Gordon Campbell on leaving women out of the job creation plans, plus the current vaccine blues

fe513e9e9b66cf3a4f18Women workers have taken an unequal impact of the job losses caused by the pandemic but so far almost all the government’s job creation efforts have been concentrated in sectors – e.g. on “shovel ready” projects in the construction industry where males dominate the work force. Recently, Werewolf used employment, unemployment and under-employment statistics from the September 2020 quarter to highlight this mismatch between the pattern of pandemic job losses and the government response.

Last week, the December quarter figures showed a drop in overall unemployment to 4.9% – to the surprise of the bank economists and market analysts, some of whom leapt excitedly to conclusions that the Covid recession may have come and gone. Yet as the Council of Trade Unions pointed out, women, Maori and Pasifika workers continue to bear an unequal share of the pandemic’s effects :

Council of Trade Unions economist Craig Renney warned that while the headline figures looked great – if you dug a little deeper, it was not such a great news story. “Female unemployment is higher than general unemployment. Māori and Pasifika unemployment actually rose according to the data, youth unemployment went up from where it was last year. So for those groups who were perhaps more represented in terms of unemployment [they] continue to be over-represented and their challenges seem to be getting a bit more stark,” he said.

You think? There is no” perhaps” about these groups being over-represented in the jobless stats, and their “challenges” do not merely “ seem” to be “getting a bit more stark.” It is a strange world when the Statistics Department is more forthright than the CTU about what is really going on:

Despite the December quarter’s drop, unemployment is still higher than it has been…”This time last year, the unemployment rate was at 4.1 percent,” the [Statistics Department’s] work, wealth and wellbeing senior manager Becky Collett said. “The seasonally adjusted number of unemployed people fell by 10,000 in the December 2020 quarter, to 141,000. The decrease was split evenly between men and women – the number for both fell by 5,000.”

Even so, that “equal” split in the December quarter locks in place the previous gender imbalance racked up earlier in 2020. Overall, the jobs situation is still markedly worse than the same period a year before:

Despite this quarterly fall, the number of unemployed people is still 25,000 higher than it was a year ago, increasing from 116,000 [to 141,000] in the December 2019 quarter (a rise of 21.9 percent). The annual increase was 15,000 for women and 11,000 for men.

That last sentence is significant. It underlines the points made in the previous Werewolf article, since the December upticks in employment continue to be most apparent in sectors ( eg construction) dominated by men, while jobs continued to be lost in the December quarter in those sectors ( tourism, the media, broadcasting, library and information services) that tend to provide many jobs for women. Here’s the Stats Department again :

While the construction industry saw strong increases in the year to the December 2020 quarter, this was partially offset by fewer people employed in media and key tourism related businesses. In the information media and telecommunications industry, the number of people employed decreased annually by 9,600, from 43,000 to 33,400 [That’s a loss of over one in five jobs!] Within this industry, there were employment decreases in areas like broadcasting, and library and other information services.

Time and again, we hear a lot about how the top jobs in this country are now held by women. Yes, New Zealand’s two major parties are led by women, the last two Chief Justices of the country’s highest court have been women, the Governor-General is a woman etc Great. Yet further down the jobs ladder, there has been hardly any debate at all ( let alone pushback) about how those “shovel ready” priority jobs qualifying for government assistance are in a sectors where women are under-represented and under-valued. It’s a simple question: where are the equivalent job programmes for women – who have so far been hit the hardest by the pandemic?

As things stand, women voted disproportionately for the Ardern government while on the work and income fronts – whether it be jobs or the raising of bemnefit levels – they have so far received precious little in return.

Vaccine Blues

Judging by the latest rash of vaccine vs virus reports, humanity continues to be on the back foot. Any early hopes that the vaccines would create am effective firewall (behind which herd immunity could safely develop) are looking increasingly forlorn. Shielding the most vulnerable may be the best we can do. Currently, the more resistant, more contagious South Africam Covid variant is forcing the drug companies to try and develop booster shots for their initial treatments. At a wider level, government policy may soon need to explicitly shift away from an elimination strategy, and towards a harm reduction strategy.

Shabir Madhi, professor of vaccinology at the University of the Witwatersrand who has been chief investigator on a number of vaccine trials in South Africa, including the Oxford [Astrazeneca] one, said it was time to rethink the goals of mass Covid vaccination. “These findings recalibrate thinking about how to approach the pandemic virus and shift the focus from the goal of herd immunity against transmission to the protection of all at-risk individuals in the population against severe disease,” he said.

Much of this tactical shift has been triggered by the poor efficacy findings (of only 10%) against the South African variant for the Astraneneca vaccine, at least when it comes to preventing the onset of mild to moderately severe symptoms. (The South African government has just suspended its roll out of the Astrazeneca vaccine to its frontline healthcare workers.) Last week, desperate extrapolations from laboratory data on other vaccines using the same technology suggested that the Astrazeneca vaccine – of which New Zealand has bought 3.8 million courses– might still be helpful in reducing the need for hospitalisation and lowering the onset of serious illness and death.

It is not a simple matter though, to make accurate efficacy comparisons between competing vaccines, partly because of the differences in the trial designs, and the structure of the test populations. In addition, most of the media headlines are being generated by drug company press releases, rather than from independently verifiable data. Still, at least Johnson and Johnson ran part of its phase 3 trials in South Africa for the vaccine being developed by its Janssen subsidiary. Novavax also claimed high efficacy results phase 2 results from trials held in South Africa, and these vaccines are recording significantly worse results against the South Africa variant, than the efficacy results (recorded earlier and elsewhere) by the vaccine market’s current leaders, Pfizer and Moderna.

Both J&J and Novovax have argued that the vaccine trial results will vary, country to country. To compound the problems of genuine “apples to apples” comparisons, some of the trial frameworks have measured vaccine efficacy against mild to severe infections, while other trials have only measured the vaccine’s efficacy rates at the other end of the spectrum, against severe infections and death. To be optimistic, perhaps these scattered results may indicate there is room in the marketplace for all these vaccines, which may eventually be best deployed to differing levels of infection, and among groups with different age, gender and racial characteristics.

Even so, there is now something of a question mark over those early high efficacy results (well over 90%) of Pfizer and Moderna. Even those pioneering mRNA vaccine formulations appear to be having reduced effectiveness against the South Africa variant. Both companies are promising to develop booster versions of their original vaccines. Some analysts have also been claiming that the apparently lower efficacy rates between the contenders still need to be weighed against the ease of storage and distribution. At times, the analysts can risk sounding like they’re making a sales pitch. For example:

On an “apples to apples basis,” analyst Mani Foroohar M.D. wrote in a recent note to clients : Janssen offers “a compelling one-dose profile with much more straightforward distribution and logistics than market leaders” Moderna and Pfizer, both of which are already distributing their respective mRNA shots. Those two-dose vaccines require storage at freezing temperatures, while J&J’s [Janssen] shot can be refrigerated for up to three months. Aside from J&J’s top-line efficacy number, the vaccine was 85% effective against severe disease and offered “complete protection” against COVID-19 hospitalization and death in the massive phase 3 trial.

All up, the competing results and the disputed claims indicate just how fortunate New Zealand is that (a) we haven’t needed to rush into a vaccination rollout and that (b) we have spread our vaccine purchases so widely, across all of the current market leaders. Even so, the government will (at some point) have to decide how long it aims to persist with the elimination strategy that has served this country so well. As yet we don’t really know what a mere ‘harm reduction’ alternative strategy would look like, in practice. It would be extremely difficult. If we can’t eliminate the virus and – instead – need to learn to co-exist with mild to moderately severe infections, then (logically) this would increase the difficulty of protecting the most vulnerable, who would presumably need to go into something like permanent lockdown.

That’s a sobering prospect. Yet at some point this year, our health authorities (and government) may need to embrace the likelihood that (a) the Covid vaccines on offer are incapable of preventing mild to moderately severe infections, and (b) that the available treatments will only (if you’re lucky) guard against the progression to serious illness, hospitalisation and death.

Listening to birds

Thus far, the Weather Station’s album Ignorance has been one of the best reviewed albums of 2021, and most of the credit has been laid at the door of its Canadian lead singer/writer Tamara Lindeman. The casual authority of the band’s “Parking Lot” single quickly dispels any initial Joni Mitchell associations triggered by the lyrics and delivery. Reportedly, the lyric arose from Lindeman’s observation of a bird flying around the parking lot outside one of the band’s gigs. She was struck by the contrast between her own anxious ambivalence about performing, and the determination of the little bird to have its song heard, whatever the odds.