Wikinews interviews Professor Gigi Foster about pandemic control in Australia

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

On July 22, Wikinews interviewed Professor Gigi Foster of School of Economics at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia about measures that the government took to stop the spread of COVID-19, a virus that caused what the World Health Organization declared a pandemic last year.

Gigi Foster, 2021.
Image: Gigi Foster.

Professor Foster is on faculty with the School of Economics at the University of New South Wales. She wrote an Op-Ed in the Sydney Morning Herald, arguing for a case against the so-called "lockdowns" - measures which the state governments in Australia were implementing to stop the spread of COVID-19. These measures included things like limiting the size of gatherings, directing certain business types such as gyms to close or operate at reduced capacity, limiting where people may travel and restricting residents to only leaving their home if they have a reasonable excuse to do so.

In New South Wales, these restrictions were implemented as Public Health Orders, signed by Brad Hazzard, the Minister for Health and Medical Research. Mr Brad Hazzard has authority make these Orders under the Public Health Act 2010, section 7.

Wikinews reached out to Professor Gigi Foster, asking for comment.

The interview was conducted amid an outbreak of COVID-19 in New South Wales, that has resulted in an increase of restrictions from June 26. At the day of interview, residents were legally allowed to go outdoors only for essential shopping, medical care, and exercise, in groups of no more than two people unless of a common household. On July 28, authorities extended these restrictions until the end of August.

Number of hospitalizations in Australia, attributed to COVID-19, as per local health authorities, current as of August 3, 2021.

The current outbreak of the COVID-19 Delta strain started from 'patient zero', reportedly a driver, which includes transporting international flight crew, as NSW Health wrote on June 16. A week later, on June 24, the driver commented that he thought that he caught the virus from a local cafe, where another patron was visibly unwell.

New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian has said that "our mission is to allow our citizens to live as safely and freely as possible", having announced that only authorized workers -- people whose occupation is essential -- could leave home in selected higher risk regions in south-west of Sydney until July 30.

Work of the construction industry has been stopped for several days, and resumed this week with requirement that the construction workers get tested for COVID-19 regularly.



What is your involvement in the Australian society, such as politics, or university teaching or research, today? Can you explain your role?

 ((Gigi Foster )) I'm a professor with the School of Economics at the University of New South Wales, in Sydney, Australia. At the moment I am also serving as the Director of Education and Deputy Head of the School of Economics. I have a continuing research and teaching contract and have been with UNSW since 2009, when I came as a senior lecturer, in a lateral move from the University of South Australia.

Relative to many professors, I engage a lot with the community and media on economic policy matters of the day. I also cofounded and co-run the Consortium for Inclusive Economics Education, housed within the UNSW Business School.

I could go on about details but that gives you an overarching idea I think - any specific questions?

 ((WN )) Looking at a piece that Joel Carrett wrote recently in The Conversation, I have a few questions. Firstly, 'living with the virus' as suggested seems worse than completely eliminating it and bringing the number of cases to complete zero. Is that a correct interpretation? Could you please elucidate further?

 ((Gigi Foster )) "living with the virus" is inevitable, given what we now know about it. One big reason for this inevitability is that the virus was pass to animals, like domestic companion animals, mink, and so on. This means it is simply implausible for us to eliminate it from our world.

 ((WN )) It would seem to me that in Australia, elimination, at least among humans, is the preferred strategy, with the only new cases coming from overseas, normally. Do you consider that is the most optimal solution and if so, why? Are you familiar with cases of transmission to or from animals here?

 ((Gigi Foster )) The rates of death from covid-19 for young people are in the same order of magnitude as seasonal flu - contra the mainstream media's portrayal - and we now have a toolbox full of ways to fight symptoms and lethality of the virus, including ivermectin, vaccines, and so on - which if deployed optimally will significantly reduce the danger that even our more vulnerable people face from the virus.

Your comment also ignores the dangers and costs associated with continuing to focus uniquely on covid, while ignoring everything else that improves, prolongs, and strengthens human life.

I would also mention that as the virus has been mutating - particularly into this new Delta variant - it seems to be becoming less lethal. This is yet another reason why the portrayal in the media, and the neglect of everything else that matters for human life and livelihoods, are inappropriate.

In relation to the fantasy world of keeping ourselves blocked off from the rest of humanity forever, first I'd say that we already have the virus here, so the elimination ship has sailed - and second, that shutting ourselves off from the rest of the world indefinitely will lead inevitably to a decline in living standards, happiness, innovation, productivity, and cross-cultural understanding with Australia, something that I would not wish on my worst enemy's country, much less on Australia, a country I love so much.

 ((WN )) What would you ideally like to see tomorrow, if you were in control? Increased availability of vaccines? Have you found some of the mainstream media narrative coercive or invasive to privacy? If so, who is atfrom your perspective, fault for that and how to best remedy that?

 ((Gigi Foster )) If I were queen (which I hope I never am - monarchy is a worse form of government than democracy, because power corrupts - as we are seeing right now amongst Australian politicians!) I would (1) make the vaccine available to anyone in vulnerable groups who wants it; (2) change the message to "We've got this virus's number; we know how to fight it; everyone, get back to life; (3) buy and disseminate ivermectin, and start randomised controlled trials of it and other potential treatments/preventative approaches to covid; and (4) open the borders and pledge to the Australian people that no domestic border closures, lockdowns, or other mandated restrictions of movements or activities will be put in place in the name of COVID-19.

I would also start the process of reforming our institutions to protect the country the next time a situation like this emerges. I have several suggestions for that, which are contained in my forthcoming book, The Great Covid Panic.

In terms of your question about coercion, yes, some of the messaging around the vaccine has been manipulative, misleading, and coercive. Whether to get a vaccine should be a question for consideration by a patient and his or her GP - not a question to be decided by politicians, employers, or anyone else. From my reading, vaccinating the healthy young against COVID-19 with the vaccines we presently have available is likely to be worse for them, in expectation, than not vaccinating them and risking their exposure to the disease itself.

 ((WN )) When is the book planned to be released?

 ((Gigi Foster )) [The] book should be available in about two months.

 ((WN )) In your piece at Sydney Morning Herald you discuss shelter in place orders and their effect on excessive deaths. One remark that relates to Australia: "The only countries in which they observed a fall in the trajectory of excess deaths were Australia, New Zealand and Malta. “All three countries are islands,” they reported. “In every other country, we observe either no visual change in excess deaths or increases in excess deaths.”" How would you comment? Why is there such a correlation for an island country?

 ((Gigi Foster )) In the island countries that form exceptions in that recent piece of research, covid deaths are so minimal that they don't move the needle on excess deaths one way or the other.

 ((WN )) Do travel restrictions like 'do not go further than 10kms from home' helpful or not, in your view? And why? What is the logic behind 10, as compared to, say 9, or 11 kms?

 ((Gigi Foster )) The reason for the decline in excess deaths in the initial weeks following the imposition of a shelter-in-place order in the island countries is that people stop using their cars as much (so, fewer traffic accidents), they stop having elective surgeries (which in the short run saves lives, as some such surgeries do end in death, sadly), and because they don't go to the bars and generally out and about, and accidentally kill each other. It has nothing to do with COVID-19.

The travel restrictions are an absolute nonsense from a human wellbeing perspective.

 ((WN )) From your view, how effective [were] the measures about limiting size of gatherings; closing some popular venues such as cinemas; social distancing and face masks requirements?

 ((Gigi Foster )) More than anything, what they show you is the degree to which the way we are being governed at the moment stems from politicians' instinct to try to "control" and thereby achieve success - rather than looking at the data, facing reality, and trusting people to help each other and protect each other as best they can. Since the start of this whole period in history, in March 2020, I have advocated for targeted protection of vulnerable populations - and I still do. This means the targeted use of social distancing, sensible hygiene, etc., when vulnerable people are involved.

For the vast majority of people under 50 years old without health problems, this virus is the least of their worries.

So I do not support blanket restrictions on movement, gatherings, masking, etc.

 ((WN )) Do you have any comment on the number of people and conditions in which citizens have been required to self-isolate as per the contact tracing instructions?

 ((Gigi Foster )) Contact tracing as a general principle seems to me unlikely to pass a cost-benefit test (which by the way is what the blanket lockdown policies should have had to pass, and never did, before being implemented). It's extremely expensive, and you just don't gain that much useful information that actually ends up saving lives or reducing suffering - which are the only things that matter. I can see a role for very careful staff rostering, testing (with reliable tests), etc in and around aged care homes, etc. Again, not for the whole population.

 ((WN )) Does that seem counter intuitive to someone who says 'but Jane visited a bar, and knowing the four other people there and asking them to isolate and get tested would help'? How can this narrative be disputed? With Jane being [infectious], as per a test on a next day

 ((Gigi Foster )) If Jane and the others who decided to visit the bar were informed of the risks (which, if they are young and healthy, are low), then the government has no business interfering in their choice to go to the bar. Cases in healthy young people are arguably a good thing, as they allow the development of natural immunity - which is just as effective if not more effective than the immunity conferred by vaccines.

 ((WN )) If the current restrictions appear to be poorly thought through, how would you suggest to challenge them? Who - public, businesses, or someone else - can help, and how?

 ((Gigi Foster )) Will we ever possibly lose a young person with COVID-19? Yes, of course, we may. Just as we lose a few young people with influenza, pneumonia, etc, every year. But the relative risks for young people particularly from keeping our societies locked up are just massive. Mental health problems, economic hardship, relationship problems, disruption to schooling and training, lack of celebrations of important life milestones... It is heart-breaking.

It is also heart-breaking for the older people we have isolated away from their families, to while away their final years alone. The vulnerable need to be offered the vaccine, to have full information and access to prophylaxis and treatment options, and then to rejoin their communities and have as much visitation from their friends and families as they wish. They need it. Social interaction literally saves lives. We are a social species and we ignore our social needs at our peril.

In terms of how to challenge the current policies, I am trying everything I can from my platform as an independent academic - I am writing, speaking on TV and radio, doing podcasts, etc. I also resist by not wearing a mask, and openly hugging people in public. We need, individually and as businesses, to show that we will not comply with these mad, destructive policies. If we love our country and want our way of life back, we will have to take it back by actively resisting the poor governance we are getting at the moment.

 ((WN )) Do you have anything important to add?

 ((Gigi Foster )) Perhaps to say that the way eventually out of this mess, if Australians do not resist now, is that the rest of the world will get on with their lives and eventually we will get jealous enough that we will start demanding the same freedoms that we see others having elsewhere. So it's just a matter of when the pressure will become great enough to force the politicians' hands.

 ((WN )) One more question.. I've found none political activity going on in this direction.. the closest I could find is and it is ridiculous, some people dismiss it as a daft proposal.

 ((Gigi Foster )) I looked at that petition. It looks sensible to me. What's not to like? I mean the idea of "Freedom Day" wouldn't have been my first pick as a vehicle - since that implies that we don't have freedom every day (which we should in a democracy like Australia).

 ((WN )) It is easy to misinterpret, a common reaction from a few people is "what they should be lobbying for is to get everyone on the vaccination programme, only then is there a hope of getting rid of the lockdowns or extremely focused and limited lockdowns".

 ((Gigi Foster )) Hm interesting, well that tells me that they have been brainwashed into accepting the narrative that we indeed need to earn our freedoms, by getting vaccinated (and maybe doing other things too). That is not the right mental model. We do not have to earn our freedoms. We have them and simply need to empower ourselves to use them. Also, the idea (again) that someone other than a patient and his or her GP should be dictating that someone gets the vaccine is quite scary really. Do we really countenance having health decisions made for us by our governments?

 ((WN )) Alright, thanks for your time!

 ((Gigi Foster )) Ok bye :)


This exclusive interview features first-hand journalism by a Wikinews reporter. See the collaboration page for more details.