the viability of many life forms, including humans.

Economists, financial experts and politicians talking of the state of the economy consistently ignore the environmental factor. Their failure to account for it and to give it the public attention it deserves is for me one of the most troubling aspects of modern life.

Between them, government and the commentariat like to define what’s important and what’s not in the economic and financial landscape. Their enduring neglect of the physical world has become far more pressing since the 1980s when the global “free market” began its inexorable rise.

A global free market is the most extreme form of capitalism yet devised, whereby corporations can function without the inconvenient constraints of national laws, boundaries and taxation. The richer the corporation, the greater its freedom to do what it damn well likes.

Every stage in capitalism’s progression to this extreme level has involved disempowerment, starting with us individuals and our communities. Now it threatens not just us, but also public institutions, national governments and civil life itself.

The global free market is like a viral pandemic that has so far proven impossible to contain. But containing it is of the utmost importance. Now, COVID-19 has given us an opening to do just that.

Human populations have responded poorly to a slowly growing climate crisis, but a viral pandemic is altogether different. People can quickly and strongly focus on something that directly threatens them and their loved ones. Spin and other forms of misinformation can be politically deadly.

Survival aside, the pandemic has focused attention on the needs of people and systems close to home, on the need to shorten supply chains, on using local expertise and manufacturing, whose environmental impact we can control. We are seeing on a daily basis the misfortune that can befall us when that local control is lacking.

So what to do? First we must save a functioning society by doing as medical authorities say. Then as we recover we must renounce the ludicrous fictions on which capitalist economics is based: small government, endless growth, limitless wealth and the trickle-down effect.

We must build on radical measures governments are now being forced to employ and pursue stronger corporate regulation and a root-and-branch reform of global and national economic instruments and agreements.

Money is a human construct but the coronavirus is real, as leaders now see all too clearly. We need them to take that a step further, to get a handle on the real basis of our economy: the land, sea and air which are the source of all wealth.

Last century we dabbled in triple bottom line accounting to try to integrate this reality into economic management. We must try again until we succeed. Without it, economics is pointless fantasy.

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COVID-19: doing what science says we must

Warned about a human health threat, governments have responded quickly and decisively. Warned about a planetary threat they sat on their hands.

The minuscule COVID-19 virus – 50 million of them could fit on the head of a pin – is causing global mayhem on a scale we’ve not seen since the last world war.

With stock markets crashing, travel business virtually vanished, schools and shops and offices and borders closing, sporting and cultural events cancelled, jury trials postponed, it is already a big economic shock. Public life is shutting down.

UK prime minister Boris Johnson called the coronavirus pandemic “the worst public health crisis for a generation” in which “many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time”. His top medical science advisers estimated that actual infections in the UK numbered around 10 times the official figure for diagnosed cases. They said that the virus will eventually infect 80 per cent of the country’s population.

We haven’t heard that from our own leadership, but those rules of thumb applied to Australia would put current infections in this country already at several thousand and the total number of people eventually infected reaching 20 million. Not insubstantial.

Health authorities around the world have described simple measures to minimise our risk of infection, like no physical contact with others (waves and nods instead of handshakes or kisses) and regularly washing hands with soap (scrub hands all over for as long as it takes to sing “Happy Birthday”).

All good advice which we should heed, for our own wellbeing and the country’s. With our public hospitals already under strain, the last thing we need is a sudden surge in infections that would swamp medical services. We need the pandemic to unfold as slowly as possible.

The global response to this public health emergency has been mixed, with some governments dragging their heels, but the broad response has included such extraordinary measures such as shutting down public transport, banning public events, even complete population lockdowns.

Australia is yet to feel the full impact of social and economic disruption, but it is already enormous and getting bigger by the day. People are making remarkable efforts to get the word out about how you and I should respond, and governments have responded with exceptional measures.

This hasn’t always gone smoothly. On Friday Scott Morrison announced a ban on large gatherings starting yesterday, but NRL fixtures were allowed to go ahead as planned at the weekend. I heard one independent expert question the three-day delay and say it should have started immediately.

The PM’s personal example hasn’t always hit the mark. At the same COAG gathering he was videoed trying to shake hands with NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian; quite properly she rejected his hand and took his forearm.

And whatever the expert advice about whether he and other cabinet members should be tested for the virus after being in a meeting with infected home affairs minister Peter Dutton, it left a sense of unease to hear him say such a step was unnecessary.

But on the whole, our national and state governments have to their credit accepted that this event is not to be trifled with, demanding a full, thorough response which will necessarily involve a lot of inconvenience and genuine economic hardship.

Contrast that with the response of administrations around the globe to expert advice on another global emergency.

It may not seem so now, but climate change is immeasurably larger and more consequential than COVID-19. The pandemic will pass, but the climate crisis will not. The virus is a threat to human wellbeing but nothing else; climate change poses a current and future threat to every living thing.

That threat has been explained over and over again by those best placed to understand it, the scientific specialists who study its evolution and consequences. They include many of the same public health scientists whose expertise is now informing action to slow the present viral pandemic.

The warnings about climate change have been happening not for just a few months, as is the case with COVID-19, but for decades. They have grown louder as governments have continued to avoid taking effective action, Australia being among the most resistant to the experts’ advice.

In response to a disease crisis the government is willing – with very good reason – to shut down virtually everything at a moment’s notice. Yet after three decades of warning it still can’t find the wherewithal to restrict emissions of planet-warming gases.

But here’s a thing: those emissions are sure to decline in this pandemic year, and if economic recovery is slow may remain low for a while yet. There’s always a silver lining.

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