Australia’s COVID19 wake up call: get smarter about population density

Australia’s COVID19 wake up call: get smarter about population density 

This article authored by Garry Bowditch first appeared in Australian Financial Review on 16 April, 2020

When the war against COVID19 is finished Australia will have depleted its fiscal reserves and be saddled with high indebtedness for at least a decade. Getting the economy back to full health and keeping it that way is key, not only to pay-off national debts, meet the burgeoning costs of a growing and ageing population and to replenish fiscal reserves for the next crisis. 

This is a lot to expect from a small open trading economy subject to so many risks. One prudent measure policymakers must adopt to aid recovery is to strengthen early detection systems and response capabilities to address biological risks like COVID19. 

Pandemics thrive on confusion and indecision. The faster a city, state or nation can learn how to spot the early signs of contagion and take precise decisions to zero in and kill it means more lives saved, less disruption and smaller fiscal rescue packages.

Early intervention should not be an aspirational vision inspired by science fiction, it is urgent and doable. Australia is rapidly becoming more vulnerable to biological risks, because population density is rising very fast. In very near future, social distancing for any prolonged period will be much harder to rely upon to fight pandemics as more Australians take up medium to high rise housing. Less private open space inside and out will stretch community goodwill as it comes to grips with living much closer together while making it easier for pathogens to infect entire communities faster.

It might make sense when times are good for government to require new projects like transport, water and waste and social infrastructure to build up population density to justify costs and deliver more financial benefits from scarce land. But during periods of extreme biological risks the same infrastructure morphs into superhighways for pathogens to spread with alarming efficiency. 

Australia must learn from others if its ambition for greater density is to be responsible and safe. Taiwan is a nation with high population density coupled with significant geopolitical vulnerability. As a matter of necessity, they have a culture of adaptiveness, being technology savvy and most of all collaborative in sharing information across government. In the case of COVID19 this has been key in Taiwan’s effectiveness in getting timely information from immigration, customs, transport and the health sector to pinpoint high risk people and neighbourhoods to quarantine sooner therefore helping avoid costly national shutdowns later.

It also means investing in latent capacity for infrastructure networks to isolate one part, while scaling up another is fundamental to managing continuity of services and acting responsibly to contain people impacted by a serious event. Coordination and collaboration are key, firstly within functional silos such as transport, so there is greater coherence to land use, urban density and transport service offerings to ensure people can remain mobile and safe. Access to online video medical consultations is an excellent example of tapping latent capacity from NBN, health clinic online systems and regulatory tolerance to permit this vital service being more accessible and safer.

It is imperative that infrastructure network owners and operators are incentivised to keep government and each other informed about such threats and cooperate to ensure safety and continuity of services, bound by an objective to quarantine what is unsafe and keep the rest working normally. Densely populated cities like Singapore, Seoul and Taipei have been effective in containing COVID19 because of good alignment of objectives across agencies and a culture to make strong decisions early. 

COVID19 has revealed Australia must fix these key capability gaps concerning the way biological risk impacts humans. The nation is seriously lagging in this area and has not matched successful efforts to implement anti-terrorist measures to protect critical infrastructure and biosecurity in respect of agriculture. 

Australia’s optimism bias towards the benefits of more population density has contributed to blind spots to long term risks. Without investment into vital data, knowledge and monitoring systems to detect abnormalities there is reduced ability for early detection and intervention. Key to this is understanding and predicting how patterns of living in cities and regionals areas change over time and using scenario planning tools to examine long-term consequences.

The practical reality of early intervention means getting information and actionable intelligence about who is sick, how they got that way and what to do about it. While the sciences will do the heavy lifting in finding solutions, it will be helped enormously by a culture of collaboration and trust, so information is shared across bureaucratic and business silos. Cracking this will underpin more skilful and timely interventions, like knowing what and where to shut down specific neighbourhoods, protecting buildings that house the vulnerable while at same time helping preserve the functioning of the rest of the community. 

Australia is an ideal place to do this preparation despite its clumsy federated system. Cities are small to medium sized by global standards and has relatively new infrastructure, combined with deep pools of social media and data from sensors and Internet of Things to track emergent trends. Additionally, there is high quality demographic and spatial data to trace critical interdependencies and their impact on people and businesses. 

Life after COVID19 will be better provided we can learn and adapt from this harrowing experience.  Population density, infrastructure design and management and early intervention skills and capabilities to contain biological risk is an excellent starting place to ensure Australia is a better, safer and more resilient place to live and work. 

Published by garrybowditch

Garry Bowditch is the Executive Director of the Better Infrastructure Initiative at the John Grill Centre, The University of Sydney. He advises governments and private sector organisations in Australia and around the world on infrastructure planning, private sector financing and funding, project delivery and management of major infrastructure.

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