Trudeau turns to the bully pulpit as the pandemic surges — because that’s what he has left

On the darkest day since the frightening spring, Justin Trudeau returned to the stoop of Rideau Cottage and attempted to enlist the rhetorical powers of his office against the crashing second wave of COVID-19.

For the first two minutes, the prime minister ignored the prepared text and spoke plainly and directly into the camera.

“So …” he began. “I don’t want to be here this morning. You don’t want me to be here this morning. But here we are again.”

Probably no crisis has ever been defeated by the power of the bully pulpit alone. Trudeau’s own televised address eight weeks ago obviously did not change the trajectory of this pandemic.

But the public platform of national leadership is one thing a prime minister can bring to bear against a health emergency — and without necessarily subverting the practical and political realities of constitutional jurisdiction in a federation.

WATCH: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on the second wave

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau returned to the steps of Rideau Cottage where he made an impassioned plea to Canadians to slow the spread of the COVID virus. 2:25

It remains to be seen how much further Trudeau might be compelled to go, either in words or actions.

As the rate of infection has increased across successive provinces this fall, there have been calls for the federal government to do something. Again, for instance, Trudeau has been asked by reporters whether he might invoke the Emergencies Act.

However frustrated some experts and critics might be with how certain provincial or municipal leaders have handled this fall’s second wave, it’s not obvious that anything would be improved if local decisions were suddenly being made out of Ottawa. In fact, it’s easier to imagine how federal imposition could make things worse, practically or politically.

The limits of federal authority

No government can claim to have handled its response to this pandemic perfectly and conflict between different levels of government is unlikely to make responding to the pandemic any easier. A premier who is reluctant to impose new restrictions might become only more recalcitrant after being chastised publicly by the prime minister.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford already has publicly warned the prime minister against trying to assume provincial authority. And it’s fair to assume that politicians and citizens in places like Alberta and Saskatchewan would be even less inclined to welcome anything that looked like Justin Trudeau telling them what to do.

There has been a scramble for tidy answers in and around the House of Commons lately. After being briefed on Thursday about the latest modelling, Conservative leader Erin O’Toole — whose position presumably is complicated by the fact that several of the provinces struggling the most to contain COVID-19 are led by conservative governments — released a statement that revived his party’s claim that federal regulators should have moved faster to approve new rapid tests, and that the current spread of COVID-19 can be somehow blamed on a lack of such testing.

Conservative leader Erin O’Toole has been pointing fingers at the federal response while largely leaving provincial governments alone. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

O’Toole also criticized the Trudeau government for not yet explaining how a vaccine will be distributed (though the arrival of a vaccine is likely still months away) and called on the federal government to provide more timely information about regional outbreaks (though municipal and provincial governments have the most direct control over such data).

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, meanwhile, called on the federal government to take over management of a chain of long-term care centres that is owned by the Public Sector Pension Investment Board, a federal Crown corporation.

As one epidemiologist suggested earlier this week, jurisdictional realities do not prevent a prime minister from seizing the bully pulpit that comes with his office.

The release of the new national data this morning set the stage for Trudeau’s appearance at Rideau Cottage. Every slide of the presentation was bleak, culminating in a chart that showed how much worse things could get. The heading on one page read: “Longer-range forecast indicates that a stronger response is needed now to slow the spread of COVID-19.” Another page showed “rapid growth” occurring in each of the six provinces outside the Atlantic Bubble.

Providing cover for the premiers

Two hours later, Trudeau stepped forward to attempt to commiserate, cajole, warn and motivate.

Even if the prime minister can’t tell other levels of government to take action, he can help clear space for his provincial counterparts to act. With scary new projections hanging over everything, Trudeau empathized with premiers and mayors who were making the “very tough choices” to re-impose restrictions on public activity and he made the case for those decisions. “The best way to protect the economy is to get the virus under control,” Trudeau said.

WATCH: Trudeau pleads with Canadians to protect front-line workers

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau returned to the steps of Rideau Cottage, where he made an impassioned plea to Canadians to slow the spread of the COVID virus. 2:37

Showing as much emotion as he ever has when addressing the public, Trudeau singled out the efforts of front line workers. “They have been heroes. they have been going above and beyond anything they might have thought they were signing up for,” he said. “We need to help them. We need to give them a break. We need to stop this spike in cases.”

He beseeched Canadians to download the COVID Alert App and he tried to make the pandemic personal. “Every person that we lose to this virus is someone just like you who had a family and friends who love them, who had plans for tomorrow and things they still wanted to do,” he said.

Ottawa’s best tool is still money

He was asked whether he was calling for a national lockdown. “No I’m not,” he said. “I am using my voice and my position as prime minister to talk to all Canadians to tell them that we’re in a serious situation … And while I say that, I also am reminding people of the federal government’s promise to people that we would have your backs.”

If there is a lever Trudeau can pull to make it easier for provinces and municipalities to implement the restrictions necessary to limit the spread of COVID-19, it might be in those direct supports to individuals and businesses that the federal government has rolled out, in various forms, over the last nine months.

Speaking to reporters after Trudeau, Singh expressed a general concern that current support programs aren’t sufficient. The federal government has provided $214 billion in such aid, but its resources have not been exhausted and if there is something more that the Trudeau government can do to help people hunker down in the weeks and months ahead, that might be where the discussion needs to go next — at least at the federal level.

Near the end of his prepared remarks, Trudeau indicated that he would be back in front of Rideau Cottage on Monday — signalling a possible return to the daily appearances that he kept up through much of the early spring.

“In the coming days, I’ll be working from home as much as possible and I’ll be addressing you again from these steps next week,” he said. “Now is the time for each of us to once again rise to the occasion and do our part.”

In the ninth month of this pandemic, the extent of a prime minister’s role in responding to the crisis — and Trudeau’s ability to rise to the occasion — are being tested again.

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Bitcoin Could Hit $500,000, According to ARK Invest’s Catherine Wood

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Bet your house on it: three things to know from Australia’s retirement income review | Superannuation

It’s more than 600 pages and doesn’t make any recommendations. Yet, the retirement income review will inform future government policy decisions, provide cover for the government to ditch the superannuation guarantee increase and sets out what retirement could look like for today’s workforce. So what do you need to know?

Inequality continues into retirement – and no one is sure how to fix it

Got a fairly decent work history and your own house? Come retirement time, chances are you will be just fine. But if you are one of the many Australians who has experienced insecure work, or has been unable to buy their own home, retirement won’t be be all lawn bowls, walks on the beach and gin cocktails.

“While the system may provide adequate retirement incomes for many Australians, there is uncertainty about if and how it can compensate for those who may fall short, such as women, lower-income renters, individuals not covered by the superannuation guarantee, involuntary retirees, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and those with a disability,” the report says.

We tend to think of retirement as something that happens when we choose to finish work, or at least reach an age where we can make the decision ourselves.

the review found there is a group of people who may be forced into early retirement because of illness or injury who live in limbo until they are eligible for the aged pension.
The review found there is a group of people who may be forced into early retirement because of illness or injury who live in limbo until they are eligible for the aged pension. Photograph: Bloomberg via Getty Images

But the review found there is a group of people who may be forced into early retirement because of illness or injury who live in limbo until they are eligible for the aged pension. That applies to about 28% of early retirees.

“For many who retire involuntarily due to job-related reasons, the adequacy of their living standards before age pension eligibility age depends on the level of jobseeker payment,” the report found.

If you haven’t been able to afford your own home, you are at even further disadvantage, compared with your home-owning peers. You’ll probably even get less age pension, because while the principle family home is not counted in the means test, any savings and other assets are.

The panel found about one-quarter of all retirees who rent, rather than own their homes, are in financial stress – mostly because of high housing costs. Rental assistance from the government sits at around $139.60 a fortnight for a single person with no dependents. In today’s rental market, that is nowhere near enough.

“A significant number of older Australians who are renting in the private market need additional assistance,” the review panel reported. “Increasing the rate of commonwealth rent assistance will only have a small impact. A new approach is required.”

If you had to retire before you were ready and rent, you have the highest financial stress in retirement. The panel did not outline what the “new approach” could be.

And if you are are also a woman and rent, or retired involuntarily? Then you can count another level of inequality to what is already being experienced. Men have, on average, 22% more in their superannuation balances than women. That is because women are usually the ones who take time out of their careers to raise children, or care for others, and are more likely to be in part-time work. And you are more likely to live longer as a woman, meaning your already smaller super balance has to go further.

“Research suggests having children is associated with a reduction in earnings of up to 80 per cent on average over the following 15 years, compared to women with no children. The higher life expectancy of women means their superannuation balances at retirement need to stretch further.”

Whether or not you have a partner also impacts your retirement – and women are more likely than men to rent on their own.

Throw in being a casual worker, a troubled work history, or being a member of a marginalised community – particularly Indigenous Australians, who have, on average, lower superannuation balances to start with, as well as the compounded issues of difficulty accessing banking and financial services, and you have another mark against you in retirement.

Employees who earn less than $450 a month from an individual employer are exempt from the superannuation guarantee. That is about 3% of the workforce – mainly young, lower income, part-time workers – of whom 63% are women. That is a hang over from when payroll was done by hand, but is less relevant now it is mostly automated.

Those who experienced inequality during their working life will continue to experience it in retirement, and with less Australians entering the home ownership market, and more Australians experiencing insecure work as a consequence of the casualisation of the workforce, this will only become more of an issue.

Those with retirement savings are dying with their money in the bank

Fake reports of a death tax policy may have plagued Labor at the last federal election (Clive Palmer made an expensive attempt to resuscitate them at the last Queensland election too, to no avail) and no major party has plans to reinstate one.

But the report makes a pretty valid case why a bequest tax might not be such a bad thing. Every second motorhome might carry the boomer joke “spending the kid’s inheritance” but, by and large, Australian retirees leave almost all of their retirement wealth behind when they die. One of the biggest reasons for this? Retirees tend to see the earnings from their retirement investments/savings as their liveable wage, rather than the balance of the investments/savings themselves.

For most Australians aged over 65 years old, their home is their biggest asset
For most Australians aged over 65 years old, their home is their biggest asset. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/EPA

For most Australians aged over 65 years old, their home is their biggest asset. It makes up 60%-72% of their net wealth and, without it, the median retiree net wealth drops to $165,000. But retirees tend not to do anything with this form of wealth, other than live it in. They don’t draw down on the equity, they don’t borrow against it, and they don’t leverage it to increase their standard of living. Once they die, it becomes part of a bequest.

Superannuation actually makes up a fairly “minor source of wealth for most current retirees”. They have their homes, and in a lot of cases savings, which they don’t use, instead living off the earnings of their savings. That includes their super balance.

As younger baby boomers, Gen X and Gen Y approach retirement age, superannuation balances will become more important – particularly for millennials who do not own their own homes. They have also spent most of their working life covered by the superannuation guarantee – in the main – so their savings will be more tied up in their super balances, rather than other financial institutions.

But for now, the bulk of retirees are living on the earnings from their savings and superannuation, combined with the age pension. People are living simply in retirement, and then passing on their wealth to their families.

“The majority of people are not using their superannuation balances and other savings effectively to maintain their living standards in retirement,” the review found. “If they did so, they could achieve the same retirement outcome with a lower level of saving and higher standard of living in their working life.

“Current retirement outcomes show savings are often not being used as income, with significant amounts left as unintentional bequests.”

How many people are dying with their money in the bank? One large (unnamed) superannuation fund provided data to the review panel, showing members who died left behind 90% of their retirement balance (including their assets, such as the family home).

That not only lowers the standard of living for retirees, as well as take money from the economy (while costing the budget in concessions such as franking credits, which are being used as income while savings remain untouched in the bank), it is cementing generational wealth equality gaps.

“Without a change to retirees’ drawdown behaviour, bequests from superannuation will grow. Rice Warner projections show average death benefits from superannuation for people aged 65 and over are expected to grow in real terms from an average of $190,000 in 2019 to more than $480,000 by 2059.

“Aggregate death benefits are projected to increase from around $1 of every $5 paid from the superannuation system in 2019 to around $1 of every $3 paid out by 2059. Bequests from housing assets will also increase if housing assets continue to grow and retirees avoid drawing on their housing wealth.”

Those retirees holding on to their homes have sat on real estate goldmines, with the review finding the value of housing has nearly doubled relative to household disposable income since the 1990s. New and prospective home owners though, will spend more of their working-life incomes financing their home, meaning they will have less in retirement savings than today’s retirees, and potentially not as much equity in the homes they have purchased.

Legislated increases to the superannuation guarantee look like being scrapped

While all attention was on franking credits at the last election (something which is mentioned twice in the review’s 600 pages) Scott Morrison committed the Coalition to maintaining the scheduled increases to Labor’s superannuation guarantee. Currently at 9.5%, the increases are scheduled to gradually continue over time, until the mandatory contribution hits 12% in 2025. Cue the not-so-silent war. The closer the legislated increase time came, the louder the “we shouldn’t do this” chorus became, until the pandemic provided enough cover to prompt a delay.

That didn’t quieten the detractors – only emboldened them. Not only did the Coalition allow for those affected by the coronavirus pandemic to have early access to up to $20,000 of their superannuation savings – a move that will cost young workers up to $100,000 in lost savings by the time they retire – they also allowed the withdrawals without a checks and balance system. Those wanting to take part in the scheme just had to apply through the ATO. Proof would only be needed if the ATO decided to check up on you.

The treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, and the prime minister, Scott Morrison, allowed those affected by the coronavirus pandemic to have early access to up to $20,000 of their superannuation savings.
The treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, and the prime minister, Scott Morrison, allowed those affected by the coronavirus pandemic to have early access to up to $20,000 of their superannuation savings. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

The government has defended the scheme as necessary in the response to the economic impact of the Covid pandemic. It will likely use the same reasoning to delay, or more likely scrap, any further increases to the compulsory superannuation contribution.

The review found that the majority of superannuation guarantees are “paid for through lower growth in wages”. Higher super contributions means lower working life pay.

“In general, employers will respond to an increase in employment costs with a combination of four possible changes: 1. Increase the prices of their products or services 2. Reduce employee wages (or wages growth) 3. Reduce the amount of labour demanded 4. Reduce their profits Even if wages are unaffected, lower labour demand and higher prices are also costs borne by workers,” the review panel reported.

But there is little evidence employers will return foregone super increases in wage growth. The report assumes (based on Myefo data) nominal wages will grow by 4% per year. That hasn’t happened since 2009. Lower wages growth equals lower retirement savings. Keeping the super contribution rate at 9.5% would mean lower income earners would see balances of 16%-18% lower than if it had been increased to 12%, while middle and higher income earners would lose between 14%-15%.

But the review also finds maintaining the super guarantee at 9.5%, without the slated increases over the next five years, could result in lifting working life wages by 2%.

And that’s all the government needs to say it’s off the table. More money in your pocket now, while the nation is in recession, with plans to sell the house, or at least draw down on its equity (if you own one), spend retirement savings (if you have them), access pensioner loan schemes (if you’re eligible) and remember the age pension is there as a safety net (if you aren’t relying on it for housing and living costs) in the future.

We won’t know for sure until closer to next year’s budget, which is due to be handed down in May. But given these findings, and the government’s current disposition towards superannuation, you could probably bet the house on the legislated increases being scrapped.

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Africa: High Death Rate in African Covid-19 Intensive Care Units

Hospitals across the continent have few resources. A new study shows the consequences.

The interim results of an Africa-wide study of hospitalised Covid-19 patients shows that the continent is facing far higher mortality rates in intensive care units than other parts of the world, and that the higher death rates are best explained by scarce resources.

Covid-19 has produced huge volumes of data in a short period of time, but our knowledge of how the SARS-CoV-2 virus has affected hospitals in Africa, and other countries in which health resources are limited, is scarce.

The study titled “An African, multi-centre evaluation of patient care and clinical outcomes for patients with COVID-19 infection admitted to high-care or intensive care units”, is awaiting peer review. The researchers gathered data of patients with Covid-19 infections admitted to high-care or intensive care units (ICUs) across six African countries.

The study led by Professor Bruce Biccard from UCT included 1,243 patients in 38 hospitals in Egypt (9), Ethiopia (7), Ghana (2), Libya (7), Nigeria (2) and South Africa (11) between April and early September. The study is continuing until December, but the authors of the study decided to analyse data once a death threshold was met in the participating hospitals.

The study’s aim is to find out how Covid-19 patients admitted to intensive care units are affected by the unit’s resources, comorbidities and critical care intervention.

631 of the 1,153 adult patients (55%) that were referred to intensive care or high-care units following suspected or known COVID-19 infection in the hospitals studied died. By comparison, global mortality of patients admitted to intensive care is 31%. In these hospital ICUs, the mortality rate is between 18 and 29 deaths per 100 admissions higher than in the rest of the world.

What explains the higher death rate among African patients?

African hospitals tend to have far fewer resources than hospitals in Europe and North America. Only half of the patients referred to critical care units were able to be given an ICU bed. Africa is estimated to have 0.8 critical beds per 100,000 people. According to the study, this low volume of beds may lead to only very sick patients being admitted to critical care.

Once in critical care, the resources available for patient treatment are limited, and the use of these scarce resources was limited further.

Only 60% of hospitals were able to offer dialysis, and it was only used on 8.7% of patients. Global studies suggest that 23.2% of patients requiring critical care also require dialysis, which, according to the study, means that twice as many patients in this study may have needed dialysis.

Similar findings were made with proning (placing patients so that they are lying on their stomachs, which reduces Covid-19 mortality). Proning was only available to 60% of patients, and only performed on 9.6% of patients on ventilation. While proning may seem easy, it’s actually a difficult process for patients in ICU on ventilators and many units may not have had the manpower or confidence to do it. According to the study “at least” four times more patients should have received proning while on ventilators.

The study was able to show with some confidence that certain factors do not explain the higher African death rate. These include comorbidities, including hypertension, diabetes, HIV and higher body-mass index (a measure of obesity). (Note: Some of these factors are associated with higher Covid-19 mortality, but they do not explain why mortality in African hospitals is higher.)

According to its authors this is “the only study from a population with high HIV burden”. The authors cautiously say that the data suggests that HIV/AIDS is not an important contributor to Covid-19 mortality.

While African hospitals have comparatively lower numbers of medical staff than the rest of the world, this was not directly identified as an explanation for higher mortality. The authors did note that limited staff numbers might explain why only half of referred patients were admitted into critical care.